Q&A: Gunther Peck on Whiteness and the election

December 16, 2016

Gunther Peck, an associate professor of history and public policy, teaches nineteenth-and twentieth-century American social and cultural history, comparative immigration and labor studies, and environmental history. This past fall he taught a course called “Historicizing Whiteness.”

Has whiteness historically been wrapped up with class formation?

Absolutely, but in complicated ways. An interesting moment is the Antebellum period. Some Irish workers were historical opponents of British imperial slavery, as they called it, and so were sympathetic to the freedom struggle of African Americans.

Do you find it simplistic to refer to “the white working class”?

If you look at the electoral returns, white people who are at the very bottom rungs of society voted for Clinton. Poor people voted for Clinton, the Democrat, as poor people have since the New Deal. So when analysts are referring to the white working class, they’re really talking about a segment of the middle class—farmers, manufacturing workers, union workers who are not, in fact, below the poverty line. The other problem with contemporary discourse is that it seeks to locate racism as a virus originating with workers. That is historically inaccurate. Racism early on was a device to divide servants and slaves: The great fear of colonial planters, who were the first to use white racial grammar, was that indentured servants and African slaves would team up against them. The language of whiteness was used to create a wedge between those groups.

Are we seeing a new phenomenon around the idea of white victimhood?

If you take so-called white Americans as an aggregate, over the past quarter-century, they have grown wealthier and better educated; there’s been no lessening of white political and economic power. So why is there a sense of white victimhood? Partly it’s a response to the success of historically marginalized people. This, of course, is not new—the privileging of one group’s victimhood over and against another.

Does the recent election have echoes in the history of American populism?

The populist movement was a revolt of agrarian and rural actors across the South and West against the political establishment. Tom Watson came to power in 1892 as leader of the People’s Party. But unlike candidate Trump, Watson sought to organize both white and black farmers against corporate interests. Ultimately, though, Watson was elected as a white supremacist senator from Georgia who blamed the early failure of the People’s Party to win on black actors. Put another way, there has been a long struggle for the soul of populism in American history, and Trump’s divisive campaign fits into that longer history.

If there is cynicism around politics that makes this seem like a historic pivot point, what’s at the root of it?

The amount of money makes it harder for people to think of politics as something that represents them, and so they’re more open to insurgent voices. There’s also the erosion of voting rights, in part through gerrymandering; it’s weakened people’s belief that politicians will listen to them, or that their vote matters. And finally with rampant social media and its tendency to reward combativeness, there’s a diminishing of a political culture that ennobles, that empowers, that creates an aspiration to be something better. The Internet, which proffered this great expansion in knowledge, has in fact produced just the opposite—information bubbles that discourage listening to dispassionate evidence.

Immigration was a resonant theme in this election. Are there parallels in American history?

Throughout history misinformation has surrounded debates over immigration. With this election, the image of a border wall was a symbol of deep anxiety about what the nation is supposed to look like. Think of the wall as an expensive public-art project that will marginally increase the profits smugglers and traffickers make from circumventing it. The capacity of a President Trump to deport millions of undocumented people is very real, however.

During the Cold War, taking in refugees from communist countries showed that the U.S. was a political and moral force in the world. Refugees validated that sense of U.S. exceptionalism. What we’ve seen more recently is that the right paints immigrants as national threats, while the left has forgotten that humanitarianism and national interest can overlap. Immigration is argued about in humanitarian, idealistic terms, while it should be understood in pragmatic terms as well: The argument should be about the moral capital that the U.S. gains from a relatively open immigration policy.