A specter is haunting America — the specter of white nationalism.
Like all specters, white nationalism appears invisible to some but plainly apparent to others. Some possess the gift. They see “invisible racism” with great clarity. They decipher language that looks benign to others but screams racism to them. They hear the “dog whistles” that do not register in the ears of most humans.
“He has given aid and comfort to white supremacists,” Elizabeth Warren said of the president while campaigning in Iowa this week. “He’s done the wink and a nod.”
Looking both ways before telling a joke while neglecting to do so before crossing the street, naming Larry Bird, Jerry West, and John Stockton as the greatest basketball players in history, or flying a Confederate flag outside of the context of a Lynyrd Skynyrd concert or Civil War reenactment once suggested that maybe a real fire causes all that smoke. Surely, in a world where burning crosses, siccing German shepherds, and blasting fire hoses exist in footage but rarely if ever in real time, racism finds ways to express itself with greater subtlety. But a wink and a nod, and a metaphorical wink and a nod at that, seems insufficient to convict of the odious charge of racism, even in the court of public opinion.
But the charge of racism, once an implicit tap out for those wishing to end an unpleasant exchange, now starts a conversation. The frequency of use, as laws of supply and demand would indicate, devalue the term. Unwokians, numb to a word heard often and uttered recklessly, tend to tune out. This alienates would-be allies and hurts efforts to stamp out real racism, which, even if diminishing, still persists and probably always will.
Some believe it not only exists, it thrives. The evidence visible to all paints a different picture.
The black unemployment rate hit a record low of 6 percent in July. The European Union averages higher rates of unemployment, with black America outperforming Swedes, Italians, and Spaniards in gainful employment. According to 2015 data compiled by the Pew Research Center, 17 percent of newlyweds married outside of their race; in 1967, just 3 percent did. Blacks newlyweds now interracially marry at 18 percent. In 1977, institutions conferred just 6.5 percent of bachelor’s degrees upon African Americans. Forty years later, the figure reached 10.5 percent.
Hispanic unemployment, at 4.5 percent, hovers just .3 percent above the record low set this spring. Hispanics marry outside of their group more (27 percent) than any other ethnic designation save for Asians. Though distorted by their growing population, Hispanics, who claimed 2.1 percent of bachelor’s degrees in 1977, earned 13.5 percent of them by 2017.
The statistics indicate that not only do many people of color live the American Dream but that white supremacy seems a spent force, one not only rebutted by basic data but unable to prevent Hispanics, African Americans, and Asians from achieving at levels unknown to the tiny segment of the population reacting to their low, moral and otherwise, status by maintaining the illusion of superiority.
Rather than celebrating clear advancement, many political figures, particularly those running for the Democratic presidential nomination, point to the fringes — extremist rallies and mass-murdering nutters — as though this represents the American mainstream. The election results of 2016, which saw former Obama voters put over Trump in key states, served as a cue for Democrats to tone down the identity-politics rhetoric. Democrats instead intensified their moral lecturing, as though their former voters just needed more educative berating on such issues.
People who cannot remember history, as Santayana reminds, are condemned to repeat it. Americans continue to transcend a past that includes slavery, Jim Crow, and much else that does us no credit as a nation. Presidential candidates wallow in that history, railing against ghosts they almost wish into reality, and do not learn from the rebuke voters issued them just one presidential election ago.
This seems like a losing strategy. Unlike the specter of white nationalism, Democrats do not see it.