What is Whitelash? And why does this Pulitzer prize-winning journalist think the media is making it worse?

In his recently published book, American Whitelash: A Changing Nation and the Cost of Progress, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Wesley Lowery says that President Barack Obama’s winning of the 2008 election made history—but it also caused a rise of “whitelash.”

The progress was too much for white fragility and it gave way to a spike in race-based violence that is still reverberating today.

But what exactly is whitelash and how does it apply to American society?

Read on for more insight.

1) What exactly is whitelash?

 Whitelash—also referred to as white rage or white backlash—is a white grievance that some white people have in reaction to the progress of other ethnic groups when it comes to rights, economic opportunities, and political self-determination.

The term whitelash was first studied by American philosopher George Yancy. While it explored some white Americans’ negative reaction to the examination of their own white privilege, it typically involved deliberate racism and violence.

Although whitelash typically happens in the United States, it isn’t exclusive to America. It has come up in the United Kingdom, and also during apartheid in South Africa. 

2) How did the Obama presidency bring on a wave of whitelash?

In an interview on The Daily Beast’s podcast “The New Abnormal,” Lowery said that with the election of a Black president there was a change in the demographic because of immigration. “These two things are happening at the same time, in the same era,” he explained.

“We have a multi-racial democracy. All of this backlash remains in the context of people responding to a mult-racial democracy and whether or not we should have it.”

He said that powerful political figures are willing to stoke these fears, and who are gaining political power by aggravating, frustrating, and upsetting the majority white American electorate. “[They are] convincing them that they lost their country, and that they have to stand up and get it back.”

The whitelash that happened after Obama was elected had historical precedent: there was a severe reaction after the abolition of slavery and during emancipation, as well as during the civil rights movement. 

Obama’s election gave rise to conservative reactionary politics that demonize people who are different, says Lowery. “[Their politics was such] that something inherently American is being lost in the way that the country is changing.”

Whitelash also pushed the perception that there is only one way to be American, and that is being a white American.

Examples include Obama’s citizenship and faith being questioned. There was a huge whitelash to Michelle Obama’s statement that she was proud of America for the very first time, even though the reality was that many people of color—not only Blacks—felt the same way.

Lowery said that instead what we saw was how the election of a Black President prompted additional prejudice to come out. “It even gave people permission to express this. We saw the ways that the Obama administration was attacked.”

That’s not to say that there weren’t fair critiques of the Obama administration, and that’s not to say there weren’t critiques by Black journalists and African-American academics, he said.

“But what is true is that having a Black presidency created space and reactionary opposition to the President that was very naked in its racialized and racist appeal.”

3) The media perpetuated the notion that the country had gotten past race

Lowery talked about the media’s complicity in not naming the bigotry and racism for what it was.

“By and large, Black Americans were willing and able to hold these truths—not to underplay the significance of the Obama election,” he said. “They believed it was momentous and historical, but they were very well aware that this was going to come with some level of backlash. They were very attuned to it.”

The media, on the other hand, was unwilling to honestly grapple with what was happening, he said. “To this day in some cases, [the media] is unwilling to tell the truth about what happened.”

It’s easier for journalists to just write down what happened and wonder who was right. “Making change would require us in the media to police our public square, to hold our elected officials accountable for their rhetoric.”

Lowery stressed that if the media values multiracial democracy, it’s their job to curate the public square so that people don’t abuse it, and don’t abuse freedom of speech.

He said the big problem is that all our institutions —not just media, but law enforcement, political parties—have not taken white violence seriously enough.

4) The rise of Donald Trump gave whitelash a wider platform

“[When Trump entered] the scene more nationally, he led the charge that the first Black president of the United States is not an American,” Lowery said. “He made up fabrications of Obama not being born in the country and being a secret Muslim.”

Lowery reiterated that the key plank of Trump’s election platform was that he was going to build a wall to prevent Hispanic immigrants from entering the country. “He was going to also ban Muslims from coming into the country—that he would take steps to do that once he was elected President,” he said.

“This isn’t  hyperbole or even a critique,” he added. “This is just an accurate description of how things were, what his policies were and how he behaved and yet the media was unwilling to use the language to accurately describe what was happening. And second, they were unwilling to accept that that was true of the world.”

Lowery said that after Donald Trump was elected, media organizations across the country were convincing themselves that there had to be some mysterious answer—that they didn’t understand the country, that they didn’t get it.

“It was really clear, and really simple, yet there was this desire not to see what was right in front of us because people did not want to believe in the America that exists. They wanted to believe in the made-up America they had in their head.”

It’s why there was this obsession with the Obama to Trump voter, says Lowery. “There was this idea that it can’t be racism because a bunch of these people voted for Barack Obama, which speaks to how poorly understood the concepts of prejudice are among members of our media,” he emphasized.

“You mean to tell me at a time when there’s massive Hispanic immigration someone couldn’t vote for a Black guy but still be racist against those immigrants? That in a post-9/11 world where there’s a rise in ISIS attacks that someone could not be Islamophobic and have unreasonable bigoted fears and still have voted for Obama?”

The reality was to see racism and racial prejudice in this way. “[There is] a complete ignorance to how voting behavior works—that over an eight-year period, someone might not have been radicalized or their views might have changed.”

5) Lowery says that liberal institutions—especially the media—are avoiding facing what whitelash is doing to America

what is whitelash 1 What is Whitelash? And why does this Pulitzer prize-winning journalist think the media is making it worse?

Liberal institutions need to grapple with reality, Lowery said. “When they see a rise in this movement, they’re not trying to find alternative explanations when there is a clear explanation.”

The problem is the inability to acknowledge the world as it is. “This really got in the way of our institutions doing what they’re supposed to do, which is protect and defend our democracy.”

Lowery said that institutional inertia happens through a bunch of people making small decisions that cut in the same direction. It doesn’t even really require any type of coordination or explicitly stated plan.

“When you look at a lot of our institutions, they were not founded to support, defend, or advance multiracial democracies,” he said.

Lowery emphasized that these institutions were founded prior to multi-racial democracies.

“If you look at a media ecosystem that was founded prior to the existence of multi-racial democracies, its founding principles, as well as the way it exists and operates and moves—all of those things are untethered from a cornerstone where the idea of a multi-racial democracy is not up for debate.”

Lowery posed the question:

“If you are an organization that believes foundationally in a multi-racial democracy, how would that change how you cover, how you interview, and how you interact with people who through their policies would undermine and undo it?”

The issue is that we live in a world where that’s up for debate.

That speaks to the fact that a lot of our institutions did not see it as fundamental to their job and their roles to defend our multi-racial democracy at this moment because they don’t see it as part of their core, says Lowery.

“They don’t see it as vital to their identities as liberal institutions and I think that that exposed and was at the core of a lot of the failings of those institutions to do the things that many people wanted them to do.”

In other words, they saw these issues as having two sides that many believed should not have two sides in the society and the world that we want to live in.

6) So how is whitelash still infiltrating America today?

One of the ways that whitelash is worse now is the way the right is gutting the public education system.

Whitelash is prevalent in the way that it is attacking wokeness and critical thought.

“This push by the Conservative movement is aligned with the whitelash in terms of violence,” said Lowery. “This kind of miseducation or under-education is necessary for the furthering of their movement.”

He believes that much of the country lacks a very basic undertaking of the US’ foundational history.

“Many of us believe things that just aren’t true about how and where this country came from, how it operated and what the past was like,” he said.

“We see classrooms as battlegrounds of how the story of the country is told. Because people understand that when they control the story and they control the context, then they can manipulate how people respond to the world around them.”

Some final thoughts from Lowery on if the tables were turned

Lowery said this in a recent interview with Politico:

“Were there rhetoric leading to attacks on white people as a group, our institutions would take a much harder line,” he said.

“If someone were calling for the genocide for whites, we would not give them a town hall on CNN. I think it’s very clear that as a country, we allow demonizing of some people and not of others.”

Also read:

Picture of Wendy Kaur

Wendy Kaur

Wendy Kaur is a Toronto-based journalist whose work has been published by The Globe & Mail, ELLE USA, ELLE Canada, British Vogue, Town & Country, and others.

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