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Red, WHITE and Blue – Pundits blame support for Trump on ‘whiteness’, but what do they even mean?

Trump’s better-than-expected performance in the US election has confounded pollsters, and several left-wing commentators have suggested ‘whiteness’ was an important factor. But this concept doesn’t make a great deal of sense.

Although it looks like Joe Biden has the 2020 election in the bag, Donald Trump certainly exceeded pollsters’ expectations. FiveThirtyEight said Biden would win Wisconsin by 8.3 points; he actually won it by only 0.7 points. The Economist said Trump would win Ohio by only one point; he actually won it by 8.2 points. YouGov said Biden would win Florida by 4.3 points; he actually lost it by 3.3 points.

As a result of these psephological blunders, numerous commenters have been caught off-guard by the results. They were expecting a ‘blue wave’, but what they got was a nail-biting finish, along with demands for recounts from the Trump campaign.

(I suspect many of these commenters assumed that the 2016 election was a one-off, and that after experiencing four years of Trump, the great majority of Americans–even those of a Republican disposition–would be quite ready to vote for another candidate. As it turns out, of course, they assumed wrong.)

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When faced with an unexpected outcome, a person’s natural instinct is to search for explanations. How could so many people have voted for Donald Trump… again?! One explanation that has been put forward by several left-wing commenters is ‘whiteness.’

On results day, Arne Duncan – who served as Secretary of Education under Barack Obama – tweeted, “We need to talk a lot less about red and blue. We need to talk a lot more about whiteness.” This particular observation earned him nearly 40,000 likes. Similarly, the filmmaker and activist Bree Newsome urged her followers “to study more about the development of race & whiteness as a sociopolitical construct in America to better understand why/how this is so deeply embedded in the culture.” Her tweet garnered more than 10,000 likes.

When the writer Caitlin Flanagan dissented, noting “The problem isn’t whiteness,” she was gainsaid by other users. As one told her, “no Caitlin it literally is whiteness.”

The most straightforward rebuke of the claim that ‘whiteness’ explains Trump’s better-than-expected performance is that he appears to have done particularly well among non-white voters (who presumably have less ‘whiteness’). According to exit polls, Trump won 26 percent of the non-white vote, a higher share than any Republican candidate since 1960. (And according to a large survey carried out in the days preceding the election, he won a slight majority of Native American votes.)

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One could also point out that the distribution of votes among whites was less skewed toward one of the two main parties than the distribution among non-whites. 57 percent of whites voted for Trump, whereas 72 percent of non-whites voted for Biden. Hence, if ‘whiteness’ explains Trump’s performance in the 2020 election, then ‘non-whiteness’ must explain Biden’s performance even better. 

Reading around a bit, however, one learns that ‘whiteness’ doesn’t simply refer to the actions of white people (in this case, turning out for Donald Trump in large numbers). What the term actually means is not entirely clear to me. But in the spirit of Arne Duncan’s tweet, I am here to talk more about it.

According to a 2015 New York Times article titled ‘What is Whiteness?’, the concept involves a “toggle between nothingness and awfulness”. A 2020 article of the same title, published in Psychology Today, defines ‘whiteness’ as an “unfairly privileged exclusionary category, based on physical features, most notably a lack of melanin.” And a 2018 article published in the New York Times describes it as a “real and alarming force,” while referring to “the darkness at the heart of whiteness” (which, you have to admit, is quite an amusing phrase).

Further light is shed on the concept in a 2020 Guardian article by one noted Cambridge academic. ‘Whiteness’, we are told, is “a set of ideas and practices about race that has emerged from a bedrock of white supremacy.” This set of ideas may constitute an “ideology”, one which is able to “make itself invisible and thereby make its operations more lethal and harder to challenge.” Since ‘race’ is “a way of creating power differentials,” the only way to achieve equality is by abolishing ‘whiteness,’ which serves as “the ideology at the top.”

If–after those explanations–you’re still slightly confused as to what role ‘whiteness’ played in the 2020 election, I don’t blame you.  

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To be charitable to the commenters who mentioned ‘whiteness,’ what they may have been trying to say is the following: Because Trump is a conservative who wants to put ‘America First’ and has opposed things like Black Lives Matter and critical race theory, he is seen (correctly or otherwise) as representing the group interests of white Americans. Therefore, the fact that so many white Americans turned out for him must mean that a large fraction of them were concerned about their group interests.

While this may or may not be correct, it is at least an intelligible hypothesis. The real question then is why commenters decided to use the term ‘whiteness.’ And, in fact, the frequency with which that term appears in the New York Times and Washington Post has increased dramatically over the last few years.

One possibility is that the term functions as a signal of one’s membership in the ‘anti-racist’ faction of politics (and hence that one subscribes to certain fashionable theories about the causes of racial inequality). Another is that it serves to differentiate oneself from lower-status members of society, who are not well-versed in the latest critical race theory jargon. A third possibility is that, being sufficiently vague and abstruse, it allows the speaker to appear as if he is saying something profound when he is in fact making a rather banal observation. 

While concerns about group interests may have motivated some white people to vote for Donald Trump (and may have motivated some non-white people to vote for Joe Biden), it is difficult to see how the concept of ‘whiteness’ adds anything to this discussion. Ironically enough, ‘whiteness’ seems designed to obscure, rather than to illuminate.

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