Attention White People: Your Economic Grievances Do Not Excuse Your Racism

My wife and I did GOTV in Las Vegas on Monday and Tuesday. Half an hour before the Nevada polls closed on Tuesday night we were knocking on doors when I suddenly noticed a red laser pointer on my chest. I looked around, then saw it move to my wife. (For those of you who don’t know, laser-sighting mechanisms are used on firearms.) We were being sent a message. We crossed the street and the red dot kept reappearing. I looked back and saw someone standing in the shadows of a cracked open door aiming the laser pointer (attached to who knows what). We called an Uber and left.

I continue to be shaken by this, but I also know that it is an exceptional moment in my life. At no point did I feel like I was without recourse. I had the money to call someone to get me out of there, and I know that if I had called the cops, I would be believed. I’m white. (My wife is brown, but, in these kinds of situations, for reasons that are both sad and distressingly normalized, I am the designated spokesperson for our family.) I know that my voice counts. When I talk to officials, my opinion isn’t automatically viewed with suspicion, or qualifiers, or modifiers. I have full citizenship and freedom–by which I mean, as Nina Simone described in the excellent documentary What Happened, Miss Simone?, that I am free because I am (generally) not afraid.

Flash back about 15 years. I was hanging “remember to vote” literature on people’s doors early one morning in Echo Park, a neighborhood in Los Angeles. A friend of mine was running for city council; his father, at the time, was District Attorney. I saw a black-and-white police car speeding towards me on the wrong side of the road. They pulled up on the sidewalk in front of me, jumped out, and yelled “Stop!“ I looked around, wondering who was in so much trouble. Then they drew their weapons and yelled “Stop!” again, at which point I realized I was the one in trouble. I was cuffed as one officer, weapon drawn, yelled “What are you doing?” I said, “Handing out flyers for Eric Garcetti.” He yelled the same question again; I gave the same answer. He was so convinced that I was doing something wrong that it took a while for the data to sink in with him and his partner, even though my story checked out at every point: all the campaign lit in my bag, the button I was wearing, the lack of contraband. In the meantime I had to deal with passersby in cars and on foot staring at me, the man in cuffs, being interrogated by the cops.

This, too, shook me, but it was also, as I knew even then, a one-off event. I didn’t have anything to hide. I even knew the DA. I thought that when the cops were coming, they weren’t coming for me. This is because I’m so white that when I see the cops, I think, instinctively, that they are there to protect me. That when you call them, you will be believed. That good things will happen once they get there. I actually feel like the experience of being stopped wrongly has given me some insights that most white people don’t have–what it is like to be telling the truth but to be powerless (at least initially) to make someone believe you. To be hassled and shamed. To have someone point a gun at you. Even though I am an insider, it scared the hell out of me. I have no idea what it would feel like to be an outsider, to have that happen and not “know people” who would help me. To have that be more than just one story, but, instead, just a part of life–not even that noteworthy. My telling this story as an unusual event is itself part of the privilege of being white.

There has been a lot of talk in the past couple of days about the importance of understanding the white working class who voted for Trump. Never mind the fact that Trump won rich whites as well. Others have suggested that misogyny is more powerful than race, an idea that, I suppose, comes from the fact that Obama won and Clinton lost–but, the facts remain that, of the white women who voted, a majority voted for Trump. The Trump campaign made no bones about its appeal to white supremacy: I won’t bother linking to the many examples of anti-Muslim, anti-Latinx, anti-immigrant, anti-black, anti-Semitic words and rhetoric coming from the campaign. Day One after the election, it’s clear that racists feel emboldened. Read these shocking examples, then get back to me about how “it’s just campaign rhetoric.” The stigma of racism has eased.

But is demography destiny? In my view, the idea that being a poor white person means you’re automatically racist is, itself, patronizing.

Consider this demographic. A white man, living in Georgia, 76 years old. Born in a small town in Mississippi. Poor enough to have moved all over Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana, and poor enough to have had black neighbors growing up in the South in the ‘40’s and ‘50’s. His father didn’t have enough money to attend college. He was ROTC at LSU and president of the Baptist Student Union.

That person is my father. And he didn’t (and would never) support Trump.

My father made choices, just like Trump supporters made theirs. There is nothing inevitable about having a disadvantaged background that makes you turn to Trump. People make choices about who they support. In Trump’s case, many, crucially, ignored their scriptures. The Good Samaritan was an outsider who did what the insiders didn’t. That is the point of the Good Samaritan story–that “they” were better than “us”. Just being a member of a group does not make you moral–in fact, insiders can miss the point that outsiders don’t, so you’d better act with love towards all. The Good Samaritan is, perhaps, the most important parable in the New Testament, and yet this is where we are. A nation that, in the name of fearing God, is fearful of refugees from the Middle East (like Jesus), that turns inward instead of outward (no room at the inn), that yells and blames rather than loves and understands.

I get, from a practical standpoint, why you are supposed to reach out to Trump supporters. You listen to them the way you listen to the grievances of a hostage taker. You need them to feel understood in order to calm them down and get the situation under control.

But morally?

Morally, there is no excuse. I am not interested in that enterprise. I am not going to pretend that someone who turns to hate is on equal moral footing with everyone else. Trump dehumanized Muslims, and you went along with that. Trump dehumanized people of color, and you went along with that. Trump campaigned with Ted Nugent, a man who became the legal guardian of a 17-year-old girl so that he could have sex with her, and you cheered that. You chose Trump, which means you chose to ignore everything that he said and did, because you’re white and that means other people’s fear is not your problem. But you know better. I’m not making reference to anything in the New York Times here–I’m going straight to the Bible and to the things that were said and done in the campaign. Don’t tell me it’s a lack of education. You had choices, and you made them.

I don’t dehumanize poor white people. I know, and am related to, poor white people as well as more affluent white Trump supporters. I know they have their good qualities. But if you’re asking me where to put my energy, it isn’t there.

Because there are other working class people who aren’t white. Who are immigrants. Who are members of all the demonized groups. These people have also been left behind by the income gap, but they also fear for their personal safety. White people’s feelings get hurt; the lives of people of color get threatened by those white people. Yep, poor white folks are doing poorly, rates of suicide are up, heroin addiction is a real thing, but the way this pain manifests itself politically–who they chose to blame and demonize–is on them.

The last time I was home, my dad told me the story of the night he was ten, when his black neighbor, who was non-verbal, came down the hill to get my grandfather. Some white folks had beaten the man’s brother to within an inch of his life. My father remembered clearly the fear in his neighbor’s eyes, the way he was gesturing frantically and trying desperately to say something that would be understood. He remembered the way he himself felt powerless, as a kid, to do anything but listen and be afraid. He heard his parents arguing. His mother, my Grandmother, wanted to call the police, but my grandfather thought nothing would happen if they did, and he thought the retaliation against their black neighbors would have been fatal. So they did what they could as individuals, going up the hill to administer to their neighbor’s wounds, but they didn’t call the sheriff. My ancestors, poor and white in Alabama, did what they could despite their own powerlessness. They could see the wrong that was being done. That is how they dealt with a bad situation.

So I’m going to follow in the footsteps of my Southern rural forebears. I will put my focus elsewhere, not on the bullies, but on the bullied. My academic subject–prisons–is about class and race, and I am an advocate for anti-poverty policies and programs. The things that I have worked on and continue to work on will benefit all poor people, no matter their color.

But I’m not going to treat racists as equals. I’m not, as a white person, going to be “race blind” and ignore what has been done to communities of color. I’m done. I can love you as a person and as a human being and deny that your decision to blame more disenfranchised people has any legitimacy. I wish I were as enlightened as Dr. King. I wish I had enough energy to love everyone. I think it’s clear that if you see the footage from rallies that Trump supporters are angry and feel unloved and misunderstood and are going to take that out on whomever they can. Someone surely needs to heal them, for they are in need of it.

My work, however, is going to be to focus on the victims of that rage and abuse, and with the people who are trying to love them and protect them. I am not going to pretend that sin and hatred are OK, that they are legitimate ways of expressing grievances. I feel your pain and can even understand it. But I cannot pretend that you are not making a choice–a moral choice–to take that pain and impose it on others.

Author: W. David Ball

W. David Ball is an Associate Professor at Santa Clara School of Law. He writes and teaches primarily in the fields of criminal law and criminal procedure, with a special focus on sentencing and corrections. He also serves as the Co-Chair of the Corrections Committee of the American Bar Association.

10 thoughts on “Attention White People: Your Economic Grievances Do Not Excuse Your Racism”

  1. You have the option of adding, "And it will serve you right when you get hosed by this guy." Is this an option you wish to exercise?

    1. Part of a very old playbook.

      "… it may be said of the Reconstruction era that the southern aristocracy took the world and gave the poor white man Jim Crow. (Yes, sir) He gave him Jim Crow. (Uh huh) And when his wrinkled stomach cried out for the food that his empty pockets could not provide, (Yes, sir) he ate Jim Crow, a psychological bird that told him that no matter how bad off he was, at least he was a white man, better than the black man. (Right sir) And he ate Jim Crow. (Uh huh) And when his undernourished children cried out for the necessities that his low wages could not provide, he showed them the Jim Crow signs on the buses and in the stores, on the streets and in the public buildings. (Yes, sir) And his children, too, learned to feed upon Jim Crow, (Speak) their last outpost of psychological oblivion. (Yes, sir)"

  2. You may find this of interest….Ursula LeGuin (yes!) married a Southerner and lived in the South and recently wrote something about that in an informal review of Go Set A Watchman in a blog she writes. In part she said:

    " I married into a white Southern family and lived with them some years.

    If you love and respect people who live in and obey the rules of such a society, and I loved my father and mother in law, and they deserved all my love and respect — if they love and respect you, as they did me — if you have family feeling or rational sense of decency, you do not and cannot arise in a halo of self-righteousness at every instance of race prejudice, denounce, disown, and depart. Depart where? You live there. These are your people. You are a member of this kind, upright, affectionate family. You live in this society with its tremendous, ingrained prejudices — racial, religious, and other.

    You find how to evade showing approval of injustice, and how to avoid practising it, as well as you can. You meet the endless overt bigotry with silent non-acceptance, perhaps with a brief word or two reminding the bigot that not everyone shares, or admires, his opinons. Now and then, when Cousin Roy gets to ranting on about the niggers, and you’re about to leave the room because you’re feeling sick, your mother-in-law says very quietly, I don’t like such talk, Roy. And Roy shuts up.

    Oh, it’s all so much more complicated than it looks like from outside, to people who don’t have to consider how love and loyalty constrain you, to people from Outside the South, where of course no such injustice is ever practiced, no such bigotry exists.

    It may seem implausible that a person can, like Jean Louise, grow up without race prejudice in a society so profoundly racist as the small-town White South. It is in fact a miracle, but not an uncommon one. I can attest that my husband and two of his cousins, raised entirely in that society, grew up entirely without race prejudice. But unlike Jean Louise they were intensely aware of their anomaly, the complex discomfort of their position. They were all among the first in their families to go to college; they all sought and found a non-racially prejudiced community of people within Southern society, or else left the South altogether.


    1. Beautiful writing. I do find it of interest. For me the real hit the nail on the head book is Absalom, Absalom (Quentin's roommate condescendingly saying “Tell about the South. What's it like there. What do they do there. Why do they live there. Why do they live at all.” ).

  3. My guess is they were mostly hold-your-nose Republicans who felt that basic issues such as abortion, taxes and limited government were just too important to allow Clinton to get elected.

  4. Great post!

    I don't have much energy back yet so I don't know where it will go, but I agree there is no excuse.

    I haven't decided though if it was more hatred of Clinton or rage and fear about the economy, plus of course a good chunk of racism. A toxic soup.

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