The alternative proposed by the academic left is an America where race is effectively presumed to be the most important feature of an individual’s identity; where white people are more conscious of race as it is experienced by blacks, Asians, Hispanics, and Native Americans; and where white people are more aware of themselves and their fellow whites as possessors of whiteness and white privilege. At its best, this newer approach to thinking about race helps Americans to see reality more fully. The typical college professor was better than the typical 1980s white parent at conveying the depths of racism in America’s past; how bygone racism still affects individuals today; ongoing examples of racial injustice; the alarming lack of diversity in some institutions; remedies for that failure; and how majority groups can be blind to the ways that society caters to their norms and preferences.
Those are important things to understand.
But if adherents of colorblindness are vulnerable to ignoring or underestimating race as a factor, the academic left is vulnerable to fetishizing it and missing some of the ways in which race is a pernicious construct that robs people of their individuality. Ensconced in campus bubbles, the academic left also underestimates how divisive it can be to put anything other than individualism at the center of identity. A decade ago, when I lived at a liberal arts college, I’d have said that the worst flaw of the academic left’s approach to race was its tendency to mistreat blacks, Hispanics, and Asians who didn’t fit leftist stereotypes of “person of color.”
Today I’m more concerned by the conceit, popularized on campus and spreading among activists, journalists, and diversity professionals, that racial justice is best pursued by encouraging white people to reflect on, interrogate, and identify more fully with their whiteness. This approach strikes me as naive and dangerous. If pressed to focus on and interrogate their whiteness, some white people will conclude, like Peggy McIntosh, that white privilege is one of the major factors in their lives.
But I worry that the overall effect of encouraging white people to put whiteness rather than color-blindness or individualism at the center of their identity will be to swell and empower a faction in U.S. politics that Trump’s rise has helped to highlight. As the billionaire candidate climbed in the polls, Evan Osnos happened to be reporting on white nationalists, a tiny but nevertheless alarming portion of Trump’s base.
On June 28th, twelve days after Trump’s announcement, the Daily Stormer, America’s most popular neo-Nazi news site, endorsed him for President: “Trump is willing to say what most Americans think: it’s time to deport these people.” The Daily Stormer urged white men to “vote for the first time in our lives for the one man who actually represents our interests.”
Ever since the Tea Party’s peak, in 2010, and its fade, citizens on the American far right—Patriot militias, border vigilantes, white supremacists—have searched for a standard-bearer, and now they’d found him. In the past, “white nationalists,” as they call themselves, had described Trump as a “Jew-lover,” but the new tone of his campaign was a revelation. Richard Spencer is a self-described “identitarian” who lives in Whitefish, Montana, and promotes “white racial consciousness.” At thirty-six, Spencer is trim and preppy, with degrees from the University of Virginia and the University of Chicago. He is the president and director of the National Policy Institute, a think tank, co-founded by William Regnery, a member of the conservative publishing family, that is “dedicated to the heritage, identity, and future of European people in the United States and around the world.” The Southern Poverty Law Center calls Spencer “a suit-and-tie version of the white supremacists of old.” Spencer told me that he had expected the Presidential campaign to be an “amusing freak show,” but that Trump was “refreshing.” He went on, “Trump, on a gut level, kind of senses that this is about demographics, ultimately. We’re moving into a new America.” He said, “I don’t think Trump is a white nationalist,” but he did believe that Trump reflected “an unconscious vision that white people have—that their grandchildren might be a hated minority in their own country. I think that scares us. They probably aren’t able to articulate it. I think it’s there. I think that, to a great degree, explains the Trump phenomenon. I think he is the one person who can tap into it.”
A bit later in the article there’s another passage of note:
Ordinarily, the white-nationalist Web sites mock Republicans as Zionist stooges and corporate puppets who have opened the borders in order to keep wages low. But, on July 9th, VDARE, an opinion site founded to “push back the plans of pro-Amnesty/Immigration Surge politicians, ethnic activists and corrupt Big Business,” hailed Trump as “the first figure with the financial, cultural, and economic resources to openly defy elite consensus. If he can mobilize Republicans behind him and make a credible run for the Presidency, he can create a whole new media environment for patriots to openly speak their mind without fear of losing their jobs.” The piece was headlined “WE ARE ALL DONALD TRUMP NOW.”
Even the most naive iteration of colorblindness looks damned good next to the subset of people who’ve interrogated their whiteness and then embraced white supremacy or separatism. The academic left casts all proponents of color-blindness as naive. Perhaps they’re correct that the ideal of colorblindness alone will never bring about an America where anti-black racism is no more prevalent than anti-Irish racism is today. But isn’t it more naive to imagine that masses of white people will identify more strongly with their racial tribe and then sacrifice the interests of that tribe?