Trump's white nationalism torments us now, but the "centrality of whiteness" will fade away

Author Sheryll Cashin explains how cultural dexterity is spreading despite Trump

Published August 2, 2017 8:08PM (EDT)

   (AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
(AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

This article originally appeared on AlterNet.


Sheryll Cashin has hope for the future of America. Determined, persistent, enduring hope. And her hope is not only tenacious; it’s educated and informed. The author of “Loving: Interracial Intimacy in America and the Threat to White Supremacy” is continually optimistic about America’s future during a time when hope’s audacity seems to be a relic of the past.

Cashin’s optimism derives from changes that are apparent in the cultural fabric of the country: a fabric that is evolving into something more colorful — and more diverse — every day. She credits something she calls “cultural dexterity," and it’s what is keeping the author and law professor going.

“The one thing that gives me some hope about this country, as toxically divided as we are, is that I think there’s a new generation,” she said. “I try not to be too Pollyannaish about it, but there’s a new type of culturally dexterous citizen in this country that accepts the loss of centrality of whiteness and wants to be a part of this something new that’s going on.”

If anyone is qualified to make that assessment, it’s Cashin. The daughter of civil rights activists, she was raised in a household that welcomed a diverse community of guests. She credits both her optimism and motivation to being a mother herself now.

“If I wasn’t a mother I could say, well, you know, this country’s just going to hell. I could up and move to Canada if it gets really bad,” she said. “As a mother, I have a different stake. I need this country to be better for my children.”

And, as she states in “Loving,” she is confident it will better, thanks to her researchand observations made while walking around her city. A law professor at Georgetown University, Cashin’s academic roster includes “Race in American Law,” which covers the1967 case Loving vs. Virginia. The case, she said, was sometimes difficult to teach.

“There were days when I would want to cry and sometimes my students would want to cry,” she said. “This is a hard history, and a lot of people don’t know it or don’t want to deal with the pain of absorbing it. I had been thinking for a while about these issues, and teaching that case and engaging with millennials about these issues.

“As a person who writes about race and the history of racism, it’s easy to critique what happened in the past and what’s wrong. It’s much harder to allow yourself to imagine how it could be different and then at least speculate out loud about the stages that could work a transformation. I just decided to be brave and say it out loud and hope, just by writing it down, it would come true.”

Those steps are inspired, in part, by a political shift in California, which is chronicled in “Loving,” evolving from a community at an impasse into a functional, governable state.

“California was nasty in the late '80s,” Cashin recalled, describing the state as “gridlocked and ungovernable.” “How did it change? I really spent some time reading this political science literature, and I mapped it out. Here are the forces that I saw change and I looked around. These forces are going on now… If it happened there, it could happen nationally.” 

The same-sex marriage movement also inspired Cashin, as it represented “geometric progression.” In comparison to an arithmetic projection — a straight line going up — a geometric progression starts slowly, curves and shoots up toward its end.

“You get this inflection point,” she said. “A critical mass of people decide to live and let live and let them love who they love, and you get this dramatic change in attitude. I think we’re in ageometric progression in terms of race relations. We will get to the point where a critical mass of white folks — not all of them, but a critical mass has acquired the quality of cultural dexterity.”

Numbers talk, and they support Cashin’s thoughts.Interracial relationships are on the rise.A new Pew Research Center analysis of the U.S. Census Bureau data reported that 17 percent of all U.S. newlyweds had a spouse of a different race or ethnicity — a fivefold increase of the three percent of interracial marriages recorded in 1967. One out of every 10 married people in 2015 — not only newlyweds — had a spouse of a different race or ethnicity. That’s 11 million people.

One possible cause, or result of this rise in social dexterity is the increased presence of interracial relationships in entertainment. “This is Us,” “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” and “Master of None” are just a few of the series that can inspire emotional investment from viewers, changing how they see different demographics.  

“You can develop an emotional relationship with this person that you’re seeing on TV regularly. Social sciences show it can have the same, or similar, benefits to an authentic friendship, where it reduces your prejudice, enhances your empathy for that person,” she said. “There’s this density of offerings…It’s one way that some people are acquiring some intercultural knowledge. And the media and its offerings are getting more and more democratic.”

Comparing cultural dexterity to a muscle that can be strengthened through practice,Cashin said.“I think the thing that’s spreading cultural dexterity is that social barriers to cross racial or cross ethnic love are coming down rapidly…A person can disavow racism but certainly not be comfortable being outnumbered by a different group.”

These social barriers — the threat of physical barriers along the US/Mexico border —are more present following the election of Donald Trump, a man whose shockingly racist declarations,promise to “build a wall” and attempts to institute a Muslim travel ban a few weeks after his inauguration have appalled the culturally dexterous.

“The way the election turned out sort of clarifiedthis overarching argument I have about the dexterous vs. the non-dexterous,” Cashin said. “The fearful vs. the people who are at least open minded about a new America that’s coming and willing to do the work of adjusting to a new America rather than trying to hold onto some nostalgia about an America of the past and trying to return to that.”

One contribution to Trump’s victory was his background in business, which many of his supporters said would be an asset to America’s economy. Such a focus on money, a driving force behind politics, is also strongly tied to attempts to create a divide between races, Cashin said.

“A lot of whiteness is about bolstering the interests of economic elites who don’t want to pay more taxes,” she said. “Whiteness and any miscegenation law was created to solve class conflict between wealthy planters and poor white servants. It had a political function and this dog-whistling of divide-and-conquer continues to this day. Whenever you had an assertion of whiteness, whether it’s explicit or coded —wink wink, 'Make America Great Again,' wink wink —there’s an economic story there.

“Typically what it does is peel away struggling whites from people of color they might otherwise ally with in a way so that there will be less demanded of economic elites.It happens time and time again. That dog-whistling politics – whoever gets elected by it – the policies they’re pursuing betray the struggling people they’re peeling off. People keep falling for it.”

The people who don’t keep falling for it are the culturally dexterous, Cashin said. And in “Loving,” she details her hope that the ever-expanding group of people will “restore functionality to politics.”

“The one thing that gives me hope in this country is the emerging class of culturally dexterous folks who can see past, and don’t fall for this dog whistling,” she said. “[They] can connect the dots and see how the union’s being harmed and have empathy for people of other ethnicities. It’s the one thing that gives me hope.

“This why I start in 1607 at the beginnings of the colonies to show that it wasn’t always that way. There was no concept of whiteness and blackness for the first six or seven decades.It had to be constructed. Struggling people in there together rebelling against the economic elites. That’s what the founders most feared: debt relief. If you read the Federalist papers, the worst thing that could happen if we had too much democracy and people demand debt relief, so let’s have representative democracy that slows democracy down. Only white property-owning males get to vote.”

“I’ve read articles where social conservatives will say, ‘I don’t recognize this country anymore.’ And I’m like, yeah!” she said, laughing. “The genie’s out of the bottle in a lot of ways.”

By Carey Purcell

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Alternet Author Cultural Dexterity Novel Race Race In American Law Sheryll Cashin