If it weren’t already obvious from the recent mass protests and riots across America and the world in response to the gruesome police killing of George Floyd, race is one of our deepest and most polarizing issues.
According to Pew Research, partisanship is strongly associated with attitudes towards race: Democrats and Republicans hold vastly different views about the country’s racial progress. As Matthew Yglesias points out in his viral 2019 Vox article “The Great Awokening,” white progressives have taken a sharp leftward turn on questions of racial inequality since the initial surge of the Black Lives Matter movement, and now see anti-black racism as more of a barrier to success than blacks themselves do. Ideas about systemic racism, reparations and white privilege have become mainstream on the left, to a degree unfathomable just five years ago.
Meanwhile, working class whites are leaving the Democratic Party in droves, while Republicans are becoming increasingly homogenous in their racial composition. The feeling that white people are discriminated against was one of the strongest predictors of a vote for Donald Trump.
Political and racial polarization have become inextricably linked. The definition of a racist continues to expand on the left, which leads to increased racial defensiveness and resentment on the right. Meanwhile, the country is rapidly becoming more diverse, begging the question of how we can transition from a fragmented culture of political and racial tribalism into a flourishing multi-ethnic society.
At bottom, the race debate is about how we relate to our collective past and how we feel about our national identity. Should we be proud of our history or ashamed of its double standards and hypocrisies? The debate is more fundamentally about the meaning of white American identity, since race and nationality are intertwined in the American context. Is white identity an oppressive power construct predicated on the inferior social position of nonwhites, or is whiteness an ethnic identity like any other, that just happens to have held majority status? It doesn’t strike me as a coincidence that the most extreme views on both ends of the political spectrum are disproportionately held by whites—considering how central the question of whiteness is to the culture war. Despite all the talk about anti-black racism and diversity, the race debate is primarily about white people’s role in society, rather than about minorities, who are encouraged to express their identities without the stigma of collective guilt.
The debate is not really a disagreement over facts, but over which facts are more relevant right now. Is it more relevant that racist attitudes have been in drastic decline since the civil rights era, or that racial disparities of outcome still persist? This is a disagreement over definitions: particularly over what racism means. Is racism a broad structural force, characterized by privilege and unconscious bias, or a human phenomenon, characterized by specific behaviors?
Racial ideology, rather than race itself, determines which side of the issue people take. In a recent poll, a significant percentage of nonwhite Trump supporters agreed that “white people are under attack in this country” and lamented the decline of white America. This should put to rest the idea that this is exclusively about people’s own racial identities. In the American National Election Study, white Trump voters felt warmer towards blacks than black Clinton voters felt toward whites, while white Clinton voters had warmer feelings towards blacks than they did toward whites. This is not about skin color. It’s about our racial worldviews and what we consider the source of racial inequality to be: the present social and economic consequence of historical racism, or a lack of cultural capital.
There’s no obvious answer to these questions, but how they are broached in public life matters. Without a shared understanding of reality, we lose the ability to make collective decisions as a nation. Turning the subtext of racial discourse into text would be a helpful first step.
The Asymmetry in Racial Discourse
But that can’t happen when one side of the argument dominates the airwaves, while the other is forced to emerge from the bottom up. The progressive narrative on race is the only one considered acceptable in mainstream institutions—universities, media outlets, entertainment and major corporations—and this allows white identitarians to capitalize on the obvious asymmetry.
Take the New York Times 1619 Project. Its purpose, according to editor Jake Silverstein, is to “reframe American history by considering what it would mean to regard 1619 as our nation’s birth year [and put] the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of the story we tell ourselves about who we are as a country.”
This is not necessarily bad. The traditional view of the founding of America has been the received view for most of our history and an alternative vision would heighten our understanding of our origins. But the intention of the project was not to add, but to replace. It directly contradicted the established narrative of America’s birth in 1776 and challenged the moral identity of the nation. And, although much has been made of the project’s underlying bias and factual errors, this didn’t stop the project’s creator, Nikole Hannah-Jones, from winning the prestigious Pulitzer Prize for journalism—in spite of the fact that the New York Times was forced to issue a correction, after a number of notable historians challenged the essay’s central claims, especially the idea that the American Revolution was an attempt to protect the institution of slavery. (It wasn’t.)
Try to imagine a piece of writing on any other subject winning a distinguished award, despite a factual error glaring enough for the publisher to offer a correction. Yet, this makes perfect sense in a culture that is intent on distancing itself from the horrors of its past, out of terror of seeming racist or unconsciously contributing to systemic racism.
The Feedback Loop of Racial Polarization
Meanwhile, charismatic young paleocon Nicolas J. Fuentes is having a field day. The 1619 Project controversy is red meat for the growing number of online pundits who harness racial resentment in the service of white identity politics. Fuentes, a twenty-one-year-old far-right activist with a Catholic background, reacted to the project’s Pulitzer Prize with barely concealed joy, commenting on his show:
I just want to point out that it’s an award for investigative journalism for a piece that is wrong, that is filled with lies. We all know why this won the award, because it’s a black writer writing about slavery for intellectuals to jerk off to. This is a glimpse into the crystal ball of the country. I think that most ring-wing people’s perception of the left is that they are too obsessed with equality. It’s never that they hate white people. But let’s just listen to what they’re saying! You’ve got a non-white writer saying that the story of America should be told through the lens of nonwhite people, and that the story of America is not about the fulfillment of European civilization but rather a story of black subjugation, black revolution and ultimately some sort of black vengeance. It is inherently hostile to our country and to our nation. This is not cultural Marxism. It’s not leftism. It’s not Democrat ideology. It’s racial.
He goes on to observe that the progressive narrative about race is less concerned with prejudice per se, than with the fact that it has done greater harm to a particular group of people. Embedded in this reasoning is the idea that racial discrimination is not bad in itself, but only when it is directed at one’s own tribe. The fact that progressives are willing to tolerate a certain amount of racial tribalism in their ranks, in his telling, shows they are not against racism on principle, but against white people in general.
I believe that this is about ideology, not about race—otherwise there wouldn’t be so many dissenting nonwhite voices pushing back against the excesses of the progressive race narrative and so many white progressives supporting it. But it’s not difficult to see why Fuentes’ vision is compelling to so many people. The overt unfairness in how identity issues are treated at the highest levels of our culture, which is intended to account for the historical power imbalances between white males and other groups, makes the issue appear explicitly racial—in which case, it seems reasonable for whites to insist on the importance of their own racial identity. Progressive racial activism encourages white identity politics by signaling that race matters.
So where does this leave those of us who reject the politics of race, whichever side of the aisle it comes from?
The obvious solution is to espouse identity-blind humanist principles and promote a civic nationalism that is independent of race. But that’s unlikely to happen. Identity matters to people. We need to believe in a larger story that unites our group, and cultivate our own myths, symbols and archetypes, in order to create a shared reality. Race might be a social construct, but that doesn’t mean it is meaningless or can be expunged. A more practical vision would involve acknowledging the disparate strands of American identity in positive sum terms—starting by formulating a robust challenge to the asymmetry of racial discourse in order to eliminate the market demand for white backlash.
After all, there is no correlation between warmth towards whites and hatred of nonwhites, so it doesn’t make sense to treat expressions of white identity as distinct from other such expressions. Perhaps mitigating the excesses of white guilt will have a reciprocal effect on white pride.