Donald Trump and the disaffected white people who make up his base of support have got me thinking about race in America. “Trump presents a choice for the Republican Party about which path to follow––” Ben Domenech writes in an insightful piece at The Federalist, “a path toward a coalition that is broad, classically liberal, and consistent with the party’s history, or a path toward a coalition that is reduced to the narrow interests of identity politics for white people.”
When I was growing up in Republican Orange County during the Reagan and Bush Administrations, lots of white parents sat their kids in front of The Cosby Show, explained that black people are just like white people, and inveighed against judging anyone by the color of their skin rather than the content of their character. The approach didn’t convey the full reality of race as minorities experience it. But it represented a significant generational improvement in race relations.
Unbeknownst to those Orange County parents, the academic left was already engaged in an effort to recast their approach to race as a kind of racial animus. Today, colorblindness is considered a “micro-aggression” at UCLA and associated in popular culture with Stephen Colbert’s right-wing blowhard alter-ego absurdly declaring, “I don’t see color.” Having savaged that straw man, critics of colorblindness mostly don’t engage the more sophisticated version of the viewpoint: a recognition that race matters very much to the world as it presently exists, coupled with the beliefs that colorblindness is a goal that we ought to strive toward and that, all else being equal, race-neutral policies are preferable in a pluralistic country, even if various race-specific remedies are still necessary today.
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?
There is no precedent for such a trajectory.
It is stranger still that some of the people most insistent that white supremacy is alive in America are simultaneously comfortable with the academic left’s “focus on your whiteness” approach. I see nothing in history or human nature to suggest that approach to anti-racism can work. That isn’t a call to abandon all talk of white privilege. At its best, “privilege” is one of many frameworks that convey important truths. It’s a rare person who cannot glean some insights from it. (Consider Jamelle Bouie’s reflection on a concrete way that being black and lacking white privilege affected his life.) Nor is it a call to stop critiquing the flaws of simplistic colorblindness––the academic left did a service by highlighting its shortcomings.
But the ideal of colorblindness ought to have been improved upon rather than abandoned as a lodestar and stigmatized. Adherents of colorblindness are more easily convinced to add specific nuances to their views, or to do more to live up to race neutrality, than persuaded to embrace an entirely new paradigm of race in America, especially given that the academic left has failed to produce any alternative that is more coherent, more widely embraced, or more easily taught to children. Even within the bubble of academia, the academic left’s approach to race and identity seem to produce as much interracial animus and tension as understanding.
Outside the academic bubble, recent U.S. history has included an outpouring of racially-tinged hatred and conspiracy theories directed at the first black president; numerous instances of white police officers shooting and killing unarmed black men; a white supremacist perpetrating an act of terrorism against a historic black church; an irrational anti-sharia-law panic; and the rise of a Republican frontrunner who owes an important part of his standing to xenophobic scare tactics that portray Mexicans as scary rapists, despite the fact that first-generation immigrants commit fewer crimes than native born Americans. It is strange that, amid all those “macro-aggressions,” much of the left, in academia, on social media, and in journalism, has spent so much time focusing on the comparatively minor harms of clueless colorblindness and the quixotic project of measuring one another’s privilege.
Their priorities are baffling.
It’s time to recognize that the most urgent anti-racism efforts are elsewhere; that it’s dangerous to push whites to focus on their whiteness rather than their humanity; and that nuanced, aspirational colorblindness is a respectable alternative.