Reaction to the Obama Era: Trump’s Victory Legitimizes Hatred of Minorities

The United States is once again suffering a clash between its exalted principles and a white majority having a hard time with minorities sticking up for their rights.

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Supporting cheering for Donald Trump in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, October 10, 2016.
Supporting cheering for Donald Trump in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, October 10, 2016. Credit: Evan Vucci / AP
Yael Sternhell
Yael Sternhell

Ten days after the start of the Donald Trump era, no one knows yet how the reality star’s presidency will look and which of the extreme ideas he talked about during the campaign will be implemented.

But one thing is clear: On the extreme right, the election result has triggered an awakening that the United States hasn’t seen in decades. On campuses and on the walls of schools and stores throughout the country, swastikas, anti-black and anti-immigrant slogans are calling on whites to stand up for their rights.

The trend can be seen in the numbers. One group that follows hate crimes reported 437 cases in the first five days after the election – a tremendous jump compared to ordinary times. In North Carolina the Ku Klux Klan plans to hold a victory parade. In a town in West Virginia a state employee called Michelle Obama “an ape in heels” and won the support of the mayor (who later had to resign).

All these are embodiments of Trump’s message that xenophobia is nothing to be ashamed of and Americans no longer have to sanitize their language. White groups’ anger at anyone who tries to change the United States’ image has for the first time in generations received complete legitimacy. The hate wave of the past few days is reinforcing the impression that accompanied the entire election process: Trump’s surprising success has been fed in part by a heavy recoil from the Obama era.

Granted, Trump enjoys the support of communities that have diverse agendas. But the fact that a majority of whites, including women and college graduates, voted for him suggests that Trump might be perceived as the person who’ll give the presidency back to the white majority after eight years when the Obamas provided a constant reminder of minorities’ new dominance. While Hillary Clinton insisted on talking about everyone’s United States, Trump reiterated messages aimed at whites only.

This kind of “correction” also occurred every time there was a significant change in minorities’ status in the United States. After the emancipation of the slaves and their transformation into citizens, the southern states were plagued by murderous violence that lasted years and returned whenever it seemed blacks were integrating into positions of power.

After the civil rights movement’s big victories in the 1960s there was also a quiet but broad awakening of whites who, while they accepted the dismantling of racial segregation, refused to send their children to integrated schools and fled neighborhoods after the first black families moved in. These phenomena weren’t limited to the South but occurred everywhere around the country, including in areas considered liberal.

Now it appears Barack Obama’s election, which stirred pride in many white hearts, also subconsciously stirred discomfort among many people. The moment Obama was elected, the question arose on the influence a black president would have on U.S. race relations. Most of the answers, like the promise of an age where race would cease being a defining factor, turned out totally mistaken.

Although it will take years to discern processes like the effect on black children who grew up over the past eight years, it appears the Obama presidency’s clearest effect on race relations has been the election of a president who openly extols the white race’s alleged superiority. Trump’s appeal to many whites’ deepest emotions has provided an answer to a community seeking self-definition in an age when it’s expected to share the advantages of life in America with minorities for which it once seemed crumbs were enough.

Fifty years after convincing itself it had solved its race problem, the United States is once again suffering a head-on clash between its exalted principles and a white majority having a hard time with minorities sticking up for their rights. Even if the wave of hate crimes abates, the struggle will continue in the courts, in the streets and in Washington.

For now, the president-elect doesn’t look like someone trying to lower the flames. Though he has tepidly censured the violence, the fact that he quickly appointed as chief strategist Stephen Bannon, one of the loudest voices in the white-supremacy movement, leaves no doubt about his commitment to the rhetoric that brought him to the White House.

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