Commentary: While obsessing over 'endangered' white people, mainstream media helps normalize white supremacy
By Kelly Macias
In the three-plus years since Donald Trump officially began his quest for the presidency, the mainstream media has obsessed over his voters. These stories have been presented to the public in various ways and take many forms. Whether it’s a profile on their so-called economic anxiety, the people in rural America who are dealing with the scourge of opioid addiction, or white nationalists, it all boils down to the same thing: the media wants to know who these white people are and why they voted for the person who is arguably the least qualified president in American history.
It’s interesting, though not at all surprising, that so much time and attention has been paid to this topic. After all, Trump voters do not comprise the majority of the American electorate or the population in general. And recent data from The Washington Poststates that it wasn’t they who handed Trump the election at all. That distinction apparently rests with the 30 percent of eligible Americans who, for whatever reason, did not vote in the 2016 election. So as the media spends countless hours and precious air time pondering who Trump voters are and trying to explain them to the rest of us, it is an exercise in futility, as they are not the sole reason why he president and Hillary Clinton is not.
To be clear, there most certainly is value in learning about and understanding voter behavior, patterns, and trends across the board. In fact, not investing in this this type of information is often a reason that Democrats lose elections. Republicans are spectacularly good at understanding who their voters are, targeting them, and turning out their vote. Democrats, not so much. Like the mainstream media, Democrats have spent way too much time agonizing over understanding folks like Trump voters—an inexplicable group of people when emotion, anger, and fear are taken away and logic and reason are applied. And this is where we should spend time asking why there are so many stories and think pieces on this topic. Because, if you dig deeply, it isn’t that the media (or Democrats) are asking so much who Trump voters are as they are constantly obsessing about what it’s like to be white in America right now. This, in spite of the fact (or perhaps because of it), that America is getting browner by the day and is on track to be a majority-minority country in less than 30 years.
America is less white than it was and, if demographic trends continue the way they do, it will likely never be quite so white again. But, currently, the country remains majority white. And even as the population of color increases, structural power and economic and social opportunity still rest among the majority white population. That hasn’t changed and is unlikely to, no matter how many brown and black people live here. But that doesn’t seem to make a difference. The overwhelmingly white mainstream media continue to present us with the same narrative over and over again: the endangered white people of America.
When a species is threatened with extinction, it goes into fight or flight response. We can look at the election of Donald Trump as one part of that response. There are a great many white people in this country who feel alienated by no longer seeing whiteness reflected everywhere they go (though let’s be honest, their fears are for naught as whiteness is still mostly everywhere) and are now gravitating toward anything that makes them feel as if they are being included—even when, or especially when, that thing is casting blame and shame on those with whom they don’t identify.
Last month, a Washington Poststory detailed the experience of 20-year-old Heaven Engle and her 25-year-old boyfriend Venson Heim, two employees at a chicken plant in Fredericksburg, Pennsylvania. Heaven spends most of her eight-hour days in silence, since she cannot communicate with her colleagues whom are almost entirely Latino and Spanish-speaking. Heaven feels isolated and often considers quitting her job. She is increasingly frustrated by both her work environment and the demographic changes occurring in her county—even though her town remains 95 percent white. The writer of the story, Terrence McCoy, wants readers to understand that Heaven and Venson’s story is the new story of America.
In a country where whites will lose majority status in about a quarter-century, and where research suggests that demographic anxiety is contributing to many of the social fissures polarizing the United States, from immigration policy to welfare reform to the election of President Trump, the story of the coming decades will be, to some degree, the story of how white people adapt to a changing country. It will be the story of people like Heaven Engle and Venson Heim, both of whom were beginning careers on the bottom rung of an industry remade by Latinos, whose population growth is fueling that of America, and were now, in unusually intense circumstances, coming to understand what it means to be outnumbered.
America is a land of many stories. For sure, one of the those stories is the changing population and its impact on white Americans. But this is not our country’s only story. Still, it is these stories, the kind which posit that “[brown] immigrants are taking jobs from [white] Americans and permanently altering the fabric of America,” that are now everywhere. Whether journalists, writers, and social commentators realize it or not, these stories help to amplify the very same arguments that white nationalists use to convince us that America is under attack by non-whites.
Throughout the article, McCoy details the feelings that Heaven and Venson have about being minorities at work and the anger, disdain, and animosity toward Latinos that results. In the plant, various accommodations are made to share information in Spanish with Latino employees. Venson uses this as evidence that the company simply doesn’t “give a rat’s ass about people with white skin.” Later, he theorizes that the plant’s Latino employees actually do speak English but simply refuse to. Heaven has similar thoughts—often expressing annoyance that the people she works with “refuse” to learn English. In their lack of empathy, awareness, and curiosity, Heaven and Venson are portrayed as victims. And their suspicion of “dishonest” Latino co-workers who are taking up too much space, causing upheaval, and making their lives less convenient is never questioned. Instead, it is presented as the logical and normal response to a changing population.
Hey writers: every piece—like this one—you write about the alienation rural white working class people feel about “shifting demographics” and becoming minoritized implicitly employs white nationalist talking points. My god. pic.twitter.com/99hDp439s1
This could be a white nationalist bingo card: blaming white racism (i.e. “demographic anxiety”), somehow, on non-white action fears of “a changing country” ”they’re taking our jobs” (“an industry remade by Latinos”) ”understanding what it means to be outnumbered” () pic.twitter.com/AAtteMUz4b
Just last week, Fox News host Laura Ingraham made very similar arguments about how the demographic changes in the country are making America unrecognizable.
“In some parts of the country it does seem like the America we know and love doesn’t exist anymore,” Ingraham continued. “Massive demographic changes have been foisted upon the American people. And they’re changes that none of us ever voted for and most of us don’t like.”
Many folks, liberal and conservative alike, were able to identify this as not just a racist dog whistle, but instead a racist bullhorn meant to sow division and bigotry. And while its easy for us to write off Ingraham as part of the right-wing lunacy of Fox News, it is not wholly different from the story about Heaven and Venson in The Washington Post. In white America’s obsession with all things white, stories like these are increasingly becoming mainstream. They present themselves as unbiased reporting which looks at how white people are coping with a changing country. But they are actually normalizing the increasing white nationalist and white supremacist views in America.
Around the same time that Laura Ingraham was serving red meat to the racists who watch Fox News, NPR came under fire for also normalizing white supremacy by airing an interview with Jason Kessler, the white nationalist who planned a white civil rights rally in Washington for the anniversary of the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. During the interview, Kessler shared his opinions of the intelligence of various races, using fake science, claiming that black people rank dead last when it comes to intelligence. Critics say that these kinds of views shouldn’t be given a platform in mainstream media. They aren’t mainstream ideas and they aren’t “fair and balanced” presentations of truth or reality. There is a fine line between covering white nationalism and lending credibility to it. News outlets are struggling with how to do the former rather than the latter. And the lack of diversity within newsrooms means that, sadly, coverage is so very often skewed toward humanizing white supremacy and making it seem like the natural evolution of a changing America that is undesirable for whites.
Jason Kessler being given an interview on NPR as if white supremacy is a legitimate policy position is a reminder that many of the (white) people making decisions in the media don’t feel impacted by any of this — it’s either entertainment or “news” until it hits their doorstep.
The truth, as always, remains complex. It is true that America is rapidly changing and that whites are becoming a minority. And while that may mean more brown and black faces than before, our fundamental power structures have not changed. White people remain in the majority. And while not all white people are wealthy, white people remain the wealthiest demographic in the country. White people remain the most educated, and the majority of homeowners. White people (men) remain the majority of Congress and elected office holders. And, yes, white people still comprise the majority of newsrooms and media outlets, which explains why there’s so much time devoted to exploring the issues of white America.
In a country where this has always been our concrete reality, it would be nice for white folks to step outside of themselves and their very myopic view of America to ask what living here is like for the rest of us. Of course, we know why this is, but it’s worth asking why there aren’t a myriad of articles, interviews, and think pieces about what life is like for non-white people in a country where white nationalism is increasing. These stories don’t have to cancel each other out.
But there are far too many stories that focus on the plight of endangered white people and way too few on the fact that, even in a country where demographics are changing, white people still have almost all of the resources. Moreover, acting on their fears, racial resentment, and perceived lack of access is increasingly harming and literally killing people of color. If the purpose of journalism and writing is to present and expose the truth, let’s start telling it. The truth is that Heaven and Venson’s story or Laura Ingraham’s story or Jason Kessler’s story is fundamentally incomplete without telling the story of those people who are actually in the minority. And every time another “humanizing” story is written or told that reframes white supremacy and nationalism as normal, that’s yet another way that it spreads.
Editor's note: This article was originally published in the Daily Kos, which states that its "content may be used without explicit permission unless otherwise specified."