Does White America Fear Black Equality? The Economic Forces Behind Trump’s Win
Donald Trump’s 2016 election victory is often portrayed as a reflection of voter anger about America’s increasing economic inequality. Polls have indeed shown that Americans believe the country’s economic system is unfair. But in a new podcast, Duke University’s William Darity tells International Business Times that the narrative of Trump as a great economic populist papers over how race and bigotry play into economic anxiety.
Darity is a professor of public policy whose research focuses on inequality by race, class and ethnicity. He says Donald Trump did not just tap into general economic anxiety, but also what he sees as white Americans’ specific fear that they are losing their economic advantage over people of color. He also says that fear isn’t based in reality: In an Atlantic magazine article entitled “How Barack Obama Failed Black America,” he argued that African-Americans have not gained much economic ground over the last decade.
Podcast subscribers can listen to the full interview with Darity by clicking here. What follows is a lightly edited excerpt of the discussion.
Sirota: How much of a role do you think racism played in the 2016 election, and how much do you think economic anxiety played in the election?
Darity: I’m not certain that we can sort between the dimension of racism and… I guess the phrase people are using a lot is “economic anxiety.” I think they intertwine, because for many white Americans, the perception of their own well-being is dependent on how much distance they perceive they have vis-a-vis the condition of black folks. And to the extent that they think black folks are getting closer to them, then there’s more resistance that can take the form that was manifested in the most recent election.
So, I think its relative position that is a very critical dimension of many white Americans’ attitudes. I don’t think that’s confined to whites who we might identify as being part of the working class. I think there are whites in more elite positions who share that same type of sentiment. I think that there is a genuine fear of racial equality, in some sense, because I think that there’s a perception that black folks might be gaining on them, and, as a consequence, since they think that those types of gains are unmerited, that that type of closure of the gap is unjustified.
This is independent of whether or not the gap is actually closing, because I don’t think we really have any evidence that black Americans have moved significantly closer to white Americans on many dimensions, particularly economic dimensions. But that doesn’t matter if folks believe that that’s the case.
We hear a lot that economic inequality is a big political issue. But you are basically arguing that there’s a racial element to the way people think about that economic inequality.
I would make a distinction between general inequality and intergroup inequality. I think that what has resonated with many Americans is a desire to reduce general inequality. But that doesn’t translate into a desire to reduce intergroup inequality, particularly racial and ethnic inequality. And, one might argue, gender inequality, for that matter.
Is it accurate to characterize fear of intergroup equality as a form of bigotry and racism?
Yes. But it’s also a form of bigotry and racism that doesn’t arise simply because people are ignorant or stupid. It arises because of their attachment to a specific group identity or group affiliation, and their belief that their group should maintain a dominant position.
If there is a white fear of intergroup equality, how can a politician spotlight economic inequality in a way that does acknowledge racial disparities, but in a way that doesn’t prompt a white backlash?
Well, that’s a tough question. In a way, that is the question. I guess my inclination has been to say that we need to simultaneously confront those kinds of fears and concerns, but also to the extent possible design policies that might be referred to ... I guess some folks at Brookings call these “race conscious policies,” but they’re not race specific. What I mean by that are universal policies that may actually have a disproportionate benefit for the social groups that are in the most deprived position.
So some of these policies might include what Darrick Hamilton and I have talked about as the baby bonds proposal, which is the provision of an endowment to all newborn infants. It's not really a bond ... [it’s] a trust fund that each newborn infant would receive. And the trust fund would be staggered in amount based upon the wealth position of the child’s family. So as a consequence, every American child would receive it, but since black Americans are disproportionately at the lower end of the wealth distribution, the amounts that would be received by black children, on average, would be higher than the amounts received by white children. But nobody would be deprived of this universal benefit.
If a Democratic politician went out and campaigned on an idea like that, but didn’t specifically say it would disproportionately help people of color, some might criticize that person for avoiding the racial element. Would that be a fair criticism?
It’s certainly a criticism that people would raise. I think it’s a difficult one. It’s a difficult charge to make against somebody who’s trying to do what I would view as the right thing for strategic reasons.
In terms of the racial wealth gap in America, was there much progress made under President Obama?
There absolutely was no significant progress made under President Obama. In fact, I would argue that the relative economic position of black Americans today is pretty much the same as it was in 1964, when we adopted the Civil Rights Act. If you look at unemployment rates, the black rate of unemployment is consistently two times as high as the white rate. If we look at wealth disparities, blacks probably have about six cents to the dollar for every white household at the median. That number actually represents a decline from a very low level that existed prior to the Great Recession. If we look at something like income levels for households or families, the black-white ratio has stayed fairly consistently in the 60 percent range.
So if we are not looking just at absolute outcomes, but we’re looking at relative outcomes, there hasn’t been much of a change since the 1960s. It is interesting that there is a perception on the part of many white Americans that black folks’ position has improved significantly. They associate this frequently with the provision of entitlement programs and they view these kind of changes that haven’t really occurred as being non-meritorious, and so as a consequence, black folks are described as always wanting more stuff.
The deeper political question is why are these beliefs so widespread?
What’s your answer to that question?
I don’t know. There was a part of me that said that this is a consequence of the propagandizing by organizations like Breitbart. But if we go back to 1994, there was a study that was conducted by the Washington Post and Harvard University, long before Breitbart, where it was clear that not only do white Americans in large numbers, but all Americans, have misinformation about the relative presence of blacks in the U.S. population.
At the time, most of the respondents said that blacks were one quarter of the U.S. population when the Census estimates would give us a figure closer to 12 percent. Then there were a host of other beliefs that they came up with or that they identified that concerned the relative positions of blacks and whites. So the majority of respondents who were white thought that blacks were more highly educated than whites and had higher levels of income. And this is in 1994.
So I’m not sure. Maybe that’s a consequence of our educational system and its failure to try to provide people with significant information about racial conditions in the United States. There’s a part of me who thinks that there was an active effort to engage in deschooling in the aftermath of the protest against the Vietnam War. But that’s really a strong speculation without my being able to prove it.
What do you think Barack Obama could have done to better address the racial wealth gap?
I want to say at the outset, that at least in the first two years of his first term, he was not confronted with a high level of opposition in the Congress. So the question really is what might he have done, or what might he have emphasized in that period of time, that might have reshaped the conversation and the direction of his presidency? I think that there was an overemphasis placed on the reform of the health care system at a point in which we’re in the midst of the Great Recession. The strategy that I would have preferred to see him pursue would have been to address the harms that were being perpetrated by the Great Recession in such a way that he helped the folks who were being most devastated by it, rather than directing most of the assistance to the investment banking community. That’s my first comment.
The second is primarily ideological concerning the way in which we frame and craft our discussions about racial inequality in the United States. What was deeply disappointing to me about Obama’s presidency was his tendency to emphasize notions that racial inequality is driven by black dysfunctionality. This is first apparent in his 2004 address to the Democratic convention, where he talks about this hoary argument about black kids not doing well in school because they are fearful of being charged with acting white. This carries over into a host of claims that he subsequently makes where he even invokes this character he calls “Pookie” for the purposes of talking about black misbehavior in general.
So there’s an ideological complaint I have, and there’s the policy complaint which flows from the ideological complaint. To the extent that you think that black folks don’t do well because black folks behave in the wrong ways, that shapes the direction of the kinds of policies that you might endorse. One of the manifestations is My Brother’s Keeper, which is predicated on the view that (a) there’s a particularly unique set of problems that are particular to young black men, and (b) that what we have to do is change the behavior of these young black men rather than change the resources that are available to their families.
Do you believe that as the first African American president, Obama couldn’t push as hard for bold economic policies because he would face a racial backlash?
I think with his style and temperament he could have very effectively pushed for very bold policies without conveying an image of being the angry black man. Somebody like me is not able to do that. But I think he certainly had that capacity. He has a very measured style of speaking and presentation. He has a way of presenting or talking about issues that I don’t think would be intrinsically threatening. For folks who are already predisposed to be against him because he was black, there’s nothing he’s going to do about that. But for other folks who are in a more middle position, I think if anyone could have presented an array of bolder policies, particularly in the midst of the Great Recession, he’s somebody who could have done that.
What are you most optimistic about and most pessimistic about at this political moment?
I’m most optimistic about the kind of movement activities that have been associated with the Occupy movement and with Black Lives Matter. There’s a strong and active segment of younger Americans who I think will continue to try to push us in a better direction.
What I’m most pessimistic are the implications of a voting system where the opposition to the direction that is being taken by the present regime is being blocked from voting altogether, either through gerrymandering or through other forms of voter suppression. I’m not sure to what extent it’s possible to really overturn the leadership or to restore what is in effect majority opinion and majority rule in this society, given the way in which the rules of the game are currently being structured.
View the full transcript here