Oped: With Trump win comes a test for angry, white supporters

Don Wycliff
Tribune News Service

My father, who is now 98, tells a revealing story from his youth in the 1930s, during the Great Depression. He was working with his father — my grandfather — in the blacksmith shop that Grandpa operated in our little East Texas hometown.

Supporters of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump react as they watch the election results during Trump's election night rally, Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2016, in New York. (AP Photo/John Locher)

Grandpa was the only "colored" man at that time who had a business downtown. In addition to blacksmithing, he operated a gristmill. He would grind corn into meal, take a portion of the product as payment and then sell the meal to anyone who needed it.

One day, while Grandpa was away briefly, a man showed up at the shop. He was a white man and he said he had walked 6 miles from a little settlement nearby hoping to get some cornmeal to feed his family. He told my dad that he had no money just then, but if he could get 10 pounds of cornmeal — 30 cents worth — on credit, he would return the following week and pay for it. My dad agreed to let him have the meal.

The man picked up the 10-pound sack and started to leave. Then he turned back and said, "You know, there's some good colored people in this world. And when we get to heaven, we're gonna make a place for 'em."

In 2000 The New York Times published a lengthy series of stories under the rubric "How Race Is Lived in America." Among the stories was one about relations among workers — black, white, Mexican and American Indian — at a slaughterhouse in Tar Heel, N.C. One of the whites was a fellow named Billy Harwood, an inmate at a local corrections facility who was at the slaughterhouse on a work-release program.

Harwood was depicted as an indifferent worker at best; he always seemed to find a way to do the least work possible.

"He wanted to quit the plant. The work stinks, he said, 'but at least I ain't a (racist slur). I'll find other work soon. I'm a white man.' He had hopes of landing a roofing job through a friend. The way he saw it, white society looks out for itself."

And so it presumably did this past week as white voters, who made up 70 percent of the electorate, voted overwhelmingly for Donald Trump. According to the Pew Research Center, 58 percent of non-Hispanic whites voted for Trump, compared with 37 percent who voted for Hillary Clinton.

Presumably not all of those Trump voters were motivated by race — or racism — but it would be naive to suppose that none were. Trump was endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan, after all.

Amanda Taub, half of the team that produces The New York Times' "The Interpreter" column, wrote Wednesday that Trump's campaign was powered "at least in part by the dramatic rise of a new kind of white populism" that stems from three kinds of fear: fear of social change (the rise of women, gay rights, religious and demographic change); fear of physical attacks (by terrorists or domestic criminals); and fears born of the "collapse of white identity."

"White, in this context, does not merely mean those with white skin," Taub wrote. "Rather, it means the majority group that has traditionally enjoyed the privilege of being considered 'us' rather than 'them,' both culturally and politically."

She went on to suggest that the collapse of this identity stems from recent developments such as demographic changes brought on by the civil rights movement and immigration policy changes that have fostered a more diverse population.

But as my father's story indicates, white identity has long been a fragile thing — at least for certain whites. In his moment of dire need, that poor white man back in the 1930s couldn't bring himself just to say "Thank you" to a black man who had done him a good deed. He had to salvage some white pride by emphasizing that he had a guaranteed spot in heaven and would, out of the goodness of his heart, make a place for that black man.

And Billy Harwood — "at least I ain't a (racist slur)... I'm a white man" — was expressing views at least a century and a half old. In her book published earlier this year, "White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America," Louisiana State University historian Nancy Isenberg writes of how white Southern planters used the concept of white identity to get poor whites, who had no personal investment in slavery, to fight for the Confederacy. This even as those same planters privately trash-talked the poor whites, labeling them in derogatory terms.

Whiteness, it seems, conferred a psychic reward that made up for a multitude of other deprivations, including economic fairness and the respect of their social and economic "betters."

A decent pride is not to be demeaned or looked down upon. No person can be condemned for demanding decent treatment by others and decent, honorable behavior by those who ask for his vote.

Trump's white supporters were said to have felt disrespected by the "elites" who ignored their economic plight and their social anxieties. So angry were they that they gave their votes to a man who was Exhibit No. 1 for boorishness, cruelty and mendacity. One hopes that, four years hence, they feel the trade-off was worth it.

— Don Wycliff is a former editorial page editor for the Chicago Tribune and editor of the book "Black Domers: Seventy Years at Notre Dame.