The new white is the same old story

White supremacist speaks at Texas A&M
White supremacist speaks at Texas A&M

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White supremacist speaks at Texas A&M 04:17

Story highlights

  • Charlton McIlwain: This election cycle we heard about the "new white," but there is no such thing
  • It's just the same old white (supremacist) narrative we have seen since Reconstruction, he writes

Charlton McIlwain is associate dean for faculty development & diversity and associate professor of media, culture, and communication at NYU Steinhardt. The views expressed here are his own.

(CNN)Donald Trump's election ushered in the rise of the "new white," a rising movement poised to recalibrate America's racial balance of power. The movement's narrative is simple: Whether Trump's election signals triumph or doom, America's most important next step is to reach out, embrace, and better understand the ignored, maligned and threatened white working class. Heralded by voices on both the left and right, the narrative explains Trump's victory, diagnoses Hillary Clinton's Electoral College loss, and prescribes how the nation should move forward.

Charlton McIlwain
The narrative supporting the new white wants us to accept four primary truths. The left's identity politics are too divisive. Liberal elites are too insular. Class -- not race -- anxieties animate today's white working-class frustration and fears. Finally, whether Trump maintains the new order, or the left overthrows it, we must invest our time and energy understanding white people. As much as this narrative might argue otherwise, however, the new white is the old white under different cover. If we allow their pleas to heap more attention on white America, black and brown Americans will find ourselves refighting the battles our civil rights forebears fought, rather than continuing our long march toward racial justice.
Our present moment is strikingly similar to our past, and today's racial politics are just as troublesome as they were at the dawn of Reconstruction, when the power of race to spur white anxiety was most palpable. Take as an example the 1875 political cartoon in Harper's titled "Colored Rule in a Reconstructed State." In it, Thomas Nast caricatured black legislators towering over cowering white counterparts with raised fists. The caption chastises them for "aping the lowest whites." The message was clear. In a nation where whiteness and white people were the principal measure for good, good citizenship, and good governing, the idea of black rule was untenable. So what does this have to do with today's new white? Turns out, a lot. Both Nast's gambit and the narrative of the new white depend on strategies of old-fashioned white supremacy.
Working-class whites give Trump the White House
Working-class whites give Trump the White House

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Working-class whites give Trump the White House 02:20
When the new white lumps together all liberals, leftists, Democrats and elites and rejects them, they take a tack from Thomas Nast. They essentially accuse nonwhites of aping the worst of white people. When Donald Trump asks African-Americans and Hispanic-Americans what the hell they have to lose by rejecting the lumped-together (white) liberals, he manages to call nonwhites stupid while calling liberal whites out for their myopia, as research shows that whites are more likely not to try to understand nonwhites than the other way around.
When whites do interact with people with different views than themselves, more than half say they come away thinking they have less in common with the person. Significantly fewer blacks leave such conversations believing so. The simple fact is, the structure of everyday life in the United States practically dictates that many nonwhites must inhabit and socialize in white spaces. Blacks and Hispanics, more than whites, believe churches should be more diverse, and attend mostly white churches more than whites attend black and Hispanic churches. Blacks and Hispanics go to jobs every day in workplaces that are mostly white.
Even Newt Gingrich has admitted, "If you are a normal white American, the truth is you don't understand being black in America." By not distinguishing these failures by race, the new white narrative discredits nonwhites along with their white allies. By doing so it also minimizes and discredits the larger cause for which they fight, whether that cause be the 19th century's radical Reconstruction or the 21st century fight for racial justice.
We must see the new white narrative for what it really is, an attempt to refocus public attention and political capital away from people of color. Trump and many of those he's chosen to lead his administration are the new white's principal ambassadors. They take stock of the last few years as blacks fought against police brutality, Muslims battled religious persecution, and Hispanics defended themselves and their families from mass deportations. These representatives of the new white respond: Your concerns don't matter as much as working-class folk (white people) for whom America's promise was designed but has been denied.
This is not new. "Race" was a concept applied originally to African slaves. Whites made Africans raced beings, and they saw themselves only as "Americans." This sleight of hand allowed whites then and now to position themselves as "normal" and dismiss black and brown people's grievances as racially self-indulgent. When a majority of blacks vote for Obama, white people say race motivates them. When most white folks vote for Trump, Romney or Bush, they say those candidates' race doesn't matter. The new white narrative claims blacks and other people of color are blinded by race, while white people are race blind. This fallacy makes the new white's plea for attention seemingly justifiable.
Historian Mark Lilla claims that "the fixation on diversity in our schools and in the press has produced a generation of liberals and progressives narcissistically unaware of conditions outside their self-defined groups." What he and others including Joan Williams, Michael Lerner, and Charles Camosy are really saying -- to Black Lives Matter activists and others pushing for racial progress -- is hold up. Slow down. Don't push too hard. Not yet. Stop what you're doing and think about the greater good, about America, about unity. Reach out and try to understand white people's grievances so that we can come together and govern together.
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We've heard this clever distraction before. In the 1950s and 1960s and beyond, ardent racists and racial justice sympathizers alike slow-played civil rights. While the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. dismantled this rationale in the press and elsewhere, Nina Simone best captured the sentiment of King and others. "I don't trust you any more," Simone scolds in "Mississippi Goddam." "You keep on saying 'Go slow!' Go slow!' But that's just the trouble. 'Do it slow.' Desegregation. 'Do it slow.' Mass participation. 'Do it slow.' Reunification. 'Do it slow.' Do things gradually. 'Do it slow.' But bring more tragedy'. Do it slow.' Why don't you see it? Why don't you feel it? I don't know. I don't know."
But white supremacy accomplishes its most insidious work by imposing one simple demand on those who fight for racial justice: Wait. When it comes to debunking the myth of the new white, we cannot and must not wait.