White supremacy has never been about the supremacy of all whites. Grappling with the sources of white poverty and oppression will be necessary to strengthen the movement against racism.
And you’ve heard—Don West, Voice of the Cracker (1945)
That I’m the lyncher of Negroes
The man of hood and night shirt
But I tell you
You’ve heard falsely.
Since the narrow defeat of Donald Trump in last month’s presidential election, mainstream pundits continue to rehash the tired tale of the so-called white voter and the much-mythologized “white working-class.” Indeed, the presumption of a coherent, definable group of white people undergirds most explanations for the appalling number of pro-Trump vote tallies. And—by any measure—the 74 million votes for Trump are both staggering and frightening. As Hamid Dabashi wrote in Al Jazeera,
Living in a country where basically half of its people voted for a xenophobic freak who ordered babies to be snatched from their mothers’ arms and put in cages, four years after all such cruelties were on full display, is not an easy task.
Of course, many Trump voters were motivated by his racist and xenophobic vitriol. Still, most of the 80 million Americans who refused to cast ballots were white and, compared to the voting public, “tend to make less money, have lower levels of education, be less likely to own their home or are less likely to be married.” And, although more than 40 percent of whites voted against Trump, commentators still account for Trumpism with the simplistic and nebulous grouping of “white people.” Indicative of this now-standard approach, journalist Charles Blow wrote in the New York Times:
Let me be specific and explicit here: White people—both men and women—were the only group in which a majority voted for Trump, according to exit polls. To be exact, nearly three out of every five white voters in America are Trump voters.
Typically, white voters are differentiated by income and religion, rural vs. suburban and urban, with and without college degrees, etc. A befuddled brew of these delineations is used to define the so-called white working-class fawned over by some liberal writers. Bewilderingly, some pundits have credited the white working-class with Trump’s defeat. As Joan C. Williams recently opined in the Harvard Business Review:
Biden won because he won back Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. The percentage of white working class men voting Democratic increased from 23% in 2016 to 28% in 2020, while among white working class women, support for Democrats increased from 34% to 36%. These voters played a key role in delivering victories for Biden in the Rust Belt states where Clinton lost the presidency in 2016.
Of course, the racial group of whites to whom Blow and Williams refer seems like common sense in a nation defined by racism, where whites are distinguished from Black people and other people of color. But what is a “white voter”? A voter who is white. And what, exactly, are “white people”? People who are white. The answers are just as useless as the questions.
Challenging Racial Assumptions
Instead of melting-pot mythologies—where all whites have shared interests—antiracists require a more sophisticated understanding and approach. Racial assumptions and convenient, ready-made categories rarely make sense in real life. Nor do they allow us to tackle the urgent need for a deep, mass antiracist movement in the United States, a prerequisite for any thoroughgoing, radical subversion of American racism. In an era when the fascist right is aggressively recruiting, struggles like Standing Rock and the movement for Black lives are critical to winning more layers.
Challenging the framework of whiteness must not be a denial of the history and systems of white supremacy. White supremacy is a political project to explain, legitimize, and perpetuate the desperate inequality, exploitation, and oppression foundational to American capitalism. An essential component of that project is the capture of layers of historically racialized people as white. Of course, Black people in particular have always been the primary subject of the white supremacist program. Yet people ostensibly racialized as “white” have routinely been targeted as well. White supremacy has never been about the supremacy of all whites.
The deep differences within the so-called white race call into question the usefulness of whiteness as a framework. Indeed, the tremendous diversity within the masses of whites belies the notion of any singular, coherent group of white people. Rather, the deep differences in the lived realities of those perceived—or misperceived—as white demands our attention for effective movements against the status quo of American racism. Who is considered white—and their relationship to American racism—is not an eternal historic fact. Rather, whiteness is constantly redefined in the arenas of politics, economics, and ideas. It is shaped nationally and internationally; by social movements, labor needs, and imperialism. As the author Ian Haney Lopez has pointed out, “Whiteness is contingent, changeable, partial, inconsistent, and ultimately social.”1
Nowhere in the world is the white population so profoundly dissimilar than in the United States. A small coterie of whites harness their pedigree horses for polo games by the sea and enjoy endless summer yachting, sipping exotic martinis in their adirondack chairs. Someone else cleans their homes. Someone else cooks their food. Someone else does their work. They are prestigious, powerful, and pompous. And they are exalted in the media as geniuses, the personifications of the capitalist ethos. These elite echelon whites, like the billionaire financier Jeffrey Epstein (rot in hell), own lavish, private islands in the Caribbean where they host perverse parties for rape with the rich and famous. And, like Epstein, Donald Trump’s secretary of education—the crass plutocrat Betsy DeVos—cavorts on more than a dozen private yachts, airplanes, and helicopters in addition to a tasteless summer mansion in Holland Michigan with ten bathrooms.
The wealth, power, and pomposity of whites like Epstein and DeVos is incestuous. DeVos’s father, Edgar Prince, made a fortune in the Michigan auto industry before cofounding the far-right, anti-abortion, and homophobic Family Research Council. Her younger brother, Erik Prince, started the notorious, private mercenary army Blackwater. DeVos, Epstein, their relatives and friends are the bankers, politicians, and business leaders who run small towns, big cities, and corporations across the country and around the world. Their lavish lifestyles, wealth, and power rely on the immiseration and oppression of others, including those racialized as whites.
Other whites agonize over rent amid a global pandemic when paychecks are rare and work is perilous. At home, they’ve labored in their second, third, fourth, and even fifth jobs of childcare, cooking, and cleaning. Their healthcare system failed a long time ago, while the water in their homes is systematically poisoned. They witness grotesque caricatures of themselves in television comedies and political commentary.
And yet, the narrative of homogenous whiteness continues to inform most of what passes for political commentary. Indeed, the mythology of whites in America has permeated every aspect of life. As the Chicago literary giant Margaret Walker noted about her own perceptions of poor whites:
Because of the nature of segregated life in America many Negroes have misconceptions of white life. I was no exception. As servants Negroes know certain elements of white life and characterize the whole in this way. My first step toward understanding what it means to be Black in America was understanding the economics of the United States.
In the South I had always thought that, naturally, white people had more money than colored people. Poor white trash signified for me the lazy scum of the marginal fringe of society with no excuse for poverty. Now I discovered there were poor white working people exploited by rich white people. I learned that all Jews were not rich. I discovered that all Negroes were not even in the same economic class. While there were no Negro multi-millionaires, there were many wealthy Negroes who made money by exploiting poor Negroes, who had some of the same attitudes toward them that rich whites had toward poor whites and that prejudiced whites have toward all Negroes. Imagine my amazement to hear a white girl tell me she was forced to leave Northwestern because she had no money. But I, a poor Negro girl, had stayed even when I had no money.2
But class and power aren’t the only divisions within whiteness. Indeed, religious, national, regional, and legalistic denominations also serve to deepen the chasms. Stereotypes, denigrations, and even racism are the ideological components that legitimize and reinforce existing divisions and give rise to new ones.
In the beginning, the US differentiated between “unfree” and “free” whites. Mexicans in the US were classified as white until 1930, before being re-classified as “Mexican,” and then re-classified as white again in 1940. Today, the US tacitly recognizes the fundamental ruse of whiteness with the popular classification of “white Hispanic.” But the shifting sands of whiteness refuse to pause for the decennial census when the races are counted.
Although the apartheid state of Israel stakes the claim of Jewish homeland, the United States remains home to a majority of the world’s Jews—religious and secular, practicing and non-practicing. Antisemitism, a pillar of white supremacy, continues to menace Jewish people, 90 percent of whom identify as white. Yet the white power structure of the United States relies on the allyship of Israel as a watchdog in the oil-rich Middle East. Consequently, anti-Zionism is routinely conflated with antisemitism to defend the United States’ special relationship with Israel and simultaneously vilify the Palestine solidarity movement.
Regardless, actual antisemitism has been given a free pass. In December of 2019, Donald Trump—flanked by the firebrand evangelicals and well-known antisemites Robert Jeffress and John Haggee—signed an executive order that further codified “Judaism as a race or nationality, not just a religion.” Unsurprisingly, Jewish voters were divided over Trump, as National Public Radio reported in early November:
Jews in Israel support Trump more than Jews do in the United States. A survey last month found 75% of U.S. Jews preferred Democratic candidate Joe Biden and 22% favored Trump. But recent polls of Israelis have found nearly the opposite. A survey released on Monday found 70% of Israeli Jews preferred Trump and 13% preferred Biden, with 17% unsure.
Still other whites are refugees from genocidal war, like the Bosniak families who settled in St Louis’s Bevo Mill neighborhood, where they constitute the largest population of Bosnian Muslims outside of Europe. Indeed, as one journalist speculated during the 2016 presidential election,
While never a monolith, Bosnian Americans in St Louis – which is home to an estimated 50,000 to 70,000 Bosnian Muslims – have near-universally been put off by Trump’s anti-Muslim, anti-refugee rhetoric and are wary of the Republican candidate’s popularity among Serbian nationalists. If they are mobilized as a bloc to vote against Trump for these reasons, 2016 could mark the national debut of Missouri’s “Bosnian vote,” costing Trump the state’s 10 electoral votes.
And although officially counted as “white” by the American state, people from the Middle East and North Africa contend with racist hostility in their daily lives. Few Americans would describe Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini, or Syria’s Bashar al-Assad as white. Still, a Los Angeles Times survey found that 96 percent of Syrians, 91 percent of Iraqis, and 85 percent of Iranians residing the United States described themselves as white in past census surveys. Indeed, the nebulous framework of “whiteness” is so fraught with contradiction that one user on the odious white supremacist website Stormfront.org was stupefied by people in Afghanistan, where “some actually look white,” while another nazi puzzled over their “green eyes and other definite European features.”
In the United States, the racial designations of white and caucasian have been used interchangeably. Yet few people think of the actual Caucuses region—sandwiched between Iran, Turkey, and Russia—as the historic birthplace of white people. The caucasian concept is so convoluted that doltish internet users periodically wonder whether celebrity Kim Kardashian is white. Of course, Kardashian is of Armenian descent—literally Caucasian. And undoubtedly, her campaigns for the recognition of the Armenian genocide have further mystified those compelled to accept the racial presumptions of whiteness. After all, if Armenians are white, how can the term genocide be appropriate? Indeed, the United States refused to recognize the genocide for more than a century.
Even whites who are not cast as part of ethno-religious groups likes Jews or Muslims, contend with the oppressive essence of capitalism. These whites go by well-known epithets: white trash, rednecks, hillbillies, and other residual labels from America’s sordid history of eugenics. Indeed, the myth of a cogent group of white people necessitated various names for othered whites throughout American history. In his essential History of the New South, C. Vann Woodward explained the popularization of the term “poor whites”:
A term of remarkable elasticity was found useful in identifying this troublesome class and at the same time disposing of the problem of accounting for them. The term consisted of two adjectives, “poor” and “white,” each of which was undoubtedly appropriate, yet which in combination came to possess for the Northerners a sinister, if somewhat elusive, connotation. At times, the habitat of this class was identified as the Black Belt, at others, the pine barrens or the sand hills. The “local contempt for them” was said to be “reflected in the names by which they are best known,” that is such expressions as “hillbillies,” “crackers,” “Tarheels,” terms the average Southerner was likely to apply indiscriminately to any down-at-the-heels countryman. . . . For Northern intellectuals the poor-white concept became the standard means of rationalizing the poverty of an exploited region.3
The concept has maintained explanatory power because white poverty and oppression persists, despite apparent whiteness. Indeed, absurd stereotypes of Appalachian people continue to reverberate in Ron Howard’s lamentable adaptation of J. D. Vance’s neo-eugencist memoir, Hillbilly Elegy. Meanwhile, people in the Appalachian region continue to struggle with an already catastrophic public health crisis exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. In one recent report, the Appalachian Regional Commission noted,
Among Appalachians in the prime working ages of 25–54, the diseases of despair mortality rate was 43 percent higher in the region than the rest of the country. The report also found that for men ages 15–64, the diseases of despair mortality rate was 31 percent higher in the Appalachian Region than in the rest of the country. For women, however, the disparity was even larger, with the rate 46 percent higher in the region than in the non-Appalachian United States.
Still, whites are continually lumped together in political analyses. Like other “non-white” ethnic groups, it is plainly obvious that there is no homogenous experience or inherent political persuasion. As the Pew Research Center noted in September,
There is a rich diversity of views and experiences within these groups, sometimes varying based on country of origin. For example, Pew Research Center’s 2018 National Survey of Latinos found that Hispanic eligible voters of Puerto Rican and/or Mexican descent – regardless of voter registration status – were more likely than those of Cuban descent to identify as Democrats or lean toward the Democratic Party (65% of Puerto Rican Americans and 59% of Mexican Americans vs. 37% of Cuban Americans identified as Democrats). A majority of Cuban eligible voters identified as or leaned toward the Republican Party (57%).
Among Asian American registered voters, there are also some differences in party identification by origin group. For instance, Vietnamese Americans are more likely than Asians overall to identify as Republican, while the opposite is true among Indian Americans, who tend to lean more Democratic.
Yet pundits on both the left and right continue to cling to the mythology of a coherent race of white people. There’s no such thing. Antiracists should abandon the framework. Instead, we should recognize the centrality of the Black struggle for liberation and that many alleged “white” people have everything to gain from its victories.
On a cold February night in 1969, Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton addressed an audience gathered at Olivet Church in Chicago’s “Black Metropolis,” the historic Bronzeville neighborhood. In his legendary speech, “Power Anywhere Where There’s People,” Hampton told the audience;
We got to face some facts. That the masses are poor, that the masses belong to what you call the lower class, and when I talk about the masses, I’m talking about the white masses, I’m talking about the black masses, and the brown masses, and the yellow masses, too.
The following summer—just five months before Chicago police assassinated Hampton—the Black Panther Party hosted a three-day conference in Oakland. The Panthers aimed to kickstart a national united front against fascism. Organizations from across the radical spectrum sent representatives; from the Communist Party to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the Peace and Freedom Party. Representatives of Chicago’s original Rainbow Coalition were at the forefront of the conference. The multiracial coalition of revolutionaries included Puerto Ricans from the Young Lords and southern Appalachian whites from the city’s Uptown neighborhood, known as the Young Patriot Organization (YPO). William “Preacherman” Fesperman, the YPO’s field secretary, addressed the five thousand attendees;
We come from Chitown and we come from a monster. . . . And the jaws of the monster in Chicago are grinding up the flesh and spitting out the blood of poor and oppressed people. Blacks in the Southside, the Westside. And the browns on the Northside. And the reds and the yellows. And, yes, the whites. White oppressed people.
In a country predicated on white supremacy, the notion of oppressed white people appears completely absurd. Indeed, as paranoid, far-right fascists persist in claims of “reverse racism,” white oppression, and white genocide, antiracists and radicals have understandably emphasized the concepts of white privilege. Nevertheless, the oppression of white people—not because of their whiteness, but in spite of it—is a fundamental aspect of American history. Fred Hampton and others understood the importance of grappling with white poverty and oppression in order to strengthen the movement against racism. Today, antiracists must do the same. We simply cannot afford to concede such a large portion of the poor and oppressed to the reactionary forces of the right.
1. Ian Haney-López, White by Law: The Legal Construction of Race, Critical America. Rev. and updated, 10th anniversary ed. (New York: New York University Press, 2006), xxi.
2. M. Walker and M. Graham, How I Wrote Jubilee and Other Essays on Life and Literature (New York: Feminist Press, 1990), 6.
3. C. Vann Woodward, Origins of the New South, 1877–1913 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1971), 109–11
Eric Kerl is a Kentuckian living, working, organizing, and writing in Chicago. He is the author of White Bred: Hillbillies, White Trash, and Rednecks against White Supremacy, forthcoming from Haymarket Books. He is a a member of the Rampant editorial collective.