In 1910, W.E.B. Du Bois wrote “The discovery of personal whiteness among the world’s peoples is a very modern thing,-a nineteenth and twentieth century matter, indeed…This assumption that of all the hues of God, whiteness alone is inherently and obviously better than brownness or tan leads to curious acts,” in an essay, “The Souls of White Folk.”
More than a century later, political commentator and journalist Roland Martin is tackling this same concept in his newest book, “White Fear: How the Browning of America is Making White Folks Lose Their Minds,” stating “The attack on the US Capitol was the work of white domestic terrorists. This has nothing to do with economic anxiety. It’s all about the fear of Black and other minority voices asserting their power at the ballot box and in other areas of minority life.”
After 2020 census data indicated that for the first time in our nation’s history, the white population was in decline from the previous decade, it prompted a phenomenon, validated by studies which have shown that “when people are in the majority, the sense of their race is dormant. But the prospect of being in the minority can suddenly make white identity — and all the historical privilege that comes with it — salient. And…the prospect of losing majority status [is] likely to make people (perhaps unconsciously) uneasy.”
In this book, written with Leah Lakins, Martin connects the dots between the rise of Donald Trump, QAnon, and the Tea Party to demonstrate that these occurrences are not in fact isolated events; but merely vestiges of American culture and political power.
Martin sat down with ESSENCE via Zoom to discuss the implications for our country if this tide is not reversed, why he felt compelled to write this book, and a call to action for readers “to create the kind of country that we’re all welcome in and proud to live in.”
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
ESSENCE: What was your inspiration for writing this book?
In 2009, I came across a survey question that asked, “Are you optimistic about the future of America for your children?” African Americans, Latinos, Asians, and the majority said yes, the only group that was less than the majority was white Americans. At the time, I said, we’re living in the beginning stages of white minority resistance. Trust me. What’s about to happen with Obama? We’re about to see Americans really freak out because the nation’s demographics are changing. We’re moving towards a nation becoming majority people of color, and when you begin to look at the reaction to [Obama’s] presidency and other areas that bore that out, white Americans have perceptions that they might be losing their financial and social status when people of color make gains in those areas. You’ve got so many folks in this country who are not happy because they cannot handle that. What I lay out in the book, and what I need our people to understand, is that this has historic parallels. You have always seen this in the history of America—Black success has always been followed by white backlash. We’re dealing with that again. The same thing happened after the Civil Rights Movement, and that has been the history of white people in this country, and we have to understand that we’re still dealing with that.
ESSENCE: On the flip side, do you think there’s such a thing as Black fear, and could that be used to motivate us at the voting ballots in a similar fashion?
Yes, you can see it right now. Immigration is one of those issues, you have Black folks sounding like white folks, “immigration is killing us. They’re taking our jobs.” That’s fear, and the fact of the matter is, we need to be honest about that. What we can’t do is mirror what they’re doing, and we must talk about the whole issue, which is why I argue that we must be hardcore when it comes to education. We must be hardcore when it comes to voting. We must be hardcore when it comes to supporting and building Black owned businesses because by 2043, we should be in a position to take advantage of the demographic shift. We’ve got 21 years Black America, to get our act together and take advantage of this, and that’s what we should be focusing on.
ESSENCE: Given your predictions for the next 20 years, can you talk more on the interplay of the conservative court and the legislative branch, the latter of which is controlled by Democrats?
First of all, the Republicans’ target goal was to appoint to the federal bench, federal judges between the ages of 35 and 52, in order to have them on for lifetime appointments. But, Samuel Alito is 72 years old and Clarence Thomas is 74 years old, they’re the two oldest Supreme Court justices now. No one knows how long they’re going to stay there, and no one knows if they retire or if they actually die on the bench, which means that if you’re Black, you better make sure there’s a Democrat who’s in the White House. Because, who appoints Supreme Court justices? The president. So when we talk about the Supreme Court, I’m thinking generationally. I want us to be strategic in our thinking. President Joe Biden, up to this point, has appointed more federal judges in his first two years than Trump appointed in his first two years, so we should make damn sure that Democrats hold on to the Senate. Why? So, he can continue to appoint and affirm Black federal judges.
Republicans put forth a two generational gameplan to take over the Supreme Court and get rid of Roe v. Wade. So I want Black people, young Black women, young Black men to vote strategically and begin to say, ‘I need to make sure that there are people in position who are more likely to vote how I want them to vote, to ensure I get the kind of country that I want.’ What I am afraid of, which I lay out with White Fear is that you’re going to have white voters who, as their numbers shrink, they’re going to intensify their voting. Our direct demographic numbers are going to come up, and that’s nice, but will our voter registration go up? Will our voter participation go up? I am predicting right now that you’re going to have an intensity of their voters, and therefore their participation is going to go up and our participation does not go up. They’re going to continue to maintain power because we’re going to be leaving our vote at home because we’re upset and pissed off or we’re just simply checking out. They will be going towards not being in the majority numerically, but still in control politically and economically. That to me, is not what a young brother or young sister should want to see by 2043.
ESSENCE: One line from your book particularly resonated with me: “you can’t separate Trump and the Republican Party.” I’ve had a lot of interactions with Republicans who said “I don’t really like Trump. He’s not really part of the Republican Party. But I’m still going to vote for him.” Why do you think this is?
Because they [Republicans] understand power. In 2016, I was at a bar watching television, and started talking with another patron who was telling me, “I can’t stand Trump, but I just don’t like Hillary.” I asked him to get a sheet of paper out and write down his 10 top issues and put a check next to Trump or Hillary’s name when it comes to that issue. He ended up having three checkmarks by Trump and seven by Hillary, and then said “I still can’t vote for her.” I questioned, “Even though you literally agree with Hillary Clinton on seven of your 10 issues?” He goes, “No, I cannot.”
Democrats and progressives are emotional—I don’t like this; I didn’t get everything that I want so I’m not going to support you. That is the difference between Republicans and Democrats, and what I am arguing to Black people is that it is undeniable when you look at the issues and the stories: who are we more likely to get positive action and laws from, Democrats or Republicans? I’m not saying just give your vote away, you should push and prod, force them to commit and then when they are in there, give them hell. We’ve already seen what the other side will not do. So if people want to play those games, go right ahead, but I’m telling you how it’s going to end up, and it’s not going to be positive for us.
ESSENCE: What message would you like readers to walk away with?
When you look at the cover of the book, that picture was chosen by design. First of all, it’s from January 6, and the image is of a white man with his arms outstretched, looking like a Jesus pose, with his head back. He’s literally saying all of this is ours [with his stance]. January 6 was a response to Black people voting, and I need folks to understand, they are now trying to put their own people in power to validate elections, to take over election boards. They’re running for Attorney General, for Secretary of State, for Governor, and they’re playing for keeps. They are mobilizing and organizing to hold on to their power, and it will be to our detriment [if we ignore it]. We better wake up and see what they’re doing. It’s time for us to get to work.