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A Failure of Whiteness

In On Choosing Trump and Being Bad, Caleb Crain wrote that his peers

…argue that what triumphed on Tuesday was white racism.

That strikes me as true. And it also strikes me as true that white workers were acting out of a deep economic grievance on Tuesday. Argument A doesn’t falsify Argument B, in this case.

His analysis of the economic betrayal of white lower- and working-class Americans makes sense to me, as does his critique of arguments that blame the ignorance of Trump supporters as the reason for their voting him in.

Still, I think what’s missing from this analysis is a discussion of the way Whiteness functions. Specifically, a discussion of the way Whiteness functions as the link between Arguments A and B.

While both arguments can stand either on their own or together, that “together-ness” should be understood not as a side-by-side arrangement of two separate phenomena, but rather as a fully entangled phenomenon. Whiteness is the glue that keeps that entanglement in place.

This is because, in addition to being a socially-constructed set of beliefs, attitudes, norms, and values that influence and implicate all of us , Whiteness is also a covenant

It is a promise of ongoing material privilege, security, and superiority that the “right” kind of White peoplemake to the “wrong” kind of White people2, as long as the latter group agree to constantly affirm the supremacy of Whiteness by internalizing its norms and values, particularly when it comes to the presumed inferiority of Black and Brown people. In this way, they prove to the “right” kind of White people that they are deserving of material privileges like the kind Jamelle Bouie tweeted about here.

However, if that covenant is broken by the “right” kind of White people – say, for example, through free trade agreements that move manufacturing jobs from White Americansto Black and Brown people in Global South countries in Asia and Africa – then the betrayal felt by the “wrong” kind of White people is intense, inarticulate, inchoate.

Trump’s election, then, is in part the result of a failure of Whiteness.  That is, a failure of the “right” kind of White people to uphold the covenant of Whiteness and protect the material advantages of “wrong” kind of White people against the rise of globalization and the threat of Black and Brown countries’ economic power.

Trump, as a representative of the “right” kind of White people, was therefore all the more believable and desirable when he promised to return greatness to America, because what he really meant was that he was going to repair the broken covenant, and restore the Whiteness of America.

Economically. Politically.




1 People of Anglo-Saxon and Protestant heritage, who also have high degrees of gender, class, and political privilege, and who are deeply invested in and committed to a false racial hierarchy, in which they sit at the top.

2 People of other European heritages, and who have less – or no – gender, class, and political privilege. Some of the more subtle ways this group upholds the covenant of Whiteness include: anglicizing their names; demanding that their children speak only English, rather than their native tongue(s); doing their best to minimize or erase their accents; and adopting Anglo-Saxon foods and cultural practices as their own.

Given the link between affirming Whiteness and gaining economic advantage, these actions are understandable. That doesn’t make it less problematic that these actions needed to be made in first place, though.

3 Never mind that White Americans are not the only ones who work in the manufacturing sector…

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