Buckle up, team: I’m a White man from the Midwest with a story to tell about wokeness.
I live in an Ohio railroad town. Locals hear trains calling through the night, wait them out at crossings, and photograph them trundling along the river past the old mill downtown. But as our neighbors two counties over in East Palestine know, those cars don’t just carry freight or Old World charm — they also bring danger.
While we refreshed local EPA reports in the days after the Norfolk Southern derailment, I wondered who’d get blamed for it. There was no shortage of options.
Norfolk Southern skimped on maintenance, overstretched its workers, and used the profits to hike its stock price.
Ohio’s governor and the local congressman accepted thousands from the company while the statehouse dutifully killed a bipartisan rail safety bill the company lobbied against. Former president Donald Trump, who showed up after the crash to promote his bottled water brand, had killed an Obama-era regulation to prevent accidents like these.
But on the MAGA circuit, none of these were to blame.
Instead, as the Ohio Capital Journal’s Marilou Johanek put it, we got “opportunists exploiting East Palestine’s suffering population with politics and race-baiting.” In this telling, it wasn’t corporate or government corruption that caused the suffering in East Palestine. It was “wokeness.”
Fox host Tucker Carlson proclaimed that East Palestine was affected because it “is overwhelmingly White, and it’s politically conservative.” As writer Greg Sargent summarized, Carlson alleged the administration would have cared more “if the accident had happened in Philadelphia or Detroit — wink, wink.”
“If this train derailment happened in downtown Atlanta in the densely populated Black neighborhoods,” agreed far-right activist Charlie Kirk, “this would be the number-one news story.” The millionaire talk show host insisted that our leaders “hate working-class Whites,” and, in fact, there’s a whole “crusade against White people.”
Fox talking head Jesse Waters played a similar note, asking this about Michael Regan, President Biden’s Black EPA administrator: “Is this his idea of fighting environmental racism? Spilling toxic chemicals on poor White people in Ohio?”
Donald Trump Jr., for his part, denigrated Treasury Secretary Pete Buttigieg as “the gay guy.”
This is the “war on woke” sham in a nutshell.
Well-heeled politicians and millionaire MAGA media figures tell poor Whites to blame Black people, LGBTQ people, and vague liberal ideas for troubles any sensible person would blame on a greedy corporation and the bought-off politicians — from the GOP-run Ohio statehouse on up to the White House — who enabled it.
Even while lambasting President Biden, they had little to say about his bad decision to snub the railroad unions, perhaps because most Republicans — many flush with railroad cash — supported that, too. The only beneficiaries are the bad actors who poisoned the poor Ohio community these pundits claim to represent from their perches in New York or Washington.
They play the same game all over.
Right-wing politicians rail against “woke corporations” only to collect corporate campaign cash, push corporate tax cuts, and oppose minimum wage hikes, sick leave, and union organizing. They ban books about race and viciously attack LGBTQ kids to protect education while systematically under–funding schools.
A self-described “anti-woke budget” drafted by former Trump officials would cut the “woke” Environmental Protection Agency by 30 percent. What a gift to East Palestine, where the EPA is doing emergency cleanup operations.
This hateful, fact-free rhetoric is doing incredible damage.
It spreads cruel and dangerous anti-LGBTQ laws. It’s gutting classroom libraries. It’s led to absurd conspiracy theories, an emboldened and violent White supremacist fringe, and the January 6 coup attempt. It divides urban and rural communities of every race and color who might otherwise work together against influential people who do them wrong.
In court, a lawyer for Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida recently defined “woke” as the “general belief in systemic injustices in the country.” Ask yourself: Why would a powerful politician want to banish that belief?
Instead, the MAGA bargain for Middle America goes something like this: If we hurt other people worse, is it OK if we hurt you, too?
Sorry, but I guess this White Ohioan would rather be woke.