Sunday, December 11, 2016

Hegemony, Shifiting Demographics, and "Populism"

"And before we knew it we were totally outnumbered at the family gatherings and consigned to a corner of the sectional, whispering and ducking among the flying hands, feeling rather small and blind, like moles or voles trembling in the shadows of the raptors."

When I first heard Paul Hostovsky's poem "Hegemony" I was so caught up with the in-group out-group role reversal narrative that I completely missed the poems lesson: communication. In the poem the protagonist has three deaf cousins who were largely ignored by the rest of their family, but through a series of marriages, births, divorces, and new marriages the biblical narrative of "the first shall be last and the last shall be first" was manifested. The deaf cousins found themselves the center of attention. The "small and blind" feeling the new minority of the hearing felt was based solely on their response to their new position within the family. The majority's willingness to ignore the minority left them on the outside looking in. Maybe we need to start communicating better and read more poetry? 

It's another week and I find myself in the familiar position of sitting in front of my computer with the option of writing about things that, for one reason or another, seem to only happen to people who look like me. Last week provided a wealth of material. I could write about the American legal system failing another black family: the Michael
Slager mistrial. I could definitely write about Joe McKnight being murdered and the shooter (Ronald Gasser) being released only to be "strategically" arrested days later. How about that press conference Jefferson Parish Sheriff Newell Normand gave? I could drone on for days about his use of threatening messages and profanity as a vehicle to diminish the legitimate concerns people of color have about these types of investigations.

I am very distrustful of anyone who downplays or attempts to diminish the lived experiences people of color talk and/or write about. We inherited an America that wrote a Declaration of Independence and a Preamble to the Constitution that willfully excluded Africans. From a historical perspective, we are far enough from the most egregious forms of racism that even the conservatives admit slavery, Black Codes, and Jim Crow were wrong, yet too many of these same people (and even some liberals) refuse to address the racial inequities of today. It's like being a passenger in a car with a driver who admits to swerving erratically twenty miles ago, but refuses to acknowledge the two left tires in the center rumble strip now. The past is a great whipping boy for anyone trying to deny structural racism today; The past allows nostalgic Americans to ditch their responsibilities to the next generation by pointing out how bad past generations were. We're constantly reminded: "No one alive owned slaves." "You people are represented in every field." "This isn't the 1950's." Statements like these do two specific things; they offer absolution to those making them, and create resentment inside the people hearing them. People of color haven't been spared from economic hardships, so why are we only talking about working class whites?

America was created for white people. I don't know how this easily locatable fact has been turned into a controversial statement. If one were to honestly connect the dots between the actions America has taken in the name of the flag or the idea of American "
exceptionalism" you'd come to this conclusion. What it means to be white has changed since the 19th Century, but the goal of controlling contested resources is the same. Black freedom movements combined with the increased migration of Hispanics and other people of color changed the rules that governed who was considered white. Germans, Italians, and Polish people gained full acceptance into the American family. The Irish faced terrible discrimination when they got here, Italians were called every racially insensitive name in the book, and Polish people are the butt of some of the worst jokes ever told, but none of these people were systematically excluded for the first 60 plus years of the 20th Century. The collective economic pain many white Americans are feeling is rooted in economic decisions younger than me. There's always been pockets of poverty, but economic despair combined with the potential end to white hegemony have created a fear that passes for "anger".  

White inclusion has historically been strong enough to unite people of different socioeconomic backgrounds, but like the dollar: inflation has limited its purchasing power. The last decade has been marked by populist movements on both sides of the political spectrum. Donald Trump's underlying message of restoring whiteness was the electoral glue Bernie Sanders' economic message lacked. Scholars and political pundits on the left and right have worked incredibly hard to explain the overt racism we've seen as if it's a by product of the economic anxiety and not a constitutive part of it. We're told to focus more on what automation and globalization have done to working class whites than the racists and racist organizations they've embraced. America is changing fast. Extreme wealth is the only insulation from "New America", ane there's a shortage of cash. Whiteness isn't a blessing or a curse. I'm not trying to create anger, guilt, or sympathy. I'm suggesting we be as honest about this moment in history as we are about the past. 

Pathways to the middle class have narrowed, but economics alone doesn't explain why the old Tea Party/Trump coalition hates the old Occupy Wall Street/Fight For Fifteen crowd. If it were just about money the party fighting for higher wages would have won the election. I'm not willing to waste time circling the square about Bernie being screwed by the DNC. I won't engage hypothetical situations in which Trump isn't the president-elect. Donald Trump represents the hopes and wishes of millions of people who advocate for a return to authoritarian white hegemony. I can't afford to waste my time psychoanalyzing these people or parsing their words. Since the Rodney King beating I've watched dozens of courts across this country reaffirm the fact that I don't have the same rights as my white peers. The fairy tale is that all of these issues are separate from each other. People work harder to deny the existence of  causal links than to accept them and attempt to correct them. I don't care if someone has a personal prejudice: we all have them; I care that their prejudices are allowed to influence the daily experiences of others. As America undergoes more racial and cultural shifts we will see more whites only populist movements. We will be told these movements are based on creating opportunities, but if you listen closely you can hear the desire to reshape America into the country she always was. The family in the poem is a great metaphor for the new minority's fear.

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