A publication of the Radical Philosophy Association

On “Wealth” and Whiteness

Why Trump remains the richest (read “whitest”) man in America

by Grant J SilvaNovember 8, 2020

Although he lost the 2020 Election, why didn’t the New York Times’ exposé on President Donald Trump’s taxes negatively impact his chances to an even greater degree? What do his taxes, and more importantly their insignificance in the eyes of large segments of white America, reveal about the actual value of whiteness in the United States?

First off, like Trump himself suggests, his political base is extremely loyal. He probably could shoot somebody on 5th Avenue or, for that matter, contribute to the death of over 233,000 people in the United States (via his COVID-19 denialism), and they would still support him. The reality of his tax situation was therefore largely irrelevant to his base (that is, if they believe the reporting on them at all). Worse, if they paid any attention at all, the fact that he’s paid so little over the past decade adds to the idea of Trump being a shrewd businessman who knows how to manipulate tax law.

Second, almost paradoxically, while Trump’s image as a businessman is what attracts many to his side, as does his penchant to speaking his mind, that Trump’s taxes remain largely ignored by his base provides opportunity to point out the social capital that remains invested in whiteness today. For many of his fans, this social capital is often a financial detriment, but to focus on that is to focus on something other than whiteness’s original (and continued) purpose: social division. While, of course, this sense of social division exacerbates class inequality, it nonetheless gives reason to rethink the nature and meaning of “wealth” in places like the United States today—my goal in this short piece.

As many historians, social theorists, and even a few philosophers have pointed out, as far back as Bacon’s Rebellion, the elevation of whiteness was never meant to bestow financial wealth on those considered to be “white.” While a few would of course come to benefit in these terms, white supremacy was created to keep poor peoples, white or not, from uniting against the wealthy landowning elite. Its original purpose was divisive; socially, and not economically, uplifting. Sure, by entitling some to jobs, schools/education, homeownership, and more, membership in the racial group “white” has without a doubt aided many in the creation and perpetuation of financial capital. This economic wealth, I would argue, is an unintended consequence that largely contributes to the bootstrap’s mythos of the “self-made man”—a mythos that assumes ideological proportions in terms of furthering class divides.

Whiteness’s actual value is and has always been located in the elevation of those persons who, although lacking financial capital, become content with and take pride in their social standing. By giving poor whites something that they can feel good about and prize, and indeed it would be treated as valuable by others in the society they lived in, wealthy elites could ensure that poor whites, blacks, and Native Americans would never enjoin forces so as to challenge the economic status quo.

Throughout the years, whiteness has continued to function in this manner by taking-in other groups, such as the Irish, Italians, Eastern Europeans and others, in order to maintain the racial status quo. Some argue that such an extension is offered today to white Latinos. The in-group status that whiteness confers therefore remains an ever so malleable tool used to lure (“desirable”) immigrants and peoples of different ethnicities into the prevailing economy of social value.

Social value or wealth manifests in how one is treated by others, not to mention what one thinks of themselves. It is a sense of esteem and admiration; a badge of honor of sorts. Often associated with the ability to command financial capital, social value is not reducible to that. It manifests in certain forms of treatment, access to certain spaces, the moral benefit of the doubt, and forms of privilege which could lead to jobs, the use of public or private resources, and economic gain. Social value manifests in terms of the guarantee of one’s rights or treatment by law enforcement, political institutions, or in court. In these terms, social capital, or lack thereof, can result in life or death consequences for many. When confronted by law enforcement, for example, social value manifests in what charges a person gets or don’t get (and, in fact, whether any charges are presented at all since people lacking social value are routinely executed in the streets by law enforcement!).

To highlight the difference between social value and economic wealth even more, consider the fact that many nonwhites with money, not just athletes or musicians, still experience a variety of forms of racism. Along these lines, the black comedian, Chris Rock, is famous for joking that although he is rich, there are white janitors that will not trade places with him.

In a white supremacist culture, one does not need financial wealth to be “rich”—that’s the bill of goods that many are actually sold (and buy!) when it comes to whiteness. A glimpse at Trump’s taxes and indebtedness therefore proves really nothing new from a financial standpoint. Deep in debt, Trump nevertheless commands a surplus of power over others, even prior to his election. This surplus of power allows him to think the world of himself and garners the admiration of those others who, like him, are financially on the brink, yet content with their social standing. From the point of view of social wealth, Trump is the richest (read “whitest”) man in America.

The continuing appeal of Trumpism makes clear the incessant valuation of whiteness. Many poor whites and their children will be harmed by the Republican attack on our social safety net. Cognizant of this, as Johnathan M. Metzl points out, many still support Trump and the Republican Party, therefore reifying the original divisive (not to mention ideological) nature of whiteness. And while they might not have made their allegiances known publicly or to pollsters, the competitive nature of 2020 Election proves my point. They are not just complacent with the explicitly racist policies of the Trump administration, but also more than satisfied by someone willing to prioritize social standing above all else. What else drives such a large part of white America to his side? While there is yet another distinction to be made between social capital and political capital, people like Trump turn the social value of whiteness into political value in their pursuit of power. White people get social returns from their investments in him.

Not enough scholars have yet to take seriously this sense of social wealth, I contend, perhaps revealing the lengths to which our focus on financial wellbeing reflects our own inability to see the world outside of a capitalistic economic lens; for all the criticism of it offered by social scientist and theorists, we have for the most part only measured racial “privilege” in strictly material, economic terms. Social wealth, too, apparently, is just as enticing to the type of recognition seeking beings that we are. By this I mean to supplement the existing literature on racial capitalism, particularly Cedric Robinson’s and Nancy Leong’s formulations, by entertaining race, especially whiteness itself, as a form of social capital, a point that gets closer to Cheryl Harris’s Whiteness as Property. Even then, however, I mean to take seriously the predicament we find ourselves in today, in which economic wellbeing—or indebtedness in Trump’s case—is intentionally overlooked for the sake of maintaining the economy of social value at the back of race relations. My point is: appealing to economic interests of whites in the hopes that it will help in the fight against racial inequality and racism might not work given the prevalence of social capital.

This problem does no go away with Trump’s political defeat. He is but a symptom of a deeper pathology. Unless we address the underlying affliction—and note that “love” is not the solution but in fact part of the problem—we will continue to see the symptoms get worse.