It's Gotten A Lot Harder To Act Like Whiteness Doesn't Shape Our Politics : Code Switch When we don't acknowledge the role whiteness plays in how Americans vote, we're essentially agreeing to misidentify some of the most important dynamics of this election cycle.
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It's Gotten A Lot Harder To Act Like Whiteness Doesn't Shape Our Politics

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It's Gotten A Lot Harder To Act Like Whiteness Doesn't Shape Our Politics

It's Gotten A Lot Harder To Act Like Whiteness Doesn't Shape Our Politics

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

This election season, we've talked a lot about race, and Gene Demby, who writes about race and culture for NPR's Code Switch team, argues there's one big racial theme we've not talked much about - whiteness.

His latest post is called "It's Gotten A Lot Harder To Act Like Whiteness Doesn't Shape Our Politics." He argues that you can see evidence of this in the Democratic and Republican primary races, and when he joined me earlier today, he highlighted examples from the Donald Trump campaign.

GENE DEMBY, BYLINE: So Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight sort of lays out that one of the things that is most true about Trump supporters is that they are animated by racial grievance more than they're animated by economic issues. And I think you can see that sort of in Trump's rhetoric around Mexicans, or - the Mexicans coming are not the best and brightest. They are rapists - right? - building a wall. There's the proposed ban on a Muslim can come to the country.

And that's racial language that I think is inflammatory for a lot of people. And that's racial language that a lot of people who have sort of need of a sentiment, I'd say, find appealing. And so he's actively sort of speaking to this idea that a lot of people have that something is being taken from them, right?

And so Trump's campaign slogan is make America great again. But there's a segment of the American population that thinks that is a sort of harkening back to a better day. And there's a (laughter) segment of America who feels like that is sort of a threat because America of (laughter) 50 years ago was actually a worse place, especially for people of color.

SHAPIRO: So if we do talk about whiteness, is whiteness just a stand-in for white people having racial biases, or does whiteness exist as something other than just a contrast to racial minorities?

DEMBY: Right, so this is the thing (laughter) - right? - because the way we talk about whiteness is so flat, and, like, we just slam everything together. So we have all these words that we use to sort of not talk about whiteness, right? We have euphemisms like soccer moms (laughter) and evangelical and working-class and middle America. And those things obviously are code words for whiteness, right? We don't - we're not talking about black voters and Latino voters and Asian-American voters when we say those things.

And so we don't talk about whiteness as identity politics, but there's a lot of the way that white Americans have always have always voted have been wrapped up in these ideas of sort of who deserves what.

So there is racial grievance as part of this, but there's also another set of particular problems that disproportionately or increasingly, I should say, affect people who are white, right? We're talking about the opioid epidemic, stagnating wages. Those things are real things, and we have a hard time separating them out because we sort of conflate them all into this big ball of whiteness.

SHAPIRO: I'm wondering what that conversation, especially in the political space, would sound like if people start to discuss white people problems with a straight face.

DEMBY: (Laughter).

SHAPIRO: Like, that is an ironic Twitter hashtag.

DEMBY: That's right. (Inaudible).

SHAPIRO: How do you start a serious political conversation about white people problems when, you know, white privilege is real and there actually is racism but the problems are also real?

DEMBY: Right, and so this is sort of the problem with the way we sort of flatten out all these things - right? - is that we have to hold in our head that, like, on one hand, we have this opioid epidemic that is increasingly affecting white people. And there's a bunch of sort of specific demographic stuff happening there that we actually don't know what's causing it.

And then there - on the other hand, the fact that this is disproportionately affecting white people changes the way we talk about drug policy, right? Like, there's a reason that the conversation around the opioid epidemic sounds distinctly different than the war on drugs in the - in this - in the '80s and '90s.

SHAPIRO: You mean it's treated as a public health problem rather than a crime problem.

DEMBY: Right. It is not a thing we're trying to throw police at. We're trying to find a way to treat people. And that was not the way we talked about the crack epidemic. So these things sit next to each other. Like, the - even white people who are not privileged change the conversation around things that matter to Americans, and that's really important to remember.

SHAPIRO: So we've got six months left of the presidential campaign.

DEMBY: (Laughter).

SHAPIRO: You think we're going to start talking about white voters in the same way we talk about Latino voters, black voters, as a particular ethnic group?

DEMBY: I mean, I think we're already starting to see that a little bit. I mean, there's a lot of emphasis being placed on the fact that Donald Trump will have to win a huge, huge number of white men in particular in order to win the White House. And so I think there's starting to become a sense that the coalitions that make up our parties are organized around these lines. And the Republican Party - about 9 in 10 of whom are white - is especially reliant on this vote.

And so we're talking about a bunch of different kinds of people. We're talking about evangelicals, and we're talking about libertarians, and we're talking about people who are interventionists in foreign policy who all vote for Donald Trump. But the thing they have in common, even though their ideologies don't sort of sync up, is that they're white. I think that's a thing we have to talk about. I think it's a thing you have to underline and make clear because otherwise, you are missing one of the major dynamics of this cycle.

SHAPIRO: That's Gene Demby, coanchor of NPR's Code Switch podcast which drops at the end of the month. Thanks, Gene.

DEMBY: Thank You, Ari.

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