Metropolitics and the Psychology of White Victimhood

Let me open this post with a caveat. The violent display of white supremacist mobilization in Charlottesville, mobilization organized around a set of white grievances and a narrative of white persecution, is disgusting and, as the philosopher Jules Winnfield might say, not in the same league as some more mundane expressions of white grievance around property taxes or school boundaries or other aspects of metropolitics. But, parting ways from the esteemed Mr. Winnfield, I would suggest that the grievance narratives of metropolitics are indeed the same sport.

How so? Let’s begin with Olga Khazan’s August 15 piece at The Atlantic. Summarizing the scholarly work of sociologist Mitch Berbrier, Khazan concludes that there are in fact carefully crafted and relatively well codified narratives of victimization which white supremacists (aka nationalists, race realists, or advocates of European heritage) consistently seek to propagate through the mass media. Berbrier and Khazan would ask us to put aside the legitimacy of these narratives (i.e. whether whites are in fact victims of racial prejudice) and understand their ubiquity and function (i.e. white supremacists seek to mobilize white attitudes and political behavior through the most politically expedient framings). The work reinforces the findings of social psychologists like Michael Norton and Samuel Sommers that white Americans interpret racial dynamics in zero-sum terms in which gains for nonwhites are necessarily offset by harm to whites. It seems probable that increased media attention for white supremacists may mainstream these narratives. But it’s important to understand that these narratives, in attenuated form, have been circulating in the far more respectable terrain of suburban politics, particularly where residents of affluent, white, and/or politically conservative suburbs have sought to limit the power of urban politicians and minority voters over their property, schools, and tax bills.

Let’s examine the typology of victimhood narratives, which Khazan presents in a roughly escalating order of virulence and severity. Step one is to claim that whites are victims of discrimination. Step two is to argue that whites are denied basic rights. Step three is to contend that whites are punished for expressing pride in their own identity. And, step four is to contend that this treatment is legitimately damaging to white psychology. Ultimately, these narratives support the conclusion reflected in step five, claiming that whites face “genocide”  through multiculturalism and racial integration. Khazan’s examples in support of this typology of victimhood claims are generally drawn from the ranks of white supremacist media icons like David Duke and Richard Spencer, and are appropriate evidence for the way that white nationalists build support for the extremist claim of white genocide through more anodyne statements about identity, pride, and rights.

Here’s where I highlight a few examples from my own scholarship (articles addressing suburban secession and tax revolt), by way of illustration. They come out of the context of long-stewing conflict between African American and Democratic voters and their representatives in Atlanta and south Fulton County and wealthier, mostly white, and mostly Republican voters and their representatives on the north side of the city of Atlanta and in north Fulton suburbs. This conflict was expressed in a series of border wars as Atlanta tried unsuccessfully to annex the northern suburbs and many northern suburbs fought, unsuccessfully at first, then with dramatic success in the 2000s, to incorporate new cities and limit the power of county government over service and tax levels in north Fulton. These border conflicts were frequently bitter and often freighted with racial assumptions and resentments on both sides of the divide, and have been aggravated by a series of property tax revolts that galvanized the state Republican party around a suburban and metropolitical agenda. What was relevant for our purposes is that the northern suburbs of Fulton County are significantly more affluent than the county average, and indeed were among the most affluent in the nation. Yet, many of their complaints reflected these narratives of victimization.

Let me be clear: I am not (in general) suggesting that suburban tax protesters or advocates for incorporation are the same as white nationalists. Nor am I suggesting that tax revolts lead to or flow from white supremacy (though Nancy MacLean’s recent Democracy in Chains makes a provocative, and perhaps not fully supported, claim that property-rights libertarianism springs from the same soil as massive resistance). But the element of grievance, while differing by degree, is common to both.

To the first narrative: whites are victims of discrimination. This narrative appeared frequently in the movement to incorporate a city in the Sandy Springs area of north Fulton. From the point of view of Sandy Springs partisans, the problem was that the legislation they needed could be squelched by the veto power of the Fulton County delegation, including a strong contingent of black Democrats, in the state house. Frustration grew to the point where activists like Eva Galambos, an economist and the eventual first Mayor of Sandy Springs, interpreted the resistance not to practical (i.e. that those legislators wanted to preserve Atlanta’s ambitions to annex the area) or principled politics (i.e. that opponents believed north and south Fulton constituted a community of mutual obligation that should be preserved), but to racial resentment on the part of black politicians. Galambos went so far as to petition (unsuccessfully) the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights to investigate legislature for anti-white discrimination (see page 17). Another prominent activist, attorney Robert Proctor, crusaded against both tax increases and affirmative action programs, declaring the former evidence of corrupt self-dealing by black political leaders and the latter an unlevelling of an otherwise level playing field (see page 16).

The second narrative, that whites have been denied basic rights, has not been as directly proclaimed in the metropolitics that I’ve studied, though it has audible echoes in demands for local community control (which suburban separatists have neatly appropriated from black and latino militant groups). Here, exercising a voice in local government through a (majority white) city is depicted as inherently preferable to exercising that voice as part of a broader community of interest. Localism is, of course, a deep-rooted tradition in American politics, so it’s futile to claim that its roots are exclusively racist. But it’s also true that frustrated efforts to carve out independent suburban cities (or, more recently, school districts) have arisen in a particular context of hostility toward developing black political power.

As regards the third narrative, that expressions of white pride are punished, metropolitics generally skirts the concept of race, but is rich with invocations of pride in community, which betray a sense of, as George Lipsitz describes it, the white suburban neighborhood as a “privileged moral geography” in American society. This valorization of place can be expressed in terms of desirable quality of life elements, but comes into sharper relief when a set of emotional rewards attached to identifying with a community or a racial group–what critical race scholar Paula Ioanide calls an “affective economy”– seem to be threatened. Ioanide bases her argument on a set of case studies that implicate American nationalism with implicit and explicit whiteness that may be threatened by perceptions of crime, terrorism, immigration, or economic decline, but I’ve written that understanding an “affective economy” of community is highly relevant to understanding metropolitics, too. For that matter, Ioanide’s book is a vital scholarly resource for anyone who wants to dig deeper into the questions that Khazan raises, crafting a compelling explanation for, in Ioanide’s terms,

How can people who possess so much believe themselves to be victims? (28)

The answer lies in the way that emotion, commonly held within a social and cultural (indeed, spatial) milieu, enables the identification of “persecutory enemies” that threaten significant sources of good feelings. For affluent whites in Atlanta’s northern suburbs, those enemies have figured as the black poor and politicians seen to represent them.  Emotional structures further encourage whites to develop strategic ignorance about the construction of their communities, such as a belief, for example, that the quality of life in an affluent, advantaged place stems from the good qualities of its residents, independent of the exclusion of poor people, social outcasts, or undesirable land uses from local space and their necessary consignment to other places. These structures are strained when community outsiders, for example, criticize the uneven distribution of wealth or educational opportunity.

The fourth narrative, that whites are harmed psychologically by antiracist rhetoric and policies, likewise emerges in quite attenuated form in typical metropolitics, but can be expressed in a renunciation of “shame” or “guilt” presumably enforced upon the residents of affluent areas. The conservative anti-tax crusader Robert Proctor described to a New York Times reporter in 1994 a feeling that he believed his white neighbors shared (see page 16):

Interviewed in 1994, he argued that Atlanta’black political leadership, when not busy being “wasteful of taxpayer dollars”and “trad[ing] political favors with each other,” raised the cry of racism to shield themselves from criticism. Proctor further dismissed arguments for government programs to aid black businesses or employment, asking,“Should we take 50 percent of the wealth of white America and . .. pay reparations, as some of them are urging? When does it end? I think … if we’re truly interested in dealing with quote,unquote, racism … we need to stop talking about race all the time’” (Applebome, 1994). AlthoughProctor identified black politicians and, indeed, African Americans generally, as his adversaries, he nonetheless framed his own position as the race-neutral one (saying “I’m not a member of the KuKlux Klan”), insisting that minorities were responsible for racial strife.

Thus, residents of even (and maybe particularly) affluent suburbs can declare themselves victims of persecution, and can shade that sense of grievance with the claim that their political opponents’ interest in redistributing a bit of their wealth is inextricable from an illegitimate racial solidarity against whites. Metropolitics doesn’t encourage declarations of “white genocide,” but neither are the structures of feeling central to white nationalism alien to it. Khazan writes,

[i]t may seem puzzling that the racism of these white men—the most powerful group of people in the world—is motivated by a sense that they’ll be wiped away somehow. But according to research on white supremacists, a sense of victimhood is exactly what groups like these use to grow their cause.

And, while it is hopefully true that only a tiny fraction of white Americans will be receptive to the full range of victimhood appeals, it bears repeating that many more may be further along the trail than is readily obvious. The suburbs, after all, are Trump country.

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