To understand the roots of the white rage that President Trump taps into with unerring and unconscionable precision, it helps to look at a recent news story from South Africa.
That country’s history, of course, exhibits the most extreme form of white power. The white minority denied the black majority the most rudimentary rights for decades. Then, in 1994, apartheid crumbled, and a democratically elected government took office that, remarkably and wisely, refused to exact vengeance for decades of oppression. Even today, whites occupy an economically privileged position in South Africa. Their average income is five times that of blacks. More than half of blacks live below the poverty line, compared with less than 1 percent of whites.
Yet, rather than being grateful for the forbearance of the black majority, many South African whites, especially those from the working class, smolder with resentment. Their bitterness erupted during and after an emotional confrontation in 2017 at the Johannesburg outpost of a casual restaurant chain called the Spur Steak Ranches. Videos show a white man arguing vociferously with a black woman over the behavior of her kids. As the New York Times notes, “The white man yanks the arm of a black boy, before threatening to hit the black woman and trying to overturn a table where her small children were sitting.” A few days later, the restaurant chain apologized to the woman and banned the man from entering its restaurants because of his “unacceptable actions.” Many whites were outraged at the treatment of the abusive customer and announced a boycott of the Spur restaurants. The boycott continues to the present day, hurting the restaurants’ sales in white areas.
Pretty crazy — and pretty telling. What it reveals is the sense of outrage that white people feel when they fear they are losing their privileged position to people of color. From their perspective, after having been on top for so long, any attempt to redress past wrongs or foster equal treatment feels as if they are the victims of an anti-white vendetta. A 2018 PRRI-MTV poll found that 55 percent of white respondents think that discrimination against whites has become as big a problem in the United States as discrimination against blacks and other minority groups.
Needless to say, this perception is at odds with reality. Whites are still much better off than blacks. The poverty rate among African Americans is 21.8 percent; among whites, 8.8 percent. The median wealth of black households is $17,409; among whites, $171,000. The homeownership rate for blacks is 41.2 percent; among whites, 71.1 percent. There is also manifold evidence of continuing discrimination against African Americans. It’s hard to imagine a white man being choked to death by police, as Eric Garner was in New York, for illegally selling cigarettes. Or two white men being evicted by police from a Starbucks for asking to use the bathroom without ordering anything, as two black men were in Philadelphia.
These facts do not, however, compute with whites who are convinced that they’re the real victims. Notwithstanding his occasional, insincere denunciations of racism, President Archie Bunker is the channeler and champion of white grievances. In 1989, right after calling for the death penalty for the Central Park Five (five minority teenagers who were later exonerated of rape), Trump told an interviewer: “A well-educated black has a tremendous advantage over a well-educated white in terms of the job market. … If I were starting off today I would love to be a well-educated black because I really believe they do have an actual advantage today.” (Of course, if Trump were actually “a well-educated black” and became president, he’d have some poorly educated racist demanding to see his birth certificate.)
That is the bigoted mind-set that leads Trump to spray kerosene on brushfires of racial conflict across America. He tells women of color to “go back” to where they come from and uses dehumanizing language (“infested,” “breeding”) to describe minorities, even while claiming, preposterously, “I am the least racist person there is anywhere in the world.”
Like many of his followers, Trump must imagine that white supremacy is the natural order of things and that any attempt to deliver justice for minorities who have been discriminated against for centuries is an indicator of anti-white prejudice. The most extreme form of this outlook can be found among white supremacists such as the gunman who allegedly slaughtered 22 people in El Paso on Saturday. The suspect claimed to be acting in response “to the Hispanic invasion of Texas” — a state that was part of Mexico before being invaded by Anglos. Even many whites who aren’t driven to violence display a version of this victimhood mind-set. They view accusations of racism as a far bigger problem than racism itself, and blame “social justice warriors” rather than white racists for inflaming racial tensions.
White people can be pretty clueless. (I know, I’m one myself.) Get a grip, folks. We’re not the victims here. Thinking that we are is not just wrong. It’s dangerous. It’s a mind-set that can justify everything from a public temper tantrum to a shooting spree.