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Why so many whites think they are discriminated against

A.C. Thompson and Lucas Waldron, ProPublica and Christopher Mathias, HuffPost
Earl Ofari Hutchinson

There really isn’t much of a surprise in the recent poll conducted by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health that found that a majority of whites feel they are getting the short end of the stick on discrimination. Trump cynically, but masterfully, mined that feeling among many whites of being racially put upon and rode it into the oval office. No matter how outrageous, wacky, and bizarre his stay there has been since, millions of his backers still support him. That’s not likely to change. They did not scream their lungs out for him at campaign rallies and during the debates because of his political erudition. They did it because his signature slogan, “Make America great again” was the near textbook code slogan for taking back all the things — affirmative action, civil rights protections, Obama administration job and spending initiatives, and an expansion of government programs for minorities — that supposedly shoved whites to the bottom of the political and economic barrel.

That race lurks perilously just beneath the surface with any Trump backers is beyond dispute. To many, the equation is that government programs equal hand-outs to undeserving blacks and the poor. That in turn equals money snatched from the pockets of hard-working whites.

This is just a recycling of the old, so-called angry white male. The term was coined by political analyst and then GOP strategist Kevin Phillips during Nixon’s presidential campaign in 1968. Nixon stoked the fury of blue-collar, white, rural voters with his slam of the Democrats for coddling criminals, welfare cheats and fostering a culture of anything goes permissiveness, and of course, big government Great Society pandering to the poor. The crude, thinly disguised code words and racial cues has worked. The tag of law and order and permissiveness became a staple in the GOP attack playbook for the next four decades. With tweaks and refinements, Reagan, Bush Sr. and W. Bush used it to ease their path to the White House.

In the mid-1990s, Newt Gingrich and ultra conservatives recycled the strategy to seize Congress, and to pound out an agenda that made big government, tax-and-spend Democrats, and soft-on-crime liberals the fall guys for everything wrong with America. It touched a familiar nerve with many whites.

The volatile mix of big government and economics that can whip frustrated, rebellious, angry whites into a tizzy far better than crude race baiting, magnificently for a reason that goes beyond race alone. Many blue-collar white males do perceive that they are losing ground to minorities and women in the workplace, schools, and in society.

Right-wing populism, with its mix of xenophobia, loath of government as too liberal, too tax-and-spend and too permissive and a killer of personal freedom has been the engine that powered Reagan and Bush White House wins, and of course Trump. The other major issue that has driven the fear that whites are losing ground to minorities, and thus discriminated against, is immigration. Trump made immigrant bashing a big cornerstone of his campaign because he knew that this would touch a sore nerve among many whites. It fed into their deep fear that hordes of illegal immigrants were flooding this country and swiping tens of thousands more jobs from them.

This was a classic wedge issue that, once layered over with the scare and scapegoating of Muslims, fed the notion that minorities, especially those here illegally and those who might be potential terrorists, were being given kid-glove treatment by a black president, Obama, and for a time, a liberal Democratic-controlled Congress.

There’s also the widespread notion that everything from historic voting rights protections to affirmative action are relics of a long bygone racist past and should be summarily dumped in the historic dust bin. Trump and the GOP have sold a wide body of the public that to continue to fight for these supposedly unnecessary relics is just a self-serving, greedy grab by the much rivaled “civil rights establishment” to protect its racial turf, and feather its own nest. Those hurt most by this supposedly are whites.

So, the poll on whites and discrimination ties directly into other polls and surveys that show that a significant number of whites support white nationalism, will fight tooth and nail to protect Confederate monuments, and will lustily boo black NFL players who take a knee during the playing of the national anthem. And, even more deadly, they lambast civil rights groups and Black Lives Matter for daring to protest police violence.

This is the Trump era with a vengeance, in which a president tells whites they are the underdog and he’s there to stop the alleged hemorrhaging from minorities against them. Who, then, can really be surprised that many whites believe this?

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst.