Trump, the White Man's last gasp, and the Resurrection
Last week while I was going for a walk, an elderly white American gentleman named Ned struck up a conversation with me. He was a friendly, talkative guy and before long, the conversation turned to race in America because…well, because he was talking to me :). He told me about his experience of race as a young person in which the only black people he encountered were the domestic workers in his childhood home. His white world —demarcated by segregated buses, schools, and public restrooms — was so socially distant from actual black people that he misunderstood the concept of race and believed that his family’s black nanny could wash away her “chocolate” skin to reveal white skin underneath. While chatting with Ned who is about Donald Trump’s age, I was reminded of how much the world has changed in his sixty-something years. While the neural connections in his young brain were forming, he was learning that racial hierarchy is legitimate, that blacks are to remain separate from and subordinate to whites, and that black people can become white if they just clean themselves up. For much of Ned’s lifetime, the social patterns in our mostly white, very segregated society confirmed and strengthened his racialized neural connections. But things are changing. Quickly.
The society in which Ned’s young brain was wired is pretty different from today’s society. Now,he is likely to encounter a young black woman like me in his own neighborhood because her geographic location isn’t limited by segregation laws and redlining. He’s likely to meet black women who aren’t “the help” but actually sees themselves as his equal (and very well may be his boss or his grandchildren’s boss.) He’ll cross paths with black women who are highly educated and use their voice and influence to speak out against racial inequality. He might be surprised to learn that a black woman has been invited to preach at his church.
WHITE MEN AND THE CRUMBLING RACIAL HIERARCHY
Though the American population is still predominantly white and characterized by segregation, it is diversifying and integrating at an unbelievably rapid pace. As a millennial, the most change has occurred during my lifetime as all spaces — rural, suburban and urban — have become significantly less white and more multiracial. Geographers note that in 1980 (the year I was born) America was still very homogenous and segregated; whites were the vast majority in two-thirds of all spaces. That means that if you were white, and you lived in one of those spaces, you could pretty much go about your entire day without encountering any people of color as fellow colleagues, classmates, congregants, concert attendees, etc. But by 2010 (the year I turned 30), “white” spaces had been reduced to only one-third of all spaces as immigration and birth rates among people of color exceeded those of whites.
Beyond geographic shifts, the distribution of power is also changing as more blacks and people of color are (slowly) gaining access to power. Whites still hold many of the powerful positions in our society, but that is shifting as more people of color are gaining access to higher education and upward mobility. Whites still possess the loudest and most influential voices in society, but the needle is slowly moving as new forms of media amplify the voices of people of color. The U.S. still boasts a strong economy, but other economies such as China’s and Brazil’s are giving it a run for its money and giving birth to smarter, stronger workforces that threaten the livelihoods of working American whites. Consequently, whites —especially white men, who benefit the most from our unequal racial system — don’t have as clear a path to success as they did before. These are unsettling times for white men like Ned.
To people of color like me, the movement toward a more level playing field is occurring at a painfully glacial pace. But to many white men, the change is happening so fast and it all seems so painful! Sociologists Henderson and Herring note that when white men begin to feel the effects of equality (e.g., they realize that they no longer receive preferential treatment or have power over others), it feels like discrimination to them.* Being treated like everyone else is not discrimination (in fact, it is the textbook definition of equality). But when you’ve lived atop the racial hierarchy for your entire life and grown accustomed to preferential treatment and disproportionate amounts of power, it’s emotionally painful and destabilizing when they’re taken away.** For this reason, many white men have a vested interest in upholding the racial hierarchy, even if they profess democratic ideals that suggest otherwise.
Moreover many white men, even those who didn’t have black domestic workers or grow up in the Jim Crow South, likely grew up in social spaces that implicitly supported racial segregation and hierarchy. More often than not, whites were in the majority, and the people in power — judge, pastor, teacher, police officer, boss, banker — were all white men. Whereas, people of color were relegated to supporting roles and separate social circles. Many whites (including the many who aren’t bigots) have been nonconsciously conditioned to believe that this way of life is normal which means safe which means good. Therefore, racial hierarchy = good, and even worth protecting. As a result, societal shifts toward racial equality are seen as violations of all that is good and natural, and are cognitively disruptive.
TRUMP AND THE WHITE MAN’S LAST GASP
But beyond emotional distress and cognitive disruption, shifts toward racial equality can incite existential terror in white men who are experiencing systemic vulnerability for the first time. No longer guaranteed to be on top, no longer guaranteed to be in the majority, no longer guaranteed to be at the center of all that is hip, innovative and relevant, white men are no longeran invincible social group. Social psychologists who study this type of existential terror have found that prejudice serves as a buffer and a way to manage the terror. When humans are feeling vulnerable (particularly about our own invincibility and mortality), we respond with prejudice towards those who are different. This makes us feel better.***
Enter Donald Trump. His screeching, taunting, immature words reveal the tantrums of a desperate man who is trying to manage the existential terror of white men.
Trump’s xenophobic and racist political platform provides the “prejudice buffer” that many white men need in order to find relief from the pain of vulnerability. Given the changing racial dynamics in the U.S., it is no surprise that so many white men have gravitated toward Trump. His hateful rhetoric, with which he blames people of color for America’s problems, affirms white male identities and relieves their existential anxiety by assuring that he will restore order white male supremacy.
He is their Great White Hope, their last gasp for relevancy, centrality and power in a society that will never again be entirely run by white men.
TRUMP TANTRUMS IN THE CHURCH
I’ve witnessed a lot of Trump tantrums in the Church, even among Christians who would never vote for Trump. These tantrums may not be as boisterous, public or overt as Donald Trump’s tantrums, but they serve the same purpose — to react to increased diversity and racial equality by supporting racial hierarchy, keeping white men on top, and marginalizing people of color.
Trump tantrum: When predominantly white Christian organizations refuse to support programs and initiatives that are solely designed to empower people of color, often by claiming that to do so would “marginalize white people.”
Trump tantrum: When a white male pastor organizes a multiracial church service, but is quickly threatened when people of color want to turn a “peaceful” service into a “militant’ service by talking about Black Lives Matter.
Trump tantrum: When a predominantly white Christian conference fills its speaker line-up with people of color who are sure to speak from the dominant white perspective.
Trump tantrum: When white theologians and biblical scholars devalue perspectives from people of color and refuse to give tenure to scholars of color who study topics that white men aren’t studying, often claiming that “it’s not serious scholarship.”
Trump tantrum: White male leaders who love having a person of color as their #2, but become threatened when that person expresses independent thinking, becomes “too influential”, or no longer serves their agenda.
RACIAL EQUALITY AND THE RESURRECTION
These tantrums occur among Christians so regularly that it is clear that Trump and his vocal supporters aren’t the only ones suffering from existential terror. Whether they know it or not, many white Christians leaders are also reeling from the changing racial demographics and power dynamics.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. This Sunday, Christians around the world will celebrate the Resurrection which marks the inauguration of a new reality. Many of us genuinely long for God’s kin-dom to come, but don’t see that it is coming right before our eyes. When Jesus said, “Look! I am making everything new!” (Rev. 21:5) this is what he was talking about. Throughout his ministry, Jesus made all things new by inverting the power structure and creating space for all people to flourish, not just the ones who’ve traditionally held power. In his vision of the kin-dom of God, Jesus clearly states that “the first shall be last and the last shall be first” (Matthew 20:16). Jesus promised a kin-dom in which the one marginalized sheep is more important, relevant and central to the story than the 99 sheep who already “belong.” The shifts away from white male supremacy and toward racial equality are consistent with the new reality that the resurrection promises and should be met with hope, courageous hearts and supportive action, rather than fear and existential terror. There is no place for Trump tantrums among people of the cross and resurrection.
In the process of making all things new, the all-powerful Jesus inverted the power structure to the point of his own death on the cross. Why would he expect anything different from his powerful followers?
*Herring, C. & Henderson, L., (2014). Diversity in Organizations: A Critical Examination.
**But not as emotionally painful and destabilizing as actual discrimination, which people of color have faced for centuries. Don’t get it twisted.
***For more on Terror Management Theory, start here.