Whiteness and the Lengthening Arc toward Justice

When Donald Trump—the candidate whose campaign repeatedly unleashed themes of white supremacy, xenophobia, and patriarchy—emerged as the winner on election night, many Americans did not see it coming. Their clouded vision can be attributed to social-media echo chambers, out-of-touch liberal bubbles, and elitist ivory towers, along with an uncritical faith in the incorruptibility of the United States and its institutions.

Trump’s victory serves as a sobering reminder that history is not linear and progressive, steadily advancing toward greater human liberation. In 2004, four years before his election, Barack Obama gave a speech at the Democratic National Convention that stoked the flames of popular hope for a postracial era. The shift from an Obama presidency to Trump demonstrates that social justice can be sidelined when people who call themselves white prioritize their own needs over the needs of others (see Anderson 2016). If Martin Luther King, Jr.'s paraphrasing of abolitionist Theodore Parker was indeed right that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” then Trump is a lesson in just how long that arc may turn out to be. The 2016 election has shaken the United States to its foundations by making it plainly, uncomfortably apparent that enduring inequalities are structural, not natural, and that democratic institutions are by no means innately moral.

The university should be the ideal setting for interrogating issues surrounding the election. Yet one of the election’s determining factors—whiteness—remains a taboo topic at some institutions. College courses on whiteness have recently come under political fire at the University of Wisconsin–Madison and Arizona State University. In Wisconsin, state legislators are threatening to withhold funding from the university if a course entitled “The Problem of Whiteness” is not cancelled. At the same time, many now believe that white people constitute a threatened identity group. For this reason alone, unpacking the category white people would be worthwhile.

Let’s be clear: white people are not underrepresented, whiteness is not a liability, and white people who believe that the capitalist establishment is rigged against them are not justified in holding immigrants and marginalized people of color responsible whenever they feel alienated. White is neither a benign term designating an individual of European-American descent nor an objective reference to skin color. Rather, whiteness is about power, and it includes the capacity to define and police the normal and the good (Lipsitz 2006). Moreover, to claim that whiteness no longer has power is to misunderstand what power is and how it operates. When people who are white struggle, it is not because of their skin color—it has always been presumed, for instance, that white lives matter (Painter 2010).

For citizens of Indigenous nations, it is an obvious reality that U.S. institutions continue to represent the interests of the powerful white settler majority. For this reason, Indigenous people have long fought to maintain their own power in the form of treaty-reserved rights. This struggle is not a zero-sum game; recognizing the human and sovereign rights of Native people does not victimize self-identified white people by depriving them of the same rights. Yet numerous opponents of Indigenous sovereignty make this case on a regular basis (Dudas 2008). My own scholarship focuses on such an anti-sovereignty movement centered on the village of Hobart, Wisconsin, which voted 56.8 percent in favor of Trump. Hobart is a mostly non-Native municipality located within the boundaries of the Oneida Reservation, and since 2008 it has aggressively sought to block the tribe from recovering land that was lost a century ago due to a policy called allotment.

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Trail on the Oneida Reservation. Photo by Doug Kiel.

Trump’s advisors have called for the privatization of resource-rich reservation lands, a direct reversion to the settler politics of the late nineteenth century and to allotment, arguably the most disastrous of federal Indian policies. The federal government—not Native nations—has long held the title to reservation lands, and according to the U.S. Supreme Court, possesses the paternalistic legal authority to determine their management. Privatization, like allotment, would allow parcels of formerly protected reservation lands to be bought and sold on the open market. The territory of sovereign Indigenous nations—lands that treaties ratified by the U.S. Congress promised would be held in perpetuity—could, perhaps permanently, fall into the hands of non-Native individuals and corporations.1

Of course, Native people have survived hostile colonial administrators for centuries despite repeated organized attempts to eradicate Indigenous peoples (see Wolfe 2006; Madley 2015). For such reasons, Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) people have long referred to U.S. presidents by the nickname originally given to George Washington: “Town Destroyer.” Moreover, Native people and issues have suffered even at the hands of presidents who have otherwise been recognized as allies; the water protectors at Standing Rock were blasted with water cannons in frigid temperatures, attacked by dogs, and assaulted with concussion grenades over a period of several months while the Obama administration took no meaningful action. The tenacity of the water protectors, one among many Indigenous legacies of resistance and resilience, may inspire others during trying times to come.

To emphasize that we have survived all of this before is not to minimize the potential suffering ahead. Indeed, those who engage in tone policing while calmly urging others to keep an open mind and take a wait-and-see approach to Trump are unlikely to be members of the populations that he has threatened. The hope that Trump’s hateful proposals may not become actualized provides little comfort in the face of emboldened masculine white supremacy, manifested in the spike in hate crimes after the election.

To put the results of the election bluntly, some voters who do not belong to any of the populations that Trump has threatened have chosen to gamble on an anti-establishment presidency at the possible expense of the rest of us. This lack of empathy for neighbors facing the threat of violent social exclusion—and the failure to grasp what is at stake for truly vulnerable populations—is precisely the obstacle to social justice that must be understood and overcome in the United States.

Note

1. The U.S. Supreme Court determined in Johnson v. M’Intosh (1823) that in light of the discovery doctrine, Native Americans no longer possessed title to their lands and retained only the right of occupancy. Subsequent Supreme Court cases upheld the federal government’s plenary power over Indian affairs—that is, the authority to impose its will upon Indigenous nations even if it contradicts prior treaties. Here, see Ex parte Crow Dog (1883), United States v. Kagama (1886), and Lone Wolf v. Hitchcock (1903). For an introduction to the Dawes General Allotment Act and its legacies, see Hoxie 2001 and Ruppel 2008.

References

Anderson, Carol. 2016. White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide. New York: Bloomsbury.

Dudas, Jeffrey R. 2008. The Cultivation of Resentment: Treaty Rights and the New Right. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press.

Hoxie, Frederick E. 2001. A Final Promise: The Campaign to Assimilate the Indians, 1880–1920. 2nd edition. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. Originally published in 1984.

Lipsitz, George. 2006. The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: How White People Profit from Identity Politics. Revised edition. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. Originally published in 1998.

Madley, Benjamin. 2015. “Reexamining the American Genocide Debate: Meaning, Historiography, and New Methods.” American Historical Review 120, no. 1: 98–139.

Painter, Nell Irvin. 2010. The History of White People. New York: W. W. Norton.

Ruppel, Kristin T. 2008. Unearthing Indian Land: Living with the Legacies of Allotment. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

Wolfe, Patrick. 2006. “Settler Colonialism and the Elimination of the Native.” Journal of Genocide Research 8, no. 4: 387–409.