Opinion

White Racial Anxiety Strikes Again

Glenn Youngkin’s defeat of Terry McAuliffe in the Virginia governor’s race shocked some. But it resulted from multiple factors. Democrats still haven’t delivered on their promises or moved major legislation — their infrastructure, social spending and voting rights bills — through Congress. And McAuliffe ran a last-cycle campaign, an anti-Donald Trump campaign.

Of course, there are structural, historical patterns that still hold true in states like Virginia, where voters tend to punish whichever party controls the White House. But what can’t be denied is the degree to which Youngkin successfully activated and unleashed white racial anxiety, positioning it in its most potent form: as the protection of the vulnerable, innocent and helpless. In this case, the white victims in supposed distress were children.

Youngkin homed in on critical race theory, even though critical race theory, as Youngkin imagines it, isn’t being taught in his state’s schools. But that didn’t matter.

There are people who want to believe the fabrication because it justifies their fears about displacement, powerlessness and vulnerability.

In fact, the frenzy around critical race theory is just the latest in a long line of manufactured outrages meant to tap into this same fear, and the strategy has proved depressingly effective.

There was the fear of “race-mixing” among children — including the notion that Black boys might begin dating white girls following the desegregation ruling in Brown v. Board of Education. (By the way, this was a variation on the ancient and dusty fear peddled during Reconstruction that not only were Black men incapable of governing, but their rapacious nature also put white women at risk of rape and devilment.)

There was the fear of a collapse of the Southern way of life and society following the successes of the civil rights movement. That gave rise to the Republicans’ “Southern strategy.”

Richard Nixon used the fear of a lost generation to launch his disastrous war on drugs, which was not really a war on drugs at all but yet another way to ignite white racial anxiety.

Nixon aide John Ehrlichman would later tell Harper’s Magazine:

“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

Ronald Reagan employed the myth of the welfare queen to anger white voters.

As The New Republic put it, “the welfare queen stood in for the idea that Black people were too lazy to work, instead relying on public benefits to get by, paid for by the rest of us upstanding citizens.”

This, even though, as the Economic Policy Institute pointed out, “Compared with other women in the United States, Black women have always had the highest levels of labor market participation regardless of age, marital status, or presence of children at home.” In fact, working-class white people have benefited most from assistance from the government.

George H.W. Bush ginned up fears of white women being raped by Black former prisoners with his 1988 Willie Horton ad, hammering home a tough-on-crime message.

Even Democrats got in on the action during Bill Clinton’s presidency with their “crack baby” mythology, painting a dystopian portrait of an entire generation. Black children and young adults, they implied, were “superpredators,” unrepentant, incorrigible criminals who roamed the streets, willing “to knock my mother on the head with a lead pipe, shoot my sister, beat up my wife, take on my sons,” as then-Senator Joe Biden said.

Sarah Palin tried her best to other Barack Obama and make white people afraid of him, accusing the Illinois senator of “palling around with terrorists.” At the same time, birthers were questioning if Obama was born in the United States and wondering whether he was Christian or Muslim.

Then came Donald Trump, the chief birther, who ratcheted up this fear appeal to obscene levels, positioning Mexicans as rapists and Muslims as people who hate America. He disparaged Black countries, demonized Black athletes and found some “very fine people” among the Nazis in Charlottesville.

So it’s no wonder Youngkin’s critical race theory lie worked. The parasite of white racial anxiety needed a new host, a fresher one.

You could argue that the Democrats made missteps in Virginia. Absolutely. But, to win, Democrats also needed to tamp down white people’s fears, which is like playing Whac-a-Mole.

Some of the very same people who voted against Donald Trump because they were exhausted and embarrassed by him turned eagerly to Youngkin because he represented some of the same ideals, but behind a front of congeniality.

Youngkin delivered fear with a smile.

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