2016 was the year of coddling white people


In a Dec. 6 interview, producer-director Lee Daniels told Fox's The Real why his upcoming TV show, Star, featured a white girl as the main character. "It's told through a white girl's perspective because I felt that the country ... needed to heal," Daniels said. "I think that this white girl is so fabulous that black people will embrace her, and white people will embrace her."

The year 2016 was rife with proclamations like this. We live in racially polarized times, the logic went, so the best way to get past our hang-ups was to stop fixating on racial difference. In reality, the tactic has had the opposite effect. The result was to push minorities' concerns yet again to the backburner of political priorities.

If the past few years saw strides toward exposing America's shortcomings around racial equality, 2016 was the year of making white people feel better about them. This was most apparent during the election. President-elect Donald Trump won the White House on Nov. 8 on a campaign defined by racial animus. His supporters were overwhelmingly white, and according to an NBC News survey from February, supported a ban on non-citizen Muslims entering the United States at a rate of 87%. In exit poll after exit poll, Trump supporters exhibited a combination of anti-black racism, Islamophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment. 

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But Trump's victory is merely the logical conclusion of cultural trends that have been building for years. Even white liberals have joined the bandwagon to appease newly-invigorated white resentment. The moment Trump's bigotry proved a winning political platform, liberal pundits and politicians rushed to diminish racism's role in his victory. In their haste to draw working-class white voters back to the Democratic Party, many called for a progressive electoral strategy that disavowed so-called "identity politics" — defined loosely, in this context, as explicit call-outs to black people, Hispanics, Muslims and other minorities — in favor of a less color-conscious, economic agenda.

"[It] is at the level of electoral politics that identity liberalism has failed most spectacularly, as we have just seen," Columbia University professor Mark Lilla wrote in a New York Times op-ed in November. "National politics in healthy periods is not about 'difference,' it is about commonality."

Of course, this logic ignores that white identity politics is still identity politics. Trump won not by finding common ground, but by catering almost exclusively to white people's wants and fears.

This trend wasn't limited to the election. White anxiety has been festering for years. The number of Ku Klux Klan chapters in the United States has doubled since 2014. White supremacists online — energized by fears of encroaching minority power — have found new outlets for their ideologies on sites like 4chan and Breitbart. A handful of fawning media profiles have helped these bigots inch ever closer to the mainstream. On Dec. 6, Richard Spencer — a white supremacist and founder of the so-called "alt-right" — gave a speech on the campus of Texas A&M University.

"[The] Donald Trump campaign was the first time in my lifetime that an identity politics for white people was on the scene," Spencer told CNN shortly beforehand.

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For centuries, these same people have waged terror in black and brown communities. Yet despite this pattern, by far the more aggressive anti-terrorism response from Americans this year has been directed at Muslim immigrants. Based on the erroneous fear that Muslim immigration poses a unique threat to the United States — to date, not a single American has been killed by a Syrian refugee — governors across the country have lined up to oppose refugee resettlement in their states. Conservative political figures like Carl Higbie and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach have similarly touted the wisdom of keeping a database to track American Muslims.

This year also saw backlash against Black Lives Matter activists and black community members who took to the streets to oppose anti-black criminal justice policies. These protesters' grievances were supported by data. In a Department of Justice report published in August, racism was shown to be endemic to law enforcement practices in Baltimore. Black people were more than twice as likely to be killed by police in 2016, according to the Guardian. Protests against the police-involved killings of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana; Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minnesota; and Sylville Smith in Milwaukee took the summer by storm.

Yet where white anxiety was rewarded with the White House in November, black anxiety over racist policing was rewarded with a smear campaign. Outlets like Fox News and Breitbart perpetuated the false notion Black Lives Matter was a violent hate group. "The violence and hate-filled messages pouring out of Black Lives Matter seek ... bloody resolution, or revolution, though they cannot admit it in polite society," Milwaukee County Sheriff David A. Clarke wrote in a Fox News op-ed in July. Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani made the rounds on cable insisting that black people shouldn't complain about police killings until they addressed crime in their own communities. Lawmakers in at least 10 states have proposed so-called "Blue Lives Matter" laws that would reclassify attacks on police officers as hate crimes. Louisiana passed one such law in May.

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These are not marks of a nation that needs a white star in a Lee Daniels TV show in order to reach the racial promised land. In fact, when Daniels explains his casting as a response to America's "need to heal," it's clear whose healing he's referring to. It's certainly not people of color's: after a heated year-long debate about the lack of diversity in Hollywood films and TV — fueled in part by the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite — Americans of color aren't exactly clamoring for another show starring a 20something white woman.

More likely, this "healing" is meant to reassure white people they're still our nation's top priority. For all the Trump camp's talk of "political correctness" and the hypersensitivity of minorities, most of this year has been dedicated to appeasing white people upset that American cultural and political life may no longer revolve around them.

2016 reaffirmed the notion that white America is the "real" America, and that "real America" is fundamentally good and right. Now that white people's feelings have been properly massaged, and our next president is the candidate who most effectively employed white identity politics, the lesson could not be more clear: A little white grievance goes a long way.