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A Safe Space for Racism

Clashes at sports stadiums between white crowds and Black Lives Matter protesters proved that “white fragility” wasn’t a moment, but a movement.

Scott Olson / Getty

On October 7th, 2014, seven weeks after Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, a group of Black Lives Matter protestors gathered outside the St. Louis Cardinals’ National League playoff game at Busch Stadium. While they chanted “Justice for Mike Brown,” groups of fans in the crowd—which appears on YouTube to be overwhelmingly, perhaps even entirely white—chanted back “Let’s go, Darren!” One member of the crowd wore a handwritten sign taped to the back of his shirt: “I am Darren Wilson.” “We’re the ones who gave all y’all the freedom that you have,” a young woman shouted at them. An older white man shouted, “If they were working, we wouldn’t have this problem.” Another fan gave the protestors a Nazi salute.

Situated within the horror show that is the last two years of American public life, this incident seems so minor and unsurprising that it’s hardly worth remembering. But after the election, struggling to find a new way to articulate the rise of Trump—an unrepentant racist and white nationalist, cheered on by rallies packed with unrepentant white supporters—I remembered the video and what I’d found, at the time, to be so disturbing about it. First, that the response was not only radical, but pre-programmed and reflexive: It wasn’t just “Blue Lives Matter” but “Let’s Go Darren”; not just “get a job” but “Heil Hitler.” Second, these people were shouting horrible, execrable, violent things, unchallenged, in public. Hundreds of other people could hear them, and did nothing. This was a safe space for racism.

Why, in the year that the Black Lives Matter movement took hold—the first year of our present state of emergency—did stadiums, and not malls, movie theaters, airports, or any other public gathering places, become the first notable venues where white Americans felt entitled, or provoked, to shout vile names at black people, threaten them with murder, applaud murderous police officers? 

If you know anything about the geography of major American cities, especially in the East and Midwest, it only takes a minute to understand why. Stadiums, particularly baseball stadiums, are constructed in cities for financial, practical, and historical reasons; but the fans who attend their games—overwhelmingly white fans—come from the suburbs, exurbs, and rural areas surrounding the cities, sometimes from hundreds of miles away. In their daily lives, these white fans may never, or almost never, encounter people of color, particularly not African Americans; therefore it was likely that these were people encountering the angry and aggrieved faces of black people for the first time, probably the first time in their lives. 

There’s a term for situations like these, coined by the scholar Robin DiAngelo: “white fragility.” White Americans, she writes, “live in a social environment that protects and insulates them from race-based stress…this insulated environment…builds white expectations for racial comfort while at the same time lowering the ability to tolerate racial stress, leading to…a state in which even a minimum amount becomes intolerable, triggering anger, fear, and guilt.” The root of this problem isn’t just segregation, she says, but the kind of segregation white Americans have experienced over the last four or five decades:

White people are taught not to feel any loss over the absence of people of color in their lives, and in fact, this absence is what defines their schools and neighborhoods as “good;” whites come to understand that a “good school” or “good neighborhood” is coded language for “white.” The quality of white space being in large part measured via the absence of people of color (and Blacks in particular) is a profound message indeed, one that is deeply internalized and reinforced daily…This dynamic of gain rather than loss via racial segregation may be the most profound aspect of white racial socialization of all. Yet, while discourses about what makes a space good are tacitly understood as racially coded, this coding is explicitly denied by whites.

It’s worth dwelling for more than a moment on that first sentence: White people are not taught to feel any loss over the absence of people of color in their lives. Isn’t it true, though, that white people are taught, endlessly, in trainings and seminars and mandated HR videos, about the value of diversity? They are—at work, where diversity has demonstrable monetary value, and the lack of it carries serious legal risks. But the ultimate lesson of the suburbs has always been that home and work are different worlds. In this case, the separation is particularly stark: Over the past two decades American businesses have begun to emphasize diversity, with some success, both in hiring and in the culture of the workplace, but neighborhood segregation in the US has changed very little since 1980, the end of what’s usually thought of as the era of “white flight.” In a statistical analysis of the 2010 US Census, sociologists John R. Logan and Brian Stults sum up the data this way:

The average white person in metropolitan American lives in a neighborhood that is 75% white. Despite a substantial shift of minorities from cities to suburbs, these groups have often not gained access to largely white neighborhoods…a typical African American lives in a neighborhood that is only 35% white (not much different from 1940) and as much as 45% black. Diversity is experienced very differently in the daily lives of whites, blacks, Hispanics, and Asians.

It turns out, not so surprisingly, that if white children are raised in homogeneous suburbs, go to homogeneous schools, and are given few opportunities to encounter people of color other than on TV or the internet, the boilerplate language of multiculturalism, diversity, “tolerance,” and unspecific reverence for Martin Luther King Jr. will have little effect on them; it will seem, at best, hypothetical. This is particularly true if they’re constantly reminded—as white children even in liberal communities often are—that they are the fortunate ones, that they should be grateful for the good things life has given them. The underlying message children hear in these situations is: We’re lucky to be white, and things are perfect just the way they are.

Of course, things aren’t perfect in that imaginary land called white America (except, perhaps, in the glossiest of the suburbs—Alpine, Darien, Greenwich, Mountain View—where hedge fund traders and tech entrepreneurs live). The 2008 financial crisis only deepened the generational stagnation of the middle class and bottoming-out of the working class, affecting all American workers, from small towns in Iowa devastated by factory closings, population loss, and opiates, to Milwaukee, Flint, and Newark, where foreclosure rates were the highest in the country. This sense of shared desperation, particularly driven by students and voters under 30, drove the extraordinary and radical candidacy of Bernie Sanders, who managed to mount a credible challenge to Clinton with no war chest and the active opposition of the DNC. 

 At the same time, however, and among some of the same white voters, something else was happening: Donald Trump was articulating a position on race that seemed to many of them—from interviews widely reported over the course of the campaign—refreshingly honest. Why, he kept asking, should we be asked to care about people of color, or immigrants, when we don’t actually care about them, when we never see them or interact with them, or share their concerns? In a sense, Trump managed to turn racial politics—“the multicultural state”—into a version of “the global economy”: two abstractions that were supposed to be a good thing, a beneficial thing, but actually turned out only to be good for other people.

Of course, conservative politicians and commentators have been playing varieties of this rhetorical game for years, but Trump hit on a strategy only a consummate showman would think to exploit: instead of using surrogates and coded language to signal to white voters that he was fighting for their interests, he focused his attention on rallies as spectacles of rage and catharsis, where white voters would finally get to say what they “really” thought. The outrageousness, the unacceptability, was precisely the point: Trump wanted his all-white crowds to feel embattled, shamed, aggrieved, and now exultant at finally fighting back. He wanted, in other words, to bottle the feeling of the crowd at Busch Stadium and unleash it.

During the campaign, and since Trump’s surprising (and possibly artificially engineered) victory, some commentators have been laying the blame for his success on “identity politics”—what Leon Wieseltier, speaking for many others, calls “the politics of grievance,” as opposed to the more noble politics of national unity and belonging. (“National politics in healthy periods is not about “difference,” it is about commonality,” as Mark Lilla put it in his recapitulation of this argument that appeared in the New York Times last weekend). In this formulation, activist groups and academics on the left essentially taught Trump supporters to feel like white nationalists; by focusing on discrimination to the exclusion of all other issues, the argument goes, they alienated even sympathetic white voters who felt their own concerns were never addressed. By emphasizing their vulnerability and fragility—by using terms like “safe space”—they allowed such visceral responses to dominate the entire political process. 

There’s at least one compelling truth among all the fallacies in this argument: for decades the right has used the very existence of social justice and civil rights movements to make white Americans feel under attack. This is borne out by a startling and deeply depressing 2011 paper by psychologists Michael Norton and Samuel Sommers: “Whites See Racism as a Zero-sum Game that They Are Now Losing.” Using a broad-based survey that asked whites and African Americans to rank their perceptions of racism against different groups on a 1 to 10 scale, Norton and Sommers discovered that, contrary to all available economic or legal evidence, white Americans believe themselves to be the victims of discrimination and bias that has increased over time, as legal forms of discrimination against African Americans have decreased. This perception can’t be controlled for levels of education: According to this analysis, at least, even the most well-educated white Americans still believe pervasive anti-white discrimination exists.

Where does this perception come from, if not from actual evidence? Nikole Hannah-Jones, in The New York Times Magazine, details an interview she conducted with one Obama-to-Trump voter, Gretchen, a registered nurse in rural Iowa who describes herself as a “social liberal and fiscal conservative,” who supported Democrats even though she worried that government programs were creating a culture of dependency, but who changed her affiliation and her vote, decisively, when Obama described Trayvon Martin as a boy who could have been his own son. “The Black Lives Matter movement bothered her,” Hannah-Jones writes. “Even as an Ivy League-educated, glamorous black couple lived in the White House, masses of black people were blocking highways and staging die-ins in malls, claiming that black people had it so hard.” Norton and Sommers sum up this feeling with a quotation from Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions, now nominated for the attorney general position in the Trump administration: “Empathy for one party,” Sessions said, “is always prejudice against another.”

How is it possible for a thinking, psychological stable person, let alone a practicing Christian—that’s the vast majority of the Trump electorate—supposed to hold this explicitly hateful idea in the mind? For the most part, it happens by feeling it, without necessarily voicing it, articulating it, or talking it over. Hannah-Jones describes Gretchen this way: “Some of her liberal friends on Facebook called her racist. So she shut her mouth—and simmered.” Like so many forms of psychological repression, white fragility follows precisely this pattern: Unacceptable thoughts / tentative voicing of those thoughts / immediate criticism / silence / “simmering.”

And then, in the end? Anyone who has ever attended a Thanksgiving meal, or any large family gathering, knows how the story goes: Explosion. 

It may be that Gretchen would feel the same way if she lived in an integrated community, had friends and neighbors of different ethnicities—even if she were part of a multiracial family. In the vast majority of cases, we’ll never know: Integrated communities exist, of course, and many white Americans live vibrantly interconnected lives with people of color, but demographically speaking they are a tiny minority. I will go to my grave believing many more white people secretly (or not so secretly) wish they knew black people better, have a deep longing for racial reconciliation, and carry around a heavy load of racialized shame. That’s how I have always experienced my own whiteness, and that’s the whiteness I recognize in my family and the many communities I’ve lived in—urban, rural, Eastern, Western.

But none of that has prevented the past fifty years of right-wing myth-making about race in America, playing on the fears and suspicions of whites living in overwhelmingly segregated communities: That black people are innately predisposed to commit crimes; that uncontrolled waves of immigrants are destabilizing the economy and taking “good jobs”; that people of color in urban centers receive more tax dollars than rural communities; that people of color are “takers,” receiving government benefits they don’t deserve; that “it’s impossible for a white man to get a good job anymore.” These are lies that have become, in many white contexts, a kind of unspeakable common sense, the definition of what isn’t “P.C.”

Until now. Now, they are speakable. Spoken everywhere. Yet even in victory, Trump hasn’t altered the rhetoric of his campaign at all: at every possible occasion, he’s still playing the victim, wounded by mass protests, insulted by the cast of Hamilton and Saturday Night Live, insisting that the theater should be a “safe and special place.” He and his advisors know that the language of fragility, fear, and rage—the adrenaline rush of white solidarity against “them”—is what got him where he is. Whether he can sustain it is the most frightening question of all.

I don’t feel prepared to make predictions. What I want to know is: how did it happen?

Would Gretchen have been the one shouting racist names at the Black Lives Matter protestors at Busch Stadium in 2014? I don’t think she would have. I have a much easier time picturing her in the crowd, tense, nervous, wishing she were somewhere else. But not outraged, and not disagreeing. Maybe feeling a little glad that someone was taking her side, that the yelling wasn’t coming from only one direction. Feeling herself closely hemmed in a crowd of people like her, and taking some sense of safety from that feeling. There are so many of us and just a few of them. In an hour or so she will find her way to the parking lot, sit miserably in stadium traffic for twenty minutes, and then be out on the open highway again, settling in for that thirty or forty-mile drive home, and reassured by the distance, taking her away from those faces. In a way, that distance is her real vote. She’s cast it even before she gets to her exit.