Right now, many white Americans are trying to convince themselves that they’re immune to losing their rights in the same ways black and brown people have. As hate crimes, ICE abuses, and police violence have increased in Trump’s America, I admit I’ve felt lucky for the relative security that my white identity has given me from these types of threats. But as the history of authoritarian takeovers has shown, persecuting the demonized groups first is a strategy for eventually taking away everyone’s freedom.
White Americans were mostly complicit when Nixon continued Jim Crow policies by creating the futile and racist War on Drugs, and when Clinton expanded this into an unparalleled mass incarceration system that now imprisons 2.2 million disproportionately black and brown people. Few white Americans objected when the War on Terror was used to persecute Arabs and Muslims through law enforcement profiling, extraordinary rendition, and in some cases torture. When the police were militarized and nationwide stories about black people who’ve been murdered by officers started to come out every few months, white conservatives started the “Blue Lives Matter” meme to show their continued allegiance to America’s racist and increasingly brutal police state.
This white support for the last few decades’ escalating state terrorism against people of color is linked with the assumption that these things will never happen to those who “respect law and order,” who don’t “align with the terrorists,” who don’t bring “crime” and “disease” into the country by coming into it. Like in every racist propaganda campaign, the target groups are portrayed as having committed some transgression. And the privileged caste has accepted the punishments against these groups as necessary.
As the Trump White House escalates its war against immigrants, this dynamic is reaching its logical extreme. It doesn’t help public safety at all when ICE agents detain longtime U.S. residents for routine immigration checkups, profile and harass U.S. citizens for their race, or separate children from their parents because their families are seeking asylum. It doesn’t do anything for national security to have immigration officers drain water bottles that have been put out for migrants near the border, put children in camps where they’re routinely under-fed and sexually abused by guards, and attack peaceful families at the border with the chemical weapon of tear gas.
All of these actions only help Trump’s big-money donors in the private prison industry, who have profited from the expansion of child detention and from Trump’s escalations of the drug war. But none of this matters to those who follow the political orthodoxy that Trump and the GOP have created, because this orthodoxy aligns whites with the authorities while the disfavored ethnic groups are punished for their perceived crimes.
This allegiance however has not stopped all Americans, Trump supporters included, from losing their rights in the process. Trump’s attacks on immigrants serve as a distraction from the corporate takeovers and eliminations of liberties that have been happening at an escalated pace for the last two years. Trump has ripped the mask off of corporate tyranny by appointing numerous figures who have ties to corporations and Wall Street, like Steve Mnuchin and Betsy DeVos. He’s signed bills that allow for cable and Internet providers to sell Americans’ personal information, that let government contractors not have to ensure the safety and health of their employees, and that makes it easier for oil companies to pollute rivers and streams. As this corporate takeover has progressed, Trump’s White House has colluded with the vastly powerful Sinclair Broadcasting corporation to start spreading uniform pro-Trump messages into the nation’s local TV stations.
The continuation and expansion of America’s wars in the last two years, as shown in Trump’s bombing of eight countries, the escalation of Obama’s drone wars, and the increase of the annual defense budget to $717 billion, is also part of the structure of racism. The “War on Terror” is fundamentally racist, because it’s centered around the slaughtering of brown people and the discriminatory targeting of nonwhite people by U.S. intelligence agencies. And as Martin Luther King Jr. said about how white supremacy is held up by war, “When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.” The fact that Trump’s wars are built on the conflicts that Obama and the Democrats created shows how both parties uphold this paradigm of oppression and systematic mass murder.
Billionaires like Sheldon Adelson and the Mercers, who have helped in Trump’s rise, are the only ones benefiting from all of this. They use a crude and xenophobic fake “populism,” embodied in the frequently racist, Mercer-owned news outlet Breitbart, to sell a political brand that advances their financial interests. They don’t care about the poor and desperate people who are being hurt by the White House’s border policies. They don’t care about the erosion of democracy or the destruction of the planet. They don’t care about the continued expansion of income inequality under Trump, which both furthers the racial wealth gap and lowers the standard of living for most white Americans. Like the business leaders who worked with the Third Reich, they exploit incomprehensible suffering for their own enrichment.
Like Nazi Germany, modern Israel, and other societies that have come to wage wars against scapegoated groups, America is following a pattern that the Holocaust historian Raul Hilberg has called the “destructive process.” As Hilberg wrote in his book The Destruction of the European Jews, the process was step-by-step, and its conclusion would have been unthinkable at first:
“The process of destruction unfolded in a definite pattern. It did not, however, proceed from a basic plan. No bureaucrat in 1933 could have predicted what kind of measures would be taken in 1938, nor was it possible in 1938 to foretell the configuration of the undertaking in 1942. The destructive process was a step-by-step operation, and the administrator could seldom see more than one step ahead.”
One way to think of white supremacy is as a pyramid, where genocide and ethnic cleansing at the top of the structure are held up by ignorance and complicity at the bottom. Because many white Americans remain unaware of the history of racism and colonialism and are unwilling to see that institutional racism still exists, they can support racist policies while denying that anything about their political ideology is racist. This untouchable confidence in their own virtuosity makes any news of atrocities look to them like more left-wing alarmism. As Steve Bannon has said, “Let them call you racists. Let them call you xenophobes. Let them call you nativists. Wear it as a badge of honor.”
This combination of denial about the realities of racism with leaders who strategically try to normalize racism has let hate become mainstream. Fox News is a regular source for what’s effectively white nationalist propaganda, with Tucker Carlson having said last year that Latino immigration creates “more change than human beings are designed to digest” and with Laura Ingraham having repeatedly claimed in the last year, without evidence, that refugees carry disease.
The Trump era has given rise to far-right online pundits like Gavin McInnes, who’s frequently used racial slurs on his show and has made statements like “Fighting solves everything. We need more violence from the Trump people.” McInnes’ white supremacist-tied group the Proud Boys, which incited a violent brawl in New York this October, has been publicly embraced by Tucker Carlson and by Republican politicians. Fascism and open bigotry are creeping into American politics, while an ethnic warfare operation from the government is already well underway.
In 1989, when Donald Trump took out ads in New York newspapers that called for the execution of five black teens who’ve since been proven innocent of their rape charges, he was using the centuries-old tactic of justifying violence against ethnic groups by painting them as inherently dangerous. This mentality continues to win over a lot of people.
But if the structure of white supremacy is pyramidal, even the little actions that people take to negate its influence can help topple it. Click To Tweet And white people need to think about the need for these actions just as much as nonwhites, because the consequences of racism loom over us all.