There is a reservoir of covert racism in the United States, perhaps more than most of us would have expected. The same can be said of sexism, xenophobia, and homophobia.(As Lenny Bruce, the midcentury stand-up comedian used to say, have I left anyone out?) In this country, we have been ambivalent at best regarding diversity. The Native Americans debated whether or not to accommodate diversity by allowing white settlers to live here. By the time it became clear that wasn’t really a good idea, it was too late. On the part of the colonists, treaties were made and then broken with the Indians. This has kept happening up to the present day. At the time the Constitution was written, only white men were able to vote, and it was a radical idea even that poor, uneducated men would be allowed to vote. New immigrants came in waves to settle the country and do the grunt work. Each group was subject to bias and resentment, then gradually assimilated.
Populism and racism have been linked in the past. Welcomed to California and Oregon from China, Japan, and Southeast Asia to cook and clean in the cities and in mining camps and on the railroads, Asians were soon labeled “the yellow peril” by white labor leaders who resented their willingness to work hard for lower pay, similar to the situation that Mexicans find themselves in today. By the way, much of this country was part of Mexico prior to the Spanish-American war. We literally moved into their country. Through all of this, white settlers from Europe have always been assimilated more easily. People of color, even if they were here first, have been subject to the most bias, derision, and out-and-out hatred.
In his brilliant and important book, A People’s History of the United States, Howard Zinn says that racism in what became the United States was deliberately created by the ruling class in order to keep the black slaves and white indentured servants from banding together to overthrow the establishment. This was done by initiating laws which differentiated between the two, such as prohibiting people of color from owning property, which white indentured servants could do once they earned their freedom. Initially, such distinctions were not made between the two groups. Although I believe racism is unfortunately much older than the “new world” and lies deeper in the collective mind, I have no doubt that it was used for a long time on this continent and elsewhere to keep people from banding together for a common cause.
As the recent election has shown, race is still being used in exactly the same way. As people are becoming more informed, it is getting more difficult to sell a majority of the people on less taxes for the rich, discontinuing social security, and defunding public schools. It is easier to engage them by tapping into their fears and the projection of those fears onto faceless groups of others. When changes that are difficult to understand threaten the way of life, the well being, and the livelihood of people, they start looking for someone to blame. Donald Trump had his intuitive, money-making (by which I mean his instinct for marketing) finger on the pulse of a certain segment of the citizenry. He only needed something less than a majority of the voting population, as it turned out. Then all he had to do was point in the direction of those they were already blaming.
I am hardly the first to point out that there are some similarities here with Hitler’s rise to power in Germany. In the nineteen twenties and thirties, Germany was reeling from the effects of the First World War. They had not only lost the war and the prestige of being a conquering nation, they had been required to make reparations and were suffering from a terrible economic depression. Hitler blamed the Jews, many of whom were bankers, for the depression. This seemed to be a notion that sat well with many Germans. Hitler did quite well in a democratic election, was appointed to high office, and eventually gained power in his country. In our country, although we are not in a depression, many manufacturing jobs have left the country or been replaced by robotics. The root cause of this may be “corporate greed,” but that has been with us as long as corporations have been. The point of a corporation, after all, is to make a profit. The recent cause is globalization. A global economy has taken the jobs, not Mexicans or any other immigrant group. Trump can’t turn back the clock to a more local economy by building a wall.