Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
The Census Bureau recently has rejected changes to the census that Obama had proposed as a parting gift to the Democrats. As the party of identity politics, the progressives were going to be gifted a new bloc of clients––“MENAs,” people of “Middle Eastern and North African” descent. As the tribunes of “people of color,” the Dems were eager to add yet another member to their conga-line of identity grievance. But the Bureau’s decision to reject the classification should be just the first step to completely discarding identity categories predicated on superficial and reductive characteristics.
First, our census rubrics like “black,” “Asian,” “white,” and the incoherent “Hispanic” are crude to the point of being meaningless. “Black” cannot express the incredible cultural, religious, social, and linguistic variety and diversity of the African continent and its diaspora. Neither does “Asian,” a geographical term equally as simplistic. “Hispanic” is a linguistic category even more hopelessly crude. So too with “white,” which lumps together under the rubric of superficial color a variety of cultures, mores, and classes. In fact, this impulse to label people by appearance is a leftover of “scientific racism,” the pseudo-scientific ideology of progressives in the first half of the 20th century that aimed to help Darwin out by excluding, sterilizing, and in Germany eliminating those deemed “inferior” and “unfit” because they weren’t “Anglo-Nordic,” that is northern European.
Second, our political system is predicated on “inalienable rights” that belong to individuals, not groups. Of course, all people are part of a collective identity, but that collective does not possess rights that are exclusive of individuals or that trump their rights. Such an idea of exclusive group rights reflects a persistent tribalism that rejects a universal human identity. The genius of the Founding was its recognition that universal human rights did not make everybody identical, but established a barrier against the attempts of any faction or group to dominate other factions, or compromise their freedom, or seize for itself power and privileges that encroach on others. Our collective identity is political, not biological. Within that unifying civic identity––the unum–– space is left for the expression of diverse identities––the pluribus–– created by region, religion, occupation, or ideology, whose potentially tyrannical contests for power and privilege are constrained by federalism, divided government, and the balance of power.
Identity politics rejects this foundation of our liberal democracy, and returns to zero-sum tribalism and its inalienable differences. One clan is given privileges denied to the others, or stakes a claim to political power specific to that clan. Backed by the coercive power of state institutions and regulations, identity is thus weaponized as selected clans compromise the freedoms of excluded clans, and reserve the right to violate the rights of others. We see this today with progressive assaults on the First Amendment to marginalize public speech about race that doesn’t follow the grievance narrative. Identity politics, then, is a form of tyranny that the Founders wanted to avoid.
Like the old Jim Crow racism, moreover, the identities are predicated on reductive, superficial characteristics that ignore all other factors––such as socio-economic class and its social capital, or our unique personalities, characters, beliefs, and talents––that make us who we are. The result is a meaningless notion like “white privilege,” as though less melanin can override wealth and education and social capital. I grew up in rural Fresno County with poor and working-class people of all colors, and I can tell you the Dust Bowl Scotch-Irish migrants had no more “privilege” than blacks or Mexicans. Their prospects were all pretty much the same: Vietnam, the penitentiary, or death. The lucky ones became carpenters or plumbers, the real lucky ones became school teachers or realtors. Some were hardworking and law-abiding, some were no damn good, as everybody called them. But you couldn’t tell which was which just by looking at the color of their skin. The valuable lesson I learned is that you have to take people one at a time, and judge them by their actions and the content of their characters.
That is the essence of liberal democracy, the foundational principle the Civil Rights movement appealed to. So why has that core belief of American exceptionalism been discarded? The answer lies in the reality of human nature that Madison so brilliantly articulated. People never completely lose their tribalism. They create exclusive factions based on “passions and interests,” as Madison said. Each faction desires power in order to satisfy its own passions and interests, and so will aggrandize political power unless checked by other factions. And power, as the saying went, “is of an encroaching nature.” No one is satisfied with a little power, and will always seek more, usually camouflaging their ambition as “justice,” and always at the expense of their rivals. This is the essence of tyranny.
Identity politics based on historical grievance is a weapon of factionalism. The laws passed after the Civil Rights legislation dismantled legal segregation quickly evolved from tools for redressing injustice and creating equal opportunity for individuals, into ones for appropriating power for one political faction––Progressive Democrats, who favor big government and rule by technocratic elites, and redistribute wealth primarily to their electoral clients. Abetted over the years by addled Republicans who have accepted the identity politics narrative, they have established racial grievance as the rationale for increasing their own power and patronage for their clients at the expense of their rivals, just as Madison predicted. Only now, they exploit a concentrated, expanded federal government and its coercive power in order to dominate their opponents––exactly what the Founders feared.
Look no further than the current conflict over what to do with the DACA “dreamers.” Trump has offered to basically give amnesty to millions of illegal aliens, in return for beefing up border security, and reforming immigration policies like chain migration and visa lotteries that admit millions of unvetted people from dysfunctional and failing states. Unable to explain coherently how randomly bestowing American citizenship advances the security and interests of American citizens, the Dems let loose a barrage of race-narrative invective: Trump’s plan is a “hateful, xenophobic immigration proposal,” “a white supremacist ransom note,” “a legislative burning cross,” an expression of “deeply held suspicion of Latinos,” “a white supremacist wish list,” an exercise in “making America safe for white people,” and a “campaign to make America white again.”
All these charges are preposterous, given that Trump’s plan will give the Dems what they say they want: amnesty to millions of dark-skinned “others.” But the grievance politics narrative is necessary cover for a party that neglected immigration reform when it controlled all three branches of government, and whose leader then created a program by Executive Order fiat that violated the Constitution and so was doomed to be struck down by the Supreme Court no matter what Trump did. Also, illegal aliens and unfettered immigration are rich resources for the party of big government that has tied its fortunes to divisive, zero-sum grievances, no matter how illiberal, false, or damaging to the very groups it professes to care for. Why else would they relentlessly attack as racist a president whose economic and tax policies have put more blacks to work, and more money in all their constituents’ pockets?
We should cheer that the Census Bureau is refusing to midwife yet another identity-grievance scam. But we should do more to weaken the strangle-hold of illiberal racialist categories on our policies and politics. Why should the Census count the citizen’s race in the first place? For one reason: its imprecise categories reduce individual identity to a politicized collective term that serves the race industry by creating and enlarging interest groups who support policies and programs that should be indifferent to race. It’s testimony to this fraud that over a million self-identified Hispanics checked the “white” box on the 2014 census form. They understood that such an empty term like “Hispanic” didn’t describe who they are.
As Chief Justice John Roberts said in 2007, “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” Either we believe in the premise of the Civil Rights Act––that the accident of race or ethnicity should not matter in the eyes of the law––or we don’t. Getting rid of racial questions on every government document would be a powerful way to show that we really do believe that all are equal before the law.