In recent weeks I’ve seen three films and the first episode of Ken Burns’s The Civil War, all of which reminded me of our terrible history of racism. The films were the 2016 Birth of a Nation, depicting the slave Nat Turner’s rebellion in 1831; Loving, about the black woman and white man (the Lovings) whose right to marriage in Virginia was upheld by the Supreme Court in 1967, thereby striking down state laws banning interracial marriage: and the documentary I Am Not Your Negro, which consists mainly of scenes of James Baldwin speaking, many of his words taken from his unfinished work Remember This House, begun in 1979. The first episode of Burns’ nine-part series (available on Netflix) deals with the causes of the Civil War. In it the narrator (David McCullough) reminds us of the terrible conditions of slave quarters and the fact that only four out of 100 slaves lived to be 60.
In discussing U. S. racism over the past half century, especially with opponents of Affirmative Action (initiated in 1965) I have often heard the following words, “Slavery has been over for more than a century.” And, “I didn’t enslave black people. I can’t be held responsible for what white people did more than a century ago.” I have also often heard variations of the following statements used in the 2016 American National Election Study (ANES) to sample racial attitudes: “Irish, Italians, Jewish, and many other minorities overcame prejudice and worked their way up. Blacks should do the same without any special favors,” and “It’s really a matter of trying hard enough; if blacks would only try harder that would be as well off as whites.”
True enough that slavery has been over for a long time. But its evil effects and racism continue to live on.
True enough that slavery has been over for a long time. But its evil effects and racism continue to live on. In our own lifetimes, my wife, Nancy, and I, both children of white, blue-collar fathers, have seen plenty of it. Nancy grew up in Marion, Indiana, where in 1930, a mere nine years before her birth, two young black men were lynched surrounded by white onlookers. But she never heard about the incident until she was an adult. In Cincinnati, where I grew up, the swimming pool at Coney Island did not permit blacks until 1961, the year after I graduated from the city’s Xavier University.
In the early 1960s, when we were living in northern Virginia, interracial marriage was still prohibited there (as Loving depicted), and I can remember picketing a northern Virginia movie theater that still discriminated against blacks. In the late 1960s, we lived in Wheeling, West Virginia, where we witnessed plenty of racism.
Sure, some progress was made, especially in the heydays of Martin Luther King, Jr., John Kennedy (JFK), Lyndon Johnson (LBJ), and decades later, Barack Obama. (See the new book Kennedy and King for a good overview of JFK’s complex relationship with King.) For example, in 1964, LBJ signed the Civil Rights Act, which prohibited discrimination of all kinds on the basis of race, color, religion, or national origin. The following year, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 gave the federal government powers to see that blacks could register to vote without discrimination. Largely as result of this pressure, the percentage of black registered voters increased almost tenfold in Mississippi and more than threefold in Alabama between 1964 and 1969.
In 1965, LBJ initiated “affirmative action” by signing an executive order requiring government contractors to “take affirmative action” to ensure equality in hiring—in 1967, this order was amended in an effort to overcome gender as well as racial discrimination. In the decades that followed, additional affirmative action policies were developed and the whole effort was controversial and produced some backlash, but in a speech several months before his executive order Johnson outlined his rationale for it: “This is the next and more profound stage of the battle for civil rights. We seek not just freedom but opportunity, not just legal equity but human ability, not just equality as a right and a theory, but equality as a fact and equality as a result.”
With the election and reelection of Obama as our first black president—it is symptomatic of our racial history that he is considered black even though his mother was white—it seemed that perhaps we had finally reached a crucial breakthrough in our attitudes toward race. But now, following the election of Donald Trump as president, it is clear that our old racial wounds are as troubling as ever.
There are strong indications, as a recent article proclaims, that “racial attitudes towards blacks and immigration are the key factors associated with support for Trump. . . . Both racial resentment and black influence animosity are significant predictors of Trump support among white respondents, independent of partisanship, ideology, education levels,” and other factors.
By 2017, following the election of Trump, the continued incarceration of a staggering number of blacks in our prisons and other grievances like those that gave birth to the Black-Lives-Matter movement in 2012, many progressives share the feeling expressed by James Baldwin’s decades ago: “To look around the United States today, is enough to make prophets and angels weep.”
Why do so many of our fellow white Americans who voted for Trump still harbor hostile feelings towards many blacks and immigrants? Analysis of polling data indicates that a higher percentage of poorly educated people voted for Trump, as did those from rural areas and small towns. (Protestants and white Catholics also favored Trump, as did white people over age 45. Although a higher percentage of white men than women voted for Trump, a majority of white women over 30 also favored him.)
According to a Pew Research Study based on exit polling, “Trump’s margin among whites without a college degree is the largest among any candidate in exit polls since 1980. Two-thirds (67%) of non-college whites backed Trump.” A later article in The Atlantic also declares “America's Educational Divide Put Trump in the White House.” It further states that “his support shot up in counties where very few residents have left their home state.”
A Washington Post-Kaiser Family Foundation survey found that “the largest fissures between Americans living in large cities and those in less-dense areas [including rural communities] are rooted in misgivings about the country’s changing demographics and resentment about perceived biases in federal assistance.” Furthermore, “rural residents are nearly three times as likely (42 percent) as people in cities (16 percent) to say that immigrants are a burden on the country,” and rural whites were much more likely than urban whites to believe that “whites [are] losing out because of preferences for blacks and Hispanics.”
All this data fits in to what George Saunders had to say about Trump supporters a year ago. While recognizing “Trump’s racist and misogynist excesses,” Saunders thought that many of his followers suffered from what he calls “usurpation anxiety syndrome,” which he defines as “the feeling that one is, or is about to be, scooped, overrun, or taken advantage of by some Other with questionable intentions.”
My conclusion about all these observations is that the more educated one is, in the best sense of the word, the less likely one is to be racist and support Trump. What education should do for us is broaden our horizons and make us less narrow, provincial, and biased. Humanities disciplines like literature, history, and anthropology should do so partly by increasing our empathy for other people in other places, circumstances, and times. Studying philosophy and religion should lead us to more ethical inquiries. If we appreciate the sciences, we are more likely to respect facts (like those related to climate change) and be truth-seekers. Travel can also be educative and make us less provincial.
Although there is a correlation between education and formal education that does not mean that all Ph.Ds. are educated in the best sense of the word, or that people with little formal education cannot be wiser than some Ph.Ds. As the psychologist Robert Sternberg points out “smart and well-educated people are particularly susceptible” to various forms of egoism that lead them to act foolishly. The best education should make us wiser people, but much of our education does not do so. What we should all seek politically, as Sternberg also emphasizes, is the “common good.”
Wise people are not know-it-alls. They are tolerant, empathetic, humble, and truth-seeking. J. D. Vance, author of the best-selling Hillbilly Elegy, says that the people Americans call “hillbillies, rednecks, or white trash,” he calls “neighbors, friends, and family.” He thinks that if you’re an elite white professional, working class whites are an easy target: you don’t have to feel guilty for being a racist or a xenophobe. By looking down on the hillbilly, you can get that high of self-righteousness and superiority without violating any of the moral norms of your own tribe. So your own prejudice is never revealed for what it is.” Furthermore, he believes that much of this prejudice “is pure disconnect—many elites just don’t know a member of the white working class.”
There is certainly some truth to his words. I know of some fellow professors who speak contemptuously of “rednecks” in a way they would never speak of blacks or Hispanics. But I also know of many, like myself, who come from white working class families. We are not ashamed of our backgrounds, but believe that our education—which includes our formal schooling and what we have learned since leaving our hometowns—has helped us overcome some of the prejudices and narrow-mindedness that surrounded us as we were growing up.
In the Washington Post-Kaiser survey mentioned above almost 7 in 10 rural residents said that their values differ from those of big-city people. New York Times conservative columnist Ross Douthat has pointed out that Trump’s victory partly represents an attempt by “white-male-Protestant-European protagonists” to “restore their story to pre-eminence.” They prefer the melting-pot concept of U.S. history to the idea of multiculturalism. They see themselves as in the Christian tradition, and “more as settlers than as immigrants, identifying with the Pilgrims and the Founders, with Lewis and Clark and Davy Crockett.”
Those of opposed to many of President Trump’s positions should be empathetic toward his supporters and their values. But we should also stress the importance of educated views, of realizing, for example, the horrors we perpetrated on Native Americans and blacks; of being open-minded about climate change; of recognizing what a foolish and unethical man Donald Trump has been.
Rural and small-town values do not have to be opposed to wise ones. One of our wisest men, writer Wendell Berry, lives in a small community in Kentucky, and in his fiction, poetry, and essays has often depicted good people who espouse old-fashioned values. (See here for many of my previous essays on Berry.) But, although born and raised in Kentucky, Berry left his home state to continue his education at Stanford, then live in France and New York, before moving back to Kentucky, where for more than a decade he was a professor at the University of Kentucky while also a part-time farmer. He has often criticized racism, militarism, capitalism, and lack of regard for our environment. He also admits that “racism, sexism, and nostalgia have counted significantly in the history of rural America,” but, now in his eighties, he continues to hold to a vision of America that is profoundly contrary to Trump’s inclinations—to ascribe a “vision” to Trump would be hyperbolic.
To furnish just a small sample of how different the two men’s approaches are, consider these words from Berry’s 2012 Jefferson Lecture. “Truth, nature, imagination, affection, love, hope, beauty, joy. . . . In such words . . . we find our indispensable humanity, without which we are lost and in danger. . . .Under the rule of industrial economics, the land, our country, has been pillaged for the enrichment, supposedly, of those humans who have claimed the right to own or exploit it without limit.”
Can anyone imagine Trump uttering such words? What does he have to offer people whose education has led them to cherish “truth, nature, imagination, affection, love, hope, beauty, joy”?
Walter G. Moss