Trump and Ethnicity in Comparative Perspective

Protesters gather outside of a Donald Trump speaking engagement in Washington DC, March 21, 2016. Photo via Stephen Melkisethian.

By Cullen Hendrix for Denver Dialogues.

Whether appeals to white identity and white resentment propelled Donald Trump – as improbable a major party candidate as we have seen in recent memory (seriously, that happened) – to the presidency-elect[1] of the United States is highly debatable. Trump’s election has been interpreted as part of a broader “global white backlash” and the return of xenophobic politics in the developed world, but the evidence is still not conclusive. What’s not up for debate, however, is that Trump’s election has empowered white nationalists and refocused our attention on racial politics in the United States. Since the election, hate crimes have spiked and white nationalists have hailed Trump’s victory and some of his personnel decisions.

This has caught many by surprise. It might not have if Americans were more used to thinking about the United States in comparative perspective.

I study contentious politics and repression, mostly in Africa. When I think about politics, ethnicity and ethnic identity are never far from my mind. This is especially true in those contexts where ethnicity is a red line for economic, political, and social marginalization: where one’s ethnic identity either qualifies or disqualifies you for a job, housing, membership in a club, or – at least historically – from holding high elected office. That is, ethnic identity is not just about culture, language and/or religion, but it also becomes a vehicle for obtaining and maintaining power.

Social scientists take as given that these conditions obtain in the vast majority of developing countries, which for complex reasons tend to be more ethnically diverse and more prone to intrastate conflict than wealthier, more industrialized or post-industrial societies. Moreover, it is uncontroversial to argue in these circumstances that political competition revolves around ethnicity. But ethnic politics are highly relevant (and climbing with a bullet) in the United States – which is unique among developed, capitalist countries for its long history of domestic slavery and Jim Crow – and increasingly so in Europe, as the countries of the European Union grapple with a mass influx of refugees from the Middle East and North Africa and lingering resentment over the costs of addressing the fallout of the Great Recession.

In the United States, race and ethnic politics (REP) has largely been studied through the prism of minority group politics and political behavior, i.e., black/Latino/Asian American, etc. public opinion and voting behavior. This is not to say ethnic politics scholars ignore power dynamics and the legacy of white oppression of minority groups – indeed, race and ethnicity scholars are more likely than most “Americanist” political scientists to take seriously concepts like power – but simply to point out that REP tends to operate from the assumption that US race and ethnic dynamics are sui generis, rather than a case or set of cases among many. That is, and this is just an impression, so let me know if I’m wrong here, most REP scholars don’t look to Kenya, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, or broader, cross-national work on ethnic conflict to inform their analyses, even if ethnic power dynamics in the United States look more like those cases than we would like to admit.

Here, I outline six “truths” – some inconvenient, some helpful – regarding the comparative literature on ethnic politics and conflict and what it might suggest for both prospects for violence and for addressing the rising tide of white nationalist sentiment in the United States. Rather than focusing on why white nationalism and white resentment are on the rise, I take it as given and focus on what the ethnic politics literature has to say about its likely effects for US politics and ways in which its pernicious message might be marginalized.

Inconvenient Truths

Given this gloomy picture, is there any good news?

Helpful Truths

  • Cooperation works best when groups self-police. Opening his seminal article with Jim Fearon on interethnic cooperation, David Laitin relates the following anecdote:I grew up in a Jewish section of Flatbush that bordered an Italian neighborhood. Sometimes on our way to school, some Italian kids-nearly all of them went to parochial schools-would hassle and even attack us. Although they lived only a few blocks away, we didn’t even know their names. We just called them “the St. Brennan’s kids.” Our parents would see our injuries and report the incidents to our school principal, who was Jewish, but from a different neighborhood. He contacted the relevant authorities at St. Brennan’s, who would investigate the matter and punish the culprits. The funny thing was, no one ever seemed to think of calling the police. They were Irish.To Fearon and Laitin, the key to maintaining positive interethnic relations is in-group policing: to maintain harmony, members of the in-group must check the bad behavior – the race baiting, threats, and outright violence – of members of their own group. The solution wasn’t to get a larger gang of Jewish kids together to rumble with the Italians. That type of logic only escalates conflict. Rather, the solution is for leaders within ethnic communities to police the behavior of the agitators among them. That means, my white friends who do not want to see white nationalism take hold in the United States: It is on us. We have to call it out. We have to marginalize these voices and push white nationalism back to the fringe. We cannot and should not expect others to do it for us.

In this post, I’ve tried to bring insights from the comparative literature on ethnic politics and ethnic conflict to bear on the rise of white nationalism in the United States and what can be done about it. What did I miss? And how can scholars like myself re-engage with US-focused scholars around these issues?

[1] As of November 28, 2016, anyway. It’s been that kind of year.

[2] Prior to 1965, whites exercised monopoly political power, excluding all other ethnic groups.

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