American Whitelash: A Changing Nation and the Cost of Progress
By Wesley Lowery
Mariner Books; hardcover, 272 pages; $29.99
Wesley Lowery is a Pulitzer Prize winning journalist who is a national correspondent for CBS News and the program 60 Minutes. He previously was a national correspondent and the head reporter on racial justice for the Washington Post.
American Whitelash opens with Barack Obama becoming the first Black man elected president on November 4, 2008, and the large crowd in Chicago's Grant Park celebrating this momentous moment. The emotion of the night was captured by Reverend Jesse Jackson seen in tears witnessing Obama's speech.
Lowery writes that what was heralded as a turning point for the country would turn out to be just that, but not in the way most Americans had hoped. Obama's election fanned long-burning embers of white supremacy, and ignited a new and frightening phase in America's historical cycle of racial progress and white backlash.
The forces of white power retaliated against Obama's victory, and both profited from, and eventually propelled Donald Trump's political rise. He uncovers how this vicious cycle is carrying us into ever more perilous territory, how the federal government failed to intervene, and how we still can find a way to escape it.
Lowery provides gripping firsthand reporting of both victims and perpetrators of violence. He tells the story of an Eduadorean immigrant named Joselo Lucero who came to Patchogue, on Long Island, with his brother, Marcelo, in the early 2000s, a time when the country was becoming fearful of the many immigrants from Central and South America. Joselo was excited by Obama's victory even though he was more occupied with his job at a dry cleaner than following partisan politics.
That hope turned to horror just a few days after Obama's victory, as a group of teenagers drove through Patchogue looking for immigrants to attack, and one of the victims was Marcelo, who was stabbed, and another was Hector Sierra, who had just finished a double shift at a nearby Colombian restaurant and had to run for his life after the group beat him up. Lowery gives an account of the wide-ranging investigation of the seven teenagers involved and what drove them to do it.
One of the things Lowery does bring to light is that the years that followed Obama's election would see two long-simmering racial movements come to the forefront of mainstream politics. One was a nativist movement of white Americans that questioned Obama's citizenship, whether he was a Christian, and his fidelity to the country. This would be his most persistent foe in his eight years in the White House. The other group Obama would have to contend with was within his own political base, led by progressives, young voters, and black and brown people. The American civil rights movement had a new era borne out of their frustrations with the limitations of a black president, and immigrant activists demanded that Obama halt deportations and enact a legal pathway to citizenship for some of the millions of immigrants living in the U.S.
In this excerpt, Lowery writes of what one of the outgrowths of Obama's presidency: "These diametrically opposed movements - one built atop the centurylong battle for black humanity; the other a repository of white racial grievance - fed off each other, each driving citizens into the arms of the other. As a young, black protest movement pushed the political establishment to consider more drastic action on racial inequity, the white backlash to a black presidency and the changing nation grew in size, strength, and intensity.
After two terms, Obama was replaced by Donald Trump, a reality television star who had installed himself as the leader of the growing movement of white backlash. Trump harnessed the frustration of those who believed they had been left behind by Washington elites numb to their economic and cultural needs and who believed they occupied an America forever changed from the one that older white Americans remembered wistfully (if not always accurately) and younger white Americans had once imagined they would grow old in.
Trump explicitly played to the racial discomfort of the Republican Party's nearly all-white political base and expanded it to include pockets of working-class white ethnic voters who had previously supported Democrats.
His first forays into politics in the early 2010s included vocal opposition to the so-called Ground Zero mosque, an attempt to turn a building two blocks away from the World Trade Center into an Islamic cultural center, and vows to 'investigate' Obama's citizenship based on the racist (and patently untrue) 'birther' conspiracy theory that speculated that the forty-fourth president had been born abroad and was thus ineligible for the presidency. As a presidential candidate in 2016, Trump's central pledge was to 'build the wall' on the southern border in order to keep out Hispanic immigrants.
While Obama had embraced the growing black protest movement - convening a policing task force to facilitate reform in departments across the country and inviting young black protest leaders to the White House for what ended up being the longest meeting of his presidency - Trump cast it as his foil. He railed against the protesters who had taken to the streets, sought out a lengthy string of police union endorsements, and leaned into the rhetoric of law and order while playing up the images of urban unrest - the same type of unrest that had, just a few generations earlier, contributed to the white flight from the cities and into the suburbs...
There is no question that a number of factors contributed to the Trump victory, in addition to the racial dynamics: the decades-long demonization of his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton; misogyny toward her historic candidacy; tactical errors committed by her campaign; and an electorate sincerely opposed to her proposals and policies. What's more, the former secretary of state and first lady was victimized by coordinated Russian interference in our election and the FBI's response. Intense partisanship, particularly around the issues of abortion and immigration, and the earnestly held economic fears of many voters and growing distrust of elite institutions that had infected the bloodstreams of both parties also factored into her losing the electoral college despite finishing with almost three million more votes than Trump.
The result of it all, though, was that after the eight years in which America had its first black president, a coalition of aggrieved white Americans elected a white racial demagogue to the Oval Office."