“These are good questions. They’re also not new ones. The historian W.E.B. Dubois asked them more than 80 years ago in his seminal work on Reconstruction, when he posited that working-class Southern whites were complicit, or at least passive instruments, in their own political and economic disenfranchisement. They forfeited real power and material well-being, he argued, in return for the “psychological” wages associated with being white.
“Since then, the issue has inspired a vibrant debate among historians. Until last year, most agreed with DuBois that the answer to the question was not so simple as “yes” or “no”—that whiteness sometimes conferred benefits both imaginary and real.
“In the age of Trump, we’re once again pressure-testing DuBois’ framework. As one might expect, it’s complicated. White identity pays dividends you can easily bank, and some that you can’t.”