Members Only | April 10, 2021 | Reading Time: 5 minutes
White Americans feared they’d one day become victims of the monstrous capitalism they built
Then it happened. That's the real "economic anxiety."
From the moment Donald Trump rose to political prominence, the pundit class stubbornly clung to “economic anxiety” as the explanation for why white voters can’t quit him. No matter how often the idea was deconstructed, no matter how much evidence contradicted it, and no matter how ridiculous it became, the notion that poverty—not race—was the central force in lifting a bankrupt billionaire to the highest office in the land had a firm hold in the national political imagination.
As recently as January’s insurrection, multiple commentators, columnists and social scientists expressed surprise at the wealth, resources and status afforded by these deeply “anxious” insurgents attacking the US Capitol, or felt compelled to further debunk the zombie lie that Trump voters have embraced bigotry in response to economic hardship. There’s only one problem with this: economic anxiety is real.
Rather than extend healthcare, housing and food security to a Black and brown underclass, white Americans commodified basic needs into a catastrophe that has claimed almost 600,000 lives, writes Editorial Board member Kaitlin Byrd.
The mistake of “economic anxiety” as a concept was to substitute it for bigotry instead of understanding it is reflected and informed by bigotry. In a society built on white supremacy, everything relies on it, and our economy is no exception. We designed a country where white people progressed and profited explicitly at the cost of the lives and the land of Black and Indigenous people. Colonization, slavery, homesteading, redlining, mass European immigration: all wealth-building efforts adding to white coffers while commodifying Native resources and obliterating Black livelihoods.
There is no era of the nation’s history in which white people built fortunes without racial subjugation, and white Americans are so aware of this, many can’t imagine an economy without it. Simply, white voters didn’t embrace bigotry because they faced economic precarity; they faced economic precarity because they embraced bigotry.
The Shining City on a Hill, the new world with streets paved with gold, the land of opportunity and merit and promise—these are all the mythologies of white intergenerational wealth that elide the truth of a bounty built atop blood and bones.
In this national story, white people created and defined the wealth of the country, bolstered “widespread” prosperity and set a new standard of living for the world. The biggest economy and its fruits are exclusively “American,” and “American” is defined by white wealth. To say anything else is an indictment of capitalism, especially the American version of it. Anything else reveals a lie of theft, abuse and exploitation. Anything else suggests that white people did not earn their primacy, but stole it.
And then Barack Obama got elected president in the middle of a profound financial panic. Change meant now a Black man would make decisions about how to rebuild the economy, where to allocate resources and what the costs of white supremacist capitalism had been—to best avoid them going forward. For the white elite, Obama’s presidency was an indictment of their system. For the white middle class, it was an interrogation of their worthiness. For the white poor, it was an existential crisis.
Even though Obama’s actual policy preferences were remarkably milquetoast and technocratic, his presence as the first Black man to be elected president was the embodiment of radicalism. This is why the white wealthy joked about “the affirmative action president” even as they systematically attacked through the judiciary the opportunities affirmative action affords. This is why the white middle class said they wanted “their country back” and disliked his public solidarity with Black people being attacked as an underclass, regardless of their actual personal wealth. This is why white low-income workers accepted “socialism” as a slur for his presence in the White House as the chief executive. If Obama represented the future of America—its hopes, possibilities, wealth—then whiteness now represented its shameful and broken past.
No matter what the manifestation the bigotry took, all of it was fueled by fear. Fear that wealthy white scions may not be as secure as their parents; fear that rising Black and Indigenous power inevitably results in a shrinking white middle class; fear that whiteness was no longer enough to maintain dignity in poverty and depression.
So it was no surprise that when someone spoke to the fear of a “great replacement”1 politically, culturally and economically, that white voters rushed to him for validation, and accepted whatever the costs might be (mostly paid by Black and brown people) to get the fleeting feeling of security in believing that nothing would really change.
White Americans have feared they would one day become victims of the monstrous capitalism they built, even as they enjoyed the security and safety of generations of exploitation, and it has given us untold suffering as a country. Rather than extend healthcare, housing and food security to a Black and brown underclass, they commodified basic needs into a catastrophe that’s claimed almost 600,000 lives.
Quick to reopen an economy that has relied on the labor of disproportionately Black and brown workers, white Americans have been even quicker to deny access to citizenship or the rights therein to the very same people. They scramble, desperately, to hold on to a system and society already escaping their grasp, and yet this only drives them deeper into denial and violence. The loss of white primacy is a kind of vigilant anxiety, a forced acceptance of a truth that many cannot bear to face, and they have found a right-wing political movement ready and willing to keep them oblivious.
Because it isn’t only the economy at risk.
Kaitlin Byrd is a writer and essayist from Brooklyn. She has written about American politics, history and white supremacy for HuffPost, Dame Magazine, Bustle and The Boston Globe, among others. She is a reliable source of opinions on Twitter at @GothamGirlBlue.
Donald Trump’s co-opting of white nationalism is now conventional wisdom among certain Republicans. Fox’s Tucker Carlson gave full voice to the “white replacement theory.”