Donald Trump likes to pit elite and non-elite white people against each other. Why do white liberals play into his trap?
“I want them to talk about racism every day,” Steve Bannon, President Donald Trump’s former strategist, told The American Prospect last year. “If the left is focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats.”
Bannon was tapping into an old American tradition. As early as the 1680s, powerful white people were serving up racism to assuage the injuries of class, elevating the status of white indentured servants over that of enslaved black people. Some two centuries later, W. E. B. Du Bois observed that poor white people were compensated partly by a “public and psychological wage”—the “wages of whiteness,” as the historian David Roediger memorably put it. These wages pit people of different races against one another, averting a coalition based on shared economic interests.