Barr echoes Trump’s white supremacy by comparing mask-wearing to slavery
Many of the Black Lives Matter demonstrations have had the support of white workers. If white workers want to abandon white supremacy, which offers no hope of ending the unemployment and disease with which they are being plagued, they must join Black Lives Matter and other popular movements for democracy. | Noah Berger/AP

An elderly white man at a Trump campaign rally is asked in a recent news report why he doesn’t wear a mask. The question comes out of the controversy over Trump’s politicization of mask-wearing and other public health measures.

Despite telling a reporter in February that he understood COVID-19 was a deadly, contagious disease, Trump has since mocked mask wearers and encouraged his followers to defy public health orders to stay home, to distance from others, and avoid gathering in large groups to prevent the spread of the deadly disease. He undermined public health advisories repeatedly and with deadly effect.

To defy mask-wearing, then, became a sign of one’s affiliation with the Trump movement. That movement has elevated the demand for white supremacy (open xenophobia, support for racist police brutality and right-wing vigilantes and Neo-Nazis and Neo-Confederates, and “America first” policies) as the means of mobilizing white voters to his reelection bid.

On Sept. 16th, fascist-minded Attorney General William Barr compared wearing a mask and other public health policies to slavery. His comments echoed Republican Party leader Donald Trump, who shared a social media post making the same claim in May.

This comparison of public health recommendations to slavery isn’t innocent. Slavery in the U.S. was a racist institution. When white Americans claim they are being subjected to slavery, they are usually making a specific argument about race. The claim in this formula means: “someone is treating me like a Black person.” They don’t like it and even believe they have a right to violent revolt. Hence, Trump’s support for extra-judicial killings of Americans who disagree with him.

Mask-wearing questions, thus, have become a mask themselves for other pressing concerns. Another way to read the question about mask-wearing might be, “Why do you support Trump?” Go a little deeper, and the question is, “Why do you support white supremacy?”

The white man replies to the mask question: “If I die, I die.”

This statement violates what one might think is a natural self-interest in personal survival. If we connect it to those deeper questions, we might see parallel claims: the older white man is willing to die to keep Trump and white supremacy in power. He is willing to sacrifice a healthy life, the lives of his loved ones, neighbors, and co-workers to maintain Trump’s power.

He might also be saying to the reporter, “If you die, you die.” And I don’t care.

How do we explain this phenomenon? Why have so many white people come to devalue their own lives and so many around them?

Pro-Trump ideologues give one answer: Trump supporters are willing to sacrifice their lives to preserve the American version of capitalism and white supremacy, which they believe is under attack from all quarters.

The fatalism rooted in this wish for death, especially when it emerges on a mass scale, signals the advent of a fascist dictatorship, warns original Antifa fighter Palmiro Togliatti in his “Lectures on Fascism.”

Pro-Trump campaign videos, Republican Party spokespersons, and Trump administration officials also see the #BlackLivesMatter movement as a threat to capitalism and white supremacy. Indeed, white supporters of #BlackLivesMatter are traitors and should be prosecuted, as fascist-minded Attorney General William Barr recently suggested, for “sedition.” He means “race” sedition, more than anything else.

Plans to repress political opposition through mass arrests and show trials is another major warning sign of fascism.

Many white people, likely the majority of white voters in the U.S., if history holds, will act to preserve the Trump administration on Nov. 3 by casting a vote for him. It signals how deeply rooted their belief is in an equation of America with capitalism and white power.

There can be no doubt that full unification with state power of capitalism, white supremacy, and ultranationalism would be foundational to an American version of a fascist regime.

Research on surveys taken after the 2016 election showed that whites who voted for Trump almost always did so because they shared his views specifically on race and white supremacy. It was not because they thought he had a good economic plan or that he was honest about his claim to have a health plan. They didn’t care about those things. They didn’t believe he had good ideas for those problems.

That many whites have become willing to die to preserve white supremacy and capitalism shows how perilous are the crossroads at which we find ourselves. Those dying systems have to come to an end, but people do not need to die for them.

African-American scholar and activist W.E.B. Du Bois argued that white working-class support for white supremacy came as the product of a “psychological wage” of whiteness. Lenin saw a similar phenomenon in Europe, divisions among European workers that originate in the profits, benefits, and pleasures of imperialism. He called the elevated and racially white working-class fraction “the aristocracy of labor,” which sacrificed class unity and workers’ right to rule their society for this status. In either case, both motivations, in the U.S. setting, operate to promote hostility and denigration of non-white workers.

In either case, there is an emotional power gained from being associated with white power. But there are also concrete benefits that white people get for being white but do not earn for any other reason: holding onto the job a little longer than non-white co-workers, making a little more in the paycheck, living (mostly) without constant police surveillance and brutality, being culturally valued as innocent, as intelligent, as a legitimate citizen with civil rights.

“If I die, I die” is a plea for all of this division and hatred to remain in place. It is a demand that the capitalist class, which dominates the political system in favor of white supremacy, should continue to rule. Even if COVID-19 continues to spread, killing 1,000 people per day. Even if tens of millions of workers are unemployed, under-paid, under-educated, lack healthcare, and cannot change their situation.

Especially white workers. There is no doubt that many white workers willingly enact white supremacy, consciously, and with full knowledge that their beliefs and actions are denigrating to other working-class people, harm democracy, and aid class exploitation (including their own). We need new institutional forms, new ideas, and new ways of acting to leverage white workers away from this deadly support for white supremacy.

It is important to remember that white workers who are union members (except for cops and correctional officers) have different views than what I have described here. When white workers join democratic organizations, they are more likely to have learned the value of struggling against racial divisions and facing problems together.

Trump has shown that white supremacy and capitalism cannot end a pandemic, cannot solve mass unemployment, and cannot protect democracy. Suppose whites want to find a real grounding. Suppose they want to leave behind the “If I die, I die” fatalism in favor of hope and real working-class power. In that case, they must join the struggle to make Black Lives Matter, to end systemic white supremacy, and to make the leap beyond capitalism.


Joel Wendland-Liu
Joel Wendland-Liu

Joel Wendland-Liu teaches courses on diversity, intercultural competence, migration, and civil rights at Grand Valley State University in West Michigan. He is the author of "Mythologies: A Political Economy of U.S. Literature, Settler Colonialism, and Racial Capitalism in the Long Nineteenth Century" (International Publishers) and "The Collectivity of Life" (Lexington Books).