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No to the Politics of “Whiteness”
The case against right-wing racialism.
In recent years, I have devoted considerable time to exposing the radical Left’s politics of “whiteness,” which posits that white identity, culture, and power are irredeemably oppressive and must be “abolished” in favor of alternative modes of being. “Whiteness” represents the metaphysical essence of left-wing race politics: an irreducible force of evil, a master synonym for racism, oppression, inequality, and suffocating bourgeois norms; anything saturated with its properties can be automatically categorized and condemned. In practice, the politics of whiteness has translated into the demonization of European-Americans in primary school curricula, the performance of elaborate “white privilege” rituals in the workplace, and outright segregation in many public institutions. All of it is done to solve “the problem of whiteness.”
Some pushback has resulted. In the years following the 2020 Black Lives Matter riots, conservatives have exposed the poisonous politics of left-wing racialism, shutting down some of the bureaucracies that push it and proposing a reaffirmation of the ideal of colorblind equality. Unfortunately, some on the right would snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, preferring instead to adopt the basic framework of identity politics and simply reverse its polarity. Dismayingly, a sentiment is rising in some corners of conservative politics that the answer to left-wing identity politics is right-wing identity politics; or, put another way, that the answer to the demonization of whiteness is the celebration of whiteness as such—a new racial politics in the interest of “white identity.”
The main argument for this position is that colorblind equality is unattainable. Left-wing racialism has been embedded in our institutions, laws, and policies to such an extent that it cannot be rolled back using conventional means. All politics is friend-enemy politics, this faction argues, and given the demographic decline of European Americans, whites will eventually need to activate “white racial consciousness” to secure their basic interests. European Americans once had robust ethnic identities, but after generations of assimilation and intermarriage, those distinctions have lost their salience and consolidated into a homogenous, generalized “white identity.” If there is to be a racial spoils system, then each group must get its share—including whites.
How should we evaluate this argument? First, as an empirical matter, some basic facts should be acknowledged. Yes, left-wing racialism is indeed now deeply embedded in America’s institutions, and the demographic balance of the country has shifted in recent decades. And yes, the basic racial classification system in the United States broadly delineates continental origin—Europe, Africa, Latin America, Asia—in a way that is not arbitrary or meaningless. Terms such as “white,” “black,” “Latino,” and “Asian,” while often obscuring important variations within such groupings, have become the lingua franca and are useful shorthand descriptors for many purposes. And different groups have different characteristics, attitudes, and beliefs, at both the racial and ethnic level, and between and within these broad demographic categories.
None of this, however, justifies the racialist argument, which is wrong on moral, political, and pragmatic grounds. First, the right-wing racialists employ the same reductive demographic arguments as their left-wing counterparts, presenting American life as a zero-sum conflict between ethnic and racial groups, while ignoring the two other essential units of categorization: the individual and the universal. A more fruitful analysis would begin with a full accounting of these categories—individual, ethnicity, race, and humanity—and build a political theory capable of organizing them in the interest of human flourishing. Fortunately, such a political theory already exists: the natural rights theory of the American Founders, who argued that each human being was endowed with “certain unalienable rights” that applied to all as a universal principle; at the same time, they accepted that, because human cultures are contingent, not all groups will have identical capacities, expressions, and outcomes.
This approach remains the best available. The essential political questions for both supporters and opponents of the racialist worldview are these: What is the proper locus of rights? How should people be judged as a matter of government policy? And what approach is consistent with American principles and most likely to ensure our success as a nation? The honest racialist would respond: the proper locus of rights is the group; people should be judged in a race-conscious manner; and the best approach is the one that rewards friends and punishes enemies. My answer, by contrast, is: the proper locus of rights is the individual; people should be judged in a colorblind manner; and the best approach honors particularity while discouraging the formation of racial factions, foregrounds equality of rights while accepting inequality of outcomes, and acknowledges group differences while appealing to our equal dignity as human beings and as citizens of a common polity. This approach is, in my view, consistent with the method (natural rights) and the ultimate telos (human happiness) that the Founders envisioned and that the Constitution and American law have gradually secured. The ultimate criterion of public judgement can either be race, leading toward a “prison yard society,” or merit, leading toward an “aristocracy of virtue and talents.” Choose one.
As a practical matter, too, the politics of colorblind equality is vastly superior to the politics of “white identity.” Whatever one’s judgment on mass immigration, America is now a mixed, multiracial republic, and any successful political movement will need to build a coalition beyond any single racial group. The good news for conservatives—and a point against arguments for demographic determination—is that many racial minorities, most notably Latinos and Asians, oppose critical race theory-style discrimination, support the principle of colorblind equality, and have begun to shift politically to the right. By contrast, the advocates of “white racial consciousness” have a track record with the opposite results: from the late author Sam Francis to the racialist website VDare, such efforts have failed to garner an audience, much less a political coalition, beyond the fringes. Such a politics is perceived, rightly, as victim-oriented and antithetical to deeply held American principles.
The vision of racialists, whether on the left or right, is pessimistic: the first is driven by a spirit of vengeance, the second by a sense of inferiority. They are two sides of the same coin. Despite real tensions and disparities, Americans are, on the whole, a tolerant, cooperative people who aspire to a colorblind standard, derived from the natural rights tradition, that remains the best guidepost for the country’s future. The temptation of racial politics must be resisted. The solution is not to mirror the frame of left-wing racialists, but to persuade strong majorities to abolish racialism from public life and entrench the higher principle of colorblind equality. That is our fight. Slowly but steadily, we can win it.
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This article was originally published in City Journal.