Today it was announced that President Trump pardoned Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who lost his elected position in 2016, after holding it for 26 years. This also came after he was convicted of defying a court order that in pursuing practices of racial profiling in law enforcement, during which time he violated the fourth amendment, which states: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”
The Washington Post article states: “President Trump has pardoned controversial former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio, who was convicted of failing to follow a court order to end the practice of detaining people merely on the suspicion that they might not have legal status in the country. In a statement, Trump made no mention of Arpaio’s conviction, but praised his past military service. It is the first pardon of Trump’s presidency.”
In 2010, a team of reporters and I traveled hundreds of miles throughout Arizona and Florida by car to get a, literally, on-the-ground look at American politics. Immigration was a major focus of our Arizona reporting, and Sheriff Arpaio was one of our key interviews. (We also spoke with people from the Colorado River Tea Party, immigration rights activists, and the sponsor of Arizona’s SB 1070.) In many ways, the era of Arpaio presaged candidate Trump’s focus on immigration, its ability to mobilize some political audiences, and certainly the pardon as a symbol of Trump’s focus on his base.
And following, a transcript of a key part of our conversation.
Sheriff Joe Arpaio: What keeps me going is when the people come up to me and say thank you, Sheriff. Thanks for what you’re doing. They call me racist and everything, but I know I’m not. I don’t care what they call me. In my heart, I know I’m not.
Chideya: If you were President Obama, what would you do about illegal immigration?
Arpaio: If I was the President, what I would do? I know how to solve the problem at the border. Nobody asks. Why don’t they ask me my opinion?
Chideya: Well, I’m asking you right now. So what would you do?
Arpaio: Thank you for asking me. You’re one of the few that will ask, including the media. Thank you for doing that.
I know where the border is. I’m the guy that spent all those years there. When we have a border, 2000 miles, we have violence across the border, let’s send our army across the border, to work with their army like I used to work with their army in Mexico.
Oh, that probably will never happen. But we send our armies to Iraq, Afghanistan, because of terrorism. I’m talking about bilateral now, not unilateral. Bilateral, which means we work together, they ask us.
Chideya: You would open up another front, essentially, along the border. Is that practical.
Arpaio: No. I wouldn’t even call it a war. I would call it a police action. <end, appx 10:30>
(Here’s a short video clip from our interview: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mPh_BmytUq8)
I urge you to listen to the whole radio hour if you have time. We spoke with Sheriff Tony Estrada of Santa Cruz County, Arizona. He was the only Latino Sheriff in Arizona and had a very different take on the border than Sheriff Arpaio. We also spoke with members of the Tohono O’odham nation, whose tribal lands straddle the US and Mexico — an increasingly complex situation in our era.
Facts on U.S./Mexico relations abound. They’re in this documentary; and I’ve subsequently written about them, as have so many. But we are in an era where rhetoric has become weaponized. That era didn’t start yesterday… or even in 2010, when I conducted this interview with Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Still, take a listen, and learn more about the big picture.
This is aimed at those who follow my work… and I’m always surprised how many people do, given that I’m not at one specific outlet these days. I’m continuing my work at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center and will have a paper coming out this summer or early fall on diversity in the media, and I’m becoming an MIT Media Lab Director’s Fellow. I’m doing a little bit of tv and radio and the occasional article. It’s a bit of a private period for me as I toil away rather than publish-publish-publish, and also wait to see about a possible adoption placement. (Trust me, there will be a book in all of that once I sort it out.)
I’m working on issues/projects from understanding the alt-right to media diversity to the transformative power of science fiction. But there’s one thing I keep circling back to….
I’m looking to marry head and heart in my work. I’ve done a lot of very analytical journalism and research. I’ve also had a full life of emotional adventures, including ones which are very internal and others spurred by the world around me — the birth, illness, and death of friends and family; joining tight-knit communities like the Burning Man camp I’ve been a part of for years; traveling around the world.
As I look at politics today, I’m digging into cybersecurity and issues like the rise of blockchain currencies; the persistence of issues like voter suppression (and how poorly they’re often covered by the press); and the uses of propaganda techniques in political messaging. All of those require topic-based expertise. In other words: the head.
At the same time, I feel. No, that is not a sentence fragment. I feel a deep sense of appreciation that in these turbulent times I walk with people of of integrity and purpose. I feel anger and frustration that we are re-litigating issues of racial and gender equality we thought we had settled. I feel tremendously lucky to get to witness history, from political conventions to Standing Rock to everyday conversations on the street. I feel saddened not only by the rise of hate crimes and overt hostility in America, but by the sense I get that some people I know are profoundly uncomfortable and even resentful that I will not pretend this isn’t happening.
It is. It’s all happening. It’s all happening right now and we need both head and heart to understand this world of ours.
Not sure where this will lead me but it’s where my head — and heart — are right now. I wish you the best in your journeys.
I traveled to Standing Rock on December 1st for a week to cover the veteran’s deployment to the encampments aiming to block the Dakota Access Pipeline. It was an extraordinary week of reporting, during which a group of other reporters and I, as well as many of the veterans, were stuck onsite during a brutal blizzard and hundreds more slept on the floor at a nearby hotel. I spoke a bit about my trip and the dangerous conditions on the Marc Steiner radio show.
Native American Marine Corps veterans Bugsy Barnowski and Andrew Lowe came from Oklahoma for the veterans deployment at Standing Rock
I’m planning to go back to Standing Rock and am looking for collaborators on a documentary work, likely audio but possibly video. In the meantime, I’m offering two tracks from my hours of tape for public use/under Creative Commons. I’m particularly hoping there are ways some smaller public radio stations might use the material. I’m also attaching transcripts.
On tape: Drum and voice performance by Che Jim (Dine (Navajo)) and Giovanni Sanchez (from Pennsylvania but ethnically indigenous Mexican (Mexica)). After the performance they speak in more spiritual and transformational terms about Standing Rock. In the interview-only second audio link they speak more about movement-building and also the role of the arts. They gave explicit permission for me to share this audio.
Healing Arrows Indigenous Social Justice & Wellness
He writes: “The mission of Healing Arrows for Indigenous Social Justice and Wellness is to advocate, promote and educate on issues of social justice for Indigenous Peoples and to educate wellness approaches to healing and health.”
The Call-to-Whiteness: The Rise of the New White Nationalism and Inadequate Establishment Whiteness Response
Note: This essay is not meant to present a unified theory of or definition of whiteness, but to point out that white identity is both a critical pivot point in American politics that remains understudied; and that we are undergoing a crisis of white identity that affects people of all races and ethnicities. As someone who reports on and engages online with white nationalists to this day, I am speaking with as much perspective as my decades of attention to these issues can offer. If you have different perspectives, I would welcome them but ask you reveal how much attention you have paid to the issues at hand.
Secondly: this is very long and somewhat discursive – definitely a draft and not a finished document. I welcome your thoughts and comments and will continue to refine it. Get a cup of tea and sit down with me. I hope you’ll find it worth the time.
One of them was when I interviewed a woman in Las Vegas about the election and she said she had more than once been told that part of the reason to vote for Donald Trump was to avoid the dilution of the white race. As the white mother of a mixed-race (black, white, Latino) child, she reacted with anger and horror. Though I recounted her position, a section was struck from the interview where she talked about how her daughter was studying World War II and the rise of Hitler. Her daughter asked, “How could anybody ever elect somebody who feels like this?” and the mother replied that they had a “front row seat to see how history is repeating itself.”
My editor struck that section from the short liveblog post when voicing concern about how we’d look mounting such a head-on critique of Trump without a passionate Trump supporter, a voice I later found. I don’t blame him for his choice since I didn’t challenge it, and especially since I often write overly-long. I’m not sure if the World War II analogy crossed the line for him because it seemed histrionic.
That said, I now view both her statement and my quick acquiescence to our deletion of it as significant. In retrospect, I realize how deeply this woman’s perception of her own whiteness had been challenged by the conversations she was having; and how unwilling I and we were as journalists to foreground this clash over the nationalist call-to-whiteness as part of the political narrative. This horrified mother was staring white nationalism in the face, and it was staring back at her. We as journalists, myself included, did not foreground in our reporting the struggles of white voters who heard and rejected the call.
Holding this minor anecdote in mind, know that I will mount an argument below that this election represents a call-to-whiteness to activate white nationalist sentiment; plus a suppression of the importance of this call in discussing our current politics, and a troubling inability to disaggregate the call-to-whiteness from other motivations for voting for Donald Trump. I do not believe all Trump voters are racially motivated or primarily racially motivated, but white Americans, regardless of who they voted for, are now being asked to make an implicit choice in endorsing or rejecting white nationalist agendas and their integration into the body politic. There’s a good argument using a “Cinemax”/cable analogy for the “bundling” of racial animus into every Trump vote, whether or not individual voters explicitly endorsed that.
As a reporter with 25 years of field experience in covering both politics and white nationalist movements, I see the two converging in ways we are woefully unprepared to cover or respond to because we as Americans have avoided the topic out of a mix of ignorance, fear, and aversion. I would argue we can avoid it no longer.
If you need to understand why the elevation of Steve Bannon and Jeff Sessions, among others, as players in American democracy signals a rise of white nationalism – implicitly and explicitly – then you probably need to do a bit more research on your own before reading the rest of this article.
There has been a concerted effort — covert, overt, or both — to keep the narrative of white nationalism, including its violence and extralegal workings — out of the American eye. Much of it, I believe, comes from the inability of media and of many individuals to ascribe racial/group characteristics to whiteness in the way blackness is grouped and tracked, or, in the context of terrorism, Muslim beliefs. If blacks are a group and Muslims are a group judged on the violent behavior of some, then white nationalist violence and terrorism is much more organized and overt but gets less mainstream coverage.
In other words, these are, as president-elect Donald Trump might put it, some “bad hombres.”
And now, their ideological cousins are moving into government, quite likely with an agenda to use the law to increase America’s divides rather than bridge them. This is a hostile takeover of the U.S. government by forces including people cozy with white nationalists. It is profoundly un-American — at least I think so.
The dialogues in our civic space should let us know how far the debate has gone. Senator Ben Sasse, a Nebraska Republican who drives an Uber in his spare time, has been engaging online with journalists and also challenging people who apparently hold white nationalist views. He responded on Twitter to one person who apparently argued that the 13th-15th amendments granting full citizenship and the franchise to black men was because “limited government failed.” (And here I was thinking it was because slavery failed — failed to live up to the unrealized promise in the first version of the U.S. Constitution.)
Sasse battled back, Tweeting, “The Civil War & its 3 amendmts are not a rejection of the Amer’n Founding. Rather…a living UP to our universal/colorblind vision of rights”. The fact that Sasse, much to his credit for doing so, needs to say this at all speaks volumes about the depths of disregard for universal human and American rights right now.
The Surge of the Pack-Mentality
Let me start with a story that has nothing to do with white nationalism, and everything to do with survival.
One time, when I was in Guatemala for three weeks doing an immersion program in Spanish, I was walking home alone after a night drinking with other students. It was a safe town near Lake Atitlan, and all of us were doing homestudies with different families. I wasn’t worried about being attacked by a human.
The road to my host family’s house ran parallel to the lake, which was about 300 yards away. As I walked down the road, with its shuttered and gated houses, I saw out of the corner of my eye two dogs way down by the river. They scented or saw me and I saw them break into a fierce run, the equivalent of a horse’s full gallop.
I had no possibility of outrunning them and no obvious place to hide. So knowing what I do of dog behavior, I kept walking slowly and steadily. Sooner than I would have liked, but just as expected, the dogs were around me, snapping and snarling. I did not make eye contact. I kept walking slowly and intently toward the side street that would take me home, with my eyes fixed on a streetlight. And after a time – how long, I will never be sure – the dogs stopped snarling and went away.
I did not act like prey. I did not act like a threat or challenge their dominance. I got home with nothing more than a bad scare.
But I can still remember that night vividly – the lake to my left, with scrub and rushes leading the way to the waterfront; the dark pierced by the street lights and the moon; the vector of the road that the animals sprinted down, and how I could not even afford to keep my eyes on it directly but had to peer out of the corner of my eye as I prepared to react to the threat. I remember because my life literally depended on my perception of and reaction to the threat.
Sometimes it seems like the call to American whiteness we’ve seen during this election is like the attack of those dogs: a sudden onrushing of power and energy and threat. Though it seems counter-intuitive, the best first action to take is often to remain very calm and still.
No, I am not comparing white Americans to dogs. That should be obvious but in our heightened times is not. I am comparing the pack mentality of the nationalist call-to-whiteness to the ferocity of these animals. We are seeing that pack mentality in operation right now. Better late than never we must examine the pack mentality; emphasize why white Americans must awake to what’s being invoked in their names; and also why the reactions of the broader white community to “extremist” constructions of whiteness will help determine the future of our nation.
I’ve been covering white nationalists and supremacists in person for more than two decades. I once met Klanspeople in a blizzard to get part of a larger story about women in the white supremacist movement. The Klan is, perhaps, the ceremonial figurehead of white supremacy but hardly the most powerful influence and considered quite outdated by today’s digitally sophisticated nationalist alt-right. At the time I did that investigation of female white supremacists in the 1990s, I spoke by phone with a woman from a dysfunctional wealthy family who had run off to join the violent Aryan Nation, a group that was later bankrupted by civil lawsuits for violent assault. The woman described how her family, which was part of the Social Register, so turned her off with their lack of regard for nurturing their own children that she sought out a new family in white supremacy.
The woman from the Aryan nation also explained something that would stick with me throughout my reporting career. I asked why she would grant me an interview, and she said that a fraction of the people who read the article would be persuaded to her cause, and that was reason enough for her to grant an interview to someone she perceived as hostile to her white supremacist mission. While depressing in some ways, the knowledge of her views about how media would affect her recruiting – which I have come to believe as well, as an inevitable cost of doing the reporting I do – was enlightening. After that point, I rarely feared whether people who perceived me as hostile to their racial separatist, nationalist, or supremacist interests would grant me an interview, and I have found that to be the case.
Can You Be Objective If You Can’t See Whiteness?
Since then, I have continued to study whiteness as part of my reporting on American politics and culture. It has seemed a particularly important part of my work, and frankly, one that is sometimes viewed with suspicion by my own journalistic peers, as if studying something makes me unqualified to understand it rather than particularly qualified to do so.
It also gets to an ongoing debate in journalism over objectivity. I admit I am not neutral about race, racism, or white supremacy. I do not believe that disqualifies me from reporting on it as long as I am fair to those I report on. I have always found a common human bond with white supremacists I have reported on. I do not view them as demons; more as lost, confused, and sometimes dangerous cousins. I see whiteness in ways that my white colleagues often seem to ignore, as if it cannot be seen at all.
In my experience the white people I’ve met that seem most attuned to the power struggle over American whiteness are immigrants and people who grew up as working-class white Americans and moved into other circles where they were judged as different from established or powerful white norms. One friend had grown up largely in France but partly in central Florida, and he understood and acknowledged the layers of meaning people ascribed to him was different in both places. I also found common cause with people who moved to big cities and found themselves thrust into new American cultures, often Americans from rural or exurban areas. I found their “double consciousness” familiar and comforting, as it was an analogue to my own.
As context for how I do the work I do, know my childhood shaped my journalistic pursuits. First, there’s the fact that my parents were both journalists at different times and met at the graduate school of communications at Syracuse University before moving to Zambia to start a newspaper. In that sense, reporting is in my blood; but the way I perceive race was also seared into my consciousness by a childhood dis- and re-location both physical and metaphorical in nature.
The summer before I entered first grade, my family moved from Central Park West and 100th street to a virtually all black neighborhood in Baltimore. In New York, my friends were not just black or white. My best friend was half black and half Jewish; my extended friend circle included Cuban-American girls who were clearly Afro-Cuban, but who were not asked to choose a side in the black/white dichotomies of American racial taxonomy. My friends were blond and Asian and black and it was all very Free to Be You and Me.
When we moved to Baltimore, to a tree-lined street of 1920s and 1930s wood houses near the city line, I was plunged into a world where there was only blackness and whiteness, and the two were engaged in a fierce cold war. My sister and I were suddenly chided or rewarded by other black people for “speaking proper” and viewed as small Martians by white Americans. Everyone, regardless of race, was confused as to how I could have an African father – a real actual African man with an accent and a PhD! I’ll spare you an endless string of anecdotes about moments when I understood how much and how differently I was being observed by others in my new city.
This dislocation/re-location meant that by the age of six I had laid out some of my fundamental principles and psychology that remain with me today, and have shaped my perspective as a journalist.
First, I came to believe that humans lived in “reality zones” with quite different rules about identity, fairness and achievement. Inside each of these zones was an internally consistent reality, but as one crossed barriers of geography, class, culture, religion and race, the rules changed entirely.
Second, that whiteness, which was inconsequential to my early childhood, was of the paramount importance to understand.
Third, that I was able to cross these worlds and remain self-aware of how I was being perceived; and that usually it was not in my best interest to reveal that I understood how others were viewing me, because it made others uncomfortable. If I made people aware that I was observing their construct as intently as they were observing me, that made them observe their own construct in new and discomfiting ways. So I remained friendly and engaged on the outside (and inside) while keeping the more piercing aspects of my cultural studies to myself.
Fourth, and most importantly, coming from the above: that whiteness could be observed, even in fearful times, if one got close enough and stayed relatively silent.
Disaggregating White Nationalism from the Trump Vote
I have spent this election observing politics, race, and the rise of a particularly passionate, disruptive, and dangerous form of white nationalism.
As people look at the outcome of the election, we are left with questions about disaggregating political behavior like voting from intent. Given the rise of white nationalism and its integration into our government, was Ted Cruz simply not Anglo enough to be a viable candidate for president? Was Jeb Bush’s marriage to a Mexican woman part of the reason he was viewed so tepidly by Republican voters? These are questions we probably didn’t measure for at the time – and if there is research on the matter, please let me know – but in retrospect I really wish we had.
I have also not been afraid to see Trump voters for who they are, in their many forms, and realize that what I know so far, despite my reporting, is simply not enough. In some ways, the real work of understanding motivations and disaggregating voter intent and how the message hit the target is just beginning.
The other day I sat across from a woman on a crowded Amtrak train at one of their four-tops. She was black, or appeared so to me, though she later emphasized on an exceedingly loud and profanity-filled phone call that she was Brazilian (which I mention simply because she seemed to be distancing herself from American blackness in the remarks). She was wearing clubwear (kitten ears; revealing hyper-sexualized gear in more of an electronica/post-punk mode than anything vaguely hip hop); mentioned she was a bartender; and when she wasn’t on the phone spent the ride hitting on a baffled Asian-American businessman next to her and generally being an enlightening (to a reporter like me) nuisance on the train. Before I moved away to get some ear-space from her aggressive monologue on the phone, I learned that she was a Trump voter; she and the friend on the other line were mocking non-Trump voters; and she saw her vote as a flag planted squarely in the center of her identity.
What I learned from her conversation made me think: maybe this woman thought of Donald Trump as representing freedom. And what’s more American than that?
She didn’t want to be put in a box, and as she and her friend apparently mocked non-Trump voters, her rhetorical emphasis was on what a maverick her vote for Trump made her.
Hillary Clinton, for all else you do or don’t think of her, was committed to an establishment path to power. Donald Trump, vulgar by his and his family’s own admission, clearly spoke to this woman on a personal level. On some semiotic levels, Trump functions as an American antihero, someone who gives people permission to imagine themselves as just as vulgar and just as powerful, and winning not despite their vulgarity but because of it.
Listening to this young voter put together one more puzzle piece of the many reasons people, including some people of color, voted for Trump.
And I have to confess, Donald Trump has been liberating to me too, in one sense.
If a man who has settled out of court on charges of educational fraud and racially discriminating in housing can be our next white male President, I double down on my rejection of the conceit of exceptional blackness, aka “better than” syndrome.
The demanded performance of exceptional blackness is a pernicious part of the construct of American meritocracy. By “exceptional blackness” I mean the idea that blacks not only have to work twice as hard as whites, but specifically that doing so means we will be liberated from discrimination and transcend race. I may be better than white peers sometimes; and I at other times I will not be; but that alone will not change the construct of race in America. But if Donald Trump can be president, then I can at least be black and free.
Be clear that what I am rejecting is not the urge for excellence or self-improvement, but the idea that my excellence and self-improvement is a blood price I must pay to prove black Americans’ worthiness of a true meritocracy. You either believe in working toward a true meritocracy or you do not, and I will not bribe you into belief by my individual performance. Are you for equality, or are you not?
White Nationalists Challenge the Fiction of American Meritocracy
In many ways, the white nationalist crowd is calling out the lie of American meritocracy from its own admittedly ideologically bent perch. In my conversations online and off with white nationalists, they admit a reliance on the law to enforce a dominance that they then also claim a birthright to.
The person then admitted that America was not truly founded as a white nation, but that laws made it so. Their claim to a white homeland is better understood, then, as a claim to their right to use the law to protect their dominance when neither history nor meritocracy is on their side. This is similar in result to European white nationalism, but with an origin story more like the claim of South African Boers to lands, which provoked the clash of power known as the end of apartheid. White Afrikaaner nationalist calls for a volkstaat, or white homeland, persist to this day.
The white nationalist stance on American meritocracy should be extremely troubling to what I call “establishment whiteness,” a construct that believes that evocations of whiteness by and large do not challenge the access to advancement of other people. These white nationalist claims explicitly reject the “post-racial” and “color-blind” putative politics of establishment whiteness.
It is Up to White Americans to Hear and Fight the Call-to-Whiteness Being Raised in Their Name
I have learned as much about whiteness as I have because it was critical to my survival and my personal, intellectual, and professional development. The question I have now is whether white Americans feel they have a stake in understanding whiteness as well. For this call is being made in all white Americans’ names, and to claim you are a bystander is a dangerous thing to do. This is a culture war, and as in all wars, bystanders are likely to be bloodied in the melee.
American whiteness, when activated in this particularly aggressive nationalistic way, will be worse for me and my family than it will be for many white Americans. On the other hand, I am well prepared for this moment in time. Based on my upbringing and my field studies on the world, I never presumed America was a safe place for me, although I love this nation dearly.
I have studied the geography and culture of America as intently as I have studied whiteness. I am going in December to cover the Dakota Access Pipeline protests, and on that trip I intend to visit both North and South Dakota, which will complete me having visited all 50 of the U.S. states. I have family by marriage in South Dakota, and if the fates are willing I will see them on this trip. As I remain in the adoption pipeline, and my life will change dramatically once I have a child, I hear the everything-ness of America calling me to an adventure, perhaps the last one of its kind for a while.
This is my land, and no white nationalist will tell me otherwise. However, I do believe in their ability to harm me and my nation. If establishment white Americans do not recognize the challenge that the call-to-whiteness presents to their lives as well as to mine, my struggles and our nation’s struggles will be materially more difficult. But I can’t determine anyone else’s actions, only my own.
It thus remains very much up to white America to control the baser urges of the call-to-whiteness. You are not above it, particularly if you have not bothered to learn about it — and especially if you claim it doesn’t exist or doesn’t concern you. The call-to-whiteness is being invoked in your name. Can you hear it now? And how will you respond? The world is waiting to know.