Musings on Race and Ethnicity in the Age of Trump

November 2016



See below for photo attribution

On October 22, Barry and I spent the day canvassing for Hillary Clinton in a working class neighborhood of Reading, Pennsylvania. Almost all the folks I talked to were Hispanic or African American. All of them were unfailingly pleasant to me. And all gave me a definitive “yes!” when I asked if they were planning on voting this election. “For Hillary Clinton?” I’d ask. “Yes!” they all replied.

Of course, this wasn’t a random sample of Reading residents; these people were drawn from a list of registered Democrats, so it was not surprising that they all planned to vote for Hillary. Still, there was a warmth in many of their responses that made canvassing almost enjoyable. One young African American woman happened to be out on her porch when I approached, and we struck up a conversation. “I could never vote for that man!” she said of Trump. I felt an instant kinship.

Race and ethnicity have been particularly prominent topics in this election, largely because Trump has given extreme racists – white nationalist groups and other hate groups – a sense of legitimacy that has never before been afforded them in a presidential campaign. It’s as if they’re now saying to themselves, as they crawl out from under their rocks, “We can finally come out into the light now, bwahaha!”

And Trump has given a voice to a simmering, if less extreme, racial resentment and fear among working class whites more broadly. Studies have looked carefully at reams of data on the factors that might predict a person’s voting for Trump. They have concluded that racial resentment has by far the strongest predictive power among (largely under-educated) whites.[1] Interestingly, the whites who are the biggest Trump fans tend to live in largely white communities with few or no minorities or immigrants. So it isn’t immediate contact with “those people” that is causing these feelings. It seems to be a more general sense that things are changing in ways that are, for these white folks, uncomfortable.

A recent Washington Post/ABC News tracking poll found that “Trump now leads by a 30 percentage point margin among white voters without college degrees” and that “white women now tilt toward Trump by 48 to 43 percent …”[2] I can hardly believe what I’m reading. Who are those people??? They’re not my people!

Donald Trump is a pathological liar and a demagogue. He has shown that he is ignorant of governing and of foreign affairs. He has demonstrated repeatedly that he has the temperament of an emotionally disturbed child – quick to react to any slight; motivated primarily by a need to be dominant and, when he feels slighted, to take revenge. Understandably, virtually no newspapers in the country – including traditionally Republican ones – have endorsed him. Virtually all national security and foreign affairs experts are appalled by his ignorance and his temperament. He is unquestionably unfit to be president of the United States.

And yet a substantial portion of the white population of this country is ready and willing to cast their votes for him. Far from being put off by his racism, they have felt freer to express their own attitudes towards other racial and ethnic groups.

And I’ve been noticing my own reactions to this “white embrace” of Donald Trump. In a nutshell: my reaction is a mixture of sheer horror and shame – and intense relief that there are so many minorities in this country without whom we would almost surely end up with a president Trump. Let that sink in.

If it were up to white men, Trump would win in a landslide. Even if it were up to white women, he would win (at least according to the above-cited poll). As of this writing the race is tightening; it isn’t a slam dunk for Hillary, but without minorities it apparently would be a slam dunk for Trump – a sobering thought indeed.

I think it’s natural to identify with one’s race or ethnic group as well as one’s gender – all those shared experiences and shared cultural reference points. But I’m finding that lately I feel more of a kinship with non-white Americans.

Yes, I know that there are limits to our “shared experiences” – our experiences in American society are actually quite different. But, to a large degree, we seem to want the same things for our society. And that just cannot be said of the white Trump supporters and me. I may feel sympathy for their feelings of discomfort at the demographic changes in our country, but I don’t share those feelings. And I loathe the racist attitudes that some of them exude.

For me, the people I might think of as “those people” are not black or brown but white. They are the true Trump fans who find their feelings validated when Trump talks of building a wall to keep out Mexicans or banning Muslims from the country or when he insinuates that his fans should use racial profiling to “monitor” the polls on election day in “other areas.”

And here’s the thing: my reaction is not just intellectual – it’s emotional. When I was canvassing in a largely African American and Hispanic neighborhood, I easily reciprocated the warmth I was feeling from the people who opened their doors (and I am a shy person). I felt a kinship with these strangers who were, politically, “on my team.”

I’m more likely to strike up a conversation about the election with a black or brown stranger – as I did standing in line to vote early – than I am with a white stranger. That’s because there’s a strong expectation that a black or brown person will share my disdain for Trump – and my vision of what kind of society I would like ours to be. We may not have so many shared experiences, but I suspect we have a lot of shared attitudes and values.

Watching so many white people ready to vote for Trump – a man who is simply unfit to be president – has been beyond eye-opening. It’s been completely estranging. Attitudes and values, it turns out, are much more important than race or ethnicity in determining who I feel comfortable with – what people feel like “my people.”

It seems to be the other way around, however, for the alt-right, a movement that I had been hitherto blissfully unaware of – until Trump shown an accepting light on it.

Mother Jones magazine recently did an exposé on Richard Spencer, the founder of Alternative Right, a white nationalist website that is part of the alt-right.[3] It describes quite how extreme the white nationalist movement is:

“Spencer subscribes zealously to the idea that America’s white population is endangered, thanks to multiculturalism and lax immigration policies … He envisions a future for the United States along the lines of ‘a renewed Roman Empire,’ a dictatorship where the main criteria for citizenship would be whiteness. ‘You cannot view another white person as your enemy,’ he says.”

Oh yes I can! In particular, I view Spencer as my enemy – and all the white people who think like him. I’m proud to say that, in Spencer’s view, I’m not actually “white,” because I’m Jewish:

“When asked who would qualify as white, Spencer’s reasoning quickly turns arcane, if not tortured—he invokes a mix of race, culture, and geography—but the answer definitely does not include blacks, Asians, Muslims, Jews, and most Hispanics.”

That we are even having to discuss such things – who is in the “hallowed” “white” group – in the twenty-first century is distressing, to say the least. That the alt-right is gaining any legitimacy at all is beyond distressing. It is frightening. That Trump’s connection to the alt-right doesn’t seem to bother his many fans is even more frightening. What kind of country are we??

One antidote to listening to the scary white folks is listening to our current president, Barack Obama. I think he might just be my all-time favorite president in my lifetime. It’s not that I agree with everything he’s done as president, although I do agree with much of it. But most importantly, he has the qualities I think a president should have – he is intelligent, knowledgeable, thoughtful, rational, reasonable, empathetic, and down to earth. He has withstood unprecedented levels of unwarranted abuse from the opposing party with grace and cool. I do not doubt that he wants what is good for the country, and that he devotes the necessary time and thought to trying to figure out how to achieve it. The contrast with the current Republican presidential candidate could not be more stark.

Barack Obama is, of course, African American – as is his wife, Michelle Obama, who I also adore. (Best. First. Lady. Ever.) I don’t adore them because they’re black; I adore them because of the kind of people they are. Given all the assumptions of white superiority among the alt-right (and, I suspect, many whites who are not in the alt-right movement), it is ironic that two of the most high-profile people on the political stage right now – Barack Obama and Donald Trump – would, if anything, show the superiority of African Americans (if one were into making such comparisons, which I’m not).

There are, of course, many white people I do admire[4], and some non-white people I don’t admire.[5] But there has never been a presidential election in my lifetime that has shown so clearly – and distressingly – how much we are not a post-racial society – and how much, for me at least, race and ethnicity pale in comparison to the characteristics that really matter. This election has brought home to me what a sense of fellowship with other people is really based on. And it has been more than just an intellectual realization. It has been visceral.


Photo of Trump attributed to Gage Skidmore. This picture is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license

[1] ; ;



[4] Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, environmentalist Bill McKibben, and climate scientist Michael Mann come easily to mind, although there are many more.

[5] Supreme Court Justice Thomas Clarence, former U.S. Representative Alan West, Herman Cain, and Ben Carson come quickly to mind.


3 comments on “Musings on Race and Ethnicity in the Age of Trump

  1. Jackie B says:

    Amen, my sister!

  2. I find it difficult to believe the flip-flopping that is being reported in the polls. My hope is that my (adopted) fellow-Americans who detest Trump are simply as fed up with poll-taking as I am.
    If it turns out that I.m wrong, I’ll have to go back to my home planet.

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