Linda Alcoff on 'The 'pattern of ignorance' that explains Donald Trump's popularity'
With Donald Trump winning primary after primary, it seems clear his extreme positions on refugees and immigration actually enjoy widespread support. One philosophy professor explains how concepts of race, and in particular whiteness, are key to understanding Trump’s success so far.
Since his campaign launch in June last year, Donald Trump has been talking about his idea of building a ‘beautiful wall’ between the United States and Mexico. ‘You have people coming through the border who are from all over and they’re bad, they’re really bad,’ he said at the time.
Then he railed against Syrian refugees, warning letting them enter the United States could be ‘one of the great Trojan horses’.
In February, he argued with Pope Francis after the pontiff questioned the Christianity of a person who only thinks about making walls. Just this weekend, he refused to condemn an endorsement from a former leader of the Ku Klux Klan.
Linda Martin Alcoff, a professor of philosophy at the City University of New York**, uses these examples to illustrate how the rise of Donald Trump has been predicated on the needs, tastes and weaknesses of white people.
‘The fact that he says all of these things—whether it’s against the Pope or the poorest of the poor refugees—he’s unedited, unconcerned about how what he says will be reacted to,’ she says.
‘[It’s] tapping into the desire for a public sphere that is not bound by political correctness or concerned about how non-white people will react. It’s an expression of what a lot of people think and feel and want to say, but haven’t always been able to say at the level of the public sphere that he’s able to speak at.’
Alcoff’s 2015 book The Future of Whiteness explores the ongoing demographic shift that means white Americans of European descent are becoming a smaller and smaller proportion of the US population. As the spectre of minority status for draws closer, she argues, the material advantages of being born white are eroding.
She suggests we view Donald Trump and his supporters through this lens. Their ignorance, she says, is not just a lack of knowledge; it’s a deliberate effort to avoid knowledge.
‘There’s a certain pattern to the kind of ignorance that many white Americans have when it comes to race, histories of colonialism, global capitalism and war,’ she says.
‘It’s become a common view for many white people, they think they should not go to people of colour, or black people or brown people, for information about racism in our society, because black and brown people will have vested interests, they’ll have a skewed point of view, they’ll have a biased point of view, they’ll overinflate the problem, et cetera.
You don’t go to those populations that may have direct experience of racism in the society. That’s actually a theory of knowledge, not just an oversight. That’s a practice that’s considered justifiable epistemically—not just politically, but epistemically. That’s the thing that produces this colossal amount of ignorance.
‘The outrageously racist things [Trump] has said about rapists coming over from Mexico and Guatemala into the United States, about the absence of racism being involved in police violence in the United States, various kinds of things he’s been claiming, I think are only plausible to a population that is woefully ignorant about the sociological facts of our society.’
While he enrages liberals with his ideas about borders and refugees, Trump is also drawing criticism from some conservatives with his rhetoric on China—which has included calls for higher tariffs on Chinese goods. But this position appeals to many otherwise disengaged voters.
‘We have masses of white poor in the United States, of people whose real wages have been dropping steadily from the 1970s,’ Alcoff says.
‘Part of Trump’s appeal is his promise that he will renegotiate the deal with China, that he will bring back jobs to the United States. He’s promising a certain amount of economic goods that responds to the real economic needs of this population.’
In some ways, it’s a similar demographic to those who support Bernie Sanders.
‘It’s split,’ Alcoff says. ‘There’s a large part of the white population that’s also very attracted to Bernie Sanders, who’s an avowed socialist and is really coming down hard on Wall Street and the super rich as responsible for the 2008 global collapse and needing to take responsibility for that.
‘The white population is quite divided between these candidates and I think it’s an indication that there’s a real disaffection with politics as usual.’
Another part of Trump’s appeal, Alcoff says, is his wealth. As a billionaire, some voters believe he can say what he thinks without being beholden to anyone.
‘He may not be beholden to anybody but he does have a certain set of interests,’ she adds. ‘He does have a certain point of view and a lot of capital to protect that flows about globally—just as China’s does.’
Trump’s comments on race contrast with the way many liberal politicians consciously avoid the subject, Alcoff says. Rather than avoiding the issue, she believes the best way to deal with race and racism is to speak about them openly.
‘Avoidance has been a very conscious strategy among many liberal politicians because they’re afraid that if they do talk about race it will turn off some white people, or it will exacerbate racism, or it will look racist to even be talking about racial categories,’ she says.
‘There’s been a real avoidance strategy and a real denial strategy and we’re seeing the effects of it now.
‘I’m hoping that people will come to more of an understanding of the need to talk openly and overtly about race in the United States and places like Australia: to talk about racism, to talk about race, not to avoid the issues.’
(Source: ABC Radio National)
** Professorial Fellow at the Institute for Social Justice