Racial politics is the overwhelming obsession of the moment, and it often seems as if it has eclipsed everything else.
This narrow focus is lamented by the more old-fashioned folks on the left, who still think that the “class struggle” and anti-capitalism should be the main focus of politics. For example, some of the most trenchant criticism of The New York Times’ 1619 Project came from the Worldwide Socialist Web Site. It revealed an internecine battle in which the Marxist old left tried to regain the high ground seized by a race-obsessed new left.
American conservatives, who never seem able to resist being pushed around by the latest ideological fad on the left, have followed suit. They have left behind the pro-free-market tea party moment, with its focus on taxes and big government. Today’s right seems far more dedicated to its own obsessions with race, predominantly a deep-rooted prejudice that dark-skinned immigrants are scary.
Yet I have begun to suspect that this shift in public discourse from class to race is really an illusion: The left’s current obsession with race is just the same old anti-capitalism in new packaging.
Is Race Just a State of Mind?
After a while, the thing you notice most about the new obsession with race is how little it has to do with a person’s actual geographic origin, skin tone or other physical characteristics that are usually thought of as defining racial differences. The liberal idea that race is only skin deep is old-fashioned. The new doctrine is that race is intertwined with culture and is “socially constructed”—so its adherents proceed to socially construct the heck out of it.
For example, remember Lin-Manuel Miranda, the Nuyorican rapper who created the smash Broadway hit “Hamilton”? Miranda’s big innovation was to recast all the Founding Fathers and Mothers with performers from racial and ethnic minorities: a Hispanic Alexander Hamilton, a Black Thomas Jefferson, an Asian American Eliza Hamilton, and so on. This seemingly progressive casting decision now seems ancient, implying as it does a kind of melting-pot universalism, the notion that Americans of all backgrounds should be able to find something of themselves in the people who made this country.
So it should be no surprise that Miranda has run afoul of the new orthodoxy. A recent film version of his first musical, “In the Heights,” is set in a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood in New York City, but it features the wrong Hispanic people, including an insufficient number of Black Hispanic characters. For this Miranda was called out in a blistering review in The Washington Post that explains, “The problem is believing that ‘Latino-ness’ presents a worthy ‘alternative’ to U.S. whiteness, when it is simply White hegemony by another name.”
Similarly, Asian Americans have been “whitened”; at the least, they are considered “white-adjacent.” Black people who have the wrong attitudes—“false consciousness,” to use the old Marxist terminology—may be suffering from “internalized white supremacy” or “transracial whiteness.”
Or consider an odd new figure of speech, “the white people of,” as in “Asians are the white people of minorities” or “Black men are the white people of Black people.” This phrase is supposed to designate a subgroup within each minority group that enjoys some sort of elevated status or privilege relative to everyone else and that has therefore adopted an attitude of arrogance or complacency.
It’s clear that “white” and “whiteness” as used today don’t refer to any coherent concept of race. They refer to a vague notion of privilege, or to the adoption of certain values and attitudes. As Eugene Volokh has observed, “‘White’ has stopped meaning Caucasian, imprecise as this term has always been, and has started to mean ‘those racial groups that have made it.’ ‘Minority’ has started to mean ‘those racial groups that have not yet made it.’” More specifically, “white” doesn’t refer just to those who have achieved success in the American system, but to those who have accepted that system, particularly our economic system.
As two young writers recently put it, by identifying themselves as Asian American, they “affirm that identifying as Asian American is not a biological destiny or question of geography, which would suggest a passive orientation (i.e., individuals are born Asian) rather than an active choice to identify in solidarity against matrices of oppression.”
In this view, racial identity is formed not from physical characteristics or even from historical experience, but rather as an act of political identification, and its purpose is to place oneself in a special class of the “oppressed” who are entitled to make claims against some other designated class of “oppressors.” If you think this sounds strangely familiar, you’re right: It’s the return of old-fashioned Marxist class warfare, which is exactly where this new conception of race came from in the first place.
How to ‘Become’ White
Consider the strange case of “How the Irish Became White.” That’s the title of a highly influential 1995 book by the late Noel Ignatiev, an old-fashioned communist agitator turned academic and an originator of a lot of the racial theory about “whiteness” that we are hearing 25 years later.
That the Irish “became” white is, of course, preposterous under any normal meaning of the word “white,” and has no basis in historical usage. The Irish are among the palest people on earth, an adaptation to thousands of years living in the sunless climes above 50 degrees north latitude. But Ignatiev’s central argument is that the Irish “became” white—that is, they became accepted as social equals—because they assimilated into American society and prospered in the American economy.
The problem, according to Ignatiev, is that the lure of being able to make a living, own property and work their way up in a capitalist system “provides the illusion of common interests between the exploited white masses and the white ruling class,” so that these workers “side with the oppressor rather than with the oppressed”—that is, they side with the capitalists against the proletariat.
In reality, these common interests were not an illusion. The workers were not an oppressed “proletariat,” and they did in fact rise up into the middle class. It was Ignatiev who was suffering under some very common 20th-century illusions about communism and its supposed liberation of the workers. For the rest of us, those illusions have been stripped away by the collapse of one communist system after another.
But we can identify the actual salient characteristic of whiteness in the original version of this theory. “Whiteness” is defined not in physiological or even historical terms, but in political and ideological terms, as the rejection of revolutionary communism and embrace of the pursuit of prosperity in a capitalist economy.
In other words, it is acceptance of the system—Western civilization in general and American capitalism in particular—that makes you white. So what appears to be a singular focus on race to the exclusion of good old Marxist class warfare is actually the redefinition of race to mean good old Marxist class warfare. To be white is to be nonrevolutionary, while to be radicalized is to be nonwhite.
This ideology has filtered down from academic books into the popular zeitgeist, at least among the college-educated classes and particularly on campus. Hence an Arab student’s story of how student activists told him he “doesn’t count” as a racial minority because “we know your politics.” If race is now purely a social construct, it has been constructed around politics, and around the same old anti-capitalist politics, which was never replaced but merely translated into a new form.
If whiteness has little do with skin color and is more about attitude and ideology, then the appeal is obvious for those of us with pallid complexions. When whiteness and white privilege are accepted as the big evils of our system, what is a white kid to do? The solution is surprisingly easy. Merely adopting the right attitudes, repeating the right slogans and above all embracing the right political platform will make you “less white.”
Hence the pattern observed by Scott Alexander a few years back when he collected media headlines denouncing “white people” and began checking them against the profiles of their authors.
Every single one of these articles was written by a white person.
White People Are Ruining America? White. White People Are Still A Disgrace? White. White Guys: We Suck And We’re Sorry? White. Bye Bye, Whiny White Dudes? White. Dear Entitled Straight White Dudes, I’m Evicting You From My Life? White. White Dudes Need To Stop Whitesplaining? White. Reasons Why Americans Suck #1: White People? White.
We’ve all seen articles and comments like this. Some unsavory people try to use them to prove that white people are the real victims or the media is biased against white people or something. Other people who are very nice and optimistic use them to show that some white people have developed some self-awareness and are willing to engage in self-criticism.
But I think the situation with “white” is much the same as the situation with “American”—it can either mean what it says, or be a code word for the Red Tribe.
Those who denounce whiteness and white people are associating themselves with the Blue Tribe—Democratic voters in general, the anti-capitalist left in particular—and thereby deflecting the stigma of whiteness.
As race has increasingly been defined by attitudes and ideology rather than physical characteristics, someone now has to define which mental traits and attributes are to be associated with each racial category. Lists must be compiled to describe how white people think as differentiated from how other racial groups think and act.
That’s how we get the kind of upside-down “anti-racism” training in which people describe punctuality, hard work, grammatical English and logical thinking as white traits that are (the trainers apparently assume) lacking in people of other races—a view recently promulgated by the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.
It may seem insane to adopt what are basically the prejudices of the Ku Klux Klan and present them under the banner of anti-racism, but it makes more sense if anti-racism just means anti-capitalism and therefore a rejection of the entire ethos of capitalism, particularly its focus on work and productivity as values.
Note, for example, that many of the same characteristics identified as hallmarks of whiteness—particularly punctuality and work ethic—pop up in a description of “internalized capitalism.” What is internalized capitalism? It’s the stuff The Man requires of you as a cog in the capitalist machine, and a small coterie of self-styled radical leftist psychiatrists are trying to get it recognized as a formal diagnosis.
Is it just a coincidence that internalized capitalism and whiteness happen to have so much overlap? Just as much of a coincidence, I suspect, as the fact that anti-racism often embraces the exact economic grievances the left has promoted for decades and requires the exact same economic solutions. The new racial politics never involves, say, a reconsideration of the perverse effects of the welfare state or the disaster of high-rise public housing projects. Somehow it always requires more spending, more regulation and more limitations and incursions on private property.
The Anti-Capitalist Obsession
The contemporary obsession with racial politics is just the old anti-capitalist politics repackaged. Political entrepreneurs on the left have not changed their goals; they have just adapted to the marketplace. In the 1990s, we used to talk about “watermelons”: environmentalists who were “green on the outside and red on the inside.” Now that global warming has failed to panic us into the glorious anti-capitalist revolution, these same individuals are hoping that racial guilt will do it. The supposed nature of the problem always changes, as do the words to describe it, but the solution—dismantling capitalism—remains the same.
The result, though, is the hijacking of race and culture and their subordination to a political goal that actually has little to do with race. Take the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, which has been in the news a lot recently for its 100th anniversary. This was a pogrom carried out by envious whites against a financial center that was known as the “Black Wall Street.” Does it honor the victims of that massacre, or help their descendants, to use the cause of racial equality as a bludgeon against any kind of Wall Street? To the contrary, the attempt to capture opposition to racism and redirect it to the cause of anti-capitalism relegates race to the status of a secondary issue, a mere means to the end of far-left economics.
Those who are concerned that race has eclipsed class may be letting surface appearances fool them because, from what I can tell, the opposite is happening. Far from being subordinated to race, economics has been turned into the issue that defines what racial identity is in the first place. Under the guise of an endless obsession with race, today’s left is simply rehearsing the old obsessive hatred of markets and economic freedom.