Identity politics racist? How can that be, you might ask. After all, is not the pursuit of “racial justice” part of the very essence of identity politics? Surely all those warriors for social justice who so prodigiously level charges of racism against others could not themselves be guilty of this offence? They wouldn’t embrace a racist ideology, would they?
Sad to say, yes they would, at least if we adopt what until recently was the standard, commonsense understanding of the terms race and racism. On these understandings, a person’s race referred to certain heritable, unalterable and visible features, like skin colour, that might indicate ancestry tracing back to a particular geographical region. A racist was someone who was inclined to think ill of, or to discriminate against, a person or group solely because of such characteristics.
This essay appears in the latest Quadrant.
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Towards the end of the last century it became generally accepted in societies like ours that racism so defined was both morally odious and profoundly irrational. The classic expression of this was Martin Luther King’s great civil rights speech of 1963 in which he looked forward to a day when his children would be judged by “the content of their character”, not the colour of their skin.
The basic sentiment here, shared by most people across the ideological spectrum, and certainly those who considered themselves left-wing and progressive, was that race was something we should aspire to transcend. People must not be judged according to visible surface features that reflect trivial genetic variations. We should see each other as, first and foremost, members of a common humanity, free agents possessing certain inalienable rights.
So what has changed? A great deal, as it happens, with the wide embrace of the ideology of identity politics in Western societies, and its wholesale incorporation into the worldview of those who consider themselves left-wing or progressive. On this view, we are essentially defined not by our humanity but by our race, gender or other identity category, or some intersecting set of identities.
The notion of a post-racial future is now considered an ideological heresy by the academic high-priestesses and priests of the identitarian ideology. These ideologues are nowadays absolutely obsessed about race. They strive constantly to heighten racial awareness and to perpetuate rather than resolve racial grievances. The Enlightenment vision of a common humanity is now distinctly passé, as even the late Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm lamented in a speech in 1996.
The progressive obsession with race
Far from wanting to transcend race, the theorists of identity politics, especially those specialising in the academic fields of Critical Race Theory and its more recent offshoot Whiteness Studies, strive to perpetuate racial distinctions so that even to state “there is only one race, the human race” is increasingly verboten in academia. The University of California Los Angeles recently issued staff guidelines prohibiting the expression of these and similar sentiments.
As with all such identities, racial categories must lie on one side or the other of a binary distinction between oppressor or oppressed, the former to be reviled, the latter celebrated. For those seeking advancement in academia, the media and progressive politics, the acquisition of membership of an “oppressed” racial category can be a significant advantage, even in cases where the claimant is, on any reasonable judgment, highly privileged.
This reached a comical extreme recently in the case of US Senator Elizabeth Warren. After being mocked by Donald Trump for claiming Native American heritage based on “family lore” about her “high Cherokee cheekbones”, Senator Warren held a press conference triumphantly announcing the results of a DNA test that showed she was between 1/64 and 1/1024 Native American. By this absurd criterion a majority of White Americans (and possibly more than a few Australians) could tick the “Native American” box.
Warren seems to think she should be judged, at least in part, not by the content of her character, nor even by the colour of her skin, but by the minutiae of her DNA! Warren is not a fringe figure, but one of the main Democratic contenders for the 2020 presidential election. Instead of being appropriately ridiculed, her claim was treated with earnest seriousness by the likes of the Boston Globe and the Washington Post.
While Warren’s case may seem like the reductio ad absurdum of this kind of racial thinking, it is common nowadays for identitarian progressives to claim a particular racial identity on the strength of some small part of their ancestry. The biologist Richard Dawkins has noted the irony that this is the obverse of the old racist theory of “hypodescent”, also known as the “one drop rule”, that prevailed in the Jim Crow South, whereby the smallest proportion of black ancestry defined a person as black, with all the disadvantages that entailed. Similarly, in Nazi Germany family trees would be searched many generations back to ensure there were no traces of Jewishness or other “inferior” races.
If you think Elizabeth Warren going on about the shape of her cheekbones is strange talk for a “progressive”, things have reached an even more bizarre pass in thoroughly racially-mixed Brazil, where extraordinary lengths are being gone to in order to determine precisely which racial pigeonhole students and government employees fit, with implications for enrolment or hiring.
An article on the American NPR website reports this about the travails of a Brazilian student:
in order to “prove” that he was Afro-Brazilian, his lawyers needed to find some criteria. He went to seven dermatologists who used something called the Fitzpatrick scale that grades skin tone from one to seven, or whitest to darkest. The last doctor even had a special machine. “Apparently on my face I’m a Type 4. Which would be like Jennifer Lopez or Dev Patel, Frida Pinto or John Stamos. On my limbs I would be Type 5, which is Halle Berry, Will Smith, Beyoncé and Tiger Woods,” he said.
The NPR article goes on to explain how this kind of racial lunacy has been routinely extended to those seeking government employment:
A few weeks ago, these race tribunals were made mandatory for all government jobs. In one state, they even issued guidelines about how to measure lip size, hair texture and nose width, something that for some has uncomfortable echoes of racist philosophies in the 19th century.
It seems the old racist pseudo-science of phrenology is back. Progressive ideology has been turned on its head, and the identitarian Left is now the party of “blood and soil”.
The strange “It’s OK to be white” debate
To get a sense of how weird the debate about race and racism has become lately, consider the reaction when last October Senator Pauline Hanson moved a motion in the Senate that endorsed the sentiment, “It’s OK to be white.”
Initially the Liberal-National Coalition parties voted in favour, but Labor, the Greens and some other cross-benchers voted against, resulting in the motion being narrowly defeated. But it did not end there. After a furious media reaction, the Coalition brought on a second vote so that its senators could reverse themselves and join the Opposition in voting it down. The government issued an embarrassing apology for the original vote, attributing it to an administrative error.
What does it mean, then, that all the major parties in the Australian Senate feel compelled to negative the proposition, “It’s OK to be white”? Are they saying it’s not OK? Are they objecting to an implication that it is OK only to be white? In speaking to the motion Hanson stated, “People have a right to be proud of their cultural background whether they’re black, white or brindle.”
Opposing the motion, the Greens leader Richard Di Natale stated, “It’s not just okay to be white in Australia, it’s actually a ticket to winning the lotto.” So, according to the Greens leader, the only prerequisite to having a great life in Australia is to possess skin with a low melanin content.
Aside from which, Di Natale’s point just evades the issue. If white people are OK in the sense he implies, why not just endorse the motion, maybe with an amendment saying they are not just OK, but invariably “privileged”? Hanson’s point is that people are not deserving of some sort of moral opprobrium simply for being white (or any other colour). Who could argue with that?
Well, lots of people who think of themselves as progressive, as it happens. But before going on to that it is worth reflecting on the main ground cited by those who oppose the motion and think it outrageous (indeed obscene, according to Senator Derryn Hinch).
Apparently “It’s OK to be white” originated as what is nowadays called a “meme” on the message board 4Chan, a favourite haunt of the so-called “alt-Right”, and was then posted around campuses by anti-identitarian activists on some American universities. It was then echoed by some white supremacist groups (genuine ones, not just dissenters from PC orthodoxy routinely so labelled). This dubious provenance was the main reason cited by those senators opposing the motion.
It is worth asking what, exactly, those who came up with this meme hoped to achieve. If they are white supremacists, why is it just OK to be white? Why not “It’s great to be white”, or “Whites are best”? Their white supremacism does seem rather tepid.
But the very innocuousness of the message is the point. The “message” intended by the meme-makers is the all-too-predictable response to it. There is a fascinating article in the online magazine Jacobite that describes the strategy behind this (and similar) memes:
the final product isn’t the meme itself but the process of enveloping the audience in the act. It’s eliciting a second-order reaction: a response from normal people to the pearl-clutching of hall monitors. But how could anyone anticipate a freakout over a message as anodyne as It’s OK To Be White?
That is a matter of understanding the psychology of the militant progressives intent on policing thoughtcrimes. Observing the usual pattern of responses to messages in public spaces containing the slightest departure from their approved orthodoxy, these intrepid memers figured out that anything that references whites while not being hostile to whites, anything benign, would be enough to trigger a hysterical response from many in this faction. [My emphasis]
As the author of the article notes, the only winning strategy was to ignore the provocation. OK to be white? Shrug and say, “Who suggests otherwise?” Instead, as the meme-makers anticipated, the PC brigade threw a gigantic hissy fit. They can do no other, as the “normies” (rightist meme-talk for normal people) watch and take note.
In the conclusion to this article I refer to research evidence showing that this kind of response is just the kind of “normative threat” that is most likely to trigger racism and other forms of intolerance in people who have a latent predisposition to it. It is completely counter-productive, if the real goal is to combat racism rather than to signal one’s virtue.
It is one thing to justify opposing some proposition, even if it states the obvious, on the ground that some unpleasant people said it. A bit silly, certainly. If nasty people say that the earth is round, would that be a ground to deny it? But the problem goes much deeper than that. The identitarian race theorists in academia and their media allies really believe it is not OK to be white. Indeed, they think it is a grave moral defect.
Think I am exaggerating? An ABC radio program broadcast in 2017 (“Wrong to be White?” The Minefield, October 18) was devoted to debating, or more accurately furiously endorsing, this proposition. The compere was Scott Stephens, who runs the ABC’s religion and ethics website, with panellists Associate Professor Alana Lentin from Western Sydney University and Joanna Cruikshank from Deakin University. The podcast is worth listening to in full, since hearing the participants vie for the most over-the-top deprecation of “whiteness” provides a superb introduction to the intellectual and moral pathologies that currently afflict humanities and social science departments in our higher education institutions.
In a link to the podcast on her website (accompanied by a stylish “Abolish Whiteness” graphic) Lentin said she had been asked to speak about the “irredeemable nature of whiteness”. Irredeemable? The analogy with the religious doctrine of original sin is obvious, indeed it is a recurring theme in such discussions, except that the religious version at least provides the possibility of sincere repentance and redemption.
No such luck for those with the ineradicable blight of whiteness, doomed to hang their heads in shame wracked with guilt over the undeserved power and privilege their whiteness inevitably confers. The most they can aspire to is to quietly listen to their betters, to contradict no part of their narrative of oppression, and strive to be good “allies” to the virtuous activists of colour. This kind of thinking runs all through the program. Take this, from the compere Scott Stephens:
The great moral debility about being white is that people have wilfully chosen the trinkets and accoutrements of the accretions of power and privilege over a much more fundamental bondedness with other human beings … I mean that is, if we were speaking in a theological register we would call that a tremendous or even radical sin.
Who are these melanin-deficient irredeemables who have “wilfully” chosen trinkets and power over human bondedness? And who in the world are the paragons of virtue, of whatever shade, who have decided to eschew all their “accoutrements” to better bond with humanity?
I heard some pompous, moralising humbug over the course of my long political career, but I think that takes the cake. But this sort of talk is common among the academic race theorists. This kind of theorised racial vilification started to gain ground with the spread of Critical Race Theory and its offshoot Whiteness Studies in American academia in the 1980s and 1990s. These fields have since proliferated around the world, including Australia.
When it comes to race, just about all identities are seen as good, with the sole exception of whiteness, which is vile. According to one of the pioneers, Jeff Hitchcock, “there is no crime that whiteness has not committed against people of color”. This kind of theorising is viewed as a form of political activism in its own right that supports and undergirds social justice warriors in the field. An article on the website of the Harvard Law Faculty states: “Critical race scholars identify and embrace a radical tradition of race-conscious mobilization as an empowerment strategy for African-Americans, Latinos, Asians, and other persons of color.”
Race-conscious mobilisation? This is the sort of talk you might expect in the pages of the 1930s Nazi periodical Der Stürmer. This must surely mark the point where identitarian progressivism sank into a moral and intellectual abyss.
It is hard to believe the extremity of some of the racial vilification that the race scholars have effectively legitimised. What we call political correctness is a system of thought-control that aims to strictly police the boundaries of what can be said and argued about identity. We normally encounter it as a set of prohibitions, with serious punishments for transgressors.
Hence the Nobel Laureate molecular biologist Sir Tim Hunt saw his long and distinguished career trashed in a matter of days, and was disowned by his university, colleagues and research institutions he helped to found, because of a misreport of an entirely innocuous joke in a speech about women scientists.
However, the regime of political correctness can also be remarkably permissive when it comes to what is said about non-favoured identities, such as “white people” and especially “old white men”, but not excluding “white women”, about whom the most frightful things can be said without significant opprobrium.
In August the New York Times proudly announced the appointment of Sarah Jeong, a young woman journalist of Korean-American background, to its editorial board. Jeong is a specialist in technology issues, especially internet law. Shortly after this announcement Twitter users unearthed a series of her tweets that were extremely disparaging of white people. Here is a sample:
Dumbass f***ing white people marking up the internet with their opinions like dogs pissing on fire hydrants …
Are white people genetically predisposed to burn faster in the sun, thus logically being only fit to live underground like grovelling goblins …
Oh man, it’s kind of sick how much joy I get out of being cruel to old white men …
And so on, and so forth, ad nauseam. Jeong absurdly tried to defend this by claiming she was just responding to online trolls, belied by the fact that her targets included “white people” at the impeccably progressive NPR network. But in the eyes of the New York Times this was no obstacle to her joining their esteemed editorial board.
Closer to home, we have this Twitter exchange between ABC regular Yassmin Abdel-Magied and Osman Faruqi, formerly a political commentator for the leftist pop-culture website Junkee, recently hired by the ABC to work on its new lifestyle website. The exchange followed the resignations of Greens senators Scott Ludlam and Larissa Waters because of their dual citizenship.
Yassmin Abdel-Magied: Dude wtf is happening …?
Osman Faruqi: The white people are getting f***d Yas, it’s happening.
White people? Not “right-wing people”, not “the government”, but a class of people identified by skin colour. Ironically, the two individuals who had just been, in Faruqi’s terms, f***d, were a pair of Greens senators who would be in near total accord with Faruqi’s and Abdel-Magied’s political views.
This type of language recurs throughout Faruqi’s Twitter feed. For example: “I have a rule of using all media appearances to make fun of white people” and “I actually refuse to hold the door for white people. Life’s too easy for them as it is, it’s my way of throwing in some obstacles.”
The latest media figure to get into the anti-white act is the Irish singer Sinéad O’Connor, a very recent “white convert” to Islam, who tweeted:
I’m terribly sorry. What I’m about to say is something so racist I never thought my soul could ever feel it. But truly I never wanna spend time with white people again (if that’s what non-muslims are called). Not for one moment, for any reason. They are disgusting.
Social media and academic discourse are full of this kind of language. But this is not the worst of it. As I will describe in a later section, we are now seeing some “scholars” explicitly calling for violence against whites. It is appropriate at this point to consider how they rationalise this kind of language.
How is this not racist?
The only thing that can be said for Sinéad O’Connor’s vile tweet is her frank acknowledgment that it is indeed racist. In this, she is one step up from the academic race theorists, who insist that such abuse, no matter how extreme, cannot be racist if directed at white people.
Just imagine if you substituted black or brown for white in the above tweets, or any of the innumerable similar examples that proliferate on social media. The perpetrator of even one would suffer immediate social and professional death. A grotesque double standard, you might think. How do they justify it?
Like Humpty Dumpty in Alice in Wonderland, the race theorists redefine the word racism to mean “just what I want it to mean … no more, no less”. On the one hand, they insist on narrowing the definition so that white people can never be the victims of racism and “people of colour” can never be the perpetrators. On the other hand, they broaden the meaning so that it can encompass matters not normally thought of as racial such as criticism of religion, so that “Islamophobia” becomes a form of racism.
The idea that only white people can be guilty of racism is preposterous. Most people are aware of—may have actually experienced—non-white people vilifying or assaulting whites or members of other ethnic groups in racial, possibly quite extreme, terms. Why is this not racism? Why should the perpetrators not be held as accountable as white people? Doesn’t it imply a lack of agency, the ability to take responsibility for their actions—a racist presumption if ever there was one?
According to the ordinary, accepted usage and understanding of the term, reflected in just about all dictionary definitions, to vilify or ridicule people because of their skin colour is quintessentially racist.
At this point, the race theorists emit a resigned sigh. Don’t you know that race is “socially constructed”, not essentially bound to inherited features like skin colour? It is really a matter of power and privilege. But if it is actually about power and privilege, why not talk about power and privilege and the people of all races who exercise it? Why use a word that denotes colour, and why implicate all bearers of white skin with the stain of “whiteness”? This attempt to detach race and biology is just an evasion, as the identitarian’s obsession with external, “phenotypical” features instanced above shows.
The race theorists insist that, when directed at whites by non-whites, racial abuse is the mere misdemeanour of prejudice, not the high crime of racism, since to be racist the perpetrator must have the power, specifically institutional power, to give effect to his or her prejudice. Hence the oft-cited formula: Racism = Prejudice + Power.
The outstanding black American political theorist Thomas Sowell has pointed out the absurdity of this since, on this definition, Adolf Hitler was no racist when he was spewing anti-Semitic bile as a powerless denizen of dosshouses in pre-First World War Vienna, and was only transformed into one when he walked into the Reich Chancellery.
Even if we accept this formulation, since when has institutional power been the exclusive preserve of white people? Did not Barack Obama, as President of the United States, wield enormous institutional power? How about Oprah Winfrey, with her multi-billion-dollar media empire? Did not Eric Holder, Obama’s Attorney-General, abuse his power when he failed to pursue pending legal action over a blatant case of voter intimidation of whites at a polling booth by club-wielding members of the Black Panthers during the 2008 presidential election?
Does Google CEO Sundar Pichai, an American of Indian background, not wield huge power as head of the world’s most powerful corporation? Pichai is one of innumerable people from Asian backgrounds who have managed to thrive throughout the Western world, enjoying incomes and educational attainments higher than the average white. How is this possible if the deck is systemically stacked to benefit whites?
The idea that institutional power is invariably exercised to benefit whites is increasingly untenable in an age of affirmative action and racial preferences. In the US, white (and Asian) applicants to Ivy League colleges must achieve substantially higher scores in the Scholastic Aptitude Test compared to non-whites from similar socio-economic backgrounds. In Australia, a major study of public service hiring practices showed the system was actually biased in favour of women and minority candidates.
On the other hand, white people—indeed whole classes of white people—can be in a state of wretched poverty, devoid of all power and self-respect. But according to one of the founders of whiteness theory, Noel Ignatiev:
The white race is a historically constructed social formation. It consists of all those who partake of the privileges of the white skin in this society. Its most wretched members share a status higher, in certain respects, than that of the most exalted persons excluded from it.
The intellectual gymnastics he performs to try and sustain this proposition are quite comical. For example, he insists that impoverished Irish immigrants to the US in the nineteenth century were actually non-white, only attaining the exalted state of whiteness once they were established in cities like Boston.
The Sydney philosopher Steven Zanuttini provides a thorough and rigorous demolition of the attempt to redefine racism. He concludes:
I have sought out as many arguments as I could find attempting to justify why racism should be conceived of solely as a power dynamic. Every single one of the justifications available result in a circular argument in which it is taken for granted that power (specifically institutional power) is required for racism.
Critical Race Theory and Whiteness Studies are a crock of pernicious nonsense. But to challenge them is to invite a charge of white supremacism, as was the fate of law professors Amy Wax (University of Pennsylvania) and Lawrence Alexander (University of San Diego) recently. They wrote a newspaper article suggesting that persisting black disadvantage had more to do with cultural norms than systemic racism. They were immediately denounced by their university administrations, faculty deans and colleagues for this transgression, accused of complicity in and normalising white supremacy. Demands for their investigation and sacking followed.
And consider the response when, in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election, the impeccably liberal Columbia University humanities professor Mark Lilla wrote an article for the New York Times titled “The End of Identity Liberalism” in which he argued:
American liberalism has slipped into a kind of moral panic about racial, gender and sexual identity that has distorted liberalism’s message and prevented it from becoming a unifying force capable of governing … the fixation on diversity in our schools and in the press has produced a generation of liberals and progressives narcissistically unaware of conditions outside their self-defined groups, and indifferent to the task of reaching out to Americans in every walk of life.
Lilla is a committed partisan of the Democratic Party, and in interviews he makes clear that his main objection to identity politics is that the alienation of the white working class, a key component of the Democratic coalition since Franklin Roosevelt, is a losing electoral strategy.
The response was widespread vilification from American Left-liberals, including an article by a Columbia colleague, law professor Katherine Franke, accusing him of (you guessed it) “white supremacy”, and placing him in same ideological camp as the notorious David Duke: “Duke and Lilla were contributing to the same ideological project, the former cloaked in a KKK hood, the latter in an academic gown.” I suppose Lilla should be thankful she didn’t accuse him of being literally Hitler!
Identity politics goes full Nazi
Nowadays it is common for champions of the identitarian ideology to accuse opponents of being fascist or even Nazi. Such charges are absurd, of course, in all but a minuscule number of cases, and show a lamentable lack of historical knowledge on the part of those who make them.
So I am not actually accusing the identitarians of Nazism. However, if the defining features of this ideology include an obsession with race, violent intolerance and hatred of those with different views, and a tendency to loose talk about genocide, there are some eerie parallels with some on the extreme fringe of identitarianism.
One cannot but be struck by the sheer hatred that oozes forth in some of these denunciations of white people including—indeed especially—from academics at some prestigious universities. It is now routine for opponents of identity politics to be denounced, without a shred of justification, as white supremacists, fascists, or even Nazis.
If you really think, as some of the Antifa types appear to, that such epithets are warranted, indeed literally true, what cannot be justified to defeat such people? And if, as they believe, words can constitute violence, not merely incite it, surely violence against the perpetrators may be warranted? According to polls, a disturbingly high proportion of US college students believe just this.
To gauge the extremity of this trend, we need to look at what is happening in the US, as always, a harbinger of what we can expect here.
In October a professor at Georgetown University in Washington DC, Christine Fair, tweeted this in response to the appointment of Brett Kavanaugh to the US Supreme Court:
Look at this chorus of entitled white men justifying a serial rapist’s arrogated entitlement. All of them deserve miserable deaths while feminists laugh as they take their last gasps. Bonus: we castrate their corpses and feed then to swine? Yes.
As is par for the course in such cases, the President of Georgetown University issued this anodyne response to the resulting storm of criticism: “The university said that while it didn’t necessarily agree with her views, she had the right to express them.”
You might be inclined to think these are just the rantings of a lone fanatic. Unfortunately the same sentiments can be found cropping up in more sober language in “scholarly” articles.
Consider the case of Professor George Ciccariello-Maher of Drexel University in Pennsylvania, who got into a spot of bother for tweeting on Christmas Eve 2016, “All I want for Christmas is White Genocide”. In an unusual display of courage his university initially condemned the tweet as “utterly reprehensible”, but then backed down in the face of overwhelming support for the professor from his colleagues, including a change.org petition with over 9000 signatures. Ciccariello-Maher tried to pass off the tweet as just a joke satirising white racists. A joke about genocide?
The thing is though that Ciccariello-Maher has written at least one “scholarly” article about the Haitian revolt against French rule at the turn of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (“So Much the Worse for the Whites: Dialectics of the Haitian Revolution”) in which he expresses support for a genocidal massacre of whites and their families, including those who supported the anti-slavery rebellion. To put matters beyond doubt, the following day he tweeted, “To clarify: When the whites were massacred during the Haitian revolution, that was a good thing indeed.”
It gets worse. Consider these instances of advocating murderous violence against white people in the here-and-now:
Texas A & M philosophy professor Tom Curry stated in an online podcast: “in order to be equal, in order to be liberated, some white people might have to die”. As per the pattern, his university initially expressed some disquiet, but a week later backtracked, affirming its “support for academic freedom”.
At Trinity College, a liberal arts college near Hartford, Connecticut, one of a group of colleges known as the “Little Ivies”, Professor John Eric Williams posted on Facebook a call for the racially oppressed to “put an end to the vectors of their destructive mythology of whiteness and their white supremacy system”. He shared a post titled “Let them f***ing die” about the shooting of a Republican member of the House of Representatives, Steve Scalise, at a congressional baseball game. The perpetrator, a Bernie Sanders supporter, intended to massacre dozens of Scalise’s colleagues, but fortunately was stopped by armed police. The comments below this post were almost without exception enthusiastically supportive of the shooting. Again, the university initially put the professor on leave, but after releasing a thirty-one-page report on the incident concluded he should be reinstated in good standing.
It seems that, in modern academia, defence of genocide and terrorist murder, provided it is directed at white people, is treated as a misdemeanour, at most; something that might warrant the miscreant being given a good talking to—unless the offender’s colleagues rise up in indignation, objecting that even such mild censure amounts to “white supremacist” persecution. The contrast with the treatment of Sir Tim Hunt is startling to say the least.
Conclusion: How to foment a race war
According to the apologists of identity politics, having a white skin is a kind of moral stain, indeed “a tremendous or even radical sin” in the words of Scott Stephens. How resonant with the claims in bygone times by religious leaders that justified slavery by claiming that black skin was a mark of the “curse of Cain”. This thinking has licensed the endless torrent of abuse directed at “white people” and “whiteness”.
It is obviously and egregiously racist, on any reasonable understanding of the term. The attempts to redefine racism to exclude prejudice and abuse directed at whites from its ambit are palpably absurd.
These ideas have consequences, very bad ones. We see a process of concept-creep, where the accusations levelled by social justice warriors escalate from racism, to white supremacism, to fascism and even Nazism. If your opponents are, according to frequently heard exclamations, “literally fascist”, what violence is not justified to stop them?
The institutional blindness that can result from imbibing the “white people can never be victims of racism” tenet is horrifyingly exemplified by the continuously unfolding revelations of systematic sexual abuse, amounting to sexual slavery, of tens of thousands of young white girls from dysfunctional or low-status families in the UK.
An official report into the first of these revelations, the shocking abuse of 1500 girls from the northern English town of Rotherham over thirteen years, makes clear that official inaction, indeed paralysis in the face of unequivocal evidence, was the result of the fear of being accused of racism, as the vast majority of the perpetrators were Pakistani Muslim men. The revelations continue to the present day.
Finally, it is worth asking how the identitarians imagine how white people, especially the growing number who feel alienated and excluded from the benefits of globalisation, might react to claims that they enjoy a privileged status by virtue of their white skin, and deserve the sort of abuse that is being heaped on them. The election of Donald Trump should be salutary, but when liberals like Mark Lilla dare to question the effective abandonment of the white working class they find themselves accused of being white supremacists.
The upshot is likely to be that, far from countering the potential for a rise in right-wing authoritarianism, the result may be the opposite. In her seminal study The Authoritarian Dynamic (2005) the political scientist Karen Stenner describes how a latent inclination to intolerance may be aroused by just the kind of behaviour and language described above. According to Stenner, many people with an innate psychological disposition to intolerance seem to have a button on their head that can be triggered by what she terms a “normative threat”:
All the available evidence indicates that exposure to difference, talking about difference, and applauding difference are the surest ways to aggravate those who are innately intolerant, and to guarantee the increased expression of their predispositions in manifestly intolerant attitudes and behaviours. Paradoxically, then, it would seem that we can best limit intolerance of difference by parading, talking about, and applauding our sameness …
Ultimately, nothing inspires greater tolerance from the intolerant than an abundance of common and unifying beliefs, practices, rituals, institutions, and processes. And regrettably, nothing is more certain to provoke increased expression of their latent predispositions than the likes of “multicultural education”, bilingual policies, and non-assimilation.
The identity politics brigade are providing this sense of normative threat by the bucketload. How much better it would be to focus, as Stenner suggests, on the things we have in common rather than those that divide us.
I recently came across a compendium of articles on the psychology of terror compiled by a group of experts at the University of South Florida. They studied hundreds of research papers that describe how terrorists think, and how they rationalise and justify attacks that indiscriminately kill civilians. A recurring theme in this body of research is the need to dehumanise the potential victims, to portray them as worthless, immoral, unfit to live. Given this, the kind of academically-sanctioned vilification instanced above is not just irresponsible, but profoundly immoral. An evil misanthrope intent on fomenting a campaign of terror or a race war would be hard put to come up with anything better suited to the purpose.
Peter Baldwin is chair of the Blackheath Philosophy Forum, where this paper was originally delivered as the first of a series critical of identity politics. Other papers in the series are available at blackheathphilosophy.org. He was Minister for Employment and Education Services in the Hawke government and Minister for Social Security in the Keating government.