“Todos los imperios se caen (All empires fall).” That was the phrase in Spanish that my father-in-law, Angel, once used to ask me if I thought that the time of the United States as a world leader and the most successful country in the world was coming to an end. This was early in Barack Obama’s second term and long before anyone thought Donald Trump could ever be a serious candidate for president. But as the events of the past two weeks occurred, I couldn’t help hearing Angel’s voice repeating this phrase over and over again in my head. An important lesson that I couldn’t have grasped then is that nothing is forever—and even the most seemingly of stable things, like American democracy, can be changed in an instant.
I confess that I was shocked on the early morning of November 9, 2016 when I woke up to a text message alerting me that Donald Trump was our country’s newest president-elect. I had a sinking feeling as I watched the election returns come in and forced myself to go to bed before midnight, convinced that I would wake up to results from the West Coast that would ensure Hillary Clinton’s victory. So I was confused and not quite sure if I was still dreaming when I heard my phone buzzing around 2 a.m., looked down and saw the news update about Trump and then quickly looked at the television which confirmed the unthinkable. My husband was awakened to the sounds of me yelling “Oh my god! Oh my god!” We both got up, made our way to the living room and sat in silence in the dark as we watched CNN say over and over again that Trump was the projected winner in the race.
My husband, an immigrant from Colombia who had proudly cast his ballot for Hillary in the first election since he became a citizen, was stunned and glassy-eyed. He shook his head. We sat there for a few minutes watching Trump give his victory speech. It felt like hours had passed. While my husband remained stoic, it didn’t take long for me to move from shock to anger. I was enraged. My blood started to boil and I could feel heat creeping up into my face. When I finally spoke, the very first thing I said out loud was about how white people had ruined this election and the country. I went quickly to social media and posted it. Without looking at a single exit poll, I instinctively knew that the majority of white people who voted, voted for Donald Trump. Later, I would find out that I was right.
The 53 percent
I spent the first days after the election ruminating on this fact. It overwhelmed and consumed me. It was an almost impossible thing for my heart and mind to reconcile because I have so many white people in my life. For the most part, I didn’t think anyone I knew was a Trump voter. I have spent my entire career in social justice-oriented work with committed progressive white activists, so this possibility floored me. To be clear, I was not naïve to or shocked by racism. I’d experienced way more racism from my time around these do-gooders and self-proclaimed “good white people” than I ever had around people I was quicker to judge and label as racist—Republicans, people from rural areas who I assumed had backwards ideas and thinking, etc. I’d also spent the past few years actively talking, researching and writing about and working with groups on dealing with white supremacy and anti-black racism. And after nearly a year and a half of Trump’s repeatedly racist, xenophobic campaign where he successfully knocked out his competition in order to win the Republican nomination, I wasn’t surprised at how his message was so easily received among a certain segment of the population. But I kept thinking about the 53 percent of white women who voted for him. And then my mind would race to the faces of the white women I knew—my aunts, my college roommate, my work colleagues, my friends. I felt betrayed at the thought that they might have voted for Trump. I suspected that most of them did not. So then my anger turned to the fact that so many white women I knew had an attitude that it was considered impolite to talk about politics with others. As a result, I knew that many of them had likely not talked to other white women or men in their lives who did vote for Trump.
In the days after the election, I got into a handful of sparring matches online with some white women I knew. They were offended that I would lump them in with white Trump voters. They assured me that this wasn’t their mess to clean up and that they had voted the “right way.” Some insisted that they were just as upset as me about the election’s outcome—especially those who had black or brown lovers or children. I assured them that they were not. It wasn’t that I doubted their concerns. But I knew full well that my being a black person and a woman and the wife of a Hispanic immigrant in America meant that my very personhood and family were at risk in ways that theirs was not. I felt fear in every bone in my body. In every crevice. I felt it crawling across my skin all the time. I had trouble looking white people in the eye because I was so angry and consumed with anxiety. So, I didn’t want to hear anything from well-meaning white women. I wanted space to grieve and mourn. I wanted to protect myself and my loved ones. I desperately wanted white women not to be having these conversations with me, especially because so much of it was about making themselves feel better. Instead, I wanted them to do the hard work of talking to other white people about why this election had put my life and that of their friends and loved ones of color in danger.
Since that time, the country has transformed in profound ways. It no longer feels recognizable to me the way it did in early November 2016. And, as a result of Donald Trump’s presidency, we are learning so much more about whiteness and are having more regular conversations about race. We have seen and heard endless, mind-numbing debates and think pieces about the economic anxiety of white voters. We’ve seen media outlets attempt to humanize these voters over and over again so that we can understand their thinking and see them as regular and down-on-their luck folks who were inspired by the message of a populist, straight-talking, shake things up, non-politician billionaire. We’ve been encouraged not to let politics divide us, to remain civil and have been assured that this is just a hiccup in our history and discourse but not indicative of a pattern or a permanent change.
But as my wise father-in-law said to me several years ago, all empires must fall. And if the American empire is falling right now (and it most certainly is), it is because white people are burning it down—not with economic anxiety but instead with their anxiety around their own extinction.
Privilege, power and panic
As a point of clarification, yes, I know #notallwhitepeople. I understand full well that many of the 60-plus million people who voted for Hillary were white, including many of those who are reading this piece. I also understand that out of the many millions of people who did not vote at all or voted third party, there are a lot who are white. It’s also clear to me that Donald Trump doesn’t have popular support among Americans for what he is doing—regardless of color. And there are lots of ongoing debates about who is responsible for the election’s outcome—young people who didn’t vote or voted third party, people of color who didn’t come out in droves like they did for Obama, white people, Republicans who held their noses and voted for Trump anyway, the Russians and Vladimir Putin, etc. Still, a fundamental truth that we cannot deny that is that what is happening in America now is because there is a swath of white America that is afraid of the changing demographics in the country. Those people have been worked up into a frenzy to believe that, to quote Pat Buchanan, “white America is an endangered species.” And that’s what we must spend time exploring if we are to understand why we are where we are.
In an opinion piece written in late June, New York Times columnist Charles Blow wrote about white extinction anxiety. He wrote:
America will soon be a majority-minority country.
White America is growing older, there are fewer white women of childbearing age, and the white fertility rate is lower than that of Hispanics and blacks.
All manner of current policy grows out of this panic over loss of privilege and power: immigration policy, voter suppression, Trump economic isolationist impulses, his contempt for people from Haiti and Africa, the Muslim ban, his rage over Black Lives Matter and social justice protests. Everything.
Blow goes on to say that Trump’s draconian immigration policies are a reflection of the displacement and extinction anxiety that white people have about becoming minorities in the United States. Locking immigrant toddlers in cages, Muslim bans, refusing asylum to domestic abuse survivors and victims of gang violence, entertaining the possibility of stripping away citizenship from immigrants who have become Americans through naturalization, disappearing immigrant children from their parents with no hope of reunification—these are all things that play well to a base that juxtaposes America with whiteness and sees the changing demographics as a loss of American identity.
Sadly, this kind of terrorism which has become the hallmark of the Trump administration is not limited to immigrants. Early this month, the Trump administration decided to rescind Obama-era guidance to colleges and universities on affirmative action, going against previous Supreme Court rulings which says that universities can, in fact, consider race as a factor in admissions. Again, the message behind this action is clear—Trump supporters believe that brown and black people are taking America’s opportunities away from white people and they are wrestling the country back from our grip. As an example, Twitter user Meg Guilford posted that she was in the mall this week wearing a University of Pennsylvania shirt when someone stopped her to say, “Our president is going to make sure only qualified students go to college.”
Trump’s supporters believe that white America is under attack and that it needs to be defended vigorously. As Charles Blow writes:
Trump is president and is beloved by his base in part because he is unapologetically defending whiteness from anything that threatens it, or at least that’s the image he wants to project. It is no more complicated than that.
Fighting for democracy
So a year-and-a half into Trump’s presidency, what have we learned? One thing that is abundantly clear is that identity politics is not limited to people of color and other minority groups. In fact, white identity politics is not only far more prevalent but also more dangerous that we could have ever imagined. From the country’s inception, there has been evidence that white people, as a group, are willing to do whatever it takes to maintain supremacy, power and control. There is no shortage of policies and practices in education, policing, finance, criminal justice, housing, etc. that demonstrate this. It has been the foundation of our so-called democracy for hundreds of years. But now what we can see playing out so clearly is that when white people begin to feel dispossessed and a sense of loss of privilege, they become desperate and willing to burn everything down—including what they claim to love so much, in order to preserve and save themselves. This is what America looks like in 2018. A frightening, undemocratic country taking huge leaps toward fascism and genocide because people are afraid of change, especially if it means the people who are already the most privileged perceive that they will lose status.
In this moment, what is needed now more than ever is our anger, outrage and refusal to accept what is happening—in a focused and strategic way. This is not just about voting, though that’s the least we can do. It’s about not letting the country descend into complete chaos without a fight. It’s about fighting white extinction anxiety head on. We need to call it out directly, not in coded jargon and not subtly. We need to acknowledge that the country is in fact changing and those who refuse to change with it are hijacking it and turning it into a place that the majority of us don’t want it to be.
If you are white and recognize this, it is urgent that you address extinction anxiety head on. Talk to your white friends, relatives, neighbors and co-workers about the dangers this is causing. Openly talk about these feelings of discomfort and fear and the notion of being “outnumbered” and how this intentional eroding of our democracy in the name of upholding whiteness is actually damaging all Americans—regardless of race. Because when civil rights are dismantled and the power of workers to organize and form unions destroyed, when possible Supreme Court picks look to overturn women’s reproductive rights and affirmative action, when the ability to vote is taken away, when we ban brown and black immigrants and lock up their kids, it’s actually not going to work to the benefit of white people. Instead, it will be a horrifying, dystopian version of a country where people are fed propaganda about opportunity and freedom but no one actually has either. Not all white people are responsible for this mess. And all white people, whether they know it or not, are impacted by it. But white people also have an outsized role in cleaning it up. History teaches that all empires fall. But America doesn’t have to fall apart on our watch. We can fight with everything we have to prevent anxiety, fear and white supremacy from being our downfall.