Trump and the Habits of White Utopia (or How Mexican Philosophers Help Get me Through Election Day)
By Joseph Orosco (November 10, 2016)
In the late 1980s, Mexican anthropologist Guillermo Bonfil Batalla published his book Mexico Profundo, or Deep Mexico. In it, he argued that the lives and experiences of ordinary Mexicans living in rural areas and poor urban neighborhoods in Mexico continue to be rooted in Mesoamerican civilizations. Their understandings of work, community obligation, health, time, and harmonious coexistence form a connection to indigenous folkways that go back to pre-columbian societies. Most Mexicans may not recognize these habits, or themselves, as indigenous, but their everyday experiences are shaped by these much older cultures and practices laying deep underneath the modern ways of life.
I was thinking about Mexican thinkers such as Bonfil, as well as Mexican philosopher Jose Vasconcelos, when I walked to the university today, wondering how to make sense of the Trump electoral victory. My first appointment was with a Chicanx student who spoke in an emotionally tired voice, explaining she had been up all night with her parents who were trying to determine what sorts of work they would find if they were deported back to Mexico. I saw my colleagues in the hallways and later learned that some of them had broken down crying in front of their classes. One Muslim student told me he had been on the phone with friends all night, gauging their fear; one of them told him that calls to suicide hotlines were overwhelming some centers and they were having to put people on hold. One African American student worried about what his younger sibling was going to do growing up in this environment. Thoughout the day, my social media feeds filled with friends expressing amazement, disgust, and the feeling that they did not understand their country anymore.
The work of Vasconcelos helped me not to be shocked today. In 1925, he wrote a work entitled The Cosmic Race. In it, he tried to explain what he considered to be the main cultural differences between North and Latin America—the profound US and the profound Latin America, particularly Mexico. He said if you wanted to understand these two Americas you had to go back and look at the differences in their settler colonialism. These experiences created deep grooves and patterns into the culture and political development of the two societies that continue to shape modern life.
In the North, the white settlers envisioned a utopia for themselves, a place to venerate the accomplishments of English culture, and proceeded to exclude or exterminate nonwhite populations. In the North you found, “the confessed or tacit intention of cleaning the earth of Indians, Mongolians [sic], or Blacks, for the greater glory and fortune of the Whites.” This vision of white utopia propelled the extension of the United States all the way across the West. It also grounded legislation that excluded Asians from immigrating or from most civic life in places like California, propped up the Jim Crow segregation in the South, and the Juan Crow segregation in the Southwest that Vasconcelos directly experienced while he attended high school in Eagle Pass, Texas.
For Vasconcelos, what distinguished Latin America was the way in which racial integration and miscegenation was more acceptable. White supremacy still reigned, but the particular features of social and political life made the development of a variety of mixed racial identities possible (indeed, during the colonial period, places like Mexico and Brazil recognized hundreds of possible racial identities). Founding figures in Latin American independence, from Simon Bolivar and Jose Morelos, all recognized that Latin American republics would have to contend with multi-racialism in order to work.
What made me think of Vasconcelos is that he identified white supremacy as part of the profound United States—that is, as the deep tendencies that lie underneath modern society. According to Vasconcelos, the United States has learned very well is how to develop over time the practices and institutional policies of exclusion, marginalization, and eradication of non white peoples; these are the ready-to-hand tools that are reached for in moments of fear and crisis for white Americans. Trump’s campaign reached deep into los estadounidos profundo—the deep white supremacist toolbox. Voting data seems to reveal that, overwhelmingly, a majority of white people—men and women, rural and suburban, educated and non-educated alike—felt called to defend a society that Trump described as under attack by Mexicans, Muslims, and urban Blacks (among others). Despite his misogyny and promises to undo reproductive rights, most white women felt the need to protect that deep United States vision now in ways they did not just eight or even four years ago. This is not to say that all white people, or even the majority of white people who voted for Trump, have racial animus toward nonwhite people. I think what Vasconcelos would say is that they heeded the dogwhistle of white supremacy, the habits of whiteness, that lay deep in US culture and are turned to when times are uncertain.
And it is this part of Vasconcelos’s work that keeps me from paralyzing despair. It means that what happened with the Trump victory is not something new, something unexpected, or strangely out of place. It is something profoundly American. That doesn’t mean it isn’t something to worry about, and that some groups shouldn’t now worry about their safety and security; but it is a reaction that has happened time and time again in US history from the very beginning of our founding. To think that the habits of whiteness were eradicated with a decade long Civil Rights movement and that eight years of a black president have ushered us into a post-racial society is to naively underestimate los estadounidos profundo.
Vasconcelos attempted to offer a way forward. The Cosmic Race is an attempt to sketch an alternative to the white utopia of the United States. This involved a vision of a cosmopolitian world in which our racial categories would no longer work because their would be so much interbreeding that the ordinary person was profoundly mixed. It would be a place in which each person would see a part of themselves in others, racially speaking, and parts of others in themselves. The new religious forms of such a community would be based in faiths that emphasized love and compassion for one another. The politics would be socialist, a world in which everyone had an ability to participate in decisions, and goods are distributed according to need.
There are many problems with Vasconcelos’ utopia of the Cosmic Race. The history and politics of racial mixing in Mexico is fraught with lingering effects of racism toward indigenous and African populations and Vasconcelos seems to gloss over these events in order to sharpen his contrast between North and Latin America. And he doesn’t offer very much in terms of institution building—beyond hand waving at love and socialism, he doesn’t say much about what kinds of structures need to be put in place to build a world that stands up against the white supremacist utopia.
But what he aspires to is thinking about the history and politics of race in the Americas in order to develop radical alternatives; ones that respect and esteem the kind of racial mixing that was despised, and even made illegal in the United States in 1925. He wanted to imagine a utopia of elation, erotic attraction, and passion in which people would “feel towards the world an emotion so intense that the movement of things adopts rhythms of joy”. I think he calls on us not to despair in the face of white supremacy with its fears, stupidity, and its ugliness, but to envision a beautiful world of playful togetherness and sympathy amid our differences.
Radical imagination is also organizing work. As the great anti-white supremacist organizer Anne Braden wrote: “In every age, no matter how cruel the oppression carried on by those in power, there have been those who struggled for a different world. I believe this is the genius of humankind, the thing that makes us half divine: the fact that some human beings can envision a world that has never existed.”