Masking Whiteness through Anti-Identity Politics

It seems that many white people in America are in a terrible bind: either they know not what they are, or they are terrible liars.

Donald Trump’s electoral college win in 2016 meant an intensification of America’s culture wars, but Sarah Palin probably deserves credit for their return from the ‘90s. The one-time vice presidential candidate (and later presidential hopeful) staked her political career on resentment of cosmopolitan, educated elites. Surely, to her great consternation, it was a cosmopolitan, educated elite who snatched Palin’s chance at walking the halls of the White House.

Subsequently, the Tea Party was born. The further right, publicly visible, and somewhat mainstream movement loudly and proudly proclaimed its anger at the state of America, especially under our first Black president. Palin’s resentment and the Tea Party’s anti-government libertarian platform gave voice to the idea that working-class and rural whites were getting the shortest end of a very crooked stick in America. Then along came Donald Trump. If he possesses no other smarts, the man knows how to leverage an opportunity. Trump persuaded the Tea Party target market that they were still underserved. What they needed was not less government but a return to a cultural time past when white was right; Trump would make America great again. As Trump and his cronies – Steve Bannon, Jeff Sessions, Sebastian Gorka, among others – blatantly nodded and winked at far right extremists, a growing chorus from the right (and even from deeply confused leftists) blamed America’s problems on identity politics. These mostly white men wanted Brown folks to stop referencing skin color when criticizing the myriad deeply unfair, murderous systems that prevail over Black and Brown life.

White Americans, on the left and right, see that their claims to institutional goods, services, privilege, and, above all else, safety from arbitrary violence, is at stake in a Browning nation that increasingly refuses to accept a 400-year-old power structure. This desire for us to relinquish our identity politics is little more than a version of white identity politics. These politics desire, if not demand, that public discourse in America reflect a socially neutral position.

Given the ongoing remnants of white supremacy and various forms of racism across the political spectrum, these white folks are looking to erase themselves and their history from our racial order. This, in itself, is an indictment of white identity politics, so what is really behind their alarm?

Identity politics is not just a tool for law-making based on notions of ethnic or racial particularities. These claims are about redistributing power and contesting the very character of a nation. Black Lives Matter’s insistence on racial fairness from police and the courts is not only a legislative demand – it contests the presumptive power and oversight murderous institutions have over Black lives. It is a demand for a reclamation of political and social control, and insists these institutions cede the grounds of race-based exploitation motivated by the devaluation of Black life. Similarly, the demand to end and reckon with blackface costume parties at universities, and the removal of slaveholder names from residential halls, is not an institutional policy demand. It is a demand that the university extricates itself from its own problematic history with the slave trade, reckon with how it perpetuates structural racism, and how it cultivates an unsafe environment for minority students.

Rather than reckoning in good faith with claims grounded in both empirical facts and real American history, white Americans see identity politics as a form of resentment. Through this lens, Black and Brown Americans have no one but themselves to blame for various misfortunes – including over-policing and shooting our children with impunity. They say this as their children walk the halls of Ivy League institutions, while the complexion of the faculty affirms that there is an inverse relationship between brilliance and melanin. They say this as residential segregation allows them to horde public goods while our children freeze in public schools.

White people conveniently ignore that they created and benefit from these systems of power, making life under a harsh racial order and capitalist system seem fairer and kinder than it is. When they criticize identity politics, they effectively seek to erase their own complicity in a racial order founded on whiteness. They erase that they and their forebears are the West’s very first practitioners of identity politics – wherein white was both might and right, and institutions and nations were built to pay homage to and secure that ideal.

So now, these folks who complain about identity politics know exactly who and what they are: terrible liars.

About the Author

Chris Lebron is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Johns Hopkins University and a Senior Writer for The North Star. He specializes in political philosophy, social theory, the philosophy of race, and democratic ethics. His work has focused on bridging the divide between analytic liberalism and the virtue ethics tradition. He is the author of The Color of Our Shame: Race and Justice In Our Time (2013) and The Making of Black Lives Matter: A Brief History of An Idea (2017).