September 12, 2016

White Power and White Powerlessness: A New Double Consciousness?

Peter kaufman 2014By Peter Kaufman

Can someone really feel powerful and powerless at the same time? Is it possible that some white people feel compelled to assert the dominance of their race because they fear that whiteness is becoming less dominant? Are the recent expressions of white superiority actually connected with the growing fear of white inferiority?

The themes of white power and white powerlessness are gaining newfound scrutiny these days as social scientists and journalists are trying to make sense of the rise of Donald Trump and his supporters. While some see Trump and his followers predominantly through a racial lens as white supremacists, nativists, and racists, others argue that the underlying origins of this right-wing extremism stem from feelings of social and economic marginalization.

An alternative explanation is to reject this either-or proposition and acknowledge that white power and white powerlessness are not mutually exclusive. Maybe a more compelling analysis is to consider how these two seemingly contradictory themes—an assertion of power and a feeling of powerlessness—are actually mutually reinforcing. And interestingly, one way we might try to make sense of this reciprocal relationship is to borrow the insights of a sociological theorist writing about the plight of black Americans over one hundred years ago.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, W.E.B. Du Bois coined a term that has long been a central part of the sociological lexicon: double consciousness. As he detailed in his classic book, The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois used the term double consciousness to capture the struggle of the black person’s identity in the United States. The hostile and racist landscape of America resulted in “a world which yields him no true self-confidence, but only lets him see himself through the revelation of the other world.”

In one of the most famous and oft-quoted sociological passages, Du Bois explains in greater detail what he meant by this enduring term:

It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness,--an American a Negro; two souls two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.

In all of the years I have taught about Du Bois’s sociological theories, I have only ever thought of double consciousness as it relates to African Americans. To consider how his ideas might explain the consciousness of some white Americans almost seems heretical. But if we approach classical social theories as dynamic analytical templates, instead of as stagnant explanations of particular time periods, then we should not be shy about applying them to different contexts, situations, and even historical eras.

It seems as if a case can be made that poor white Americans may feel as if they are looking at themselves through the eyes of others and feel as if the outside world looks on in amused contempt and pity. As deindustrialization and outsourcing have decimated the job base in many of these communities, and as the country becomes more racially and ethnically diverse, these individuals are faced with a new social reality that may yield [them] no true self-confidence, but only lets [them] see [themselves] through the revelation of the other world.

When I introduce students to Du Bois’s concept of double consciousness, I sometimes use the first lines of Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison’s classic novel of the twentieth century that details one black man’s experience of feeling unacknowledged by society: “I am an invisible man. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids—and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.”  

Much like Du Bois, Ellison uses his story and the metaphor of invisibility to capture the extent to which black Americans feel unseen, unvalued, and ultimately, as an inferior class of people. The works of Du Bois and Ellison are still used widely today because they continue to resonate with the experiences of many black Americans. What I am suggesting here is that these insights about feeling marginalized and disenfranchised might also help us understand some of the underlying perceptions of poor White Americans; in particular, their racist proclamations of white power.

Poor whites may indeed feel a degree of powerlessness because they increasingly sense that society is leaving them behind, treating them with contempt and pity, and rendering them invisible. But if we want to see white powerlessness and white power as mutually reinforcing, we need to be able to explain why poor whites are turning their fears and frustration toward blacks and Latinos. The big sociological question is why are poor whites asserting their racial superiority when they are suffering from class inferiority?

This question is a perplexing one and it has interested social scientists for a long time. With the ascendancy of Donald Trump and his strong support among those experiencing white powerlessness, this question becomes even more vexing. How is it possible that this demographic enthusiastically supports a nominee who is undeniably part of the socio-economic class that is responsible for the job losses and economic downturns that have devastated their communities? If poor whites are feeling disenfranchised because of their social class woes, why aren’t they joining together with other marginalized social classes, such as poor blacks and Latinos, and fighting for class power instead of white power?

Although much is being written on these questions, let me offer an explanation that once again borrows from the work of W.E.B. Du Bois. About thirty years after he introduced the idea of double consciousness, Du Bois wrote a book, Black Reconstruction in America, that explors why class solidarity between poor black and poor white workers never materialized. One might expect, as Du Bois pointed out, that poor whites and poor blacks “will unite because of their opposition to exploitation by the capitalists.” However, this harmony among the working class never transpired. Here is how Du Bois explains it:

[There was] a carefully planned and slowly evolved method, which drove such a wedge between the white and black workers that there probably are not today in the world two groups of workers with practically identical interests who hate and fear each other so deeply and persistently and who are kept so far apart that neither sees anything of common interest.

In the next paragraph, which is so prophetic it could have been written today, Du Bois continues his analysis by pointing out how poor whites are “compensated in part by a sort of public and psychological wage.” What he means by this is that poor whites, despite their lower class standing, still enjoy the privileges of being white in a largely racist society:

They were given public deference and titles of courtesy because they were white. They were admitted freely with all classes of white people to public functions, public parks, and the best public schools. The police were drawn from their ranks, and the courts, dependent on their votes, treated them with such leniency as to encourage lawlessness. Their vote selected public officials, and while this had small effect upon the economic situation, it had great effect upon their personal treatment and the deference shown them.

Reading this passage, some may say that poor whites are not experiencing a double consciousness of being white and American as much as they are experiencing a lack of consciousness about what it means to be a white American. That may be true. But it is also true that people’s perceptions of reality are more likely to determine their behavior than the objective reality that they experience. If poor whites feel a sense of powerlessness, then their actions will arise from this sentiment; hence, pronouncements of white power.

It is not easy to untangle the intricate history of class and race. But if we want to begin to understand how some can express white power while simultaneously experiencing white powerlessness, then we must try to make sense of how these two dimensions intersect. The insights we can glean from the classic theory of W.E.B. Du Bois may help us gain greater clarity on this complex contemporary issue.


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