The Conventions Have Been a Chance to See the White-Voter Identity Crisis Up Close

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Photo: Rembert Browne

At the Republican National Convention in Cleveland everything was anti-Hillary. From the speeches inside the Quicken Loans Center, to the vulgar or even violent T-shirts for sale outside, the enemy was clear.

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Photo: Rembert Browne
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Photo: Rembert Browne

The party was supposed to be uniting this week, to begin a solidified fight against Trump, but among this group, the focus was clearly not on November just yet; it was still on this week and the many weeks of primary battles that had come before it.

Even a Westboro Baptist Church group, spewing their typical hate, could not truly distract Bernie supporters. The Evangelicals were more of an annoyance, with Bernie supporters occasionally walking up to them and mocking them. But they didn’t seem to lose focus — Hillary was still the main enemy.

At the entrance to the arena, Bernie supporters were begging those of us heading into the building not to vote for Clinton. A woman said to me, “She’s a crook, you can’t let her win.” If you closed your eyes and just listened, you’d be hard-pressed to determine if you were in Cleveland or Philadelphia.

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Photo: Rembert Browne

Inside the arena, it finally began to feel like a pro-Hillary week was possible. But there was something uncomfortably elitist about shielding ourselves from the credential-less, unscreened critics in the streets. Conversely, there was also something that felt ignorantly privileged about Hillary Clinton’s critics outside, this idea that they know what’s better for the country than the person who started the movement they had joined. Did they really think that Trump winning in November was less troubling than Bernie losing to Hillary in July?

The elitism and the privilege were a reminder that I’d observed and met a ton of white people in the past ten days: the Trump masses in Cleveland; the Republican anti-Trump people in Cleveland; the Trump protesters, most of whom were white, in Cleveland. And the pro-Bernie/anti-Hillary protestors outside of the arena in Philly — again, mostly white; the pro-Hillary people in the arena. And the Westboro Baptist clan, all of whom were white.

Disruptions, protests, and overall beef is nothing new to conventions — or elections. Deep disagreement over the direction of the country is a hallmark of presidential campaigns. But there is something unique happening in this election cycle that I’ve witnessed at both conventions. It’s a culture clash, a war over the future of white identity. The Clinton, Trump, and Sanders campaigns have not only built bases of support, but their supporters have distanced themselves from one another. It’s white people fundamentally disagreeing with other white people, not only about which white people to believe in, but also how white people should be white.

Trump, Clinton, and Sanders have essentially split White America — a group that is often thought of more as “the norm” than an actual race — into six splinter groups: You have white Republicans voting for Trump; white Democrats voting for Hillary; white Democrats voting for Trump because they don’t like or don’t identify with Hillary; white Republicans voting for Hillary because they think a Trump victory will wreck the party; whites of either party or none voting for Jill Stein or Gary Johnson because they refuse to cast a ballot for either major-party candidate; and white people sitting this election out.

With the political nature of whiteness itself up for grabs in this election, now everybody is trying to play identity politics. So far, people of color are being enlisted — sometimes earnestly, sometimes cynically — to make candidates more likeable, more relatable, more right. During the Republican convention, Latina women were used as self-hating immigration pawns while a black sheriff and a black preacher were called upon to criticize Black Lives Matter. And that made Trump’s white base feel like they had proof that their beliefs on immigration and the police were unimpeachable. And then there have been minorities of all types in both the Bernie and Hillary camps, doing what most white people can’t: giving an assurance that this is the person that’s going to do the best for those groups. It’s what we saw from Michelle Obama on the first night of the convention, the Mothers of the Movement on night two. Their presence — because they are trusted — is the thing that will put many people on Hillary’s side.

It’s also what we see outside of the arena, with minorities of all types — even as the minority outside — continuing to stump and shout against Hillary. The masses for Bernie stayed plentiful through Wednesday. A collection of mostly white people were chanting, “Hey hey, ho ho, Hil-la-ry has got to go.” Next to them, a group of black people — a group that was also in Cleveland — was saying, “Hey hey, ho ho, the DNC has got to go,” then into “If we don’t get no justice, then they don’t get no peace,” then into “Black Lives Matter!”

When the "Black Lives Matter" chant began, the anti-Hillary chant stopped and that group moved to another part of the road. When they were far enough away, they started up again: “Hey hey, ho ho, Hil-la-ry has got to go.” Identity crisis averted, for now.