Du Bois, Afro-Pessimism, And The Wages Of Whiteness

On White Betrayal And The Betrayal Of Whites

By Professor Shannon Sullivan (The University of North Carolina, Charlotte)

January 15, 2017         Picture: Lucas Jackson/Reuters.

This article is part of The Critique’s January/February 2017 Issue “Stick It To The Man: A Year Of Anglo-American Populist Revolt Against A Changing Culture And An Obtuse Political Establishment.”

If you weren’t an Afro-pessimist or a racial realist before the 2016 U.S. presidential election, then you might be now. By Afro-pessimism and racial realism, I mean the general idea that racism has been so indelibly dyed into the fabric of the United States that it likely is permanent.[1] We can’t seem to scrub it out, no matter which laws, civil rights movements, good intentions, protests, or other anti-racist elbow-grease we bring to the task. This isn’t an abstract, ahistorical claim. It takes the concrete details of history very seriously. In fact, doing so is precisely what points to the plausibility of Afro-pessimism and racial realism.[2] The United States’ racial and racist past could have unfolded differently than it did. There were moments when other options for the nation were available. Given the reality of its particular past, however, the obstinacy of white superiority seems inevitable for America’s foreseeable future.[3]

For every one step forward that the nation has seemed to take, a few years or decades later it slid one or even two steps back. In addition to all the examples of this pattern provided by racial realists like Derrick Bell,[4] consider the election of Barack Obama. It was celebrated in 2008 and again in 2012 as a massive step forward for the United States. What we now know, however, is that Obama’s term as both liberal democrat and the first black president was a key reason why Trump’s 2016 presidential bid was successful. This is true even though some Trump voters previously voted for Obama. The U.S. Congress’s deliberate undermining of Obama led some Americans to conclude that government (read: under a black president) is completely ineffective and dysfunctional.[5] For that reason, we supposedly now need “‘a bull in the china shop’ to break some glasses, not someone who needed to shatter the glass ceiling,” as one white Trump supporter has claimed.[6] Consider also how in the past thirty years, many white Americans stopped using racially offensive language, such as the word “n***er.” We now know that this step forward fueled a vicious backlash in some sub-cultures against so-called political correctness in which white people can finally “tell it like it is” not just about black people, but about people of color more generally, immigrants, women of all races, and religious minorities.[7]

I am not arguing that Obama shouldn’t have been elected, nor am I arguing for the re-normalization of racial slurs. My point is that our eyes now should be wide open if they weren’t already before the 2016 election. The significant and widespread changes to white America’s racist and sexist habits that we thought took place after the civil rights movement did not in fact happen. (The “we” here is white people in particular; many people of color are not surprised by the return of big-booted racism because they never thought it completely went away.) We thought that new laws and different language could change white Americans’ hearts and guts, but they didn’t. We thought that the disappearance of the n-word in polite company meant that white people respected black people, but it didn’t. It was just a sign of the national spread of Lee Atwater’s Southern Strategy, developed in the 1970s, which deliberately used abstract concepts that invisibilize race, rather than open racial attacks, to hurt black people.[8] (In terms of the Southern Strategy, Trump is not very different from much of the Republican field for the past 40 years except that he is infuriating many mainstream Republicans by reverting to open attacks.) Elect a black president or don’t elect a black president—either way, anti-black racism, white supremacy, and white class privilege win. You don’t have to be black to come to this Afro-pessimistic, racially realistic conclusion. You just have to take in earnest how seriously the United States takes its belief in white superiority. Our history is not past, and I mean that literally.

“Elect a black president or don’t elect a black president—either way, anti-black racism, white supremacy, and white class privilege win.”

In addition to Afro-pessimism and racial realism, I have been thinking a lot about W.E.B. Du Bois since the November election. The deal concerning the wages of whiteness that he describes in Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880 seems more important to understand than ever.[9] This was the deal made between wealthy and working classes of white people after the end of the U.S. Civil War: white working class people would be paid public and psychological wages tied to their whiteness in lieu of higher economic wages. This meant that white working class people would align themselves racially with upper class white people rather than combine forces economically with newly freed black slaves and other economically struggling people of color. Du Bois argues that this deal protected upper class white people by fracturing the energy, power, and focus of the working class, pitting white and black workers against each other. In turn, white working class people would benefit psychologically from publicly performed rituals of respect and deference: being addressed as “Mister” rather than “boy,” walking on the sidewalk while black people stepped out of your way onto the street, enjoying whites-only spaces such as swimming pools and water fountains, and overseeing people of color as police officers and in other positions of social authority.

This deal held up for about a century, from the 1870s to the 1970s. With the passage of Franklin Roosevelt’s 1935 Social Security Act—coincidentally, the same year as Black Reconstruction’s publication—the deal even was augmented to provide some financial relief to working class white people who struggled during the Great Depression. The New Deal, as it appropriately called, included social welfare provisions, such as Social Security for retirement and public health insurance via Medicare and Medicaid, but those provisions were denied to people working as field hands or domestic employees. Without naming race, in other words, the 1935 Social Security Act excluded most black and other non-white workers from the safety net that was extended to white workers. The New Deal was an extension of the original deal made in the 19th century, a deal that newly added some financial benefits to the psychological wages already enjoyed by working class white people.

And then, with the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 60s, the whole deal began to collapse, at least from the perspective of the white working class. The white upper class failed to uphold their end of the bargain: white working class people no longer were receiving the public and psychological wages of whiteness they had been promised, and they weren’t getting any additional economic wages to compensate for that loss. The provisions of the New Deal weren’t privileges for white people any more; they were being extended to people of color. Denied both psychological and economic wages—and the public, visible position of respect that goes along with each of those in the United States—the white working class became furious, and it expressed that fury in the November 2016 presidential election.

“The provisions of the New Deal weren’t privileges for white people any more; they were being extended to people of color”.

In some respects, they are right to be angry and to feel betrayed by their nation. In a narrow sense (which I will say more about shortly), working class white people have been betrayed: a deal was broken, resulting in benefits for one party only, rather than for both parties as originally agreed. The reality of the broken deal is important to underscore because it interrupts the dumping on white working class people that frequently takes place in the United States. One example of that dumping can be found in Thomas Frank’s What’s The Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America, which suggests that white Kansans have been duped (and by extension, so too the entire “heartland” of America).[10] If only white working class Kansans would recognize their true class and economic interests, so the story goes, then they would lean toward the Democratic Party, but they are too stupid or uneducated to realize that they are voting against their own interests when they vote for Republican candidates.

“Working class white people have been betrayed: a deal was broken.”

The white working class is not stupid, however. They know that class simpliciter was never the issue. They understand the complex deal that held between white Americans for over a century, and they understand that the elite class of whites broke it. This is a powerful reason why working class white people were dead set on getting their revenge in the 2016 election. Like most white Americans, including ruling class whites, they would claim that they are not racist, of course, and if “racism” merely means consciously and explicitly affirming the superiority of white people, then they probably are right. Hardly any white Americans today think that they are racist. Even Steven Bannon, senior counselor and chief West Wing strategist to President-Elect Trump and founding member and former executive chair of the alt-right Breitbart News, insists that he is an economic nationalist, not a white nationalist.[11] But the complex deal to pay working class whites public and psychological wages does not operate solely on a conscious level. The sense of white superiority and white priority over people of color that it embodies is deeply woven into white people’s nonconscious and unconscious habits.[12] White people can simultaneously know and not know that they are beneficiaries of and also, in some cases, signatories to the racial contract.[13]

What this more complex account reveals, of course, is the brutal injustice of the deal itself. It was a deal made with the devil, as the saying goes, in this case the devil of white superiority. The United States had long been overtly based on the superiority of any and all white people over people of color, and now a powerful class of white people was reserving that superiority and its benefits for themselves—plus a few “respectable” people of color, to make sure that it didn’t look like elite white people were selfishly looking out only for themselves. Using people of color, and race more generally, as a stick with which to beat lower class white people, upper class whites could label poor whites as racist and further secure their upper class and supposedly non-racist hand. This isn’t a particularly Republican tactic. Democrats are also very comfortable with and skilled at using it, as Hillary Clinton’s infamous “basket of deplorables” comment demonstrated. Working class white rage is understood merely as racism, not as anger at a broken deal, and neither of those ways of understanding the situation is adequate to its complexity, leading to further dumping on the one side and increasing rage on the other. Meanwhile, none of this intra-white fighting does much to address the nation’s deeply rooted commitment to white superiority.

What is also missing from a narrow account of the deal between white people is why many middle-to-upper class white people voted for Trump, certainly far more than was expected pre-election. [See Bonevac for his explanation of his vote for Trump.] Can Du Bois’s analysis of the wages of whiteness help us understand, for example, why around 42% of white women voters, including many professional well-educated ones, voted for Trump? While she is only one voter, the case of Catherine Chew is instructive in this regard.[14] A white woman with an advanced degree in her field and who is former president of a college, Chew is a self-described “closet” supporter of Trump who “came out” in an editorial column in The Charlotte Observer a couple of weeks after the election. Chew rightly objects both to the condescension that has been shown toward rural, male, working class voters and to the misguided assumption that they were the only significant block of voters that led to Trump’s victory. She then provides a thoughtful analysis of her gradual and conflicted migration toward Trump, after voting for Obama in 2008 and seriously considering both Sanders and Clinton in 2016. While Chew says she “quietly” cast a vote for Trump—perhaps because 95% of her family and friends were strongly opposed to his candidacy—by the time of her decision, she clearly was firmly committed to her choice. In her eyes, it was Trump who could create the “epochal change” that was needed “after eight years of ineffective leadership,” particularly the two important tasks of creating more economic prosperity and “tak[ing] on the deeply infested establishment and extremely dysfunctional system that exists in the federal government.”

The language of infestation is startling here, implicitly connecting the presence of a black man in the presidency with the federal government’s invasion by pests or vermin even if that was not Chew’s conscious intention. What I want to highlight instead, however, is Chew’s focus on economics in isolation from any explicit consideration of race. In my experience, this focus is fairly typical of white people who understandably want to distance themselves from racism, xenophobia, and the “inappropriate and disturbing rhetoric” used by Trump.[15] My aim is not to pick on Chew, and I appreciate the courage it took for her to explain publicly why she voted for Trump. While she doesn’t elaborate the reasons for her 2008 vote, her choice of Obama suggests that for years she has been looking for something or someone “different” to shake up things in the federal government. If the so-called radicality of a black president didn’t do it, then perhaps the radicality of a Trump presidency would.[16] Precisely because hers is a public statement, however, it can be a useful tool for understanding a prevalent white perspective that runs across class lines. I do not think that everything is about race, as critical philosophers of race sometimes are accused of believing, but instead that economics and class can never be fully separated from race given the particular history of the United States. Likewise, race can never be fully disentangled from issues of economics and class. Class in America is racialized just as race is classed, and so to examine one without the other is to misunderstand our nation. In my view, when a person takes a colorblind approach to class and economic issues, we should be on the look out for subtle and powerful—albeit perhaps not consciously intended—investments in white supremacy and white class privilege.

“I do not think that everything is about race, but instead that economics and class can never be fully separated from race.”

Those investments can make sense of the white ruling class’s voting for the same presidential candidate that white working class voters supported, even though voting for Trump was supposed to be (and was) a way for the white working class to stick up a middle finger at the ruling class. The white ruling class’s fully breaking the deal with the white working class might leave the white working class so financially and psychologically downtrodden that they not only turn on ruling class whites, but they also go so far as to join in solidarity with other working class and increasingly impoverished people. This would shift the alliance of white working class people to working class people of color, which cannot be allowed. For the same problematic reasons that the white ruling class made the 19th century deal in the first place, it is important for today’s white ruling class to patch up the deal in the 21st century. All of this can happen using the abstract, raceless language of fighting for “the forgotten men and women of our country,” just as Roosevelt’s New Deal also did in the 1930s.[17]

There’s another section of Du Bois’s work that I can’t get out of my mind nowadays, this one from his somber book Darkwater, published just after World War I.[18] In a chapter devoted to an intersectional analysis of race and class (“Of Work and Wealth”), Du Bois begins on a seemingly unrelated topic: his early years as a teacher of black children. His prose swells with emotion as he describes the responsibility he feels towards his students, and even though he knows that teachers tend to hide themselves behind a veil, Du Bois strives not to do so, to be honest and relaxed. But when it comes to the topic of white people, he explains that he had to lie:

“What would you say to a soft, brown face, aureoled in a thousand ripples of gray-black hair, which knells suddenly: ‘Do you trust white people?’ You do not and you know that you do not, much as you want to; yet you rise and lie and say you do; you must say it for her salvation and the world’s; you repeat that she must trust them, that most white folks are honest, and all the while you are lying and every level, silent eye there knows you are lying, and miserably you sit and lie on, to the greater glory of God”.[19]

I am both riveted and perplexed by DuBois’s classroom story. Why must he lie, why must he lie, especially when he knows that his students know he is lying? In what ways is this lie connected to the intersection of work and wealth (class and race)? And why is the world’s salvation dependent on that lie? Would world destruction follow from recognition of the truth about the untrustworthy “souls of white people,” as the most powerful chapter in Darkwater is titled, especially the souls of middle-to-upper class white people? Would it be better for the world as we know it to end? Is that the only way to eliminate anti-black and other forms of racism, as Afro-pessimists would argue? Depending on what kind of bull is in the china shop, we might soon find out.[20]

Footnotes & References

[1] Both Afro-pessimism and racial realism are far more nuanced than this one sentence summary reflects, of course, and I recognize that most of their proponents would not use the word “likely” to describe the permanence of racism. On Afro-pessimism, see Frank Wilderson, Red, White & Black: Cinema and the Structure of US Antagonisms (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2010. On racial realism, see Derrick Bell, Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism (New York: Basic Books, 1992). For related work on black nihilism, see Calvin L. Warren, “Black Nihilism and the Politics of Hope,” CR: The New Centennial Review, 2015, 15(1): 215-248.

[2] While it doesn’t discuss Afro-pessimism or racial realism, Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America (New York: Viking, 2016) is a good resource for this history.

[3] Charles Mills refers to this obstinacy as a “consensual hallucination.” See Mills, The Racial Contract (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998) 18.

[4] See, for example, Derrick Bell, “Racial Realism,” Connecticut Law Review, 1992, 24(2): 363-379.

[5] On the deliberate undermining of the Obama presidency, see Carol Anderson, White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide (New York: Bloomsbury, 2016), 138-160.

[6] Catherine Chew, “An educated woman, I backed Trump,” The Charlotte Observer, November 27, 2016, 38A. I will return to Chew’s support of Trump shortly. While I too am critical of Hillary Clinton, I can’t help but hear Chew’s particular choice of words as a prioritization of race over gender that casts white women’s lot with white male supremacy, which women of color have long criticized white women for doing. I also find disturbing Chew’s implication that the need to have a woman break the presidential glass ceiling was Clinton’s personal fixation, rather than something that likely would benefit all women and, indeed, the entire nation.

[7] Halim Shebaya, “Trump ‘Tells It Like It Is,’” The Huffington Post, May 5, 2016, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/halim-shebaya/trump-tells-it-like-it-is_b_9836974.html, accessed December 1, 2016.

[8] Rick Perlstein, “Exclusive: Lee Atwater’s Infamous 1981 Interview on the Southern

Strategy,” The Nation, November 13, 2012, https://www.thenation.com/article/exclusive-lee-atwaters-infamous-1981-interview-southern-strategy/, accessed December 1, 2016.

[9] W.E.B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880 (New York: Free Press, 1962).

[10] Thomas Frank, What’s the Matter with Kansas: How Conservatives Won the Heart of America (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2005).

[11] Michael Wolff, “Ringside with Steve Bannon at Trump Tower as the President-Elect’s Strategist Plots ‘An Entirely New Political Movement’ (Exclusive),” The Hollywood Reporter http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/steve-bannon-trump-tower-interview-trumps-strategist-plots-new-political-movement-948747, accessed December 3, 2016.

[12] On the concept of white priority, see Shannon Sullivan, “White Priority,” Critical Philosophy of Race, 2017, 5(1). On white people’s unconscious racial habits, see Shannon Sullivan, Revealing Whiteness: The Unconscious Habits of Racial Privilege (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2006).

[13] Mills, The Racial Contract.

[14] Chew, “An Educated Woman,” 38A

[15] Chew, “An Educated Woman,” 38A.

[16] See also the analysis of Jamelle Bouie, “Why Did Some White Obama Voters Go for Trump?” The Slate, November 11, 2016, http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/politics/2016/11/why_did_some_white_obama_voters_for_trump.html, accessed December 3, 2016. Bouie argues “if you jettison the idea that the bulk of white Americans expressed anything about equality in the election of Barack Obama, then the reality of Obama/Trump voters doesn’t actually complicate the picture of a white electorate fueled by tribalism and eager to reassert its dominance.”

[17] Shortly after the November election, Melvin Rogers blogged on Facebook with an insightful analysis of “the forgotten man.” See also Beverly Gage, “Who is the ‘Forgotten Man’?” The New York Times, November 12, 2016 http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/projects/cp/opinion/election-night-2016/who-is-the-forgotten-man, accessed December 1, 2016.

[18] W.E.B. Du Bois, Darkwater: Voices from Within the Veil (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 1999).

[19] Du Bois, Darkwater, 47.

[20] Thanks to Guillaume Attia and Phillip McReynolds for helpful feedback on an earlier version of this essay.

Shannon Sullivan
Shannon Sullivan
Shannon Sullivan is Chair of Philosophy and Professor of Philosophy and Health Psychology at UNC Charlotte. She specializes in feminist philosophy, critical philosophy of race, American pragmatism, and continental philosophy. She is the author of four books, most recently Good White People: The Problem with Middle-Class White Anti-Racism (2014) and The Physiology of Sexist and Racist Oppression (2015). She is also co-editor of four books, including Race and Epistemologies of Ignorance (2007) and Feminist Interpretations of William James (2015).

“How many newsworthy issues, which should have been the rightful domain of philosophy, have been usurped in recent years by religion, law, and psychology?”

Lee McIntyre

Contact Us

We're not around right now. But you can send us an email and we'll get back to you, asap.

Not readable? Change text. captcha txt

Start typing and press Enter to search