Jamelle Bouie had an article in Slate following the election titled “White Won.” It is a powerful, at times beautiful piece about his shock and dismay at Donald Trump’s surprise victory. He describes having to leave the CBS News studios for a walk and a call to his wife as he realized the impossible was happening. He rightly concludes that the most direct national appeal to white voters in decades had not only been made, but won.
As a white person, I cannot fully understand what Trump’s victory means for people of color. I have my own strong reservations about his presidency, but they do not involve fears related to the color of my skin. In trying to better understand the fears of minorities through Bouie’s essay, one section stood out to me as a particularly astute description of the current racial moment in America. Bouie writes:
John McCain indulged racial fears, and Mitt Romney played on racial resentment, but they refused to go further. To borrow from George Wallace, they refused to cry ‘nigger.’ This is important. By rejecting the politics of explicit racism and white backlash, they moved the political battleground to nominally colorblind concerns. Race was still a part of these clashes—it’s unavoidable—but neither liberals nor conservatives would litigate the idea of a pluralistic, multiracial democracy. Looking back, I thought this meant we had a consensus. It appears, instead, that we had a detente. And Trump shattered it.
This admission that what he believed to be a consensus was really a détente is extremely important. While a consensus means questions have been laid to rest, a détente means disagreement still lingers, but a deal is struck to keep those disagreements from flowering into open hostility. From the 1970s through the beginning of the current century, America existed under such an agreement. Bouie is correct that this has been shattered, but he is wrong to suggest Trump is the only, or even the primary, reason for this.
The Structure of American Racial Détente
The rules of the deal were pretty straightforward. For whites, they stated that outright racist statements and explicit appeals to white racial identity were essentially banned. Along with this, whites accepted a double standard about the appropriateness of cultural and political tribalism. For obvious and reasonable historical and economic reasons, black and brown people explicitly pursuing their own interests was viewed differently than whites doing the same thing.
The other side of the deal was that so long as white people were sufficiently punished for acts of outright racism, minority leaders and communities would be cautious with accusations of racism. The key here was that once leveled and proved, the accusation of racism was a blow most whites could not come back from. From Jimmy the Greek to Michael Richardson, being labeled a racist was a black mark that did not wash off easily.
This was the basic agreement that set our cultural norms, a set of rules with relatively clear boundaries. Under those rules, many of Trump’s words and actions would have been immediately disqualifying, but they weren’t, because the rules are no longer in effect.
The clearest example is the Judge Gonzalo Curiel drama. By the rules of the détente, saying a judge cannot fulfill his duties because of his race or nationality counted as a firing offense. Indeed leaders on both the Left and Right assumed Trump could not overcome it.
But not only did many white voters break the rule of disqualifying a person based on a racist statement, they broke the second rule too. They began to ask why Trump couldn’t say a Mexican judge might be unfair, when we hear all the time about the danger of all white juries and white police officers. The white acceptance of legitimate racial double standards had dissipated, and without it the détente could not stand.
The Beginning of The End
There is a misconception that political correctness was responsible for the breakdown of the racial détente. This is incorrect. Political correctness, as loose a term as it is, was the means by which we continually renegotiated the terms of the deal. After all, the primary rules for whites had exactly to do with what was acceptable to say.
Privilege theory and the concept of systemic racism dealt the death blow to the détente. In embracing these theories, minorities and progressives broke their essential rule, which was to not run around calling everyone a racist. As these theories took hold, every white person became a racist who must confess that racism and actively make amends. Yet if the white woman who teaches gender studies at Barnard with the Ben Shahn drawings in her office is a racist, what chance do the rest of have?
Within the past few years, as privilege theory took hold, many whites began to think that no matter what they did they would be called racist, because, in fact, that was happening. Previously there were rules. They shifted at times, but if adhered to they largely protected one from the charge of racism. It’s like the Morrissey lyric: “is evil just something you are, or something you do.” Under the détente, racism was something you did; under privilege theory it is something you are.
That shift, from carefully directed accusations of racism for direct actions to more general charges of unconscious racism, took away the carrot for whites. Worse, it led to a defensiveness and feeling of victimization that make today’s whites in many ways much more tribal than they were 30 years ago. White people are constantly told to examine their whiteness, not to think of themselves as racially neutral. That they did, but the result was not introspection that led to reconciliation, it was a decision that white people have just as much right to think of themselves as a special interest group as anyone else.
Blame and Destroy Whitey
The unfortunate place where we now find ourselves is one in which blatant attacks on white people, often from white people, are driving them further into a tribal cocoon. Samantha Bee’s awful and irresponsible berating of white women as the evil force behind Trump’s victory, while condescendingly describing magical people of color as the only ones who can save us, is a clear example of where white defensiveness and victimization are coming from.
Furthermore, the ever-present drumbeat from the Left that every conservative victory is the death throes of bad, old white people who are about to be swept away by waves of brown immigration is making many whites dig in. On a certain level, how can you blame them? They are explicitly being told that their values and way of life are under the sword. How do we expect them to react?
The détente was far from perfect. It often allowed quieter racism to lurk unchallenged. In some ways, it was a Band-Aid on a bullet wound. But Band-Aids have a role to play in treating bullet wounds—the body heals itself better when the wound is clean and free from infection. This is true of discourse’s ability to heal our body politic, as well. Under the détente, there was still racism, but Steve Bannon, whose publication Breitbart has traded in vile explicit racism, could never have been considered for White House chief of staff.
It’s Time for New Negotiations
Whether the old détente was better or worse than current conditions is probably a purely academic question. It is not coming back. It was created in a cauldron of a very specific historical moment. Its creators had known and experienced racism in ways we simply have not, and they were more willing to compromise to keep the monster at bay while, hopefully, new generations naturally became more racially accepting.
Cultural and political white tribalism in its current form is likely here to stay for some time. Perhaps the best we can do now is forge our own new agreement. We are very far from achieving that. But we can all take a concrete step toward that goal. We can listen to each other without immediate judgment and with trust in people’s good faith. That trust will not always be rewarded, but without it a détente can never be.
If a generation of Americans who lived through the racism, riots, anguish, and terror of the civil rights movement were able to trust each other’s decency and create cultural codes and norms to punish abject racism, we should be able to do it, too. But the truly scary thing is that, at this moment, it doesn’t appear we want to.