White wokeness is now firmly embedded in America’s national consciousness. We have just seen over two full months of antiracism riots in Portland, Oregon—America’s whitest city—and one of the Democrats’ most vocal advocates of slavery reparations has just been confirmed as Joe Biden’s vice-presidential running mate.
For longtime critics of wokeness, greater knowledge and understanding of the phenomenon is, of course, more than welcome. Up until now, US conservatives have simply laughed off the anecdotes of ultra-sensitivity on college campuses as yet more evidence of progressive excess, rather than treating the situation like the national cultural revolution it really is.
That conservatives have failed to understand the political importance of culture and cultural institutions, like academia, isn’t surprising. It took decades for them to fully appreciate the effects post-war cultural Marxism had on both on the baby boomer generation and, by extension, on US public policy.
Similarly, conservatives clearly haven’t understood the meaning and foundations of wokeness, or its ability to affect US politics. Public opinion research, for instance, shows that it has already had a sizable influence on the Democratic Party. Luckily, however, those at the top of the conservative establishment can push back—if they so choose.
The Beginnings of Wokeness
When Matthew Yglesias reported on what he called America’s “Great Awokening” in 2019, he was describing a trend that started around 2014, when white liberals began lurching “so far to the left on questions of race and racism”—including issues like racial inequalities, reparations for black slavery and immigration—“that they are now, on these issues, to the left of even the typical black voter.”
It’s this extremism on immigration policy that presents perhaps the most concrete opportunity for conservatives. As Eric Kaufmann has found, blacks within the liberal camp are now actually closer to conservatives than to woke whites on this issue. This shouldn’t be surprising. After all, it is blacks—not affluent white liberals—who are more likely to compete with immigrants for work, housing and public school placements. White liberals care about ethnic restaurants, cheap nannies and lawn care. Blacks, on average, can’t afford to.
But what is surprising is how far and how fast the black/white liberal gap has widened. In a political opinion survey of 2017, Kaufmann found that white liberals have strayed so far into extreme political pastures on immigration and other issues, that it had led to a “new culture war,” with opponents divided between those who see most immigration limits as inherently racist and those who don’t. Note how closely the former view resembles the catastrophizing and dichotomous thinking that, drawing on Pamela Paresky’s work, Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff argue typifies safetyism among young people influenced by Social Justice leftism.
According to survey analysis collected by Zach Goldberg, whose research provided the basis of Matthew Yglesias’ 2019 article, between 1965 and 2000, the percentage of white liberals who supported increased immigration hovered at around 10%. Between 2000 and the end of Obama’s final term, however, it had jumped to around 20–30%. Now it sits at over 50%.
As Goldberg points out, from 2000 until just a couple of years ago, white liberal belief that immigrants are discriminated against almost doubled (from 29 to 57%). During the same period, sympathy towards illegal aliens and their families has also almost doubled (from 22 to 42%).
Minorities have largely not followed suit, however. As part of Kaufmann’s surveys, he asked respondents whether “President Trump’s border wall” is racist. While white Democrats across the board said yes and “virtually no Republicans” agreed, minority views were somewhere in the middle. Left-wing opinion analysts Data for Progress have found similar broad racial gaps on immigration and other issues over the past few years.
The change in white liberal views on this issue is bewildering. Immigration to the US is as high today as it’s ever been and it hasn’t dipped since the system was dramatically liberalized in the late sixties. It’s hard to understand the newfound support for an increase.
The border wall is also nothing new. Its first wire-fenced iteration went up during the late 1960s and its permanent phase began in San Diego in the mid-90s under Democrat President Bill Clinton. Then senators Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Joe Biden and Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer all voted for its dramatic expansion in the mid-2000s: an expansion that was later defunded by Congress, and then revived by Donald Trump.
The Motivations for Wokeness
For Goldberg, what is motivating the “great white awokening” is, in part, white “guilt-reduction and/or moral self-enhancement.” Citing studies that link high levels of white guilt to a sense of moral obligation to help “non-White others,” he posits that, when immigration comes from underdeveloped, non-European countries, “support for increased immigration offers a means of moral redemption.” If true, this is fascinating, as it suggests that woke motivations are self-serving, rather than based on altruism.
Goldberg also argues that when one perceives the majority of one’s in-group as “standing in the way of a culturally and racially egalitarian world,” in-group negativity may encourage support for immigration. This would explain a particularly interesting set of observations made by Kaufmann. He commissioned a survey that asked respondents whether it’s racist or “racially self-interested, which is not racist” for white Americans to “want less immigration to help maintain their group’s share of the population”—a far more contentious reason for whites to want to reduce immigration than fears about jobs or the housing market, or a wish to ease the burden on social services. Kaufmann found that 73% percent of white Hillary Clinton voters replied “racist” (as did a whopping 90% of those with graduate degrees). Only half of the minority respondents from the US agreed.
Kaufmann included survey participants from foreign countries in the study. The same question was put to 14,000 respondents in 18 countries, including Mexico, Korea and South Africa. The majority disagreed that reducing immigration for reasons of maintaining group share was racist. Conservatives concerned, therefore, about charges of “nativism” or worse, should they call for policy changes that might reduce immigration rates, must note that this will not necessarily impact their share of the minority and foreign-born vote.
Perhaps more interestingly, when Kaufmann asked whether “a Latino or Asian American who wants to increase immigration from Latin America or Asia to boost her group’s share of the population is being racist,” only 18% of the same white Clinton voters described that as racist. The double standard is extraordinary, especially considering the fact that these two questions appeared adjacent to one another. White liberals seem to have become profoundly preoccupied with disassociating themselves from racism: a sign perhaps that Goldberg’s moral redemption and in-group negativity factors do play a role in influencing their support for open borders.
The white guilt thesis gains further support from survey data obtained by Kaufmann. He found that, in 2014—the birthyear of wokeness, according to Vox—white liberals expressed a pro-outgroup bias for the first time. That is, unlike nonwhites, white liberals on average expressed “warmer feelings” for groups other than their own. This was the first time ever that a group exhibited such low self-regard and poor self-image.
Similarly, Goldberg found that one-third of white liberals are supportive of programs that distribute welfare dollars to the poor in other, developing nations, rather than to the poorest Americans. This signals that major changes are happening within American liberalism: especially with regard to attitudes towards citizenship, borders and the nation itself. This may help explain some of the left’s more extreme immigration policy prescriptions, such as the call to abolish ICE (US Immigration and Customs Enforcement).
The origins of white guilt are complex. In his paper, Goldberg pins these partly on the universities, since white liberals have relatively high levels of post-secondary education. Mandatory diversity courses and campus workshops aimed at raising white privilege awareness may play a role. Studies from Germany, Australia and the US all found that white racial guilt can be invoked in certain settings and used to induce greater support for minority causes.
This may evoke our sympathy for guilty white liberals. Not only does it reveal them to be a highly moral group, but one that is, to some extent, simply responding to the conditions to which they have been subjected. The designers of guilt-inducing courses and trainings are, no doubt, well-intentioned and guilty only of hyperbole in tone and content. In other words, this is something that can be rectified.
What Conservatives and Woke Critics Can Do
No matter what its origins, the “Great White Awokening” has affected the Democrats’ immigration platform immensely. Dramatic recent changes on issues like the border fence and ICE provide perhaps the clearest examples. Conservative politicians should pay close attention to this.
As Goldberg writes, Democratic Party brass are now taking their direction from a “small white elite”—in spite of the fact that minorities constitute half the party’s base (white liberals are only around 20% of the nation’s population). He attributes this to several factors, including the fact that white liberals donate more and call their representatives more often, are more willing to label themselves activists, are more active on social media and—most significantly—are more affluent.
This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, Goldberg notes, but the danger is that “woke white activists” may end up ignoring minorities’ own best interests. This isn’t smart politics—it presents an opportunity for conservative politicians to strip away ignored voters.
There is another factor, which is not mentioned by either Goldberg, Kaufmann or Data for Progress: the racial makeup of the Democratic consulting industry. According to research by the American Majority Project Research Institute, whites take up a whopping 95% of Democratic consultancy jobs—they also dominate nearly all the major progressive and Democratic organizations in the country. Having obtained educations steeped in intersectionality theory and often having had little contact with working class people of any race, these consultants might have a skewed understanding of issues like immigration.
Conservatives could call for Democrats to diversify their consultant class. This would shine a light on how out of touch the party is with its base. Given the intense demands for increased black participation in nearly every corner of institutional America, such an effort should get easy traction.
In addition, conservatives could more intelligently appeal to the black electorate, by framing immigration in a way that speaks to their material interests. If it is correct that mass immigration depresses black advancement, this shouldn’t be difficult and the results might be beneficial to the broader working population as well.
Finally, conservatives could work to relieve white liberal guilt. Kaufmann argues that the woke whites’ “need” for moral redemption and their in-group negativity are largely based on “past misdeeds” like colonialism and black slavery. A respectful appeal to historical literacy could work here. As Kaufmann notes, if historical transgressions can wipe out a group’s moral authority, then the “Turks (Ottoman Empire), Indian Muslims (Mughal Empire), Japanese, Arabs, Mongolians, Zulus, Mohawks, Tutsi and nearly every other group in the world would also have to repress their identities and interests”—something white liberals would also call for, if they were consistent.
Then there’s the other big wokeness motivator, according to Kaufmann: that acknowledging and legitimizing in-group attachment for white Americans would “spell disaster for vulnerable minorities”—something that surely informs the opinion that reducing immigration to maintain group share is always bigoted. As Kaufmann notes, social psychologist Marilynn Brewer has found that white Americans’ warmth towards their own group is actually associated with warmer feelings toward their fellow black Americans. Ashley Jardina has obtained similar findings. Conservatives willing to challenge wokeness then, might be well advised to emphasize that assuaging fearful and dichotomous thinking is crucial when approaching the complex intersection between policy preferences and identity politics.
It is possible to bring straying white liberals back from extremist pastures and temper their woke excesses. But given their past record of ineptness, conservatives will have to get much more serious and thoughtful in countering cultural changes. This will take consistency, honesty and boldness—A Great Emboldening, if you will.