The Fate of Our Nation May Rest on Our Ability to Talk About White Grievance (Draft)

“America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.” Abraham Lincoln said that, and I agree with him. I’ve talked a lot about the Russian threat, but, really, I’m confident the threat would be relatively small–that we could deal with it effectively–if we were more unified, instead of polarized. If I had to name the biggest threat to our country, I might choose polarization–specifically, polarization revolving around race. I’m no historian, but my sense is that race has been an existential threat from the founding, and the Civil War, the Civil Rights Movement or Barack Obama’s election hasn’t extinguished this threat. At the same time, my sense is that racism, especially the belief that whites are superior to non-whites, may not necessarily be the major threat now. Instead, what I would like to suggest is that
white grievance–the sense of anxiety and resentment white Americans have towards losing their majority status to non-whites–might be the greater threat, especially if far more white Americans feel this grievance, to some degree, instead of believing whites are superiority or white nationalism. In this thread, I’d like to do two things. First, I want to explain the reasons I think racial tensions pose an existential threat to our country. Second, I want to explain the difference between white grievance and white supremacy and the reasons I think understanding and expressing these differences when we talk about race is vital to extinguishing the threat.

Distinguishing White Grievance From White Supremacy and White Nationalism and Why That Matters

What’s the difference between white grievance, white supremacy, and white nationalism? Here’s my understanding: To my mind, the former is a natural, human response towards the loss of power–social, cultural, economic–that accompanies the loss of majority status. Since we’re talking about the U.S., I’m using the term “white grievance” because white Americans are, and have been, in the majority, and their majority status is declining or perceived to be on the decline. It’s important to remember though that grievance towards losing power is universal, not specific to white Americans. For example, I would expect the residents of a predominantly African-American community to feel fearful and angry at a massive influx of Somali refugees that lead to dramatic changes in the languages, clothing, food, festivals, businesses, religion of that community. Violence or institutional discrimination may not occur against the Somali immigrants, but I would expect at least some African-Americans to feel fear, resentment and even some level of hostility towards these refugees–specifically for dramatic changes occurring because of the latter. Or imagine a work place in the 1990s making a dramatic shift towards computers, creating significant changes in status and power among the employees–with the more computer savvy (usually younger) employees gaining more status and power and the less computer savvy (older) losing both. I would expect the less computer savvy to also feel aggrieved–angry and resentment at the workers gaining power. The employees could be of the same race, and I would expect these feelings of resentment.

In contrast, race is central to white supremacy and white nationalism. According to my understanding (and maybe I’m wrong), white supremacy is the belief that whites are superior to non-whites, and white nationalism involves the idea that white Americans are the “real” or “true” Americans, while non-whites are either illegitimate or not fully legitimate Americans. From what I understand, people who embrace white nationalism also embrace white separatism, the idea that whites should live separately from non-whites–and should remain “pure.”

While I believe understanding and making the distinction between white grievance and white supremacy/nationalism/separatism is crucial, in reality, I don’t think there are clear cut demaractions between these phenomena. My sense is these beliefs and feelings can blend together in variety of ways–with some of the beliefs being present in varying degrees. Some individuals may reject white supremacy/nationalism/separatism, and only experience very minimal feelings of grievance. Others may experience more intense levels of grievances, leading higher tolerance or rationalization of white supremacy, etc. Later I want to explain why making these distinctions is crucial, but for now I want to recognize that the situation isn’t clear-cut or binary.

Another point I’d like to make before moving on is that all of the above could lead to racist behavior and racist policies. That is, behavior and policies that discriminate against individuals of certain racial groups. White grievance could lead to racist rhetoric and behavior, even support for racist policies–even if the individual rejects white supremacy, etc. But it also may not lead to those things. In my view, while I believe designating white supremacy as racist is appropriate, I don’t think white grievance should be labeled as such. Why?

What I’m suggesting is to address race relations using this framework–address the white Americans who feel this sense of grievance, and do so in a way that distinguishes these feelings from racism. Feeling anxious and angry because of changes that diminish one’s status and power doesn’t make one a bad person, but holding racist beliefs generally does. Because of this, thinking and talking about these feelings is critical. To lump the white Americans who are struggling with social changes into the same category that includes the KKK or Steve Bannon is a dead end that will never lead to a solution, and will likely make things worse.

If my assumptions are correct, the solutions will involve finding healthy, constructive ways to deal with the negative feelings that come from these social changes

Other articles and sources to read:

From Salon: White Identity Politics and the Shutdown Vicious Racism Got Us Here

The following thread is a by a historian. Recommended:

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