“‘Whitelash’ in American Society, 1865-present” by Esther Rosier

Once it became clear on the night of November 8th, 2016 that Donald Trump would be the next president of the United States, flags were burned, suicide hotlines were overwhelmed with calls, and Canadian authorities were overwhelmed with inquiries about migration. More important, fear and anxiety ran rampant in minority communities. The question many Trump supporters ask is “Why?” Why are minorities fearful about a President Trump?

CNN commentator Van Jones, who coined the term “whitelash,” spoke out on this the night of Trump’s win:

It’s hard to be a parent tonight for a lot of us. You tell your kids don’t be a bully. You tell your kids don’t be a bigot. You tell your kids do your homework and be prepared. And then you have this outcome. And you have people putting children to bed tonight, and they’re afraid of breakfast. They’re afraid of, how do I explain this to my children? I have Muslim friends who are texting me tonight, saying, “Should I leave the country?” I have families of immigrants that are terrified tonight. This was many things. This was a rebellion against the elites, true. … But it was also about something else. … This was a white lash. This was a white lash against a changing country. It was a white lash against a black president in part. And that’s the part where the pain comes.

It is the fear of regression that has many American liberals and minorities terrified. John Blake notes: “Dramatic racial progress in America is inevitably followed by a white backlash, or ‘whitelash.’ Reconstruction in the 19th century was followed by a century of Jim Crow. The civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s was followed by President Ronald Reagan and the rise of the religious right.”

Every move towards racial progress seems to be met eventually by opposition and a rise in nationalism and tradition. During Reconstruction between 1865 and 1877, more than 2,000 blacks were elected to political offices throughout the South…. But Reconstruction was attacked by the Ku Klux Klan and eventually was replaced by Jim Crow, the “racial caste system which operated primarily, but not exclusively in southern and border states.” Jim Crow was more than a series of rigid anti-black laws. It was a way of life, a way of separating blacks from whites, regressing one race while advancing the other. It was a way of “Making America Great Again” for white people in America.

What’s scary to a lot of minorities in America is that the rhetoric of Trump’s platform sounds eerily reminiscent of the some of the rhetoric of the “second” Ku Klux Klan: “The reason there is a Klan in America today is to make America safe for Americans.” This sentiment isn’t necessarily offensive until you realize that for the Klan, America was for whites only: “You must base your hopes for the future on native born white citizens.” The Klan’s goal above all was to return America back to the old days when it was the white man’s.

I don’t say all this to say that Donald Trump is part of the KKK and that he’s a white supremacist. Rather, I’m looking at the history of “Making America Great Again.” It’s not a new concept, but has a long history. There were issues about immigration and pluralism and civil unrest in the past and now. I firmly believe that Trump not only became president because he won the hearts of middle America, but also because there is a historical hold on an America that once was but never will be again because of minorities. Mark Twain is reported to have said: “The past does not repeat itself, but it rhymes.” This past November might be the first time that the term “whitelash” was used during an election, but its concept feels very familiar.