Books describe a nation divided

By Greg Cusack
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail Shanghai Daily, November 28, 2016
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Both of these books — "White Rage" and "White Trash" — offer a different "take" on people historically disdained and/or discriminated against in the United States: poor whites and Afro-Americans.

Despite the national myth that the US is a "classless" society, Nancy Isenberg's "White Trash: The 400-year Untold History of Class in America" shows how class divides and conflicts have been an integral part of the United States from the very beginning.

"White trash" is the denigrating term applied to people whose way of life many consider disgusting, contemptible, or non-contributing. This term, and similar denigrating expressions, has often been hurled at immigrants over the years since many of them were often from the poorer classes. Regarded as unwelcome intruders who were likely to "sponge off," rather than contribute to, their new country, and often speaking a language other than English, possessing different customs and with little formal education, they easily stood out as, and were shunned for being, "different."

This is ironic given that every US citizen — except Native Americans, of course — is a descendant of earlier immigrants. Not only that, but a large number of the original colonists were the undesirable underclass of their day: the poor, people fleeing religious or political persecution, and even convicted criminals dumped on America's shores as "good riddance."

But it is not just immigrants. Equal disdain has been shown to people victimized by capitalism's ruthless competition and, hence, judged to be losers, or the misfortune to live in less settled and more rustic areas of the country that shunned many of the norms — and pretenses — of "civilized" society.

Unfortunately, unwanted newcomers, life's "losers," the dispossessed, the mentally ill, and the homeless — those who live on the "other side" of the railroad tracks or camp disheveled near our parks and creek beds — are still with us. They are, though, largely invisible, for we look through them even as we walk around them. Nonetheless, their existence nags at our consciences for, while we may regard them as failures or intruders, we are also disquieted at the thought that their existence and treatment might reflect our own smallness — and that of our society's — too.

But, as the 2016 presidential election so clearly revealed, in the US today there are also white people who have come to feel as if they were a forgotten, looked down upon, class: those who believe that "their American dream" has been betrayed by various elites, including those from "the coasts," the mainstream news media, and "Hollywood types."

In "White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide," Carol Anderson forcefully illustrates the ugly persistence of white anger and resentment towards black people. While it is true that other "people of color" have also suffered discrimination and rejection, theirs pales in comparison to the deep bigotry towards Afro-Americans that still poisons our culture.

Because the full dimensionality of black peoples' subjugation is seldom taught in American history, it is no wonder that many whites do not understand how thoroughly systemic discrimination continues to permeate our culture, business practices, schools and neighborhoods, nor how consistently African-Americans' every attempt to advance has been met with resistance, even violence.

However, while Dr. Anderson describes "white rage" and its many manifestations throughout American history, she does not really identify its source(s) but, instead, effectively treats it as a "given" of US culture.

White rage is not about visible violence, but rather it works its way through the courts, the legislatures, and a range of government bureaucracies. It wreaks havoc subtly, almost imperceptibly.

The trigger for white rage, inevitably, is black advancement. It is not the mere presence of black people that is the problem; rather, it is blackness with ambition, with drive, with purpose, with aspirations, and with demands for full and equal citizenship. It is blackness that refuses to accept subjugation, to give up.

Exploitation of blacks

History provides us with abundant examples of where one or more people — distinguished by ethnicity, language, or religious preference — has been discriminated against because the larger culture regards such behavior as acceptable, even normative.

In the case of the United States, economic exploitation of black people went hand in glove with racist perceptions of them — indeed, of all peoples of color — as "inferior" species, attitudes reinforced by the "science" of the day.

Dr. Anderson briefly surveys some of the most prominent examples of this persistent racism, including:

• How, following the Civil War, the victorious North soon turned from pursuing the policies necessary to ensure blacks their freedom — such as preventing unrepentant Confederates from holding state and federal offices and using the United States army to protect the former slaves — to "business as usual," effectively abandoning the former slaves to the non-tender mercies of the South. Even before the last of the federal troops were withdrawn, Southern states quickly developed new legal and social tools re-imposing racial barriers. Black people remained "free" in name, but their economic and political position was again subjugated to the white master class.

• When, at the beginning of the 20th century, hundreds of thousands of black people began to flock to Northern states in order to pursue better educational and employment opportunities as well as to flee consistent Southern oppression, the South reacted forcefully to impede their leaving. The fact of their leaving in such numbers posed real challenges to the South's economy, to which black labor was central, as well exposing the lie of its fundamental mythos that its culture and values were "good" for all people in the South.

• Nonetheless, even in the North, throughout the first half of the 20th century entrenched white resistance kept thousands of blacks out of schools, labor unions, and even key programs of FDR's New Deal.

• During the civil rights movement of the '60s, when I was in my 20's, white and black activists from around the country worked together to register blacks throughout the South and were frequently met with violence: many were harassed, beaten, and even killed. (I remember the newspaper headlines and the gripping television images of police and state troopers assaulting marchers, of burning churches, and even of somber funerals for children killed by fire-bombings of churches.)

Dr. Anderson's last chapter traces the vicious — and barely disguised — racist resistance that immediately formed following Barack Obama's election in 2008.

Despite the turmoil of this election year, much needed discussions — about race, black-white relations, and the white underclass — are still not occurring in sufficient number or depth. Both of these books trace the tragic cost of such avoidance in the past, and thus warn against the costs of continued denial.

The author is a retired statesman from the United States.

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