Toni Morrison: White Panic Led to Trump



Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison makes powerful use of William Faulkner’s Absolom, Absolom to explain Donald Trump’s electoral victory last week. For her, the election was white America mourning increasing encroachments on their “natural superiority”:

Under slave laws, the necessity for color rankings was obvious, but in America today, post-civil-rights legislation, white people’s conviction of their natural superiority is being lost. Rapidly lost. There are “people of color” everywhere, threatening to erase this long-understood definition of America. And what then? Another black President? A predominantly black Senate? Three black Supreme Court Justices? The threat is frightening.

Morrison dramatizes the fear by paralleling Obama-era violence with incidents from the Civil Rights era:

In order to limit the possibility of this untenable change, and restore whiteness to its former status as a marker of national identity, a number of white Americans are sacrificing themselves. They have begun to do things they clearly don’t really want to be doing, and, to do so, they are (1) abandoning their sense of human dignity and (2) risking the appearance of cowardice. Much as they may hate their behavior, and know full well how craven it is, they are willing to kill small children attending Sunday school and slaughter churchgoers who invite a white boy to pray. Embarrassing as the obvious display of cowardice must be, they are willing to set fire to churches, and to start firing in them while the members are at prayer. And, shameful as such demonstrations of weakness are, they are willing to shoot black children in the street.

To keep alive the perception of white superiority, these white Americans tuck their heads under cone-shaped hats and American flags and deny themselves the dignity of face-to-face confrontation, training their guns on the unarmed, the innocent, the scared, on subjects who are running away, exposing their unthreatening backs to bullets. Surely, shooting a fleeing man in the back hurts the presumption of white strength? The sad plight of grown white men, crouching beneath their (better) selves, to slaughter the innocent during traffic stops, to push black women’s faces into the dirt, to handcuff black children. Only the frightened would do that. Right?

These sacrifices, made by supposedly tough white men, who are prepared to abandon their humanity out of fear of black men and women, suggest the true horror of lost status.

The author then connects the dots with the Trump’s victory:

So scary are the consequences of a collapse of white privilege that many Americans have flocked to a political platform that supports and translates violence against the defenseless as strength. These people are not so much angry as terrified, with the kind of terror that makes knees tremble.

On Election Day, how eagerly so many white voters—both the poorly educated and the well educated—embraced the shame and fear sowed by Donald Trump. The candidate whose company has been sued by the Justice Department for not renting apartments to black people. The candidate who questioned whether Barack Obama was born in the United States, and who seemed to condone the beating of a Black Lives Matter protester at a campaign rally. The candidate who kept black workers off the floors of his casinos. The candidate who is beloved by David Duke and endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan.

Faulkner is famous for his statement, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” Morrison concludes her article by pointing to the continuing relevance of Faulkner’s greatest novel:

William Faulkner understood this [state of affairs] better than almost any other American writer. In Absalom, Absalom, incest is less of a taboo for an upper-class Southern family than acknowledging the one drop of black blood that would clearly soil the family line. Rather than lose its “whiteness” (once again), the family chooses murder.

Further thought: I’m struck by Morrison’s thought that most whites don’t really want to be seen as supporting a racist. After all, we like to see ourselves as decent people. You can understand, however, why people of color would be bewildered by the number of things that Trump supporters were willing to overlook and rationalize away in order to vote for him. It appears that there was nothing he could do to disqualify himself. White panic is a logical explanation.

Along these lines, I think of the virulent reaction among white readers to Harper Lee’s Go Tell a Watchman. Most people like to think of themselves as Atticus Finch, a tolerant white man who earns the deep respect of the black community by coming to the defense of an innocent black man against “white trash.” Lee understood only only too well, however, that when the Atticus Finches of the world found their positions of patriarchal privilege challenged, they were only too likely to join the White Citizens Council. White readers hated that reality and looked for every possible way to delegitimize the book.

Those who voted for Obama in 2008 and then Trump in 2016 may be like the two Atticus Finches. It is certainly the case that, in supporting Trump, they voted in accord with the Klan, White Citizens Councils, and Neo-Nazis. Americans of color, your fellow citizens, took note.

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