‘American Whitelash’ Author Wesley Lowery on Trump Town Halls, The 2024 Race, And How Media Fuels the Paradox of Racial Progress


Wesley Lowery

The election of Barack Obama in 2008 was accompanied by a feeling of optimism regarding race relations throughout the country. But a backlash ensued, and by 2023 that optimism has given way to uneasy terrain. Regardless of the prevalence of “Black faces in high places” politics, in the United States, racial progress is invariably met with resistance.

Wesley Lowery, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author, examines that resistance and the sometimes extreme violence that erupts from it in his new book American Whitelash: A Changing Nation and the Cost of Progress.

Lowery spoke with Mediaite editor in chief Aidan McLaughlin for this week’s episode of The Interview about his book and the responsibility of the media to take control of their platforms to reign in the spread of false information and dehumanizing rhetoric that has metastasized in recent years.

The extensively reported book is centered around several instances of violence against people of color since Obama’s election in 2008, including the case of Marcelo Lucero, an Ecuadorian immigrant on Long Island stabbed to death by a teenager with a secret swastika tattoo, and Shawn Washington, a Black truck driver beaten by police for falling asleep in his car on a highway shoulder.

McLaughlin and Lowery discuss how the backlash to racial progress has manifested over the years, how it is fueled by a partisan media ecosystem, and how the press has adapted to cover extremism in the aftermath of the Trump presidency.

Read excerpts from their conversation below. This episode was produced by Payton Selby and Brad Maybe.

On why he chose to write American Whitelash

In our democracy in our society, a small set of people can make a very big difference. And in terms of violence, it only takes one person to steal any number of people’s lives. What I started looking at was this idea of this violence that was occurring during the Trump administration, but then to contextualize that you can’t really understand the Trump administration without understanding the Obama administration, the politics and the moment that brings us too that. Trump is the rise of a pretty explicitly nativist movement. I don’t mean this to call him names. He would acknowledge that his chief policy and political platform is to keep different types of people out of the country by constructing a wall and keeping the Muslims out. We see Ron DeSantis, who’s running as a Trump-light type character, who yesterday declared he would end birthright citizenship, a thing he couldn’t do as president. But it speaks to what their messaging is. I wanted to look at the rise of Trump, how do we understand that? And can we understand that better as a response and as a backlash to Barack Obama? And how does that then fit into American history, where at each juncture where there has been some type of Black advancement, we have seen a violent pushback and backlash. That is American Whitelash. The United States of America was founded as an explicitly white supremacist country. And I don’t mean that colloquially, this was a country that was founded where white people were human and citizens and other people were not. Each step towards undoing that is matched and is and is greeted with a backlash from those who benefited from the system the way it was. 

On what he fears about the 2024 race

I think that we forget the environment that can be created when, omnipresent in our public square, is someone who is openly, and with no regard for facts or nuance, demagoguing and demonizing certain types of people… That dehumanization, those lies, run a real risk. The people we give a public platform have to be responsible with those platforms, or I would suggest we remove those platforms. What I worry about in a cycle like this is that we end up placing a lot of people’s prejudices on television screens, on the radio airwaves. And those things flow unchecked. And what happens when there’s something that you may feel ashamed about or a prejudice you hold, when it’s reflected back to you in public, it provides you a permission structure to act on it.

On CNN’s Trump town hall

I don’t think you put people who are pathological liars and who routinely dehumanize other humans on live television. Full stop, period. I would never agree to place such a person on live television for the reason that with the microphone, what they might do is the exact things that he did, which is actually harmful. It is not a good thing to broadcast to millions of people. Him attacking a Black Capitol police officer as a “thug.” That is harmful. You should not broadcast it… I’ve never been someone who said you don’t interview Donald Trump. I think Bret Baier did a pretty good job a few days ago. Frankly, I think Sean Hannity even did a better job when he did it not that long ago. What I would note is that you cannot cede as an interviewer; as a journalist, you do not cede your platform to the person who you are covering. You control what is going on. You are the tube through which the viewer or the reader interacts with the person being covered. I don’t hand you the front page of The New York Times or The Washington Post and let you draw whatever you want on it. And what CNN did is they handed their platform to someone who is a proven liar, someone who has fermented an attack on our democracy. And they said, here, take the microphone, walk around.

Download the full episode here, and subscribe to The Interview on Apple Podcasts or Spotify.

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