5. Whiteness (Keywords Now)
Whiteness is a useful keyword and analytical frame for understanding Trumpism, the false claims of massive voter fraud and a stolen election in 2020, and the Capitol Insurrection of January 6, 2021. As I noted in my original essay on whiteness, a discourse of “white victimhood” has long been in existence, and it has become a culturally dominant force since the 1970s. The rise of Trumpism has stoked and weaponized the grievance politics of “white victimhood.” Trump contended that Mexicans were rapists, Muslims were terrorists, and Black people were destroying cities and the suburbs would be next. Through these claims, Trump and his supporters rendered “Americans” as constant victims of an unfair and racially changing world, and because “white” is a normed and unmarked category, “American” functions as a race-neutral stand-in for “white.”
I also find Cristina Beltrán’s formulation of “multiracial whiteness” helpful in understanding the current conjuncture, Trump’s appeal to select voters of color, and how some people of color have aligned themselves with white supremacy. Beltrán argues that the whiteness of this moment is not a homogenous “racial whiteness” but an ideological “multiracial whiteness.” Beltrán deploys the concept of “multiracial whiteness” to explain how people of color like Ali Alexander, who contributed to the Stop the Steal movement, and Enrique Tarrio, a leader of the Proud Boys, could align themselves with white nationalists. For Beltrán, “Multiracial whiteness reflects an understanding of whiteness as a political color and not simply a racial identity – a discriminatory worldview in which feelings of freedom and belonging are produced through the persecution and dehumanization of others.”
The origins of whiteness and its relationship may also offer insights into the recent insurrection. To many the rioting and violence of hundreds of Trump supporters in the U.S. Capitol appeared to be a desecration of democracy and violation of its norms. Yet, if one considers how white supremacy was central to shaping the contours of U.S. citizenship, the rioting at the Capitol is a continuation of an American tradition. Here, I find Joel Olson’s historicization of whiteness and citizenship particularly useful. Like Beltrán, Olson frames whiteness not as a racial category but as a political one. Drawing upon Edmund Morgan, Joel Olson illustrates how voting and rioting were twin elements of an antebellum citizenship rooted in whiteness. Like Trump’s Capitol insurrectionists, early American rioters “took themselves to be protectors of republican institutions. Mob leaders presented themselves as patriots—several claimed to have ancestors who came over on the Mayflower—while mobs christened themselves with names like the Sons of Liberty and the Minutemen” (32).
If we keep in mind these origins of what Olson terms “white citizenship,” then Trumpism, the Capitol Insurrection, and its potential aftershocks will not look like aberrations of U.S. history. “Multiracial whiteness” may appear confounding and novel at first glance, but it is truly a new version of the old story of “white citizenship.”