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A Different Way to Think About White Identity Politics

Photo: Nick Shepherd/Getty Images/Ikon Images

Does white identity deserve a place in politics? The question may seem absurd, though for different reasons depending on where you stand. For many on the left, whiteness is already implicit in nearly every aspect of Western politics and culture; white people have woven their own particularistic identity into the very fabric of our shared political life, stigmatizing and suppressing any expressions of difference. According to some popular theories of race, moreover, whiteness itself is something of a delusion, a pseudo-ethnicity invented to legitimize the domination of others (the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates thus refers not to white people but to “people who believe themselves to be white”). To positively assert a white identity is, in this view, an act of racial aggression. Conservatives, of course, reject this narrative. They tend to see the dominant culture as, in principle, universal and condemn as divisive any attempt to code it as “white.” Although they may believe it is hypocritical for the left to promote minority identities while disapproving of white identity, their solution is typically to criticize “identity politics” altogether — everyone, white and nonwhite, should think of themselves as an individual, or else as a member of some nonethnic community like their church, neighborhood, or nation. White identity politics, whether in the form of Trump or the alt-right, is no better than — and is in fact the mirror image of — the left-wing identity politics they have been warning about for decades.

This bipartisan aversion to white identity is the target of Whiteshift, a fascinating new book by the political scientist Eric Kaufmann. Kaufmann claims that despite our best collective efforts to repress the topic, white identity concerns are already in the process of reshaping politics across the West. Migration-driven demographic change is polarizing white electorates, pitting group-oriented whites determined to resist their decline against cosmopolitan whites who accept or even cheer it, leading to the liberal-internationalist versus populist-nationalist split we see in nearly every Western country. More controversially, Kaufmann argues that the identity-based concerns of whites who oppose or fear their demographic decline should not be considered racist, and that it is neither possible nor desirable for the mainstream to suppress or condemn them. Instead of assuming that all political expressions of white identity are motivated by prejudice, Kaufmann calls for a new “‘cultural contract,’ in which everyone,” white and nonwhite, “gets to have a secure, culturally rich ethnic identity as well as a thin, culturally neutral and future-oriented national identity.”

Whiteshift is a sprawling tome. More than 500 pages long, it includes detailed chapters on the history of immigration politics and policy in North America and Europe; the rise of contemporary anti-racism norms; patterns of white social and residential segregation; and long-term demographic projections on the future racial makeup of Western societies. The book’s title refers to Kaufmann’s prediction that over the coming century, Western countries will become majority mixed-race due to migration-driven demographic change, but that these mixed-race majorities will continue to identify with “white” symbols, cultural markers, and myths of ancestry. (Kaufmann, who has an Anglo name and passes as white despite being one-quarter Latino and one-quarter Chinese, offers himself as an example of how such continuity might work in practice.) In the very long term, that is, Kaufmann argues that demographic change will lead to a shift in who gets categorized as white rather than to a permanent “majority-minority” situation. In the meantime, however, he predicts that the conflict between those who wish to slow this transformation and those who wish to accelerate it will become the defining cleavage of Western politics.

In fact, at the center of Whiteshift is the argument that this conflict is already reshaping our politics. In Kaufmann’s view, white identity concerns, not economics, are behind the rise of right-wing populism. For all the attempts to explain populism as a backlash to inequality or a revolt of the losers of globalization, Kaufmann, drawing on his own research and that of colleagues such as Karen Stenner and Ashley Jardina, sees it as an expression of conservative white opposition to demographic change. Among whites in the United States, for instance, support for Trump was strongly predicted by psychological conservatism and authoritarianism, white identity and ethnic consciousness, and opposition to immigration. (Similar measures predicted support for Brexit in the U.K.) Kaufmann also cites suggestive research not directly related to the election, such as Maureen Craig and Jennifer Richeson’s finding that whites, after reading a passage about their demographic decline, displayed greater levels of in-group bias and support for the GOP.

Kaufmann is not the first to suggest that populism is an expression of white demographic anxiety. Versions of this argument have been made before, often becoming, in simplified form, the basis of a morality tale in which Trump voters are racist authoritarians whose only real goal is to maintain white supremacy. Yet Kaufmann believes that it is perfectly legitimate for whites to prefer immigration restriction for cultural reasons, and criticizes the expansive elite anti-racism norms that see this preference as racist. These norms, according to Kaufmann, make it difficult for mainstream politicians to respond to their voters’ actual concerns, producing a vast unmet demand for restrictionist policies that the populist right is well-positioned to meet. They also lead restrictionist voters and politicians, who oppose immigration for cultural reasons but fear accusations of racism, to invent spurious economic or security rationales to justify their preferences. “Paradoxically,” Kaufmann writes, “it becomes more acceptable to complain about immigrant crime, welfare dependency, terrorism or wage competition than to voice a sense of loss and anxiety about the decline of one’s group or a white-Christian tradition of nationhood.” Consider the debate over Trump’s border wall. The president has cited terrorism, drug and human trafficking, and immigrant crime as reasons to build the wall, tarring immigrants as criminals while offering a policy that would do little to address his stated concerns. It would be far better, in Kaufmann’s view, if the president — or at least, the more intelligent of his advisers and supporters — were just to admit that what what really made them anxious about immigration was demographic change.

Kaufmann spends a good deal of time in the book criticizing the idea that white demographic anxiety — or white group attachment more generally — is racist. He attributes this idea to an ideology that he calls “left-modernism,” which can be thought of as a more precise term for what people mean when they say political correctness. Kaufmann traces the origins of left-modernism to the bohemian counterculture of early 20th-century New York, when WASP intellectuals like Randolph Bourne began to argue that “white ethnics” like Jews and Catholics should remain distinct rather than assimilate to the American mainstream. At the same time, he called on WASPs to abandon their own stultifying culture and become cosmopolitan individualists — a view Kaufmann dubs “asymmetrical multiculturalism,” since the dominant culture is not considered one of the multiple cultures worthy of being preserved. After the civil-rights movement, this framework was updated, with whites taking the place of the WASPs and blacks, Native Americans, and newer nonwhite immigrant groups taking the place of the old white ethnics. And as both left-modernism and anti-racism norms expanded via higher education and the mass media, Kaufmann argues that the two fused: “racism” came to describe not only acts of overt prejudice, hostility, or discrimination, but any violation of the left-modernist expectation that whites eschew group attachments and become cosmopolitans.

Kaufmann thinks this latter step was a mistake. He sees individualist cosmopolitanism as a lifestyle preference suited to psychological liberals, but one that psychological authoritarians and conservatives, who are more attached to their group identity, will invariably find alienating. He thus sees the attempt to force group-oriented whites to celebrate diversity or celebrate their own demographic decline as a form of cultural imperialism, akin to forcing Protestants to attend mass. Kaufmann, moreover, is at pains to show that whites who identify with their group are not necessarily racist. He highlights the work of the social psychologist Marilynn Brewer, who argues that across a variety of cultural contexts, in-group attachment is “independent of negative attitudes toward outgroups.” He cites data from the 2016 ANES survey showing that American whites who feel warmly toward whites also tend to feel warmly toward blacks. And he highlights his own surveys, in which he asks respondents in number of mostly Western countries whether it is racist for whites (or, in nonwhite countries, members of the majority) to prefer to restrict immigration in order to preserve their share of the population. Most say it isn’t, although the United States has the largest share of people saying that it is (36 percent), with massive gaps based on education and party affiliation — 83.9 percent of white Clinton voters with college degrees say it’s racist, compared to 58.3 percent of minority Clinton voters and 5.5 percent of white Trump voters with less than a high-school degree. Kaufmann also points out that, in the United States at least, around one-third of Asians and Latinos favor the same sort of “ethno-traditional nationalism” as do group-oriented whites — that is to say, they see the country’s “white” symbols and cultural traditions (e.g., Christopher Columbus) as an integral part of what they like about America, rather than as relics of a racist past that needs to be overcome.

Ultimately, Kaufmann argues that the best thing would be to accept a moderate form of white identity politics as a more benign alternative to contemporary populism, which in his view is merely a sublimated form of ethno-nationalism. That can sound, written out, as a sort of brief for white nationalism-lite. At Vox, Zach Beauchamp makes precisely this accusation, arguing that Kaufmann’s accommodating view of white identity politics, combined with his criticisms of social justice, “makes it possible to see whites as a victimized class maligned by social justice warriors, and even swinging all the way around to embracing white ethno-nationalism.” While Kaufmann doesn’t directly endorse far-right politicians, Beauchamp argues, “he is making them more respectable all the same.”

Whether or not Kaufmann is making Trump or Marine Le Pen more respectable is an open question — my own sense is that their future successes or failures will have little to do with academics opposed to political correctness. But it’s worth noting that Kaufmann, though critical of some of the expansive claims of racism made by the left, is somewhat unique among center-right intellectuals in chastising conservatives and centrists who ask minorities to repress their own identities in favor of civic nationalism or some other unifying identity. “Ethnic identity,” he writes, “is not inherently toxic, as some on the right believe, but, like religion or partisanship, needs to be moderate.” His ideal is what he terms a “symmetrical multiculturalism,” in which all groups, both minority and majority, are allowed to express their interests or celebrate their identities within the bounds of a larger commitment to the national whole. “At present,” Kaufmann argues:

What happens is that minorities set out identity-based concerns which many whites reject as divisive because they have been forced by left-modernism to repress their own ethnicity or because they can’t see that their ‘national’ interests may actually consist of sublimated ethnic desires. If whites set out some explicit identity interests apart from those of the nation, this could allow them to better appreciate minority claims and vice-versa, producing a shared understanding … The current dispensation in which white conservatives attack even moderate minority interests as ‘identity politics’ only leads to polarization.

It would be easy to throw out some objections on behalf of my left-modernist readers here: What, exactly, are “white interests”? Even if they exist, who’s to say that they won’t inevitably be tinged with racism or feelings of superiority? And isn’t the whole weight of our country’s history already tilted toward the expression of whites’ “sublimated ethnic desires”? All fair enough. But Kaufmann has done something exceedingly rare among center-right thinkers, which is to write an intelligent, challenging, and in its own way, brave book about race and identity; one not meant to fire up partisans but to make an honest attempt to understand our present dilemmas and propose a solution. He won’t convince all readers, and reviewers more data-literate than I may be able to better evaluate the reams of surveys and statistics that Kaufmann cites in his favor. But at present, Whiteshift is the best diagnosis of populism the right has to offer, and presents compelling arguments that defenders of asymmetric multiculturalism should be prepared to answer.

A Different Way to Think About White Identity Politics