Trumpism and its Discontents

The Trump Presidency, Post–Color Blindness, and the Reconstruction of Public Race Speech

The following is a chapter from Trumpism and its Discontents. Click to download a PDF of the book here.

By Zeus Leonardo 

Cover of the trumpism bookWith the election of Donald Trump, the United States finds itself in a political crisis that scholars are scrambling to understand. Trump’s campaign to “make America great again” (abbreviated as MAGA) mixes the old Right and its white working-class resentment with a new and alternative Right dressed in Banana Republic metrowear. The immediate question is “What happens when we mix old racism with new racism?” As this chapter argues, the result is that racialized speech undergoes another transformation. From the transparency of Jim Crow to the opaqueness of color blindness, new race speech is articulated with the platform of free speech some fifty years after the first free speech movement. Trump may be the convenient figurehead and Trumpism the new label; therefore, this book puts appropriate emphasis on both the man and his manipulation of right-wing ideology. However, the political moment is less about the president, his aspirations, and his antics, and more about an ideology that subsumes him, even if his name graces its title. Therefore, Trumpism is not about Trump per se (although he might wish it were) but instead about a new historical condition of race relations.

This chapter takes the truism of this basic premise and outlines the contours of new racial speech after color blindness, a type of race talk that, on the surface, harkens back to Jim Crow speech but cannot be equated with it. Its overtness, both linguistic (e.g., “build the wall” and “Muslim ban”) and symbolic (e.g., white men brandishing Tiki torches), recalls Jim Crow whiteness only at the obvious level. It is unabashed, brazen, and unapologetic. But at the semiotic level, new racial speech inaugurates whiteness in an unparalleled way precisely because it interpellates an acknowledged racial subject, an identity politics of whiteness. Of course, we may argue that people of color have always known that whiteness was a type of identity politics, a dynamic to which whites have been oblivious.2 The difference in the current conjuncture is that new whiteness is white public assertion of its own racial identity as white. Whereas Jim Crow whiteness equated whiteness with the “human,” it demoted people of color to the status of racialized humans (in fact, as not human at all on many considerations). It forms a continuous arc with Bacon’s Rebellion, when white workers revolted with African slaves against the American government. A racial cut between oppressed “white” workers and slaves inaugurated a social distinction that divides an all but now unbridgeable difference between white humans and nonhuman blacks.2  The ensuing practice was decisive and allowed an important difference to be established by law, stipulating that only blacks could be punished in public for infractions of which they were convicted, literally and racially marking their bodies through the history of public whippings, other cruelties, or death for centuries to come, including Jim Crow. 

Suffering a legitimation blow during the civil rights movement, Jim Crow institutions crumbled—and with them went Jim Crow discourse—because American claims to democracy faced contradictions with the media images circulated around the world of white cruelty toward blacks. Jim Crow had to change, but white supremacy (in the sense of an assumed white superiority) continued. Jim Crow’s replacement came in the form of color blindness, or racialized speech that refuses overt references to race in a specious assertion of race neutrality and neoliberal individualism.3 Deserving to be quoted at length, Eduardo Bonilla-Silva writes,

These explanations emanate from a new racial ideology that I label color[-] blind racism. This ideology, which acquired cohesiveness and dominance in the late 1960s, explains contemporary racial inequality as the outcome of nonracial dynamics. Whereas Jim Crow racism explained blacks’ social standing as the result of their biological and moral inferiority, color-blind racism avoids such facile arguments. Instead, whites rationalize minorities’ contemporary status as the product of market dynamics, naturally occurring phenomena, and blacks’ imputed cultural limitations. . . . In contrast to the Jim Crow era, [when] racial inequality was enforced through overt means (e.g., signs saying “No Niggers Welcomed Here” or shotgun diplomacy at the voting booth), today racial practices operate in “now you see it, now you don’t” fashion. . . . Much as Jim Crow racism served as the glue for defending a brutal and overt system of racial oppression in the pre–Civil Rights era, color-blind racism serves today as the ideological armor for a covert and institutionalized system in the post–Civil Rights era. And the beauty of this new ideology is that it aids in the maintenance of white privilege without fanfare, without naming those who[m] it subjects and those who[m] it rewards.4 (italics in original)

According to color blindness, there might be talks of blackness but not blacks, whiteness but not whites. Discourses of proxy became the dominant way to “talk” about race without talking about “race.” Coded phrases such as “bad choices” that people make or “bad values” that make people, become racially charged references to blacks without overt modifiers. Coated terms such as neighborhood or school “preferences,” become stand-ins for second-generation housing and educational segregation. In fact, the term color blindness is misleading since white speech is not blind to color or race at all as much as it selectively sees it.5  It is what Bonilla-Silva calls a condition of “racism without racists,”6 whereby the agents of racialized acts are removed. 

As such, employing color blindness is a way of feigning disregard for race, an action all the while betrayed by a clear preference for a racialized worldview. To be clear, the term color blindness is a tongue-in-cheek designation for a race discourse that distorts the actual machinations of racialization rather than confirms that the United States is blind to race or color. In that sense, color blindness is an ironic classification and not a literal one. However, as a term, color blindness comes with the unfortunate consequence of connoting ableism in that it forms a disparaging association with people who have the actual or medical condition of color blindness, uncovering racial contradictions while covering ability-related others. Of course,  its users, usually racially liberal to radical, do not intend this derision, but it is conscripted into ideological ableism nonetheless, with both real and imagined effects on unintended targets, in this case people with visual disabilities. To the chagrin of critical disability scholars, “color blindness” comes at the expense of people with color blindness through politics of representation.

Trump speech (not to be associated only with Trump) exceeds color blindness without returning to Jim Crow.  It uses explicit racial references but inaugurates a) the ordinariness of whiteness, b) whiteness on its back foot, and c) the admission of whiteness as a public identity.  These trends make new whiteness distinct from both Jim Crow and color blindness, a racialized speech that I call “post–color blindness,” a hybrid form of race speech that blends aspects of Jim Crow and color blindness through the explicitness of the first and the denial of existing race structures of the second. Post–color blindness is also not postracial because it resorts to raciology as a last-ditch effort to assert white right, this time through an appeal to ordinariness accompanied by a “right to exist” discourse. In other words, post–color blindness affirms a racial worldview by constructing whiteness as just another race deserving of respect and recognition. It appropriates the identity politics discourse of the Left and leverages it in what Kristen Buras might call “Rightist multiculturalism.”7

Finally, although it would be difficult to deny that the rise of Trump is a form of white victory, I want to call attention to its sense of desperation. Insofar as post– color blindness inaugurates white raciality as a public identity, it represents a radical break from virtually all eras of race speech that equated whiteness with “humanity,” as something beyond racial affiliation. Even past enunciations of “white power” are convenient uses of racial tropes to designate whites as human, that is, whites as representatives of the human race. Because it postulates that only whites are human, evoking white power reminds nonwhites of their status as nonhumans and restores whites’ humanity, which they felt was threatened. By contrast, whites’ recent admission of racial affiliation is no small transformation in race discourse as whites finally emerge as racial beings from their assumed and generalized humanity, something previously avoided at all cost. This is what I mean about the desperation of post–color blindness and the emergence of whites qua whites represent a rupture. It amounts to whites’ admission of the reality of being white and acknowledges that being white is in fact a racial experience. White becomes a marked category.

The Rise of New Whiteness, New White Speech

As defined here, white supremacy represents the institutional largesse of whiteness, even as white speech feigns accommodations to people of color in the US context. Following Roediger, changes in whiteness represent alterations in whites and the way they speak, but it does not change the ideology of whiteness to something other than what it can withhold from others.8 Transformations in race speech generally, and in white speech specifically, provide discursive information that is symptomatic of the changing nature of what it means to be white as well as the shifting dynamics of US race relations. In this sense, new whiteness and white speech are absolutely crucial to understand as constitutive moments in race contestation as well as continuity.

Associating new white speech as coterminous with white supremacy makes sense only in the most obvious way. Its nationalist fervor, nativist impulses, and invocations of “Birth of a Nationhood” fear and mongering (after all, the root word nati means “birth”) articulate well with worries over a previous and cruel era of race relations. But as Bonilla-Silva suggests, color blindness, or laissez-faire racism, has always been white supremacist in its own right, with racial outcomes.9 That is, color-blind speech is the public discourse, which, despite being preferable to Jim Crow for several good reasons, more effectively hides white social advantage behind the veil (and not in Du Bois’s sense).10 It is white supremacist in its orientation, even if it denounces white supremacist discourse as its convenient alibi for racist transgressions.11  That is, white supremacist discourse is color blindness’s hidden shame from which it likes to distance itself, like Mr. Rochester hiding his mad wife in the attic in Charlotte Brontë’s novel Jane Eyre.12 As color blindness’s alibi, white supremacy assumes the guilt from which color-blind whiteness is now absolved without fundamentally disturbing race subordination and despite important changes in race relations over time. By building an alibi for itself in the form of transparent white power, color blindness becomes a temporal–spatial term. It hails from a different time and marks a different place for white consciousness. 

On the face of it, new whiteness and speech are white supremacist. Yet this is not the Klan, as satirized by popular comedian Dave Chappelle in the first episode of his celebrated TV show, Chappelle’s Show, where Clayton Bigsby is the figure of a black white supremacist.13 To his genius, Chappelle plays with themes of color blindness because Bigsby is physically blind and apparently does not realize his “fact of blackness.”14 To repeat, any play on color blindness faces the danger of association with ableism, a situation that does not deny that Chappelle’s gambit produces deep insights into whiteness, including a not-so-veiled knowing wink to whites’ co-optation of black conservatism for white supremacy, an inverted and twisted reference to Bacon’s Rebellion, and the overall contradictions of raciology. In this case, I would like to focus on Bigsby’s antiblackness, which is useful to the cause of white supremacist ideology as long as his white hood and cloak hide his “true” racial identity from his white constituency—that is, until he removes his hood at the urging of the “brotherhood.” Chappelle’s show’s episode one belies the aspirations for race neutrality in color blindness, understood as a discourse built on a naïve assumption that blind people are somehow oblivious to race.15

Through interviews with blind whites, Osagie Obasogie uncovers a rather typical portrait of antiblackness from people who otherwise cannot “see” the ostensive facticity of race that rests first and foremost on the obvious plane of sight, skin color being paramount. Their race speech is hardly distinguishable from that of whites with vision, and their lack of sight does not prevent them from seeing race in more or less typical ways. White supremacy comes in many shapes and forms, even occurring in situations in which whiteness and blackness are not physical facts on the first order of obviousness, the first premise upon which so many race works are built. Against race’s ipsa loquitur status, Obasogie’s research should go a long way to dispel the notion that color blindness is an idealized species of speech based on the aspiration of disregard for race. If actually being blind does not prevent antiblackness, the preferred metaphor of color blindness comes with certain spurious assumptions about blindness as a state of racial enlightenment.

If racial blind people’s nonrecognition of race becomes a problematic aspiration for color blindness espoused by people with sight, then Obasogie’s data point to the fallacy that blind people are more neutral in their racial attitudes than people with sight are. Once this finding has been established, the metaphor of color blindness is revealing insofar as Obasogie’s data refutes its claim to being a preferable alternative to recognizing race. Furthermore, as a legal scholar, Obasogie questions the soundness of color-blind jurisprudence since at least Plessy v. Ferguson, where in 1896 the US Supreme Court ruled that racially segregated facilities, like restrooms, or institutions, like education, were legal as long as their quality was equal, known simply as “separate but equal.”16 Based on the data that blind people are not in fact “color-blind,” the biopolitics of color-blind understanding is revealed as ideological and as part of the rebiologization of race.  

This being the case, recent upticks in white supremacist speech are less the reappearance of white supremacy as such but rather the externalization of decades of built-up white ressentiment, hidden effectively behind color-blind speech.  Differing from Nietzsche’s original meaning of the term ressentiment, or the resentful feelings and actions of a previously dominant group that is being eclipsed, the new Right’s ressentiment lacks any creativity to respond with a higher standard of humanity.17 As Wendy Brown argues, the new Right’s attitude finds expression in a debilitative nihilism that is a zero-sum game. Or simply put, if white men cannot rule the Earth, there shall be no Earth to rule, with denial of global warming being only one symptom of this kind of thinking. As an affective politics, new white speech lacks the ability to turn inward, to sublimate its perceived injuries, and would rather turn violently outward toward Muslims, Mexicans, and Marxists. It is an alternative Right, resulting in the confluence of new technologies, a new-found confidence, and a newbie politician-president whom it considers a card-carrying member of the club, even if he appears to disavow its followers when it suits him to do so.  Kristen Buras’s and Michael Apple’s study of the hegemonic process (applicable to either the Right or the Left) has never been more useful.18

Antonio Gramsci’s study of hegemony is more relevant than ever as we witness the alliance between neoliberal, neomacho, and neofascist discourse incarnate in Donald Trump.19 Gramsci’s framework reminds us that nothing makes this triumvirate naturally hold together outside of a flimsy conjuncture that coheres for mutual political benefit, just as President Barack Obama’s election saw young voters, people of color, and white liberals break political bread with one another. While Obama stood for civil society and its institutions as protections against authoritarianism, the new Right wants not only to squander civil society but also to scorch the Earth in the process.21  New whiteness is starting to show its desperation, pushed out of the brightness of the white cave upon which it has depended for so long. Against all measures, whites were accustomed to deploying the humanist discourse of man, the specific content of their whiteness rarely having to make an appearance, particularly to themselves since to blacks and others the matter of whiteness is quite obvious. Nonwhiteness was the modus operandi of whiteness’s claims to entitlement despite their contradictions. More and more, this discourse is breaking down, and whites are entering a new stage of speech wherein the fact of their whiteness becomes visible, and not just to people of color but increasingly also to whites. This new development is an existential upheaval and political transformation.

It appears that whites may have discovered the errors of their color-blind ways. As white speech evolves again, whites have found an alternative in post–color blindness. As an alibi for post–color blindness, color blindness is tantamount to white admission of another guilt. As a less evolved species of white race discourse, color-blind race consciousness becomes the inferior cousin to post–color blindness that makes new concessions, including the appropriation of identity politics learned from people of color. Now, white is a race, a public identity that is weaponized not so much as a form of entitlement for the unum but rationalized as part of the pluribus. 

The Turn to Post–Color Blindness

The transformation of race speech dates back at least to the Tea Party’s insurgence, prefigured by the neoconservative turn of the 1980s. As a general reaction to several decades of liberal progress, we witnessed the whitelash against eight years of Obama, twenty-five years of multiculturalism, forty years of affirmative action, and fifty years of civil rights legislation. For the first time in several administrations, the presidential cabinet does not contain any Latinx members. As far as education is concerned, Trump’s appointment of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, a vocal proponent of educational vouchers and part of the billionaire family that owns Amway, gestures as much in this direction. Having very few members with credentials or experience in educational policy, her office seems bent on excoriating public schools. This development  follows on the heels of racial resentment signaled by the 2003 Michigan affirmative action case, Gratz v. Bollinger, that questioned the use of race considerations in admissions,21 an inspiration for the Fisher v. University of Texas22 case in which the plaintiff claimed that her whiteness was used against her admission application to the University of Texas (UT)–Austin. 

The 2019 Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard case brought by Asian American students regarding the university’s use of subtle racial considerations in admissions23, was represented by the same legal backers of Abigail Fisher. As the proclaimed model minority, Asian Americans are once again racially triangulated between white and black anxieties, poster children for the possibilities and failures of color blindness.24 As they wave protest signs declaring that they will not be used as a “wedge,” Asian American students at Harvard are articulated with whites in a kind of complicated interest convergence, this time an alignment between Asian Americans’ and whites’ interests against blacks’ and Latinx’s interests.25 One wonders if this case is prima facie evidence of a fear that some Ivy League schools will soon look more like the University of California, Berkeley and other elite public universities with high Asian American student populations if subtle criteria with race consequences are not put into place at the point of admissions at private universities.

Post–color blindness differs from color blindness precisely because it does not turn a blind eye to race. This time, white America uses race as a public weapon to address its grievance as a targeted group, not unlike the strategy used to advocate for affirmative action for people of color. Whether or not there is good evidence for Whites to claim such target status is beside the point as the Fisher case seems to overlook the many instances of students of color with better credentials than Fisher had who were also turned away by UT. The Fisher case sits well with post–color blindness’s claim of white victimhood, which asserts Fisher’s whiteness as a prerequisite to understanding the case’s appeal. Yet this development also differs from Jim Crow’s assumed white superiority that victimized people of color. In fact, in Fisher, white returns as victim, turning the proverbial table. White victimhood during Jim Crow could not be tolerated as a possibility because it smacked of weakness; therefore, the “real” perpetrator had to be stamped out, usually quickly and brutally  (e.g., by lynching). Whiteness could not simultaneously occupy the spaces of supremacy and victimhood. With Fisher, whites emerged as injured victims of race relations at the hands of a university system perceived as pandering to people of color. Her case’s argument represents not a blindness to color or race but rather a certain obliviousness to whiteness.

We should note that the Fisher case’s example reminds us of other white events in history. For instance, in the mid-1950s, the young Emmett Till fell to the accusations of a white woman, Carolyn Bryant, in an incident that led to his brutal lynching at the hands of a white mob in Mississippi. We now know that part of her accusation was false since Bryant recanted crucial details and embellishments decades later. The tie that binds both Fisher and Bryant is not only their whiteness but also their positionality as white women within race and gender relations. Therefore, we must account for the “victimology” that some white women are able to leverage as part of their race privilege. As “injured injurers,” whereby white women are injured by gender relations and do the injuring in race relations, they occupy a political space that allows them to weaponize their appearance of “weakness.”26 In Fisher’s case, her gendered race performance allowed her to injure while claiming injury by questioning the “merit” of phantom students of color who were presumed to have “taken her spot.” 

This argument differs from Robin DiAngelo’s framework of “white fragility,” in which whites lack the strength (what she calls “stamina”) to withstand honest race dialogue or a direct confrontation with race history.27 My point is that it is precisely this performance of fragility that allowed Fisher to reach the Supreme Court as a “racial victim” in what amounts to a feminine form of whiteness. Rather than a form of microaggression, it is more accurately described as a species of micropassive aggression, or a compromised power that nonetheless accomplishes its goal. With that point established, my larger point is that the discourse of white victimhood has reached normalcy, and what before may have been considered unacceptable white complaining has now become a weapon. In general, whites are more comfortable mobilizing white victimhood as they appropriate the discourse of the Left absent its historical referent and overall racial injury. At the core, it is white entitlement, but not because of an overt argument for superiority but rather a more subtle pleading for fair consideration of a felt minoritized identity, that is, whiteness. 

One senses that white America has had enough of the only several-decades-old  minority identity politics. WWA, or Whiteness with an Attitude, shall not be eclipsed. Or as its Tiki-torch-bearing spokespeople in Charlottesville chanted, “They will not replace us.” This defiance is indicative of the new whiteness’s apocalyptic discourse and Armageddon mentality, as if Jews, Mexicans, Muslims, blacks, indigenous people, and immigrants were out to replace them. Unable to hide behind the previously opaque veil of whiteness, the Trump election was clearly about the assertion of and possessive investment in another kind of identity politics, this time white.28 Whites, particularly rural and white working-class voters, not only spoke up by voting, but also spoke up as an interest group. This situation differed from the earlier images of “Joe the Plumber” from Ohio during Obama’s first bid for the presidency. Joe had universal appeal as the common, hardworking family man, and that was precisely his power and effectiveness. Now, Joe’s whiteness was surely an issue; indeed, it was an identity that was weaponized by the Right. It would have been different had he been José the Plumber. For this reason, the shift in race discourse is not simply a return to a previous white chauvinism disguised as universal humanism. This time, white does not equate with human, even if to be human means to be white. From neighborhood selection, to job placement, to school choice, the new whiteness wants what “any” reasonable American wants, a right to exist and be left alone. It wants symmetrical rights with blackness to assert “white pride,” “white nationalism,” and a “white homeland.”

Post–color blindness is only the recent shift in white race discourse, owing itself to several trends. More and more whites are being challenged by the growing tide against whiteness as globally people of color catch up to standards of living previously available only to whites, even to working-class whites. When more whites suffer from economic restructuring and job insecurity, resentment over their lost entitlements grows. In comparative terms, whites have experienced a decrease in their standard of living made possible by economic recessions and the exporting of jobs. As capitalists scour the globe for profits, the average white worker has not been shielded from their ravages. So white workers’ complaints are not without merit, even if their targets of criticism miss the mark by blaming immigrant and black labor for their woes. This trajectory makes possible a new discourse of white victimization that necessitates naming whites’ experience as “white,” but this time as a source of injury rather than exultation. The white protesters of Charlottesville surely remind us of “white pride” parades, but their chant that they shall not be replaced speaks to a different or added sensibility marked by ressentiment as desperation sets in. This development makes whites quite dangerous, as we know from even anecdotal understandings of desperate people who feel they have nothing to lose . . . but everything. In their minds, theirs is a hymn of survival, and they assert that they merely want to “be free to be me,” like everyone else. On the face of it, there is something ordinary about their request, less Hidalgo and more All God’s Children. 

However, the road to making whiteness ordinary is filled with many potholes. It is lined with cracks in reasoning when whites attempt to put forward an understanding of whiteness as somehow being racially like any other race, black or otherwise. Although much of antiracist discourse attempts to flatten racial differences in terms of the power accorded to the races, it proceeds by acknowledging the already existing power accorded to whiteness that anoints most things white or European with more worth or higher status. Or to paraphrase Saul Bellow’s unreflective chauvinism, “Show me the African Proust or Zulu Tolstoy.”29  If we proceed from this vantage point, there is no way to upend the racial contract because attempting to do so only ends up being judged by the very terms of the contract— that is, to come out the other end as mad by pointing out the insanity.30 Yet we cannot be surprised at this outcome when we set up a racialized world where this is a result of that. From the rarefied culture of Bellow to the common culture of Joe the Plumber, whiteness’s forgetfulness about its own hidalgo, or son-of-god, status means that the move to make it ordinary comes with elisions that the ordinary white subject is unable to counteract without an extraordinary effort.31

Furthermore, including whiteness in the rainbow discourse as just another difference confuses whites with whiteness. Whereas whites from abolitionist John Brown to former California governor Jerry Brown have shown us examples of antiracism, it is less clear that the ideology of whiteness inheres this capacity. As Roediger never tires of reminding us, the history of whiteness makes it difficult to find examples when whiteness was neither false nor oppressive.32 As a result, Noel  Ignatiev agrees that the most unreasonable act—that is, to abolish whiteness—may  be the most reasonable one to take.33 This means that the argument to reconstruct or resignify whiteness in order to redeem it may qualify as a reasonable act but the most unreasonable one to take. The problem of symmetry—that white is a race like any other—becomes a form of mystification in the order of Marx and Engels’s concept of the camera obscura, in which the racial world appears rather inverted.34 It is a bit like arguing that the capitalist class is a social experience, experientially different from but politically similar to the working class. Whiteness is special, but not in the way that whites wish it were. In its desperate zeal to project whites’ perceived injured status, new white speech, or post–color blindness, fails to grasp this important distinction.

The prefix post in post–color blindness should not be taken literally to mean “after” color blindness. I may be arguing that post–color blindness is a challenger discourse, even an assumptive one in its embryonic stage, but it does not suggest the disappearance of color blindness, just as the latter did not signal the end of traditional Jim Crow discourse, which went underground or was confined in private white spaces. Trump’s arrival allowed Jim Crow to return in an altered way, combining with color blindness to produce post–color blindness. It is more helpful to define the post as a spatial rather than a strictly temporal prefix. That is, as with many varieties of post theories, from postmodernism to postcolonialism, it is helpful to frame the shift as a way of marking a new space from which to theorize.35  It is helpful to recall that as the harbinger of the turn to post, Jean-Francois Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition admits that the postmodern is still part of the modern project, but only after it reckons with the postmodern turn, including the incredulity toward metanarratives like scientific or technological progress.36 Post–color blindness is less about marking a new time when something new has replaced something old and more about the marking of a new coordinate in racial contestation in Gramsci’s sense of a war of position.37  It is in this sense that the post is like a new stake driven into the racial terrain.

The Alt-Right Goes to College: The University and a Second Free Speech Movement 
The threats to higher education in President Trump’s use of flagrant misogyny, racism, and xenophobia are already clear to some scholars. It is part of a reaction to an overall white emasculation since at least the twice-elected President Obama. This felt emasculinity is intense as more citizens outside of the white male worldview insist on and fight for their share of the social contract, which they perceive to be in jeopardy. Amidst this threat of retreat from civil rights and democratic institutions, the university sits in the uncomfortable position of promoting cherished notions of academic freedom and freedom of speech, indeed of freedom of thought. Trump has already threatened to pull federal funding from universities that violate free speech standards when they disinvite or show bias against certain speakers or speech content that, for all practical purposes, expresses sentiments that sympathize with the Far Right. For instance, the Right in the United States finds its inspiration in the “Dangerous Faggot Tour” of the unlikely and inimitable Milo Yiannopoulos—unlikely in the sense that as a gay man, he does not exude patriarchal masculinity (a factor that does not prevent him from machoing up). Yiannopoulos covers or covers up many things at once. He is gay, so the better to mask the Right’s homophobic tendencies; he claims to be Jewish, so the better to deflect attention from Trump’s courting of neo-Nazis when he claims that the Charlottesville event was the fault of “both sides”; Yiannopoulos claims to partner with black men, so the better to tokenize blacks in a politics of antiblackness; and finally, he is handsome and hip, so he minimizes ties to a curmudgeon whiteness of the past. In many ways, the tragicomic figure of the charismatic Yiannopoulos represents the new Right. 

Yiannopoulos’s national university campus tour is filled with hateful speech, even if it is below the legal standard of “hate speech.” He throws into frenetic frenzy his college Republican supporters, including those on my own campus of University of California, Berkeley. He has appeared multiple times at Sather Gate and Sproul Plaza on the Berkeley campus, a site emblazoned in people’s minds as the beginning of the US student free speech movement of the 1960s. Mario Savio, the figurehead of Berkeley’s free speech movement, would likely turn in his grave. Yiannopoulos’s ties to Steve Bannon and Ben Shapiro at Breitbart News should not be underestimated, despite his public falling out with them. To the tune of several million dollars, Shapiro and Yiannopoulos alone cost the Berkeley campus and UC system money that could have alleviated undocumented and other students’ financial challenges in these times of austerity. Most of this money was spent on beefedup security to help protect the speakers from Berkeley protesters who included students, faculty, staff, and community members, some of whom had driven to the campus from hundreds of miles away. To this media circus, Shapiro has responded that rather than protect him from Berkeley’s rage, the money would have been better spent protecting us all from the black criminals who pose a bigger threat to people’s safety. 

It is not without some sense of irony that the process of “making America great again” has spawned such lowbrow racialized and macho speech. It is a reminder that whiteness controls not only the means of production but also the production of meanness.38 Outraged faces of students and faculty have been seen protesting Yiannopoulos’s campus visits to test Berkeley’s limits of and fidelity to free speech, which is not free or particularly worthy of the label “speech” since on at least one occasion the Alt-Right’s darling only appeared for a few minutes before being whisked away, and Anne Coulter and several others never actually made their appearances despite being on the invitee list. It has been instructive to learn that the Right has found a vulnerability in the university’s policies regarding the extension of invitations to campus speakers, especially at public institutions that pride themselves on shared governance that includes student groups’ ability to advocate for their speaker choices. For example, the Berkeley College Republicans (BRC) who invited Yiannopoulos and company were granted their wish despite violating due dates and other policies involving outstanding invitations to campus speakers. Private universities may have more freedom to exert pressure on their students and to exact stricter interpretations of free speech, but student protests at the University of Chicago and Middlebury College in Vermont suggest that the publics are not the only ones that struggle with the ramifications of free speech. 

Trump’s populism is very serious. He was able to pull together the white vote in a way that exceeded the efforts of other Republicans in recent elections who had regularly relied on the white vote. Part of Trump’s success was voters’ reaction to the “establishment politics” represented by Hillary Clinton and others, but it seems equally a desperate attempt for whites who felt under threat to come together. Post– color blindness is the place where white desperation meets politics. Frederic Jameson leveraged the phrase “late capitalism” as a description of capitalism’s attempts to deal with economic crises in the twentieth century but also as a temporal way to mark capitalism’s struggle with the fact of exploitation that has become more obvious.39 Contrary to Trumpism’s being a sign only of white victory—and yes, it was a victory in a manner of speaking—one wonders if post–color blindness signals the beginning of late whiteness, or whites’ increasing anxiety about the glaring contradictions about being white in US society. The university’s ability to engage with late whiteness is key, and policies concerning acts of free speech and academic freedom are two important wars of position in the cultural struggle against white supremacy.

A second free speech movement is brewing in universities, fifty years after its first iteration. But rather than involving militant student activists, the conservative sequel combs over its paradoxes by building a flimsy partnership among factions of the Right. Its political glue is not obvious outside of an apparent animus toward difference. In fact, it was telling that the Right abandoned Yiannopoulos precisely when he showed vulnerability by opening up about his difficulties as a young man coming out as gay to older men. The resulting characterization of Yiannopoulos as just another pervert with pedophiliac tendencies exposed fissures in the Right among those who were perfectly content as long as Yiannopoulos victimized Mexicans and Muslims but who became uncomfortable when he projected a conflicted portrait of himself as a young man. If this is free speech, the Right sells it as free of contradictions, complexity, and contentiousness, making it unlike any other kind of speech we know. Trumpism, post–color blindness, and responsibility-free speech make for an interesting cocktail, but their ideology reeks of desperation. 

  • 2. a. b. Sara Ahmed, “Declarations of Whiteness: The Nonperformativity of Anti-racism,” Borderlands E-Journal 3, no. 2 (2004):1–22.
  • 3. 3. Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, Racism without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in the United States, 3rd ed. (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2010).
  • 4. Bonilla-Silva, Racism without Racists, 2–4 (italics in original).
  • 5. Zeus Leonardo, “The War on Schools: NCLB, Nation Creation, and the Educational Construction of Whiteness,” Race Ethnicity & Education 10, no. 3 (2007): 261-278.
  • 6. Bonilla-Silva, Racism without Racists.
  • 7. Kristen Buras, Rightist Multiculturalism (New York: Routledge, 2008).
  • 8. David Roediger, Toward the Abolition of Whiteness (New York: Verso, 1994); Noel Ignatiev and John Garvey, “Abolish the White Race: By Any Means Necessary,” in Race Traitor, ed. Noel Ignatiev and John Garvey (New York: Routledge, 1996), 9–14.
  • 9. Bonilla-Silva, Racism without Racists; Lawrence Bobo and Ryan Smith, “From Jim Crow Racism to Laissez-Faire Racism: The Transformation of Racial Attitudes,” in Beyond Pluralism: The Conception of Groups and Group Identities in America, ed. Wendy Katkin, Ned Landsman, and Andrea Tyree (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1998), 182–220.
  • 10. W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (New York: Penguin, 1989); originally published in 1904.
  • 11. Zeus Leonardo and Michalinos Zembylas, “Whiteness as Technology of Affect: Implications for Educational Praxis,” Equity and Excellence in Education 46, no. 1 (2013), 150–65.
  • 12. Charlotte Brontë, Jane Eyre, Riverside ed. (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1959); first published in 1847.
  • 13. “Popcody and Clayton Bigsby,” Season 1, Episode 1, Chappelle’s Show, Comedy Central, January 22, 2003, Dave Chappelle (actor), TV.
  • 14. Frantz Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, trans. Richard Philcox (New York: Grove Press, 2008). Originally published in 1952.
  • 15. Osagie Obasogie, Blinded by Sight (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2013).
  • 16. Cf. Neil Gotanda, “A Critique of ‘Our Constitution is Color-Blind,’” in Critical Race Theory, ed. Kimberlé Crenshaw, Neil Gotanda, Gary Peller, and Kendall Thomas (New York: New Press, 1995), 257–75.
  • 17. Wendy Brown, “Neoliberalism’s Scorpion Tail: Markets and Morals Where Democracy Once Was,” public lecture, University of California, Berkeley, October 30, 2018.
  • 18. Buras, Rightist Multiculturalism; Kristen Buras, “Education, Cultural Politics, and the New Hegemony,” in Handbook of Cultural Politics and Education, ed. Zeus Leonardo (Dordrecht, The Netherlands: SensePublishers, 2010), 341–71; Michael Apple, Educating the “Right” Way, 2nd ed. (New York: Routledge, (2006); Michael Apple and Anita Oliver, “Becoming Right: Education and the Formation of Conservative Movements,” in Sociology of Education: Emerging Perspectives, ed. Carlos Torres and Theodore Mitchell (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1998), 91–119.
  • 19. Antonio Gramsci, Selections from Prison Notebooks, ed. and trans. Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Smith (New York: International Publishers, 1971). 20. Brown, “Neoliberalism’s Scorpion Tail.”
  • 21. Gratz v. Bollinger, 539 U.S. 244. 2003.
  • 22. Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, 132 S. Ct. 1536. 2016.
  • 23. Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. v. President and Fellows of Harvard, Case 1:14-cv-14176-ADB, Document 672. 2019.
  • 24. Claire J. Kim, “The Racial Triangulation of Asian Americans,” Politics & Society 27, no. 1 (1999): 105–38.
  • 25. Derrick Bell, “Brown v. Board of Education and the Interest Convergence Dilemma,” in Critical Race Theory, ed. Kimberlé Crenshaw, Neil Gotanda, Gary Peller, and Kendall Thomas (New York: New Press, 1995), 20–29.
  • 26. Zeus Leonardo and Blanca Gamez-Djokic, “Sometimes Leaving Means Staying: Race and White Teachers’ Emotional Investments,” in Teachers College Yearbook 121, no 13: 1-10. https://www.tcrecord.org/PrintContent.asp?ContentID=22986.; Zeus Leonardo and Erica Boas, “Other Kids’ Teachers: What Children of Color Learn from White Women and What This Says about Race, Whiteness, and Gender,” in Handbook of Critical Race Theory and Education, ed. Marvin Lynn and Adrienne Dixson (New York: Routledge, 2013), 313–24.
  • 27. Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism (Boston: Beacon Press, 2018).
  • 28. George Lipsitz, The Possessive Investment in Whiteness (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1998).
  • 29. See Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism (New York: Vintage Books, 1994); Zeus Leonardo, “Dis-orienting Western Knowledge: Coloniality, Curriculum, and Crisis,” Cambridge Journal of Anthropology 36, no. 2 (2018): 7–20.
  • 30. See Charles Mills, The Racial Contract (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1997).
  • 31. See Nilda Rimonte, “Colonialism’s Legacy: The Inferiorizing of the Filipino,” in Filipino Americans, ed. Maria P. P. Root (Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE, 1997), 39–61.
  • 32. David Roediger, Toward the Abolition of Whiteness (New York: Verso, 1994).
  • 33. Noel Ignatiev and John Garvey, “Editorial: When Does the Unreasonable Act Make Sense?” in Race Traitor, ed. Noel Ignatiev and John Garvey (New York: Routledge,1996), 35–37.
  • 34. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The German Ideology (New York: International Publishers, 1970).
  • 35. See Zeus Leonardo, “Affirming Ambivalence: Introduction to Cultural Politics and Education,” in Handbook of Cultural Politics and Education, ed. Zeus Leonardo (Rotterdam, The Netherlands: SensePublishers, 2010), 1–45.
  • 36. Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition, trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984).
  • 37. Gramsci, Selections from Prison Notebooks; see also Stuart Hall, “Gramsci’s Relevance for the Study of Race and Ethnicity,” in Stuart Hall, ed. David Morley and Kuan-Hsing Chen (London: Routledge, (1996), 411–40.
  • 38. Zeus Leonardo, Race Frameworks: A Multidimensional Theory of Racism and Education (New York: Teachers College Press, 2013).
  • 39. Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1991).