This essay was published in the Swedish newspaper Göteborgs-Posten on 21 July 2019.
The shift has been dramatic. Even a decade ago, discussion of ‘white rights’ and ‘white identity’ belonged to the fringes of politics. It was Nazi-speak. Today it has become a major political issue on both sides of the Atlantic. Not just the far-right but many mainstream commentators now argue that whites should be able to assert what the political scientist Eric Kaufmann calls their ‘racial self-interest’.
Why has white identity become so significant? And how should we respond?
To understand the new salience of white identity, we need to look at how its meaning has changed over time. Modern notions white identity developed from the late eighteenth century onwards in parallel with the modern concept of race. ‘Race’ was defined as a group of human beings linked by a set of fundamental characteristics unique to it. Every human being belonged to a specific race, and every individual’s character and abilities were defined primarily by that race.
During the nineteenth century, whiteness was rarely an explicit expression of identity but was rather implicit in the assertion of racial superiority. Racists asserted not so much their whiteness as the inferiority of other groups; and these often included ‘white’ groups, such as the Irish, southern Europeans, Catholics, Jews, the working class and the rural poor.
Only in the twentieth century did white identity come to play a more important role in politics. The coming of political democracy, and the growth of working class struggles, helped transform the language of race, and make whiteness an increasingly important category. From the ‘White Australia’ policy, which banned non-whites from emigrating to the country, to the apartheid society imposed by Jim Crow laws in the American South, politics was shaped by whiteness. The nadir of white supremacist politics came in the Nazis’ Aryan policies, which lead eventually to the Holocaust.
In the postwar world, the social meaning of whiteness changed again. In the wake of Nazism and the Holocaust, overt racism became far less acceptable. Notions of white identity did not disappear in the postwar period, any more than racism did. Much policy in European nations, especially immigration policy, continued to be shaped by the idea that national identity was synonymous with white identity. But it was rarely explicitly expressed, and when it was, it was usually condemned as racist by mainstream commentators.
Only on the far-right fringes was white identity a politically significant idea. But within sections of the far right, white identity was getting a makeover. Rather than rooting the concept in ideas of biological superiority and inferiority, some far-right thinkers began appropriating arguments about cultural difference to embed racist notions of identity.
Alain de Benoist, one of the founders of the French Nouvelle Droite, used the concept of droit à la 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. The only solution was an apartheid-style separation, justifying the exclusion and repatriation of non-whites. ‘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? This is really the decisive question that has been raised at the beginning of the next millennium.’
If the far-right appropriated the language of pluralism and of anti-imperialism to rebrand racist ideas, the left, paradoxically, drew upon ideas underlying racial concepts as a means of combating bigotry. Previously, radicals challenging inequality and oppression did so in the name 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 great radical movements from anti-colonial struggles to the campaigns for women’s suffrage and the battles for gay rights.
Radicals had, however, become increasingly disenchanted with universalism. Many saw it as a Eurocentric, even racist, outlook. Partly this was the product of the way of that racists and imperialists had appropriated, and warped, the language of universalism as an argument for Empire and for the denial of rights and freedom to peoples across the world. Partly, it was because universalism had come to be seen as a peculiarly European idea, the product of the European Enlightenment. But, many asked, if Europe had been 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? Critics such as Frantz Fanon argued that non-Europeans, and oppressed groups in Europe, had to develop their own ideas, beliefs and values that grew out of their own distinct cultures, traditions, histories, psychological needs and dispositions. And partly it was the consequence of growing disenchantment, from the 1970s onwards, with the very possibilities of social transformation and the disintegration of organisations and ideologies that aimed to bring out such transformation.
The result of all this was that in the postwar years, radicals came to embrace not universalism but the ‘politics of difference’, the idea that different groups, whether African Americans, Muslims or gays, possessed distinct identities, cultures and ways of thinking. Confronting injustice, they argued, required a defence of each group’s distinct identities.
The irony was that far from distancing themselves from European ideas, radical came to adopt notion of race and culture grounded in European Romanticism and the counter-Enlightenment. The belief that humanity could be divided into discrete groups each of which possessed a set of unique characteristics that shaped an individual’s identity had always been a central assumption of racial thinking. Now it became also a key feature of radical politics.
And eventually the language of identity came to dominate much of politics. Today, the political landscape is intimately shaped by the politics of identity. The lens through which we look upon social problems is primarily that of culture and identity rather of politics and class. And it is in this context that white identity has been resurrected.
Many sections of the working class have in recent years come to feel both economically and politically marginalized. Economic, social and political developments, from the imposition of austerity and the rise of the gig economy to the erosion of trade union power and the move of social democratic parties away from their traditional constituencies, have coalesced to make working-class lives more precarious.
The very decline of the economic and political power of the working class has helped obscure the economic and political roots of social problems. The language of class has become deprecated, while that of culture and identity has taken centre stage. As a result, many in the working class have redefined their interests, and their problems, in ethnic rather than in class terms. They, too, have turned to the language of identity to express their discontent. Not the identity politics of the left but that of the right, the politics of nationalism and xenophobia.
Once class identity comes to be seen as a cultural attribute, then those regarded as culturally different are often viewed as threats. Hence the growing hostility to immigration and to Muslims. Racism has become rebranded as white identity politics. And, in this process, the far right has been allowed to shape political discourse.
Many mainstream academics and commentators argue that if we don’t take seriously the desire for white people to assert their identity seriously, then we will open the door to the racists and the Nazis. The opposite is true. By suggesting that the white population should have the right to reduce the inflow of non-whites into a country (as Eric Kaufmann does) or that it is a social problem if in a city like London whites become a minority, mainstream commentators echo the arguments of de Benoist and legitimise harder racist arguments such as ‘the Great Replacement’ theory, the belief that whites are being systematically driven out of their ‘homelands’, a belief central to the worldview of Brenton Tarrant, the Christchurch mosque mass killer.
We need to take working class grievances seriously. But those grievances have nothing to do with being white. 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 confront them. If we are honest about tackling both racism and the problems facing the working class we need to challenge, not promote, ideas of white identity.
(As I am away, I cannot add links at the moment, but will do so later.)