Is white anxiety inevitable? The question hangs over the frantic closing days of the presidential election.
For much of the summer, polls across the country suggested a national reckoning with race and racism and a “sea change of good will” following the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and so many others. But late-summer data suggested falling white support for racial progress among a key demographic: white voters in swing states. Suddenly, the outcome of the election hinged on whether the GOP could provide what the Washington Post’s Jonathan Capehart called “permission structures” to coax enough squeamish white voters to pull the levers for Donald Trump.
Why do we still struggle to combat white anxiety’s polarizing effects?
Sensing an opportunity, the Trump campaign amplified messages that linked Black Lives Matter (BLM) with looting and violence. In early September, in the aftermath of a BLM protest marred by confrontation with white supremacists, Trump traveled to Kenosha, Wisconsin, and strode through manicured rubble to warn white America what would become of it should Democratic “anarchy” prevail. The Biden camp quickly shifted its focus in response. Biden rushed to Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Minneapolis—even bringing pizza to a firehouse in Pittsburgh—in an effort to blunt Trump’s “law and order” message and bolster his standing “among white voters in the industrial Midwest.”
For commentators such as Elie Mystal, the spectacle of white sympathies shifting away from Black communities—so-called whitelash—highlighted the mercurial nature of white support for Black communities. “And so here we are, barely three months after George Floyd was choked to death, and already white allyship is waning,” Mystal wrote. “A majority of white people were always going to value their own comfort over justice for Black people.”
Mystal’s reaction points to a historical reality: widespread white commitment to racial progress tends to be episodic and short-lived. Indeed, historically, as Black Americans become more politically active, white political violence increases in frequency. This pattern is exacerbated by the fact that national elections often are won by stoking white fears. In 1968 Richard Nixon crafted a law and order campaign that appealed to what he would later describe as the “silent majority” of “law abiding” Americans. His promises to quell antiwar and civil rights protests turned the tides on Democrat Hubert Humphry’s efforts to address poverty and racial injustice. George H. W. Bush overcame a ten-point polling gap to beat Michael Dukakis in the 1988 presidential election by stoking suburban white anxieties about Black criminality. Bill Clinton built his reputation on tough-on-crime legislation and campaigned at a prison adjacent to the KKK memorial Stone Mountain.
After launching his first campaign by warning of rapists from south of the border, Trump now centers his second presidential campaign almost solely on white identity politics. The closing months of his 2020 reelection have focused mainly on warning white Americans that Black crime and urban leftist terrorists will invade the suburbs if his campaign fails.
The future of our democracy depends on arriving at a sophisticated answer to the question: What is the white anxiety that these campaigns leverage? Necessarily, this means engaging with both the psychological history of white anxiety, as well as more practical considerations about its political uses. The latter point, of its realpolitik, leads to a critical follow-up question: Why, given how predictable it is that politicians will use the crass power of white anxiety to manipulate voters, do we still struggle to find an effective counter-strategy to negate its polarizing effects?
A 2019 New York Times exposé, “White Anxiety, and a President Ready to Address It,” outlined how Trump tapped into “fears among some white people that they are losing status in America,” that they are subject to “anti-white discrimination,” and that “the nation risks losing its identity because of openness to foreigners”—all of which made white voters “anxious, even angry.” The Times piece dovetailed with findings by sociologist Arlie Hochschild, in Strangers in Their Own Land (2016), that Trump voters are beset by the uncanny feeling that their country is being taken away from them and given to others.
In these sources, we find white anxiety depicted as a symptom in the classic sense: an internal, ego-dystonic sense of unease. A weltschmerz. A disjunct between the manifest world and the world as one wishes it were. Psychic pain on the inside, which renders helping other people ever more difficult on the outside.
But this internal disposition is only part of the problem with ever-emergent, ever-political white anxiety. The other part is its strategic mobilization, which works through normalization. Efforts to foment white anxiety and undermine racial progress validate thoughts and feelings that in other contexts would be cast as problematic or unacceptable. This approach prioritizes reinforcement over abatement and reassures certain white voters that their racialized anxiety is not only correct, but should be the basis of how they vote, assemble, live, and die. The symptom here becomes the identity.
From a psychological perspective, normalizing what might be otherwise troubling emotional indicators serves several main purposes. It creates community, a ready group of “us” bound in common victimhood—and thereby defines “us” in opposition to the threats posed by “them.” White anxiety defines whiteness itself as inherently victimized. Such framing casts even self-inflicted suffering—such as that brought about by rejecting Affordable Care Act health care or not wearing a mask in a pandemic—within broader ideological frameworks. And since “we” are defined by suffering, white anxiety inverts traditional notions of aggressor and victim: How can “we” be the purveyors of privilege or supremacy when we are the ones who are under attack?
U.S. politics is replete with examples of politicians who validate white aggression under the banner of white victimhood. As William Barber and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove note, white fearmongering has been an effective political strategy for decades:
At the Republican National Convention last week, Trump sounded so much like George Wallace in 1968 that he could be charged with plagiarism. ‘Our system is under attack,’ Wallace told a crowd of supporters at Madison Square Garden in 1968, when he ran as a third-party candidate for president after gaining national attention as a ruthless defender of Jim Crow segregation in Alabama. ‘Anarchy prevails today in the streets of the large cities of our country, making it unsafe for you to even go to a political rally,’ he said.
The manipulation of this aggressor-as-victim rhetoric by politicians would not be half so effective, though, if such assumptions did not suffuse nearly every aspect of U.S. life, in which whiteness is cast as perpetually benign, virtuous, and default even in sites that are ostensibly neutral and benevolent. Take the medical sciences. Over the course of decades, medicine and psychiatry played an active role in framing Black political participation or protest as a trigger for white anxieties.
1974 Haldol ad in Archives of General Psychiatry
During the civil rights era, for instance, a minute fraction of protests involved violence by protesters, and fewer still against other people as opposed to property. Yet images of protest violence coursed through psychiatric journal articles, diagnostic codes, and advertisements for antipsychotic medications in professional journals. In a 1974 advertisement from Archives of General Psychiatry for the highly sedating medication Haldol, a Black protester who looks not coincidentally like an enraged James Brown shakes his fist menacingly while standing in a fire-orange urban scene. Above him is written the question: “Assaultive and belligerent?” On the facing page is the sales pitch: “Cooperation often begins with HALDOL.”
The ad frames protest as the “illness” that should be resolved—through sedation—rather than the issues being protested. Indeed, those political concerns are deemed irrelevant by the a “diagnosis” of insanity. The ad also offers a peculiar notion of illness: ordinarily with disease, it is the patient who suffers the symptoms, but here the symptoms—feelings of threat—are experienced by the assumed physician readers, and by extension the establishment they represent. Haldol, in other words, does not promise relief for the “patient,” but rather social and political “cooperation” with the system itself.
The Haldol ad depends on what we might anachronistically call a Trumpian displacement. It locates the “problem” on the protester while normalizing the white anxiety that created the ad, the social injustice, and even the definition of mental illness. (As I’ve shown elsewhere, overdiagnosis of schizophrenia in Black men rose sevenfold in the 1960s.) In other words, the construction of displaced psychosis normalizes and renders invisible the enframing neurosis.
If electoral white anxiety represents a manifest symptom of white fragility, then, according to leading antiracist thinkers such as Ibram X. Kendi, changing the system depends on confronting white “denial.” Kendi champions an “antiracist revolution” that fundamentally shifts U.S. views about race. If enough Americans take personal responsibility and, as the old adage about psychotherapy goes, want to change—through education, self-reflection, and conscious behavioral change—then our workplaces, communities, and elections will change as well.
Perhaps Trump’s brand of racism is so crass and overt—or perhaps enough people will see that the inequities in U.S. society are so urgent, obvious, and critical—that it will spur such a revolution. This year has indeed seen remarkable numbers of white Americans willing to take individual responsibility for their place in inequitable systems. The multiracial nature of many Black Lives Matter protests—not hyped-up looting—is what makes them so threatening to the status quo.
There remains a problem, though, with locating white anxiety too centrally in the realm of psychology: white anxiety is a problem not just of individual minds or attitudes but of larger social and socioeconomic structures. Like many chronic illnesses where profit emerges from the ways that expensive treatments alleviate symptoms but rarely offer cures, white anxiety is also framed, manipulated, and sustained by these larger structural forces for specific political and financial purposes.
For instance, sophisticated and highly funded disinformation networks amplify themes to which conservative white voters are known to have emotional responses—such as messaging about property destruction, government overreach, or breakdowns of law and order. True to Mystal’s argument, white citizens become far less likely to prioritize addressing social issues, and particularly ones that impact other communities, if they feel their own interests or values are threatened.
During the 2020 summer of protests, disinformation networks were particularly active online and on social media churning out images of burning cities, looting, and violence to manipulate racial fault lines and provoke the emotional responses that make people more susceptible to conservative messaging. These campaigns have no accountability—though they have a symbiotic relationship with conservative politicians—and the media they post is often completely fictional. During the height of the protests in June, social media images and videos of supposed Black Lives Matter looting and fires were discovered to be clips from the show Designated Survivor, and supposed Antifa tweets to loot white neighborhoods in fact came from disinformation campaigns put out by a white nationalist group.
Then in the fall, Trump began to plead at his rallies: “Suburban women, will you please like me? I saved your damn neighborhood, OK?” This was in reference to his obstruction of low-income housing that he claims “brought crime to the suburbs.” At precisely the same time, online scare campaigns targeted suburban white women, painting pictures of rising violence linked to Obama-era fair housing initiatives (which, in fact, have zero relationship to crime rates).
At their own peril do liberals underestimate the power of this type of coordinated messaging for spreading fear, anger, and uncertainty. The aim is not simply to disseminate wrong information, but to manipulate the emotions that shape logical reasoning and thus instill in voters the sense that people, political parties, and racial groups are so far apart in their values that compromise with the “other side” is treason or will bring certain doom.
This dynamic is exacerbated by the fact that the social media platforms through which many Americans engage with current events—Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Twitter—despite their lip service to fighting “fake news,” benefit financially from promoting conflict. Conflict leads to clicks, which drives revenue. These platforms also facilitate information polarization, which heightens negative emotional responses to news with which people do not agree, and drives them to seek information on social media that reaffirms existing beliefs. Meanwhile people are more likely to believe that the “other side” is being manipulated than is their own.
These effects have only been worsened by the COVID-19 pandemic. Many real-world public squares, such as workplaces, where people ordinarily encounter differing views have closed—simply talking to a stranger brings potential mortal risk. Absent these interactions, stereotyped and viral images can come to stand in for all people of a particular group—that all Black people are looters for instance, or that all Trump supporters lack values.
The structure of the U.S. political system also plays a vital role in shaping and amplifying the relevance of particular forms of white anxiety. Because of the undemocratic Electoral College, the outcome of the 2020 election likely rests almost entirely on the whims of a small number of white swing voters (as it did in the 2016 election, as well). Massively disproportionate resources from both parties flow toward swing states to address the concerns of these voters—who are also frequently the voters most susceptible to messaging about “law and order.” The overall effect is a sample bias in which white swing voters appear to represent the white electorate more broadly—when in reality the political system amplifies the concerns of white voters who are slow to make up their minds.
Structurally, this electoral framework produces a balkanized system in which the votes and voices of rural white voters carry ever more sway at precisely the same time that whites move inexorably toward becoming the demographic minority. As political scientist Seth Masket writes:
Our nation is moving even deeper into minority rule: The House aside, the U.S. government is controlled by the less popular party in a polarized two-party system. We may call this unfair, but that would trivialize the problem. It is entirely permissible under the Constitution, and it is dangerous. When the majority of a nation’s citizens can’t get its candidates elected or its preferred policies passed, the government’s legitimacy is compromised and destabilizing pressure begins to build.
To be sure, white voters are not unique in gravitating toward politicians and parties that promise them safety, security, and prosperity. Threats to that stability, or insufficient attempts to address it, engender understandable concern. That’s how democracy works—except that our democracy is rigged to make certain that white anxieties are prioritized over those of everyone else.
Research also consistently shows that guilt and shame are poor motivators for bringing voters along to one’s own side. Given the choice politically between an option that decenters one’s own concerns and another that showers one’s darkest impulses with adulation, many people choose the latter.
So what can we do, knowing that white anxiety feels real to those who experience it, and will continue to be weaponized by unscrupulous politicians?
First and foremost, we need to recognize that, just as racism is structural, so too is white anxiety a structural feature of our racialized politics. Difficulties countering these structural mechanisms complicates not only efforts toward racial justice, but also efforts to mobilize in support of social justice, health care reform, mask-wearing, immigration, and other instances where the greatest benefits evolve from the greatest possible participation—for instance, by having the most people insured, or the most people participating in an equitable society. The polarization that emerges from politicized white anxiety renders the cooperation needed to address complex common problems, such as a pandemic or racism, almost impossible, as our country’s response to COVID-19 proves.
A number of new interventions address polarization and disinformation at these larger structural levels. Groups such as Millions of Conversations and More in Common have built messaging networks that seek to counter dehumanizing language, promote common values, and disrupt cycles of violence. The aim is to allow people and communities to imagine shared futures built on participation rather than on anxiety and conflict. These sorts of networks begin to address ways that individual psychologies reflect larger enabling systems, and aim to disrupt these systems upstream, at the level of information networks, in addition to intervening at their distal points in people’s attitudes and actions.
Clearly, though, it’s not nearly enough. The United States needs far more sustained and coordinated efforts to counter and disrupt disinformation networks that intervene specifically around the propagation of racist messages and stereotypes. Indeed, it is a misconception to think of disinformation as simply distorting “information”—all too frequently, it propagates undistorted racism.
We also need sustained structural interventions that counter the “zero-sum” structural assemblages on which these forms of racism depend. These are the electoral, financial, communication, and other structures that make it seem that groups with seemingly similar socioeconomic interests are in competition with each other for resources, when in fact these resources are stockpiled and drained at the very top of the economic hierarchy. We need to pioneer communication networks that democratize information, not manipulate it, and that promote and reward engagement and shared values rather than conflict and polarization. And as Kendi rightly notes, “white Americans need to stop comparing their lot to Black and Brown people” in the United States “and start comparing to white people in Norway, Sweden, and other countries that actually treat their citizens well”—rather than forcing them to compete for the life-sustaining resources offered by healthy democracies.
Clearing a new path forward, in other words, depends not only on a new relationship to the psychologies of white anxiety but also to the structures and finances that propagate, sustain, and shamelessly benefit from it. Leave those structures intact, and the United States will continue to burn in what historian Timothy Snyder calls a “slow-motion Reichstag Fire.”
Such change takes time. For now we must do our part to remind our fellow voters that this election is, as much as anything, a referendum on the ways that racial but also economic inequities have rendered many Americans uniquely vulnerable to a novel, fatal viral invader. As well, 2020 can be a plebiscite about the need for better public systems to assure that we are all better protected in our homes and in our neighborhoods against external and internal threats. These are areas in which a skillful and compassionate engagement with white anxiety would reveal considerable common ground—after all, the aim in a pandemic is better health for everyone, and no one is safe from COVID-19 until everyone is.
Building better structures based on common ground, in turn, would move us closer to what economist Amartya Sen calls a “better society” that can emerge from moments of crisis—one in which moments of peril spark appreciation of shared humanity and renewed drive toward building shared and mutually beneficial infrastructures that persist well after the crisis has subsided. National health care systems, for instance. Or reformed police, more vibrant food distribution networks, protected climates, and closed wealth gaps. As Sen explains it, societies that react to moments of crisis by democratizing access to resources, health, and decision-making power come out ahead in the long run. Those that fail to do so are not great again for a very long time.