On Tuesday, a clip from Guardian journalist Gary Younge’s upcoming Channel 4 documentary, Angry, White and American, went viral on Twitter, garnering over 24,000 retweets.
The footage sees white supremacist and leader of America’s alt-right movement Richard Spencer making a series of statements to Younge that thousands of people on the social media site have deemed as inflammatory and offensive. He suggests that black people have benefitted from the reign of white supremacy in the past, and tells the journalist (a black, British-born man) that he is not British.
“The most general term is some kind of physical chastisement,” Younge tells RadioTimes.com of the responses he has seen from the clip. “‘I’m amazed you didn’t punch him’,‘I would have punched him’, ‘that guy needs a punch’. Something like that, which is not my style.” It’s someone’s…
The programme documents Younge’s trip from Maine to Mississippi in the summer of 2017, which, though inspired by Donald Trump’s rise to power (the transmission falls a day after the one year anniversary of the 2016 presidential election), delves into a deep-rooted sense of dissatisfaction in the country, of which the current US President is a product and a benefactor rather than an instigator. “The film isn’t about the alt-right, it isn’t necessarily about racism. It’s about, actually, how white people are doing,” Younge says. “And so, if you watch the rest of the film, it’s about the opioid epidemic, it’s about economic crisis, about kind of, the confederate flag, and there’s actually some quite nuanced stuff in there.”
Having spent 12 years in the US as a reporter for the Guardian from 2003 to 2015, Younge was equipped with an understanding of the trials and tribulations Americans have faced in recent times. “I arrived in 2003 just before the Iraq war,” he says. “I had seen, particularly after the crash, the wages slump, the wealth dissipate, all that kind of stuff, which very much coincided with the rise of the Tea Party. I long had a sense of the kind of anxiety about America and its place in the world and their place in it.”
But the levels of degradation that his most recent trip revealed were a shock to the system. “I had not grasped just how bad the opioid epidemic [according to CNN, more than two million Americans have become dependent on prescription pain pills or street drugs] was. And, how – in a way – metaphoric that was for the state of white America.”
The second thing that struck him was something he refers to as “historical illiteracy”, or “the levels of delusion there are about American history” that permeate various stops along his route including Portland in Maine, Johnstown, Pennsylvania – a predominantly white former mining town where over 40% of the population live below the poverty line – and Louisiana capital New Orleans.
“A guy who I spoke to – I don’t think this is in the doc – said ‘we’ve forgotten about segregation, it’s gone’. My father in law is an African-American from the next door town from where this guy came from – he hasn’t forgotten about segregation.”
This growing anxiety about the state of their race and their place in the country – white people are set to become outnumbered by non-whites within a generation – has engendered a nostalgia for a perceived idyllic past, something that Donald Trump tapped into very effectively with his “Make America Great Again” campaign slogan.
“[Trump supporters] talk about ‘Make America Great Again’, so I asked them ‘so when would you like to go back to?’ And they [would give me] a date. They’ll say the 50s or the 40s or the 60s.
“I used to think of America as a very forward-looking, optimistic place. We don’t want to go back to anything, we want to go forward to a time where America is great – again, not like it was before, just great. But instead, they will actually say they want to go back to this time, which feels like more of a British thing.”
While the response to the viral clip with Spencer has been predominantly positive, it also threw up a recurring dilemma in the way potentially objectionable figures are dealt with in the media. It’s something Younge was keenly aware of as he embarked on his journey.
“There’s some concern which I actually think is very legitimate, which is, why are you giving this guy airtime? We think, ridiculous as he is, that he did represent something,” he says.
“We thought our challenge would be this guy being slick and sounding very reasonable, saying things that could be deemed as reasonable but were actually pernicious. We didn’t anticipate that he would kind of… that his mask would drop so quickly, and reveal him to be as vile as he is, and that was the risk.”
Younge admits he was taken aback by how forthright his interviewee was from the get-go.
“I’m used to racists coming with a veneer of plausible deniability. ‘Oh I don’t mean that!’ you know. Even the most vile, anti-Latino immigrant basher says ‘I’m not anti-immigrant, I’m anti illegal immigrant’. And what they mean is they’re anti-Latino, really. So, I’m used to it… but there was no veneer [with Spencer].
“I don’t think he comes across as a sympathetic character, I think he comes across as an arrogant oaf. But he – that wasn’t inevitable. He could have done better. His surprise at meeting me: well, that’s because he didn’t do his homework.”
Ultimately, Spencer’s lack of sheen in the interview has injured his cause, at least in the British Twittersphere where the video has been circulated thousands of times over to a series of groans. Thus Younge’s decision has been somewhat justified.
“That responsibility is quite great,” Younge says. “Because if you give people a platform, and I would hate to have done that, and the product have been to have started a conversation that says ‘you know slavery wasn’t that bad for black people’, I would hate to feel in any way responsible for re-introducing those conversations into the bloodstream. But as it is out of his mouth, I don’t think anybody wants to mimic that.”
Angry, White and American airs at 10pm on Thursday 9th November on Channel 4