American Delusion

September 29, 2016
1 Comment

“The American delusion is not only that his brothers are all white but that whites are all brothers.” – James Baldwin, in a letter to Angela Davis.

In 2012, as President Obama was running for his second term, I saw small signs in yards around Grand Rapids. They read, “Take Back Our Country.” I never found out who made them, but it became clear that they were the product of a conservative group. My wife and I wondered, “Who, exactly, are we taking it back from?” We recognized that they were in the yards of people who were frustrated and needed someone to take it out on. As a country, we had witnessed the tragedy of 9/11 just after the economy crumbled when the dot-com bubble burst. We tried tax credits and tax cuts, but the national deficit ballooned with two foreign wars. Then, the economy crashed as the housing bubble burst. Retirements, homes, and futures were lost. The wars continued with no end in sight. Jobs disappeared and wages declined.

It’s perfectly understandable that people would be frustrated. In my mind, the rigid partisanship of our politics, the violence and vitriol at our political rallies, the crude language on our social media feeds, is the result of our fears and frustrations going unaddressed.

Let’s be clear that, when I write “our” politics, what I really mean is white politics. The vitriol and violence of “our” political rallies is primarily at the hands of white people. The crude insults, again, mainly white. What I want to offer is that there is a growing gulf among white people who feel powerless, angry, alone and abandoned. There is a growing diversity in this country, but that divide is not new. It is this separation among white voters that is increasing the intensity of political debate and hate. When I look at the white electorate here’s who I see:

The Greatest Generation – people who were willing to sacrifice to preserve the American dream for their children and grandchildren. Their lives have been built on the singular story of American Exceptionalism. Life was not easy for them, but they worked hard to ensure a legacy which now seems in jeopardy. There is a growing diversity, a new sexual ethic, and a rejection of Christian morals that they feel is a rejection of everything they worked to accomplish. They know that American history has been exceptionally cruel to people of color, but don’t know how to hold both stories together.

The Boomers & Blue Collar Workers – two groups who have been tossed about by an economy beyond their control. The Boomers have over-spent and under-saved (and what they did save vanished). The promise of a relaxing retirement is gone at no fault of their own as they search for work in fields that want younger talent. Blue collar workers are under-resourced, under-educated, stressed out and stretched thin. Their jobs have been taken away or filled by machines. Their wages no longer cover expenses. They resent the liberal concern for people of color because no one seems to care about their very real struggle.

The financial, entrepreneurial elite (and those who want to be them) – They run the economy and the government. They own corporations, media empires, and virtually whole cities. Their main concern is instability in the Middle East, the disruptive threat of terrorism, China, and Russia. They benefit from the fears and frustrations of other white voters. They talk about defending American interests, democracy, and the economy because they know it resonates. For some reason that wealth never “trickles down” and it’s always someone else’s fault.

The college-educated progressive – They have left the church and embrace a new sexual ethic. They have joined political forces with people of color, seeing a more complicated American history. They represent a kind of betrayal. Yet, it is their wealth that affords them the privilege of standing apart. Quite frankly, the system works just fine for them. They value diversity in theory but their commitment to equality pales in comparison to their pursuit of the latest microbrew and Netflix series. They are sympathetic to people of color, but not willing to sacrifice. Still, they are most at home in the country that America is becoming demographically and morally.

This election is a vivid illustration of the dynamics of the white electorate. Someone from the entrepreneurial, financial elite has stepped forward. He knows that older generations, Boomers and blue collar workers are struggling and frustrated, even furious. He talks about punching people in the face and shooting people on the street to show that he is just as angry. He knows the convenient scapegoats: white liberals, immigrants, Muslims. We believe him because he is successful. We believe him because he appears to be a brother. In my eyes, he is taking advantage of good people who are worried about the national debt, proud of their country, want to be rewarded for their work and live in peace.

I believe that the hardest thing for the early church to do was for “Jews and Gentiles, male and female, slave and free” to embrace one another as brothers and sisters. It meant overcoming past harm and prejudice, giving up national gods and allegiances, learning new gender roles, and relinquishing power and privilege. But, it also meant living a life free from hostility and finding peace (Eph. 2:14-16) and security in their common good. For us, the promise of the American Dream is a carrot held out by a small elite to the frustrated masses of white people. It is an illusion and it is making some of us delusional, even violent. We are angry at the wrong people and have put our faith in the wrong promise.

I realize that this reads very partisan and not very pastoral. But, if you’re struggling, if you’re frustrated, I want you to know that it’s not your fault.  I want you to know that Muslims, immigrants and black lives are not your enemies. In fact, they could be your allies in building a better and more equitable country. And, I want you to know that there is hope. There is a Christian hope, a foretaste of which is promised to us in the unity of God’s people, if we will walk through the broken walls of hostility and allow ourselves to be built into one body. This hope is found not through whiteness, but through the love of all God’s children “red and yellow, black and white.” We find it through faith, not in our country, but in Christ.

About the Author
  • Peter TeWinkle is a married to Julie and they parent two boys, Wil and Josh. They live in Michigan and he serves as a pastor at Hope Church in SE Grand Rapids. You can find him on twitter @pastorofhope.

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  1. I don’t disagree with your conclusion at all, but the analysis isn’t all accurate. It’s a fair and balanced image of the Builder generation that you paint, but it becomes an increasingly harsh caricature as you go.

    We might note the Builders have seen nothing but disruptive changes all their lives, like every other American and most people on the planet for the past several centuries. It was their kids, the Boomers, in the Sixties who are still at the center of our “culture wars,” framing the story as people in their 60s on up see it. They’ve been in reaction much if not all their lives and have not questioned whether there is something wrong with this vision or strategy. The Boomers however are far better off financially than you describe, especially in relation to their children and grandchildren, who have been saddled with enormous debts no one else has ever had to carry — debts for the longest war we’ve had, unprecedented college costs, and mortgages treated to a pump and dump by the “entrepreneurial” class. It was the Boomers and their parents who brought in the deregulation that allowed this situation to develop, and to unmake what little social safety net we once had.

    As for “the college-educated progressive,” you seem to be skipping Generation X to describe Millenials in a way I don’t recognize. What’s their new sexual ethic? Have they really all “left the church” and “joined political forces with people of color” — you mean they’ve become Democrats? — to become insincere activists who really just care about cool hipster consumption? Is this supposed to be the hostile caricature laid on them by their parents and grandparents? To whom do they “represent a kind of betrayal?” I can’t imagine anyone in these age groups reading this and not feeling unjustly maligned.

    Trump is not really a “financial elite.” Real financial elites regard him as a crass upstart from lower-class Brooklyn who was lucky and crooked enough to break into rich Manhattan society and pretend he is one of them. This is what makes him attractive to the white working class and middle class “flyover” people — everyone who feels despised, left behind, or looked down on. Trump has the celebrity, wealth and shamelessness to say and get away with saying what many white Americans wish they could say so openly. You’re right that his appeal divides and plays on division — and it is these divisions that really out to be faced. Maybe white Americans are really angry at their kids, their parents, their grandkids, and their grandparents. There have been injuries and misunderstandings, not much good communication. If this is how they treat each other — writing off every new generation as vapid, spoiled, uncommitted, libertines — there is no limit to what can be said and thought about people who are seen as even more different.