Identity Politics Only Has To Look In The Mirror To Find Its ‘White Nationalist’ Problem

Nicholas Waddy Associate Professor of History, SUNY Alfred
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At the heart of modern leftist politics there lies a fundamental contradiction: the simultaneous enthronement of race (and gender) as the key(s) to an individual’s identity and the source of immeasurable pride, and the rejection of race as a mere social construct, irrelevant to a person’s worth and dignity, which, at best, distracts from the essential sameness and equality of all members of the human family, and which, at worst, promotes and enables hatred and oppression.  At bottom is the question: does a person’s race determine his or her identity and interests, or should these be determined instead by other factors (like social class, the left’s old stomping grounds)?

Liberals have a troubling tendency to provide wildly different answers to this important question, depending on which race is at issue.  Their attitude to white racial consciousness is, needless to say, utterly distinct from their attitude to black racial consciousness.  Whites are encouraged to forsake racial identity entirely (except in the form of collective guilt) and to refrain from organizing themselves on a racial basis to advance their discrete interests.  “White pride”, after all, is synonymous with racism.  Blacks, on the other hand, are viewed as members of a group that has acquired cohesion by its shared experience of oppression.  Thus, it is reasonable for blacks to congregate in race-based organizations, and to defend their group identity and group interests in the midst of a steady onslaught of racist attacks, or so the liberal argument goes.  Black pride, then, and black racial consciousness, are justified by their essentially defensive character, despite the fact that non-racialism would be an equally if not more logical response to the problem of ongoing racism.

In part, the left’s double standard on race, and its closely related addiction to identity politics, helps to explain the reported rise in “white nationalism,” which has been much discussed by the mainstream media in the wake of the violence in Charlottesville.  In truth, the number of white Americans who sympathize with white nationalists is, by any reasonable measure, small, and they pose no significant threat either to public order or to the massive gains in human and civil rights that have been made in the last 50 years.  In a recent Marist poll, for example, the percentage of American adults who “mostly agree” with white supremacy and/or white nationalism was, given the margin of error, statistically insignificant.  Moreover, even the notoriously left-leaning Southern Poverty Law Center claims that the number of white nationalist hate groups in the U.S. has fallen more than 30% since reaching a peak in 2011, making it extremely problematic to assert, as almost all media outlets have, that the movement is currently expanding.  Nonetheless, the energy and media savvy of some of these white nationalist groups is impossible to deny.  No doubt the obsessive attention that the media pays to them (viewing them as the perfect foil to liberal enlightenment) aids their recruitment efforts considerably.  The sad truth, though, is that in two important respects their proliferation is a direct consequence of the left’s doublespeak and doublethink on race.

The first way in which this is so is the most obvious, and it will be apparent to any American who ever had the misfortune to listen to Hillary Clinton’s stump speech in 2016, which read like a laundry list of special interest groups, many of them defined by race, gender, or sexual preference, that Secretary Clinton wished to patronize.  The left’s encouragement of these special interest groups, many of which express undisguised hostility to white Americans, and which frequently demand concrete concessions in the form of social rewards (higher college admission rates, more jobs, more spending on relevant programs, legal reforms, alterations to the pantheon of national heroes, etc.), combined with the left’s rejection, indeed condemnation, of similar demands pressed by whites, creates the perception of a movement that is promoting the interests of groups it likes, and undermining groups it does not.  Some whites have thus acquired a siege mentality, and they feel that only by organizing themselves as a race can they stop the deterioration of their status.  Even pollsters and psychologists who utterly reject the foundational assumptions of these attitudes regularly confirm that the perception among white Americans that they are victims of discrimination is on the rise.

These aggrieved white Americans are not wholly off-base: race preferences for non-whites do exist in America, and on a much more lavish scale than most people suppose.  Moreover, whites will lose their majority status in America within roughly 30 years, and liberals’ undisguised joy at this prospect gives rise to the reasonable suspicion that whites’ loss of electoral sway could lead to some form of oppression of the country’s newest and most despised “minority”.  Combined with the ascendancy of a doctrinaire belief in “white privilege” – an idea that recasts anti-white racism as a positive virtue – whites have much to be worried about, especially given the well-documented setbacks that working class whites have experienced in recent decades.  White nationalists, to the extent that they talk about these subjects, are addressing real problems that typical politicians and commentators prefer to ignore.

In other respects, though, the logic of white nationalism is profoundly flawed, especially insofar as white nationalist agitation invariably does “white interests” more harm than good, given the invariably negative public reaction to it.  One could think of few better ways, for instance, to ensure the abolition of Confederate statues than to hold rallies on their behalf featuring enraged white nationalists.  But this does not change the fact that the left’s patronage of some racial groups, combined with its disparagement of others, will inevitably produce a backlash.  In this sense, the left has reaped what it has sown.

The other important sense in which the left has midwifed the modern white nationalist movement is less talked about, but equally significant.  Many white nationalist leaders and groups are consciously copying the ideological and tactical models of group identity pioneered by the left.  As the leftist author Anis Shivani opines, “Identity politics is in fact the father, or the Great Mother, of white nationalism…  At root, both share the same particularistic, extralegal, extra-constitutional, anti-democratic, metaphysical, folkish impulse.”  They also employ many of same tools, linguistic and otherwise.

Richard Spencer, one of the most famous white nationalists, describes his ultimate goal (echoing PC jargon) as the creation of a “safe space for Europeans.”  Moreover, white nationalists are trying to duplicate many of the institutions of leftist identity politics.  As we all know, race-based advocacy groups, boycotts, protests, petitions, publications, voter registration drives, legislative caucuses, radio and TV broadcasting outlets, awards shows, charity and self-help initiatives, scholarships, and religious communities have long been a fixture of the left.  They help to organize minorities to oppose racism and discrimination, as liberals see it, and they help to mobilize minority support for leftist political and social causes and candidates.  White nationalists, who have fewer resources and much less legitimacy, are unable to replicate all of these accoutrements of identity politics, but they are striving to recreate as many of them as possible, but to serve white interests, as they define them.  The “National Association for the Advancement of White People” (an homage of sorts to the NAACP) is perhaps the most naked of these attempts to recast white supremacist activity as merely a new iteration of the civil rights crusades of the mid-20th century, except that now it is beleaguered whites, rather than blacks, fighting for equal treatment.  Such appeals seem to most people hollow and highly disingenuous, but they are nonetheless cleverly pitched in ways time-tested by leftist activists, and, thanks to the left’s toleration of anti-white prejudices, they fall on ground well-fertilized with white resentment and pique.

We live, then, in a nation (purposely) divided, thanks to the tireless efforts of racist demagogues on the left and on the right.  Luckily, all hope is not lost.

There are two possible solutions to the racial conundrum that our nation confronts at the beginning of the 21st century.  One is to complete the work started by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. by extirpating race and race consciousness from American life, so that Americans “will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the contents of their character.”  This is still an ideal to which a great many people in this country aspire.

The other solution would be to concede to all groups of Americans, even whites, the right to organize and engage in advocacy based on shared backgrounds, but in a more limited and circumspect way, which continually affirms the primacy of our basic humanity and our Americanness, rather than reifying our often superficial differences.

Whichever path we choose, we must reject the leftist formula of schizophrenic and situational non-racialist racism decisively and permanently.  The identity politics nurtured by the left, and mimicked so faithfully by the fanatical right, are self-evidently tearing our nation apart.  It’s time, therefore, to tell the identitarians to take a hike.

Dr. Nicholas L. Waddy is an Associate Professor of History in the State University of New York and blogs at: www.waddyisright.com.