The mask of white civility hides the face of a monster. In her 2016 book “White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide,” historian Carol Anderson has documented and described how “black progress is the trigger of white rage.” What her work demonstrates is that when many white Americans politely discuss diversity, or discipline children for the use of racial epithets, they are maintaining a façade dependent upon the protection of their authority. As soon as people of color start setting terms for coexistence, the mask comes off and a beast comes out. Currently, the beast wears tanning spray and sports a hideous combover, but he is a beast all the same, and he and his aggrieved coalition of Caucasians threaten to devour years of social and political progress.
When I was in junior high school, the subdivision where my family lived began to slowly diversify. A Latino family moved into our cul-de-sac, which raised a few eyebrows, but the panic and paranoia really set in and cultivated convulsions as a town hobby when the first black family bought a house down the block. Although I was young, I was old enough to understand the discussions that I could hear the neighbors having, and I was mature enough to find it disturbing. “Here they come”…“Once one comes, the rest will follow”…“I heard there were blacks looking at the house on Manor…”
I grew up in Lansing, Illinois, a small town 30 miles south of Chicago. For most of my 1990s childhood, the ethnic and cultural variety of Chicago did not permeate my hometown. Lansing was almost entirely white. Neighborhood events were borderline translucent. It was also the idyllic picture of middle-class stability. The commercial “main street” was always bustling with transactional activity, while the real estate market climbed with seemingly no ceiling in sight. The public schools, due to superior facilities, better paid and educated teachers, and a greater offering of extracurricular programs, were much better than the private schools, but the private schools survived because of religious devotion, as there was a church on every corner, but moreso, because of white fear: white fear of engagement with multicultural society, white fear of black people, white fear of children entering interracial relationships. White fear is the revenue generator for many industries in the United States, and as the world recently learned, it is also a powerful voter mobilization tool for historic political campaigns.
My experience makes me unsympathetic to the maudlin and melodramatic tales of “white working class anger” that pundits employed to explain the ascendancy of Donald Trump to the presidency. I live in small town Indiana — “fly-over” territory far outside of New York and Washington, D.C. — where esoteric theories about the “economic frustrations” over “trade and globalization” go to die. In Northern Indiana, white Americans are not studying the numbers of NAFTA and contemplating the strengths and weaknesses of protectionism. Many are practicing a soft #racism, though, invisible to the naked eye too easily distracted by the overt bigotry of white supremacists who have changed their stupid and destructive brand to “white nationalism.”