Why have non-wealthy white people consistently voted against their economic self-interest to one degree or another since 1964? That question came to a head with the election of Donald Trump in 2016, but it hasn’t gone away. The answer, when controls for other factors are included, comes down to the fear of losing racial supremacy, dominance, and privilege. This fear is framed as “losing our way of life,” and some white politicians suggest that violence may be the only way to maintain that so-called “way of life.”
This is what racism does “for” non-wealthy white people. But do we non-wealthy white people think about what racism does “to” us? We are impacted in a variety of ways that make the “white wage” of racism (as W. E. B. DuBois named it) a bad deal for all but a few white people. To receive the white wage, we pay a variety of “white taxes.” Those taxes come in several forms:
- Documented and demonstrated costs in economic growth, public amenities, voting access and rights, and government services and benefits,
- Trauma responses based on Perpetrator-Induced Trauma Syndrome,
- Self-dehumanization of white people as a result of participation in the historic and ongoing systemic and institutional racism in America
1. “Why can’t we have nice things?” Heather McGhee asks in the first sentence of her new book, The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together. The reason, McGhee argues, is racism.
Racism in America is maintained, in large part, by a zero-sum story that asserts any gain for Black, Brown, Native, and/or AAPI folks means equal and opposite losses for White folks. This story serves the interests of the few white people in power. “The zero sum is a story sold by wealthy interests for their own profit,” McGhee writes, “and its persistence requires people desperate enough to buy it” (page 14).
White people have been told a story that says they will lose resources if people of color gain resources. The story serves the wealthy white people who continue to accumulate power, privilege, and property at the expense of everyone else. It is perpetuated to make sure that other white people do not align themselves with people of color – people with whom they share numerous social, economic, and cultural interests.
McGhee uses the master metaphor of the fate of public swimming pools when segregation was outlawed in the United States. In numerous towns and cities across the nation, these formerly “whites only” public amenities were closed, neglected, abandoned, filled in, and paved over rather than being shared by citizens of all colors. Not only were people of color denied the use of such publicly-funded amenities, lower-class and poor white people were deprived as well.
“A once-public resource became a luxury amenity,” McGhee observes, “and entire communities lost out on the benefits of public life and civic engagement once understood to be the key to making American democracy real” (page 28).
The areas where lower-class and impoverished whites are caught in the racist blast radius include the closing of public amenities and services as listed above; the reduction of government safety-net protections, especially beginning with the Reagan administration; access to affordable higher education including grants rather than loans; the war on drugs and mass incarceration; the cash bail system; access to healthcare resources and benefits; hospital closures in rural and small-town settings; and predatory lending practices and evictions.
This is not an exhaustive list, but it is complete enough. It is certainly the case that , on average, white people have come out better than people of color on every element of that list. But “better” is not the same as “good.” In her discussion of the financial crisis of 2008, for example, McGhee notes, “There is no question that the financial crisis hurt people of color first and worst. And yet the majority of the people it damaged were white. This is the dynamic we’ve seen over and over again throughout our country’s history, from the drained public pools, to the shuttered public schools, to the overgrown yards of vacant homes.”
McGhee demonstrates in a variety of ways that there is what she calls a “Solidarity Dividend.” Cooperation, collaboration, sharing, and synergy produce greater wealth and opportunity for all who don’t currently have such benefits. The zero-sum story is false and dangerous. Diversity, equity, and inclusion make good economic, political, and social sense for all Americans who are not currently in the 1%. We get more, she concludes from “the sum of us” than by promoting just “some of us.”
Racism is a stupid strategy for almost all of us white folks.
2. The Zero-Sum Fallacy is stitched into the very founding of the United States, and before. McGhee writes that from the country’s “colonial beginnings, progress for those considered white did come directly at the expense of people considered nonwhite. The U.S. economy depended on systems of exploitation,” she continues, “on literally taking land and labor from racialized others to enrich white colonizers and slaveholders. This made it easy for the powerful to sell the idea that the inverse was also true,” McGhee concludes, “that liberation or justice for people of color would necessarily require taking something away from white people” (page 7).
Mark Charles and Soong-Chan Rah, in their book, Unsettling Truths: The Ongoing, Dehumanizing Legacy of the Doctrine of Discovery, describe and detail the process of creating this system and writing it into the founding documents, foundational court decisions, and political turning points in American history. They point to the possibility that white people have been and are traumatized as perpetrators of this ongoing, systemic, and institutional crime against humanity.
They point to the work of Rachel McNair, who wrote Perpetration-Induced Traumatic Stress: The Psychological Consequences of Killing. McNair has studied “Perpetration-Induced Traumatic Stress (PITS), a form of PTSD symptoms not caused by being a victim or rescuer in a horrifying event but by being an active participant in causing the event” (page 174). McNair studied soldiers, executioners, police officers and others who were expected to kill other human beings and identified traumatic stress responses analogous to those suffered by victims of such events.
I say “analogous to” because McNair does not draw any equivalency between victims and perpetrators. Nor do Charles and Rah. Instead, they see similarities in the responses that might be instructive. Those similarities include the multi-generational nature of some traumas and the complex nature of traumas that are systemic and institutional.
“Is it possible that PITS also has a complex version for people who lived their entire lives perpetrating dehumanizing violence against people of color?” ask Charles and Rah. “This version would include,” they suggest, “slave owners, soldiers participating in genocidal battles against Native peoples, and white settlers moving west and pushing the removal, and even extinction of indigenous tribes” (page 176).
Commentators have noted the irrationality of white behavior in voting and acting against their clear self-interest. This irrationality confounds any number of “rational actor” models of human behavior. What if the irrationality arises from the historic and multi-generational trauma of enacting and benefitting from the systematic dehumanization and destruction of Black, Brown, Native, and AAPI people?
“In short,” Charles and Rah ask, “are whites experiencing the phenomena of a generational trauma that can be labeled ‘the trauma of white America’? White America could not perpetrate five hundred years of dehumanizing injustice,” they conclude, “without traumatizing itself” (176). Again, there is no equivalency between perpetrators and victims here. This is no plea for sympathy. It is, rather, a tool for understanding that might lead to honest reflection, repentance and repair initiated by white Americans.
Without such honesty and effort, the first response to trauma – denial – will continue to be the only response most white Americans will make. Charles and Rah point to school textbooks in Texas and Oklahoma which may be edited to exclude any reference to “slavery.” If only that were limited to other states. We know from recent work by students in a local district that such whitewashed history is a current reality in Nebraska. “Institutions established by whites,” Charles and Rah write, “are so ashamed of their own past that they are unable to even publish accurate history” (page 177).
Racism makes white people stupid and too traumatized to admit it.
3. Racism dehumanizes not only the victims but also the perpetrators. Social psychology research in the area of self-dehumanization continues to reveal that treating others as less than human requires that I see and treat myself as less than human in most cases. In “Losing Our Humanity: The Self-Dehumanizing Consequences of Social Ostracism,” Bastian, et. al., tested the effects on the perpetrators of committing acts of social ostracism.
They “provided empirical evidence that people see themselves as less human when engaging in the social ostracism of others” (page 164 of Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 39-2). They note that some people who dehumanize others will minimize their personal responsibility for the behavior and even think more highly of themselves.
These people are likely to commit further damaging acts and may even spiral into psychopathy and narcissism. In these cases, it is certainly possible for someone to lose their humanness altogether. The more severe the damaging act, the greater the chance of this outcome, I think.
However, when people are aware of the damage they do to others, a couple of things happen. We tend to see ourselves as less human. Perhaps this is a way to deal with the cognitive dissonance we have created. Fully human beings don’t treat others in that way, so we must be or have been less than human in order to do such things.
The second outcome is that when people are aware of the damage they do to others, they are more likely to engage in actions to return to the community of real humans. “Self-dehumanizing in response to interpersonal transgression,” they write, “appears to allow for and facilitate repentance, reconnection, and rehabilitation” (page 165).
Key to this process is direct awareness and acknowledgment of the harm done. “Maintaining a sense of ourselves as human is indeed important,” the authors conclude, “however when we have harmed others, recognizing that we have lost some of that humanity is an important process in motivating reparation” (page 165).
In the experiments conducted, the subjects could not escape or deny their responsibility for and active participation in the bad behavior. Most of us white people now can delude ourselves and deny our responsibility for the effects of racism. I never owned slaves. I never stole land. I never redlined a neighborhood. I never lynched a black man. So, we can maintain the illusion of our humanity.
Or can we? Here Charles and Rah are correct in pointing to the multi-generational and systemic trauma of Whiteness. It takes tremendous work to deny our corporate responsibility. And perhaps the amount of energy required is no longer worth the return on investment. It is destabilizing for me as a white person to continue to confront my history of oppression, abuse, and genocide on this continent. But I am also freed from the need to deny and delude.
A real reckoning with racism for me as a white man opens the possibility of reclaiming my genuine humanity.
Racism makes white people stupid, too traumatized to admit it, and less than human in the process and as a result.
All of this in order to be able to say, “I May Not be Much but at least I’m Better Than (Generic Person of Color).”
That’s a bad deal. For all of us.