White Fright and A Changing World

Here's what keeps MAGA up at night.

Linda Martín Alcoff Mar 25

Shortly after World War II, the famed French existentialist writer Albert Camus traveled to South America on a South American speaking tour. Camus took the opportunity the trip afforded him to hear local music, visit villages, and observe Santeria rituals in person. He recorded his thoughts about these experiences in a fascinating set of travel diaries. While flying over the Brazilian rainforest, Camus wrote:

“The faster the plane flies, the less importance France, Spain, and Italy hold. They were nations, are provinces, and tomorrow, will be the world’s villages. The future is not on our side, and there’s nothing we can do about this irresistible trend.” 

Here Camus seems to be experiencing, not a generalized existential anxiety, but a very particular anxiety toward a world he sees just on the horizon, in which non-white people will be dominant not just in numbers, as they have always been, but in power. And this terrifies him. Following soon after the above passage, he writes, “Brazil, with its thin framework of modernity laid over this immense continent teeming with natural and primitive forces, makes me think of a building slowly chewed, bite by bite, by invisible termites. One day the building will collapse, and a small and teeming people, Black, red and yellow, will spread out over the surface of the continent, masked and brandishing spears, ready for the victory dance.”  

Donald Trump’s ongoing analogies between animals and immigrants is hardly new, and his sentiments are not, as these passages from Camus indicate, consigned to conservatives. We need to understand today’s political crisis as epochal rather than merely current and as caused most fundamentally by the slow demise of the modern colonial world system. 

The mid-20th century, when Camus penned these lines, was a period of immense anti-colonial ferment, in which the desire for sovereignty swept throughout the formerly colonized areas of the globe. This movement demanded that European claims to rightful control be exposed as ideological mystifications intending to cover over massive theft. Today there is a sense that, not only are Europeans (and Westerners in general) distrusted in the former colonies, but that former colonial subjects are now invading the West and even demanding the right to do so. Increased numbers of non-whites are migrating and cohabiting the spaces that were previously, and comfortably, majority white, including towns, schools, and workplaces, even governments. Migration is hardly new, of course, but the sense of lost power and declining influence flows from a sense of how societies in the global north are being forced, however slowly, to share their space and their resources and to revise their own self-understandings.

What is notable is that this loss of dominance is experienced as a crisis. Camus describes it as an impending primitive force that will collapse buildings and replace civilization with spears, although one could also easily imagine, as Camus himself does at times, that the demise of global north domination could produce an outcome of greater peace. 

Donald Trump’s ongoing analogies between animals and immigrants is hardly new, and his sentiments are not, as these passages from Camus indicate, consigned to conservatives.

Yet the reasoning behind Camus’s more dire predictions is not a simple false consciousness. Camus says, “the future is not on our side,” and it is clear this is indeed true. It’s not just about changing population distributions, or young cultures versus old ones, but about the change in perspective that is rewriting the script of modern history. The wealth that has accumulated in white majoritarian nations is largely ill-gotten, and the military power these nations have wielded unilaterally against nations in the global south is, on the whole, illegitimate. 

The far right is gaining ground throughout North America and Europe, even in liberal countries such as the Netherlands and Sweden, with a centerpiece of anti-immigrant hysteria. Anti-immigrant policies are disentangled from Nazism, as if today’s support for ethnic and religious exclusions, and fortified border walls, are rational and justifiable in contrast to those of times past. There is so much public support for the Replacement Theory — the idea that white majorities are being purposefully replaced — that journalists today are calling it part of the new mainstream. No matter the facts about the low rates of criminal behavior or the advantages to national economies hard-working migrants bring, broad publics are as terrified today as Camus was in 1948. And rightly so. 

The historian Jason Sokol describes white Southern reaction to the civil rights movement thusly: “There goes my everything.” 

This is a crisis of white identity with two parts: a narrative crisis and a legitimation crisis. 

The narrative crisis is caused by challenges to the official histories, challenges that cannot be answered and so can only be censored. And the legitimation crisis questions the way nation states were formed, the legitimacy of their borders, and their outsized control of global wealth and power. Certainly, many today in the global north recognize the carnage wrought by European and U.S. wars. But there seems to be a widely held belief that European supremacy may well be flawed, but that, as Churchill said of democracy, it still beats the alternative. Ongoing political chaos and mayhem in many parts of the global south is viewed as proof of this dictum. Hence, the end of Western world dominance is taken to spell impending world chaos.

Jared Taylor, a thought leader for the far right, explains that his desire for segregation is simply based on a preference for homogeneity. But tellingly, he also argues that only separatism can guarantee white safety and survival.  Being one among others in a multiracial world can only lead to tribal conflict.  

Thomas Jefferson thought the same way. Although Jefferson denounced slavery as an abomination and predicted the inevitability of its demise, he believed that enslaved people would have to be shipped back to Africa, forthwith, at the expense of the U.S. government. There could be no functional democracy that included former enslavers with the formerly enslaved. He wrote that “deep-rooted prejudices entertained by the whites; ten thousand recollections, by the blacks, of the injuries they have sustained … will divide us into parties and produce convulsions which will probably never end but in the extermination of the one or the other race.”

Jefferson was not alone in his pessimism, and it remains strong today. Neither Europe nor North America has sought to develop political cultures that could address the differences of historical experience, outlook and injury. Despite the fact that millions of whites have long histories of injustice as well at the hands of their governments, and despite the fact that multiple groups share an intense economic precarity today, elites have no interest in addressing the actual ways in which common ground might be forged or a realistic plan for a shared security. 

We need some political therapy.

A decolonial approach to racism will give us a more honest and thorough understanding of the current crisis. Overcoming the far-right extremist threats of fascism cannot be successful by reinstating the kind of liberal democratic regimes that seek to protect at all costs the hegemony of the current, global economic order. White reaction to the existential threats that target the myths of our nation states recognize, correctly and presciently, that the current radical reconstructions of national historical narratives call for more sweeping structural change at both the political and the economic level. On these points we might actually be able to build a shared understanding, from which to craft a shared vision for a different and more just future. This vision, however, will have to produce common interests, rather than assume they are already there. And it will have to forego the desire for a return to the past. 

This is an excerpt from Race & Racism: A Decolonial Approach by Linda Martín Alcoff, forthcoming from Oxford University Press.

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