Pandaemonium

THE HISTORY AND POLITICS OF WHITE IDENTITY

Malevich White on White

This is a transcript of a talk I gave to the Literarisches Colloqium Berlin on 5 March 2019.


Identity politics is one of the defining – and one of the most divisive – issues of our age. And no identity is more contested or fought over than white identity. For some it is a means of giving voice to a group whose identity has previously been denied. For others it is simply as an expression of racism.

The political context of the emergence of white identity is that of the rise of populism, of politicians such as Donald Trump in America and of Victor Orban and Matteo Salvini in Europe, of growing hostility to immigration and of the rise of nativism.

In much of the debate around these changes, the politics of identity is seen primarily a politics of the left, the politics of minority and oppressed groups. White identity is viewed as a latecomer on the scene, an attempt by whites to replicate the success of minority groups.

I want to turn this perception on its head. The origins of the politics of identity lie not on the left but on the reactionary right. Radical forms of identity politics were the ones late on the scene. Now, contemporary white identity is reclaiming its original reactionary heritage.

To understand all this, I want to retrace the history of identity politics, to tell the story of identity politics before it was called identity politics. Inevitably, as I will be covering a lot of ground, and discussing a wide range of topics, in a short space of time, my argument will be compressed, and I will have to skate over many nuances. I hope the discussion afterwards will help restore some of the nuance.

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‘When the first Africans arrived in Virginia in 1619, there were no ‘white’ people there; nor, according to the colonial records, would there be for another sixty years.’

So wrote Theodore Allen in his groundbreaking 1994 study The Invention of the White Race. The Africans who arrived in Virginia in 1619, arrived, of course, not as free people but as slaves, having endured the horrors of transatlantic transportation, to be bought and sold by Europeans, who had begun to colonise the Americas.

So, in what sense were there no white people in Virginia? In the sense, as Allen observes, that the Europeans in Virginia did not see themselves specifically as white. They were English, their children were English. They were never referred to, nor did they refer to themselves, as white. Whiteness as an identity had to be constructed. And it was constructed as the notion of ‘race’ was constructed.

We have become so accustomed to looking at life through a racial lens that we imagine that all societies and all ages have done so, too. That is not so. It was only with the emergence of modernity that both the scientific concepts and the political language underlying the concept of race came to be developed.

Between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries Europe underwent a series of intellectual and social transformations that laid the basis of the modern world. It was the period in which the modern idea of the self, and of the individual as a rational agent, began to develop; in which the authority of custom and tradition weakened, while the role of reason in explaining the natural and social world was vastly expanded; in which nature became regarded not as chaotic but as lawful, and hence amenable to reason; and in which humans became part of the natural order, and knowledge became secularised.

Humans were now seen as part of the natural order. So the question arose: how did humans fit into that order? Natural philosophers had begun classifying all of nature. How should humans be classified as part of this project?

A succession of scholars from Carl Linnaeus to Johann Friedrich Blumenbach and beyond set out to answer this question. And in so doing they began classifying different categories of humans.

It was the German anthropologist Blumenbach, often considered the founder of anthropology, who established the five-fold human taxonomy – CaucasiansMongolians, EthiopiansMalay and Americans – that is still widely used today, though the terminology is different. It was with Blumenbach that the term Caucasian enters our vocabulary.

The 18th century, the Enlightenment, was marked by a passion for classification, and for bringing order to the seeming chaos of the world. But it was marked, too, by another belief, as deeply held: a belief in the universality of human nature, in the importance of universal values and the possibility of a common civilisation.

These two key aspects of Enlightenment thought seemed to pull in different directions in the debate about the nature of human differences. For much of the eighteenth century, though, most thinkers did not perceive a contradiction. That’s because the belief in universality led Enlightenment philosophes to view human groups less as natural classes than as artificial creations.

It is true that a number of leading eighteenth century thinkers – Hume, Kant, Voltaire, Jefferson – dabbled with ideas of innate differences between human groups. Yet, with one or two exceptions, they did so only diffidently or in passing. In the main, eighteenth-century thinkers remained highly resistant to the idea of race. Philosophical attachment to ideas of universality and human unity restricted the room for racial arguments.

It was not till the nineteenth century that racial thinking – the idea that humans could be divided into a number of essentially distinct groups – became established. And it did so in the context of opposition to Enlightenment universalism.

‘There is no such thing as Man’, wrote the French arch-reactionary Joseph de Maistre in his polemic against the concept of the Rights of Man. ‘I have seen Frenchmen, Italians and Russians… As for Man, I have never come across him anywhere.’

De Maistre was a key figure in the counter-Enlightenment: the reactionary opposition to Enlightenment ideas equality, democracy and universality. For the counter-Enlightenment, tradition and authority, status and hierarchy, inequality and unreason, were the foundations of order and stability.

A more progressive critique of universalist ideas was developed by the German philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder, a key figure in the Romantic movement, whose concept of culture came to be highly influential, and still shapes much thinking today. For Herder what made each people or nation – or volk – unique was its Kultur: its particular language, literature, history and modes of living. The unique nature of each volk was expressed through its volksgeist – the unchanging spirit of a people refined through history.

Herder was no reactionary – he was a staunch supporter of equality. He occupies, however, an ambiguous role in modern political thought.  In the eighteenth century, Herder saw himself as part of the Enlightenment tradition, but also as someone forced to challenge some of the basic precepts of the philosophes in order to defend the cherished ideals of equality.  In the twentieth century, his pluralism, and celebration of what we now call particularist identities, would become the root of much antiracist thinking.

In between, in the nineteenth century, Herder’s impact was to encourage, albeit unwittingly, a racial viewpoint. Once it was accepted that different peoples were motivated by different sentiments, it was not a great step to view these sentiments as racial. Over time, Herder’s volksgeist became transformed into racial type.

The concept of racial type developed through the nineteenth century, as a group of people linked by a set of fundamental characteristics and differing from other types by virtue of those characteristics. Such characteristics included not just mental and physical traits, but also social needs, aspirations and values. Each type remained constant over time and there were severe limits on how far any member of a type could vary from the basic characteristics of the type. Here was the original politics of identity.

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LS Lowry The Canal Bridge

For proponents of racial science, the most superior racial type was the white race. The meanings of both race and of white identity were, however, significantly different in the nineteenth from what they are now.

Today, we tend to think of race as defined primarily by skin colour, or by geographic continent of origin. In the nineteenth century, it was defined by class as much as by colour. And that inevitably shaped the meaning of white identity.

In 1865, there was in Southampton, in southern England, a banquet in honour of Governor Eyre, the governor of Jamaica. In October 1865, Eyre had put down with the greatest ferocity a local peasant uprising. His actions divided opinion in England.  In response to the Eyre banquet, the pro-independence Jamaica Committee organized a counter-rally, on which the Daily Telegraph reported:

There are a good many negroes in Southampton who have the taste of their tribe for any disturbance that appears safe, and who are probably imbued with the conviction that it is a proper thing to hoot and yell at a number of gentlemen going to a dinner party.

In fact, as the historian Douglas Lorimer observes in his book Colour, Class and the Victorians,

the Daily Telegraph’s ‘negroes’ were… the very English and very white Southampton mob who thronged the streets outside the banquet hall, while their more respectable working class colleagues attended the largest popular meeting in the city’s history to protest against the official reception given to Governor Eyre.

The Southampton incident reveals well the nineteenth-century elite view of blacks and English workers as being part of the same ‘tribe’.  This was not simply an English phenomenon.  The French Christian socialist Phillipe Buchez, giving a talk to the Medico-Psychological Society of Paris in 1857, wondered how it could happen that ‘within a population such as ours, races may form – not merely one but several races – so miserable, inferior and bastardised that they may be classed below the most inferior savage races, for their inferiority is sometimes beyond cure.’ The races that he was talking of were not from Africa or Asia, but the working class and the rural poor.

Today, when we talk of ‘white identity’ we do so largely in the context of the working class. Hostility to immigration and support for populism are seen primarily as working class phenomena. In talking of white identity, commentators talk continually of the ‘white working class’.

But, historically that is not what white identity referred to at all. ‘Race’ in the nineteenth century was about class and social status, as much as about skin colour. And the working class had the status of not being white. As the historian VG Kiernan observes

discontented native in the colonies, labour agitator in the mill, were the same serpent in alternate disguises. Much of the talk about the barbarism or darkness of the outer world, which it was Europe’s mission to rout, was a transmuted fear of the masses at home.

Whiteness in the contemporary sense only begins to emerge at the turn of the twentieth century. Two developments transformed the meaning of white identity: the coming of democracy, and the new imperialism, exemplified by the ‘scramble for Africa’ from the 1880s on.

The extension of suffrage to large sections of working class men (though not till later to women) modified the application of the language of racial inferiority to working class. In a political democracy, the racial view of the working class, which had dominated nineteenth century elite consciousness, was more difficult express openly, and slowly faded from public view.

The expansion of suffrage coincided with the expansion of imperial rule. There was, in the second half of the nineteenth century, from Africa to the Pacific, a frenzy of land-grabbing by European nations. Between 1874 and 1902, Britain alone added 12m square kilometres and 90 million people to her Empire.

In the coincidence of democracy and imperialism, support for imperialism became ‘democratised’. Nationalism and racial thinking ceased to be an elite ideology, as it had been for most of the nineteenth century, and became part of popular culture. The racial superiority of the British people, for instance, was celebrated in mass circulation newspapers, in penny-dreadful novels, and in popular entertainment.

The consequence of all this was that the language of race became refocused more exclusively on skin colour, and on the distinction between Europe and the Empire. The ‘colour line’ now became the chief way of understanding and diving the world. ‘Colour bars’ and racial exclusion became a way of life both in the colonies and in the metropolitan countries. The 1890s and the first decade of the twentieth were the age of immigration controls. From America’s Chinese Exclusion Act, and the promotion of the ‘Yellow Peril’ panic, to the ‘White Australia’ policy to Britain’s ‘Aliens Act’, designed primarily to stop Jews fleeing East European pogroms from entering the country, immigration laws became a means of institutionalising racial difference and identity. It is important, the American historian and journalist Lothrop Stoddard wrote in his book The Rising Tide of Color Against White World Supremacy, that ‘the rising tide of colour finds itself walled in by white dikes’.

By the early decades of twentieth century, the concept of race had transformed. Whereas previously belief in the inferiority of non-European peoples was an extension of the belief in the inferiority of the lower orders at home, now it became the heart of racial thinking. Race became a black and white issue, and white identity took on its contemporary garb.

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jacob-lawrence-toussaint-louverture

The roots of white identity lie, then, in the reactionary opposition to Enlightenment universalism. That history has long been ignored in contemporary discussions of the politics of identity. Instead the politics of identity is identified largely with the left. But here, too, there is historical amnesia. For much of the past 200 years, radicals challenging inequality and oppression did so in the name, not of particular identities, but of universal rights. They insisted that equal rights belonged to all and that there existed a set of values and institutions, under which all humans best flourished. It was a universalism that fuelled the great radical movements that have shaped the modern world – from anti-colonial struggles to the movements for women’s suffrage to the battles for gay rights.

That universalism was perhaps best expressed in the Haitian Revolution of 1791. It’s a revolution that today is almost forgotten, and yet was to shape history almost as deeply as the two eighteenth century revolutions with which we are far more familiar – those of 1776 in America and 1789 in France. It was the first time that the emancipatory logic of the Declaration of the Rights of Man was seen through to its revolutionary conclusion.

The leader of the insurrectionists was Toussaint L’Ouverture, a self-educated former slave, deeply read, highly politicized and possessed of a genius in military tactics and strategy. His greatest gift, perhaps, was his ability to see that while Europe was responsible for the enslavement of slaves, nevertheless within European culture lay the political and moral ideas with which to challenge that enslavement. The French bourgeoisie might have tried to deny to the mass of humanity the ideals embodied in the Declaration of the Rights of Man. But L’Ouverture recognized in those ideals a weapon more powerful than any sword or musket or cannon.

The Saint-Domingue slaves rose in rebellion on 24 August 1791. In the space of twelve years they defeated, in turn, the local whites and the soldiers of the French monarchy, a Spanish invasion, a British expedition of some 60,000 men, and finally a second French force. In 1803, the only successful slave revolt in history gave Haiti its independence.

Yet, the relationship etween anti-colonialism and Enlightenment universalism soon began to be questioned. The entrenchment of racial thinking and the expansion of imperialism posed difficult questions for those challenging European power. If Europe was responsible for the enslavement of more than half the world, what worth could there be in its political and moral ideas, which at best had had failed to prevent that enslavement, at worst had provided its intellectual grounding? Did not those challenging European imperialism also need to challenge its ideas?

Over time opposition to European rule came increasingly to mean opposition to European ideas, too. As the Martinique-born Algerian revolutionary Frantz Fanon observed, it is ‘in the name of the spirit of Europe that Europe has made her encroachments, that she has justified her crimes and legitimized the slavery in which she holds four-fifths of humanity.’

From this perspective, the ideals that flowed out of the Enlightenment grew out of a particular culture, history, and tradition, and spoke to a particular set of needs, desires and dispositions. Non-Europeans had to develop their own ideas, beliefs and values that grew out of their own distinct cultures, traditions, histories, psychological needs and dispositions. The result was the flourishing of a host of separatist movements: Garveyism, Pan-Africanism, black nationalism, negritude.

This was the background to the postwar emergence of radical identity politics.

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Emory Douglas Solidarity poster

The relationship between left, right and identity changed in the decades after the Second World War. In the wake of Nazism and the Holocaust, overt racism became far less acceptable.

It was not that racism disappeared. Far from it. But where ideas of racial superiority, and of white superiority, had been, in the pre-war world, not just socially acceptable but largely uncontested within elite circles, now ideas of racial equality came to occupy the moral high ground. By the 1960s, this transformation was well under way.

By the 1960s, too, the radical rejection of universalism, and embrace of more particularist, separatist ideas, had begun to take new form. One of the questions that postwar radicals had asked themselves was why it was that Germany, a nation with deep roots in the Enlightenment, should succumb so completely to Nazism. For many, the answer seemed to be that it was the logic of Enlightenment rationalism itself that gave rise to such barbarism. Drawing on the work of anti-colonial thinkers such as Frantz Fanon, as well the ideas of the Frankfurt School, and other movements of critical theory, many came to see universalism as Eurocentric, even racist, because it sought to impose Euro-American ideas of rationality and objectivity on other peoples.

At a political level, these ideas began developing in the 1960s through the New Left and the new social movements. The struggle for black rights in America, in particular, was highly influential in developing new ideas both of identity and self-organization. Squeezed between an intensely racist society, on the one hand, and, on the other, a left largely indifferent to their plight, many black activists ceded from integrated civil rights organisations and set up separate black groups.

Many began to argue that African Americans had to organise separately not just as a political strategy but also as a cultural necessity. ‘In Africa they speak of Negritude’, wrote black power activist Julius Lester. ‘It is the recognition of those things uniquely ours which separate ourselves from the white man.’

Black radicalism provided a template for many other groups, from women to Native Americans, from Muslims to gays, to look upon social change through the lens of their own cultures, goals and ideals. ‘The demand is not for inclusion within the fold of ‘universal humankind’ on the basis of shared human attributes; nor is it for respect “in spite of one’s differences”’, wrote feminist and sociologist Sonia Krups. ‘Rather, what is demanded is respect for oneself as different.’

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Lise Reinke Hymn to the Masses

The term ‘identity politics’ was coined in 1977 by the American Combahee River Collective, a group of black Lesbian militants, in their ‘Black Feminist Statement’. The most radical politics, they argued, came from placing their own experiences at the centre of their struggles. ‘Focusing upon our own oppression’, they wrote, ‘is embodied in the concept of identity politics’.

For the Combahee River Collective, as for many within such identity movements in the 1960s and 70s, their specific struggle was inextricably attached to broader campaigns for change. Identity politics of that time provided a means of challenging oppression, and the blindness of much of the left to such oppression, as a specific part of a wider project of social transformation.

A key shift over the past half-century has been the disintegration of those wider social movements and radical struggles. Labour movement organizations have weakened, the new social movements have disintegrated, as indeed has the left.

As the old social movements and radical struggles lost influence, so the recognition of identity became not a means to an end, but an end in itself. As the political philosopher Wendy Brown has put it, ‘What we have come to call identity politics is partly dependent upon the demise of a critique of capitalism.’

Through these changes the meaning of belongingness and of solidarity transformed. Politically, the sense of belonging to a group or collective has historically been expressed in two broad forms: through the politics of identity and through the politics of solidarity.

The former stresses attachment to common identities based on such categories as race, nation, gender or culture. The difference between leftwing and rightwing forms of identity politics derives, in part, from the categories of identity that are deemed particularly important.

The politics of solidarity draws people into a collective not because of a given identity but to further a political or social goal. Where the politics of identity divides, the politics of solidarity finds collective purpose across the fissures of race or gender, sexuality or religion, culture or nation. But it is the politics of solidarity that has crumbled over the past two decades as radical movements have declined. For many today, the only form of collective politics that seem possible is that rooted in identity.

‘Solidarity’, therefore, has become increasingly defined not in political terms – as collective action in pursuit of certain political ideals – but in terms of ethnicity or culture. The question people ask themselves is not so much ‘In what kind of society do I want to live?’ as ‘Who are we?’. The two questions are, of course, intimately related, and any sense of social identity must embed an answer to both. But as the political sphere has narrowed, and as mechanisms for political change have eroded, so the answer to the question ‘In what kind of society do I want to live?’ has become shaped less by the kinds of values or institutions people want to struggle to establish, than by the kind of people that they imagine they are. And the answer to ‘Who are we?’ has become defined less by the kind of society they want to create than by the history and heritage to which supposedly they belong. The frameworks through which we make sense of the world are defined less as ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’ or ‘socialist’ than as ‘Muslim’ or ‘white’ or ‘English’ or ‘European’.

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Pablo Gonzalez-Trejo

And so we return to white identity.

Notions of white identity did not disappear in the postwar period, any more than racism did. But they were increasingly marginalized, and when they did express themselves – as in Southern opposition to the civil rights movement in America or through Powellism in Britain – it was regarded by mainstream commentators straightforwardly as expressions of racism.

By the 1970s, it was only on the far-right fringes that the notion still had purchace. But within sections of the far right, the concept of white identity was reformulated. Rather than rooting it in ideas of biological superiority and inferiority, some far-right thinkers began appropriating cultural arguments, and ideas about difference, to embed racist notions of identity.

The French far right was particularly assiduous in exploiting the ideas of pluralism to promote a reactionary argument against immigration. The philosopher Alain de Benoist, one of the founders of the Nouvelle Droite, used the concept of droit à la difference (‘the right to difference’) to defend French national culture against the impact of immigration, to protect it from being ‘swamped’.

The mixing of cultures, he argued, would damage the cultural identity of both host and minority communities. ‘Will the earth be reduced to something homogenous because of the deculturalizing and depersonalizing trends for which American imperialism is now the most arrogant rector?’, he asked. ‘Or will people find the means for the necessary resistance in their beliefs, traditions, and ways of seeing the world?’ Here was the radical argument for pluralism appropriated for reactionary ends.

The argument that in the 1970s was confined the far-right has, over the past decade, come to be a mainstream view. Mainstream politicians, liberal and post-liberal commentators, even academics, now argue that whites should be able to assert, what the political scientist Eric Kaufmann defines as their own ‘racial self-interest’ like any other ethnic group.

The same trends that transformed the sixties social movements into the contemporary politics of identity have also driven the rehabilitation of white identity. Central to this story are the changing fortunes of the working class.

Throughout Europe, many sections of the working class feel both economically and politically marginalized. Economic and social changes – the decline of manufacturing industry, the crumbling of the welfare state, the coming of austerity, the atomization of society, the growth of inequality – have combined with political shifts, such as the erosion of trade union power and the transformation of social democratic parties, to create in sections of the electorate a sense of anger and disaffection. The forms of social organization that once gave working class lives identity, solidarity, indeed dignity, have disappeared.

The marginalization of the working class is largely the product of economic and social changes. But many have come to see their marginalization primarily as a cultural loss. The very decline of the economic and political power of the working class and the weakening of labour organizations and social democratic parties, have helped obscure the economic and political roots of social problems.

And as culture has become the medium through which social issues are refracted, so many within the working class have also come to see their problems in cultural terms. They, too, have turned to the language of identity to express their discontent.

The language of politics and of class, in other words, has given way to the language of culture. Or, rather, class itself has come to be seen not as a political but as a cultural, even a racial, attribute. Sociologists and journalists talk often today about the ‘white working class’, but rarely about the black working class or the Muslim working class. Blacks and Muslims are regarded as belonging to almost classless communities. The working class has come to be seen primarily as white, and white has become a necessary adjective through which to define the working class.

Once class identity comes to be seen as a cultural or racial attribute, then those regarded as culturally or racially different are often viewed as threats. Hence the growing hostility to immigration. Immigration has become the means through which many in the working class perceive their sense of loss of social status.

This has been exacerbated by the changing relationship between the working class, the left, and the far-right. Social democratic parties in Europe have moved away from their old working class constituencies. Many sections of the working class have found themselves politically voiceless at the very time their lives have become more precarious, as jobs have declined, public services savaged, austerity imposed, and inequality risen.

These issues have been taken up by the identity movements of the right. Such movements often link a reactionary politics of identity, rooted in hostility to migrants and Muslims, to economic and social policies that once were the staple of the left: defence of jobs, support for the welfare state, opposition to austerity. The result is a new kind of mass politics and the refashioning of the original reactionary politics of identity for a new age. Through the normalisation of ‘white identity’, racism has acquired a new legitimacy.

The reactionary politics of white identity can no more defend the interests of the working class – white or not – than the supposedly radical politics of identity can defend the interests of minorities. Both transform solidarity from a sense of commonality with those sharing my values and aspirations, though not necessarily my skin colour or culture, to an identity with those who do not share my political hopes, and may undermine my interests, but whose skin colour or cultural background is similar.

There is no singular set of interests shared by all whites. Those responsible for the marginalisation of the working class are also largely white – politicians, bureaucrats, bankers, company bosses. The notion of ‘white identity’ obscures the real problems facing the working class and so makes it more difficult to challenge them.

White identity is the original identity of identity politics, and reveals the reactionary roots of the politics of identity. To challenge inequality and injustice, to defend working class interests, requires us to challenge also the politics of identity, however it expresses itself.

 

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The images are, from top down: Kazimir Malevich, ‘White on white’; Illustration from Samuel George Morton’s ‘Crania Americana’; LS Lowry, ‘The Canal Bridge’; ‘Toussaint L’Ouverture’ by Jacob Lawrence; One of Emory Douglas‘ posters for the Black Panther Party; Lisa Reinke, ‘Hymn to the masses’; Portrait by Pablo González-Trejo.

42 comments

  1. I fear you greatly underestimate the depth of the concept of white identity. In mid nineteenth century America, even respectable people like Louis Agassiz and Alexander Winchell thought that Whites and (to use the term then current) Negroes were separate creations, while John Van Evrie argued from this that Negro slavery was natural, and appealed to the racial identity ofdiscontented and underprivileged Whites in the North where he lived, in terms that we would now call populist. Such reasoning was not unusual; see also John Van Evrie and Buckner H Payne (“Ariel”) among others. Works in this genre have been republished and sold by present-day US extremist groups.

    • damon

      As a white person travelling around Ethiopia, my race is commented on constantly. Just half an hour ago someone called me “farangi” again. It means “foreigner” I believe. Or “white person”.
      It will be a long time I think, before Ethiopians can get over this “racial bias” – or what in our culture, would be seen as extreme rudeness. But it’s the same everywhere I’ve been in Africa. Only the word changes.
      In South Africa you can’t forget your race for more than five minutes either. Whatever that is.
      And there is a white identity there I thought. Whites have cultural traits that other races don’t have.
      If you go to the Friday evening food and drinks market in the Hout Bay suburb of Cape Town, you’d think you were in Western Europe, the US or Australia. Only white people and a very few BME people seem to want to go there.

      In places that are very multicultural in the West, I think that a white identity can emerge.
      You can see it in racially segregated social groups and in “white flight” of course.
      In places that become majority BME, it’s only whites who quite like that “inner city urban edginess” that seem to want to stay there. Middle class mostly. Working class whites can become very thin on the ground in areas that become heavily diverse. But go a few miles further out, into boroughs like Bexley in south east London, and you’ll see how the white working class now all live out there and further out again into Kent beyond the M25.
      Right now as I write this, thousands of white working class Millwall football supporters will be travelling back in from outer south east London and Kent, back into the area that they or their families once hailed from (Lweisham, New Cross and Bermondsey etc) to watch Millwall play in the FA Cup. But by six pm this evening, they’ll mostly all have left the area and be going back home to the outer suburbs and Kent towns.
      I think they definitely have a “white identity” for the most part. As a group of people, they are incredibly identity conscious. And I think many of them would struggle living back in an area where they might be the racial minority.

    • Paul

      Yes, most ‘respectable’ people believed in racial science, certainly by the end of the nineteenth century. Agassiz’ ideas were highly influential in helping develop the ‘American school’ of polygenist thinkers such as Morton, Gliddon and Nott (there is a section in Strange Fruit devoted to a discussion of the American School). But none of this detracts from my point that the understanding both of race and of whiteness was very different in the nineteenth century than it is today because it was rooted in a racial conception of class and social distinctions that largely (though not entirely) disappeared in the twentieth century.

      • Ordered. I have a special intgerest here, in protecting evolution from the common creationist charge of promoting racism. You can’t get more creationist, or more racist, than polygenism, which as I am sure you know lingers on in American neo-Nazism

  2. The Snail

    An interesting article. However, in places like the Indian sub-continent, lighter colour skin was preferred before Europeans arrived. This was driven, I believe, by the Mogul invaders whose skins were lighter than the conquered people and thus carried with it an indication of “higher” status.

  3. The decline of Christianity opened the gates to racism.

    Though Christian individuals and groups have often been racist, Christianity itself has never been so and can never be so, since it proclaims that all human being are made “in the image and likeness of God.”

    Moreover, to criticise someone on racial grounds is to insult their Creator, God.

  4. Greg Nelson

    All politics is identity politics. The term is simply a pejorative for activism by people one doesn’t like.

      • r walsh

        Political activism for things like infrastructure, is not generally described as “identity politics”, however, to a degree all politics is ultimately based on identity, because people vote for who they are, or who they think they are. Even voting for more police (supposedly just an infrastructure thing) can be motivated by fear of one’s group identity being overwhelmed by “blacks” or “mexicans”.
        You are right in saying that identity politics has been misused by white racists, or the Right. But the fact that a method has been misused does not invalidate it, and to ignore the degree to which identity pervades almost all politics is a mistake.

        • all politics is ultimately based on identity, because people vote for who they are, or who they think they are

          But, as I pointed out in this talk, there is more than one way in which people can think of ‘who they are’:

          Politically, the sense of belonging to a group or collective has historically been expressed in two broad forms: through the politics of identity and through the politics of solidarity.
          .
          The former stresses attachment to common identities based on such categories as race, nation, gender or culture. The difference between leftwing and rightwing forms of identity politics derives, in part, from the categories of identity that are deemed particularly important.
          .
          The politics of solidarity draws people into a collective not because of a given identity but to further a political or social goal. Where the politics of identity divides, the politics of solidarity finds collective purpose across the fissures of race or gender, sexuality or religion, culture or nation. But it is the politics of solidarity that has crumbled over the past two decades as radical movements have declined. For many today, the only form of collective politics that seem possible is that rooted in identity.
          .
          ‘Solidarity’, therefore, has become increasingly defined not in political terms – as collective action in pursuit of certain political ideals – but in terms of ethnicity or culture. The question people ask themselves is not so much ‘In what kind of society do I want to live?’ as ‘Who are we?’. The two questions are, of course, intimately related, and any sense of social identity must embed an answer to both. But as the political sphere has narrowed, and as mechanisms for political change have eroded, so the answer to the question ‘In what kind of society do I want to live?’ has become shaped less by the kinds of values or institutions people want to struggle to establish, than by the kind of people that they imagine they are. And the answer to ‘Who are we?’ has become defined less by the kind of society they want to create than by the history and heritage to which supposedly they belong. The frameworks through which we make sense of the world are defined less as ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’ or ‘socialist’ than as ‘Muslim’ or ‘white’ or ‘English’ or ‘European’.

          So, no, not all politics is identity politics and nor do people’s identities circumscribe what they value or hope for.

          You are right in saying that identity politics has been misused by white racists, or the Right.

          I’m not saying that identity politics has been ‘misused’. I’m saying that both the historical and conceptual roots of identity politics lie with the reactionary right and its opposition to universalism, and that that’s also the essence of identity politics.

        • Philip Krohl

          @Kenan
          You say: “there is more than one way in which people can think of ‘who they are”

          Of course, this goes without saying, however, it’s a new tactic of the Right to claim that all identity politics (but their own) is essentially essentialist or even racist, and, while it is sometimes true, it is a relatively minor tendency.

          The implication that anyone who has ever defined their political work through a social category historically associated with inferiority or submission in a particular culture is essentialist is disingenuous. There is also solidarity and intersectionalism within and between activist groups of this kind.

  5. Sarah Loeb

    Pretending there are no differences between population groups is a way for the powerful to erase the identity of minorities thereby negating their specific rights, eg the right to traditional lands. As previously commented, it’s an unhelpful term, used to disempower people.

    • There are all manner of differences between population groups. The claim is meaningless, however, unless you specify what population groups, what differences and in what context.

      Are white people different from black people? Are Welsh people different from English people? Are men different from women? That depends on the differences you are talking about and the context you are discussing.

      Does the fact that white people differ from black people by virtue of skin colour say anything abut how they may differ in any other aspect – such as intelligence or values? No. Is the distinction between white people and black people significant in discussing anything else, such as working class needs or political ideals? No.

      As for the question of traditional lands, any answer again depends on context. Which lands, what rights, what people?

      Talking about difference without context is meaningless. The idea of abstract, essential differences between specially-defined populations is what lies at the heart of racial thinking.

      • Peter Malley

        I could give you many specific examples and contexts where political activism based on a groups unique rights is justified. People opposed to those rights would call it “identity politics” or “tribalism” to avoid giving the groups their rights. Those with the right identities, those in positions of power, always have the privilege of calling their identity politics simply “politics” while labelling other people’s agendas “identity politics.” To say, as you do in your piece, that the politics of identity should always be combatted, is playing into the hands of oppressors. Activism based on identity can be good or bad. Yes, you do have to look at it on a case by case basis, and blanket condemnation of identity-associated activism is unhelpful. Saying that identity politics can be bad is just like saying that politics in general can be bad. It’s not really saying anything.

        • You begin by saying ‘I could give you many specific examples’ but then talk entirely in the abstract, which is not very helpful. Many people argue that identity politics is merely the defence of defence of the rights of minority groups or oppressed groups and that without the politics of identity there would be no defence of such groups. I don’t know if that is your view. If it is, I have engaged with that argument here.

          To call struggles for equal rights and against discrimination ‘identity politics’ is to confuse identity politics with the fight against it. When Saint Domingue slaves rose in opposition to their enslavement and insisted that the ‘Rights of Man’ apply to all, they were not indulging in the politics of identity. They were combating the politics of identity, a politics that claimed that the ‘Rights of Man’ should not be in practice universal but only applied to certain groups. Similarly when women fought for the vote, or gays for same sex marriage.

          And this is why the claim about a ‘group’s unique rights’ is so problematic. Rights that are unique to a group are not rights but privileges, and precisely the means by which discriminatory privileges are maintained and certain groups denied equality and rights.

        • celia

          Indeed, universalism is great in theory but in many instances too abstract in practice, and it is often used as a cover for assimilationist majoritarianism. That’s much more of a problem than an element of regressive essentialism in politics that try to gain rights for people whose identity is often not even recognised as real.
          Perhaps one day we will be able to let identity politics go, and strive only for universal rights, and group rights will follow automatically, but we are a long way off from that. The reason is that before it can be accepted as part of the universal, an identity must first be made visible through political activism.
          It is not the abstract universal which has made gender and sexuality diverse people, for example, visible and fought for their rights, it is those identifying as such who have achieved it, from the ground up, not from the universal down. Call that “identity politics” if you must, but I don’t like the term – it’s like the term “politically correct” it’s used as a weapon to diminish and marginalize. I prefer the term “empathy”.

  6. Ignaz

    @Sarah Loeb:
    Indeed, The implication of the current usage of the term is that somehow an identity is something only women or African-Americans or perhaps LGBT people have. White men just have ideas about politics that spring from a realm of pure reason, with concerns that are by definition universal, LOL.

    • ‘Identity’ and ‘identity politics’ are not the same; part of the problem is people’s inability to distinguish between them. Identities are of great significance. They give each of us a sense of ourselves, of our grounding in the world and of our relationships to others. Politics, though, is a means, or should be a means, of taking us beyond the narrow sense of identity given to each of us by the specific circumstances of our lives and the particularities of personal experiences.

      As for your point about white men and universalism, I wonder if you think that such proponents of universalism as CLR James, Rosa Luxemburg, Martin Luther King, Nelson Mandela, Wendy Brown, Adolph Reed Jr, etc, are all ‘white men’?

      • Sarah Loeb

        I agree with you that identity is very important as a basis for existing in society. But this is particularly so for minorities, and ultimately any politics for the rights of minorities could be described as “identity politics”, or “divisive”, in the pretence that majorities don’t have an identity and don’t act politically to preserve that identity. Nationalist politicians are now quick to claim that indigenous activists are “racist” and claim that there is only one universal national identity that everyone should assimilate into. They use the word “identity politics” to shut people up and counter accusations of privilege. Denial of this reality, is actually a key failing of a certain type of contemporary liberalism.

        No I don’t think universalism is the preserve of white men. I was being ironical. Having said that, “universalism” is great, when it’s not being used as a cover for “white, western, cultural christian” identity politics.

      • Ryan Mawson

        I think the critical phrase in your reply is “should be”. Of course, politics *should* be universalist, and we should all be Gandhis, but until majoritarianism is no longer a thing, we will need identity politics. Not extremist identity politics, not racist identity politics, but people standing up for who they are and their specific issues. It’s like the stupid comeback to Black Lives Matter, “all lives matter”; of course they do, but until the law enforcement and legal system in the US stop treating people identifying as black in a specific way, it will be a specific issue for people of a specific identity, and it will require political action specific to that identity.

  7. yandoodan

    It stuns me how the collectivist right and left have converged. Eighty years ago Stalin and Hitler agreed that people were subsumed by the collectives in which they were members; they merely disagreed as to the nature of the collective, race or class. Now the extreme right and extreme left agree; it’s race. They disagree only as to which is the Blessed Race.

  8. Ken Pidcock

    Excellent essay, but it could use some proofreading. For example, “A more progressive opposition to universalist ideas through the Romantic movement, and especially through the German philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder, a key figure in the Romantic movement, and though his concept of culture, which came to be highly influential, still shaping much thinking today.”

    • Thanks! I could always do with proofreaders. That’s been corrected. No doubt there are other typos and muddles that need correcting too. But thanks for spotting this.

    • Perhaps it’s just as well that when I wrote two books on the history of the idea of race and of racial science I relied on a bit a more than a Wikipedia page. And had you read something more, your critique might be a bit more cogent than ‘total toss’. There is a voluminous literature on the question of the roots of the concept of race and of the relationship between race and science. If you can’t be bothered at least to dip into that literature, here are a couple of essays on the race debate in the eighteenth and in the nineteenth centuries, which might put the Wikipedia page in context.

      As for it being a ‘racist rant’, I guess we differ on what we mean by ‘racist’ and ‘rant’, but I’ll leave that to others to decide.

  9. yandoodan

    @Steve Gwynne

    Your citation does not match your claims. The Wikipedia article states that the Age of Enlightenment started in the 1650s, not scientific racism. It cites only two 17th century figures. Robert Boyle believed that all races came from a single source, while Henri de Boulainvilliers’ “races” were French social classes. After that you only get 18th century figures discussed in this article.

    • Kenan claims

      It is true that a number of leading eighteenth century thinkers – Hume, Kant, Voltaire, Jefferson – dabbled with ideas of innate differences between human groups. Yet, with one or two exceptions, they did so only diffidently or in passing. In the main, eighteenth-century thinkers remained highly resistant to the idea of race. Philosophical attachment to ideas of universality and human unity restricted the room for racial arguments.

      It was not till the nineteenth century that racial thinking – the idea that humans could be divided into a number of essentially distinct groups – became established. And it did so in the context of opposition to Enlightenment universalism.

      Wikipedia clearly demonstrates that the monogenism polygenism debate was already in full swing by the mid 1700s. This is an inconvenience for Kenan because this debate directly arose from a religious platform which itself utilised the notion of race, that being Adam and Eve were Caucasians. So from its infancy, anthropology was identified with white identity and white skin. Monogenism itself places white skin as the natural default whilst polygenism delineates white skin as superior.

      This reading of the history of white identity does not enable Kenan to specifically associate White Identity narratives with the reactionary right but would instead force Kenan to reproach Christianity itself with the possibility that his interpretation would be accused of Christianophobia. Consequently, Kenan avoids this section of the history and jumps straight to the 19th Conservative thinkers who similarly utilise polygenism as a means to delineate superiorise and inferiorise people on the basis of skin pigmentation and facial characteristics which is then interwoven with class categories.

      This interpretation allows Kenan to start making his own superior inferior categories based on political identities so we have

      good white/black liberal
      bad white conservative

      superior white/black liberal
      inferior white conservative

      Good white/black liberal supremacist
      Bad white conservative supremacist

      In other words, Kenan takes racism to a whole new level whereby he co-mingles race, history, culture and politics with himself at some imagined apex with his fellow liberal supremacists. His speeches are designed to consolidate this liberal supremacist outlook the world over with any critiques being dismissed with the usual logical fallacies.

      • Let me say again: To try to engage in a debate about a complex issue such as the roots of the modern concept of race by dipping into a single Wikipedia page is not particularly helpful. There is a lot of scholarship on this issue, and many convoluted debates, but pulling out facts or quotes out of context (or claiming that I’ve ‘avoided this section of history’ when a simple glance at my books will show you that the eighteenth-century debate is central to much of my work) illuminates little. Among the issues at the heart of the debate about the emergence of the idea of race are: How modern is the concept of race? What was the role of Enlightenment thinking in developing racial categories? What was the role of slavery in this process? What was the role of Christianity? Did the establishment of scientific categories and of a naturalistic view of the world help promote a racial view of the world? And so on. In the context of such complex, detailed debates, simply to assert ‘Wikipedia clearly demonstrates that…’ does not, I’m afraid, cut much ice.

        On the specific issue of polygenism: Yes, there were eighteenth century discussions of polygenism. The most notable proponents were Kames and Voltaire. But the polygenist viewpoint was marginal. Not till the second half of the nineteenth century did polygenist thinking become an entreched part of the scientific mainstream. If you want to understand that shift, look at the debates in Britain between James Pritchard and James Hunt in the mid-nineteenth century. Pritchard was the leading figure in the Ethnological Society, the main anthropological society of the time. Hunt broke away from the Ethnological Society to create the Anthropological Society of London, because he deemed the former too wedded to the monogenist view. The Anthropological Society was created specifically to provide a home for polygenist views. And it was founded not in the mid-eighteenth century but in 1863. Or look at the emergence of the ‘American school’ of polygenism, through the work of anthropologists such as Samuel Morton, George Gliddon and John Nott. Again, this was a mid-nineteenth century, not a mid-eighteenth century, phenomenon. Or read such works as Nancy Stepan’s The Idea of Race in Science or George Stocking’s Race, Culture and Evolution or Douglas Lorrimer’s Colour, Class and the Victorians or Daniel Pick’s Faces of Degeneration.

        As for your claim that ‘Kenan [would be forced] to reproach Christianity itself with the possibility that his interpretation would be accused of Christianophobia’ or that ‘Kenan takes racism to a whole new level whereby he co-mingles race, history, culture and politics with himself at some imagined apex with his fellow liberal supremacists’, I have no idea what point it is that you are trying to make.

        • As I have clearly and succinctly shown, despite your vain attempts to discredit my source, the historical and conceptual roots of white identity politics lies with polygenism and Caucasian essentialism.

          Your intellectual sophistries which attempt to associate Caucasianism solely with what you perceive to be the reactionary right is simply a higher form of racism whereby you seek to castigate white conservatives as bad and inferior as a result of being at the receiving end of white racism during your youth.

          Caucasianism and polygenism both have their roots in an opposition to universalism and the source of this particularism is Christianity and early forms of polygenism, not the reactionary political right.

          Religious politics is identity politics and is the essential source of both Christianophobia and Islamophobia. Christianity in particular is rooted in a particularist reading of Caucasianism and early interpretations of polygenism derived from this. Modern Christianity similarly relies on Caucasianism. Hence both historical and modern forms of Christianity and early forms of anthropology are expressions of white identity politics.
          Religious Caucasianism and particularist readings of polygenism was then the basis of other forms of white identity politics right up to the present day.

          Intentionally obscuring these early roots, is simply a means by which you can demonstrate your own form of racialised identity politics under the hubris of liberalism and universalism. In other words, your identity politics is centred on white/black liberal supremacism.

        • ‘Clear and succinct’ aren’t exactly the words I’d use to describe your posts. And you still seem to be speaking from a position of ignorance about the subject. One small example. In an earlier comment you claimed

          Wikipedia clearly demonstrates that the monogenism polygenism debate was already in full swing by the mid 1700s. This is an inconvenience for Kenan because this debate directly arose from a religious platform which itself utilised the notion of race, that being Adam and Eve were Caucasians.

          One small problem. No one was talking about Caucasians in the mid-1700s. The word did not exist at the time. It was coined by the obscure German historian Christoph Meiners in 1785, and popularised by Blumenbach in the third edition of his On the Natural Variety of Mankind in 1794. Only at the beginning of the nineteenth century did the concept of ‘Caucasian’ take hold, and it did so in discussions within Romanticism, philology, anthropology and the emerging racial discourse, and in the context largely of opposition to Enlightenment concepts of universalism.

          I notice from your comment below that you’ve discovered the Wikipedia page on this subject (which in this case is quite accurate) but don’t recognize that it undermines your own argument. That sums up your seriousness about discussing the issue. I’ve got better things to do than to engage with someone so unserious that he doesn’t even reflect upon what he himself writes, so I’m drawing a line here.

  10. Quote “Talking about difference without context is meaningless. The idea of abstract, essential differences between specially-defined populations is what lies at the heart of racial thinking.”

    No. Stefan Molyneux and Jordan Petetson outline the science behind the the big five personality traits, and the findings of the Bell Curve. It is deceitful, cowardly and unproductive to deny that statistical differences exist between subdivisions of say, men/ women or young/ old or Pygmies/ Ashkenazi Jews.

  11. “There is no singular set of interests shared by all whites. ”

    Sure, but there is a singular set of interests shared by all Muslims: To live according to muslim values and ideas, and this holds anywhere in the world, whether they are majority or minority.

  12. For an accurate depiction of Caucasianism which places whiteness as the genealogical basis for both monogenism and polygenism as well as the (racial) basis of universalism and particularism see
    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caucasian_race

    It clearly identifies Christoph Meiners as the founder of scientific racism and the first to use racialised “scientific” categories (1785) and so was the first to invent the Caucasian race not Blumenbach. Meiners work was to be later used as the basis of Nazism.

    Both Meiners (a “conservative”) and Blumenbach (a “liberal” ) both based their racialised taxonomy on the idealisation of European whiteness as the perfect representation of the Caucasian race. Similarly both placed Caucasianism at the root of their taxonomic hierarchy whether it was the monogenism of Blumenbach or the polygenism of Meiners.

    No doubt this represented their white Christian European identity politics which was to later infuse into the racial-universalism of liberalism (white saviour complex) and the racial-particularism of conservatism (white supremacy complex). In the postmodern context, these have confusingly evolved into the multiracial-universalism of liberalism (multiracial saviour complex) and the multiracial-particularism of conservatism (multiracial supremacy complex) with the likes of David Lammy being a bizarre negation and non-negation of all four.

    These four main forms of identity politics are what defines most people today, including Kenan.

      • And see my response above which clearly delineates two branches of white Christian European identity politics. One on the basis of monogenism and the other on the basis of polygenism.

        The former underpins the evolution of white liberal universalism with its civilising white saviour complexes with postmodern forms incorporating universalist multiracial perspectives and the latter underpins the evolution of white conservative particularism with its hierarchical apartheid complexes with postmodern forms incorporating particularist multiracial perspectives (i. E white power, black power, brown power, yellow power and red power perspectives and is also the basis of ethnic and religious conservatism).

        These four main types of identity politics have all evolved from the white Christian European point of view with universalist forms demonstrating soft racism with extremist forms expressing themselves as liberal supremacism and particularist forms demonstrating hard racism with extremist forms expressing themselves as conservative supremacism.

        The way beyond these racialised forms of identity politics is the dilemma of our times. I suggest embracing an ecology centred perspective rather than a human centred perspective as a possible way forward.

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