A website and blog of


Theologically engage public issues today

Karen L Bloomquist

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Why racist and xenophobic appeals attract today

In the 1980s I wrote of what white working-class folks were experiencing, feeling betrayed as they were by the promise of the American Dream (The Dream Betrayed, Fortress, 1990).  It is crucial that this underlying dynamic be addressed again, because of how this now is being played out.

A new study (by economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton) indicates that middle-aged white men are dying in this country at a far greater rate than other groups, with an upsurge not occurring in other countries.  The main causes of death are suicide, alcoholism, and overdoses of prescription and illegal drugs, often related to stress, depression and despair. “People seem to be killing themselves, slowly or quickly,” Deaton said. Meanwhile, mortality rates for Hispanics and African-Americans have continued to decline.

As Fareed Zacharia views this, “These other groups might not expect that their income, standard of living and social status are destined to steadily improve. They don’t have the same confidence that if they work hard, they will surely get ahead. After hundreds of years of slavery, segregation and racism, blacks have developed ways to cope with disappointment and the unfairness of life: through family, art, protest speech and, above all, religion.” They realize that their place in society is not assured; the system is not set up to benefit them. Under systemic racism, it clearly is not. They try hard and hope to succeed, but they do not expect it as the norm.

In contrast, “middle class whites have long been central to America’s economy, its society, indeed its very identity. They are not anymore. Donald Trump has promised that he will change this and make them win again. But he can’t. No one can. And deep down, they know it.”  They feel that their faith in the elusive promise of the American Dream is no longer benefiting them, but that others are benefiting instead.  Thus the temptation is to lash out against others, in racist or xenophobic ways.

Further, as David Brooks points out, “Today we live in a world of isolation and atomization, where people distrust their own institutions. In such circumstances many people respond to powerlessness with pointless acts of self-destruction….Instead of shoring up these institutions, many voters are inclined to make everything worse. Plagued by the anxiety of impotence many voters are drawn to leaders who pretend that our problems could be solved by defeating some villain.” Instead, Brooks proposes that the causes are systemic.

Addressing the systemic matters at stake is itself a deeply theological calling, as developed in my book, Seeing-Remembering-Connecting: Subversive Practices of Being Church, and as promoted through the Radicalizing Reformation emphasis, which are discussed elsewhere on this website.  Condemning the racist and xenophobia responses is not sufficient. Underlying systemic factors in American society, including “faith” in the American Dream, must be addressed theologically.