Recently the great African American historian W.E.B. Du Bois’s identification of something he called “the psychological wages of whiteness” has received a good deal of justly deserved attention. The idea is that White people who get nothing much tangible out of the American system are compensated with an unearned feeling of racial superiority. This feeling is strong enough to lead them to vote for politicians who will act against their own material interests; for example, an unemployed White man will vote for a Republican office-holder who is against paying unemployment compensation, just because this same figure is always going on about Black Lives Matter being “terrorists,” and/or the need to slash welfare payments, which right-wing politicians have long conditioned gullible racist voters to view as payments to undeserving Black people.
As proof of the power and truth of this concept, any American will immediately understand what is meant by “the psychological wages of whiteness,” although all MAGAs and many others might object. The question for the resistance to MAGA is, how we can overcome this unhealthy tendency and thereby deal a damaging and perhaps fatal blow to the racialized, MAGA-tized Republican Party.
It seems unhappily clear from the history of American politics in the nearly sixty years since Democratic President Lyndon Johnson pushed through the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, that virtually no conceivable Democratic Party policy is enough to make a majority of White people relinquish “the psychological wages of whiteness,” since in every presidential election from 1968 through 2020, the Democratic candidate never once received a majority of the White vote. Think about that: Presidents Carter, Clinton, Obama and Biden were all elected, and Clinton and Obama were re-elected, while losing the White vote. The radicalization of the Republican Party over the past quarter-century has come about largely because its politicians and its base are panicked over the growing share of the electorate that is composed of Blacks and other racial minorities, and rather than change their mindset, they prefer to intensify their racism. Can this cycle be broken?
I’m hardly the first person to have asked this question. Rabbi Michael Lerner, the founder of the left-wing American Jewish magazine “Tikkun,” has been beating the drum for what he calls “the politics of meaning” for more than thirty years. The idea was that offering economic benefits was not enough to create a winning Left, but unfortunately, Lerner was never clear on what exactly he meant by a “politics of meaning.”
It seems to me that what is needed is a new sense of national mission that can transcend racial lines, and also offer economic benefits to the great majority of Americans. The crisis of climate change offers just such a mission, if President Biden and other leading Democrats will only embrace it. Remember, though, the power of that unearned feeling of racial superiority is so strong that even offering to save the lives of voters in the path of storms and droughts can’t overcome it unaided. What more must we offer them? That intangible sense of national mission. Every Democratic politician from the president down to county commissioners must argue that to be American in the twenty-first century means leading the world into an era of clean power, rejuvenated skies and forests, a healthier populace, a world that is permanently richer because it no longer relies on dirty fossil fuels, the bread and butter of dictators and greedy executives. We must argue this until we sick are of hearing ourselves talk; after all, if the right has succeeded by incessantly repeating false ideas like “abortion is murder” and “more guns make us safer and freer,” we can hardly fail by endlessly repeating the truth. And of course, this must be accompanied by a massive program of job creation on the scale of the New Deal, so that we can justly say to unemployed coal miners and fearful oil industry workers, “Yes, your old jobs are doomed and they are never coming back—but instead, you and your children will get free training for the jobs of the future.” It is true that solar farms, for example, require many fewer workers than oil wells, but if what is needed is economic creativity and entrepreneurial spirit, hasn’t America always prided itself on those things?
Only when we counter and outbid the psychological wages of whiteness in such a way will the American-style fascism called MAGA vanish like the bad dream it always was.