Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
The latest act in our racialist follies featured Hilaria, née Hillary, Baldwin, the wife of boorish B-movie star Alec Baldwin, being outed for allegedly pretending to be a Spaniard. It seems her Spanish accent and claims to be from Mallorca are fabrications. In fact, according to prep school and university colleagues, she’s an “archetypal northeastern prep schooler,” which is about as “white” as one can get. Twitter rants from Alec Baldwin in his usual semi-literate blustering style ensued, and professional race-hacks leveled the “cultural appropriation” charge.
As usual, what is significant about this charge, whether true or not, is what it tells us about our dysfunctional, incoherent racialist sensibilities, which would be amusing if not for the malign effects on our political and social institutions.
Indeed, in a society claimed to be saturated with “white privilege,” it’s curious that so many “white” people try to link themselves to some ethnic minority or other. Citizens with European roots understand that a touch of the exotic, particularly the varieties designated as “protected classes” like black or “Hispanic,” to be more useful for one’s career than the taint of oppression and privilege that comes from being “white.”
Similarly, mixed-race, light-skinned blacks who once tried to cross the “color-line” by self-identifying as “white”–– especially those today who have been raised in middle-class comfort or upper-class affluence–– now are anxious to affirm their black bona fides no matter how far removed they are from the actual lives of working-class or ghetto-dwelling blacks whose dysfunctions and misery can be appropriated and exploited for political and social leverage.
Even more incoherent are the labels we’re accustomed to use when speaking of ethnic diversity. Overbroad terms like “white” or “black” are holdovers from the age of “scientific racism,” the misguided attempt to impose the Darwinian theory of the “survival of the fittest” on the astonishing diversity, complexity, and variety of human beings across the globe. These categories keep alive the dubious notion that “race,” a pseudo-scientific concept founded on superficial physical differences, tells us more about human identities than do culture, language, customs, class, mores, and religion. As such, racial identity, the rationale for slavery and segregation, is kept alive at the expense of the actual, complex diversity of unique individuals.
Indeed, this truth about what characterizes a human being was articulated over 2300 years ago in ancient Greece. The late-fifth century B.C. sophist Antiphon wrote, “For by nature we are all in every way made in the same fashion to be either barbarians or Greeks.” That is, all humans by nature share a common humanity with the potential to live by any cultural code, just as every human being is born with the capacity to speak any of the 6500 languages spoken today. Culture, not nature, makes us who we are, as the early-fourth century B.C. orator Isocrates explicitly said: “The name ‘Hellenes’ [Greek] suggests no longer a race but an intelligence [mentality, way of thinking] and . . . the title ‘Hellenes’ is applied rather to those who share our culture than to those who share a common blood.” Identity is based not on how we look, but how we live.
Our clinging to old “scientific” racist categories obscures this essential truth. It enables and empowers an illiberal grievance politics that mostly benefits selected groups some of whom live better than millions of supposedly privileged “white” citizens.
This latest example of a Caucasian trying to appropriate the victim-glamour awarded to a handful of ethnic identities has elicited even more peculiar dysfunctions. Nobody seems to question why a stolen national identity like “Spaniard” should cut any ice with the “woke” race-mongers. Spain is a European country, with a majority Caucasian demographic. Spaniards, not counting immigrants from Africa, are “white,” and that includes Arab immigrants who are also Caucasian.
Moreover, given the “woke” collective blaming of “white” Americans for historical sins, why would being a Spaniard have any racialist cachet? It was the Spaniards who first came to the new world, infected Amerindians with smallpox, and brought slavery to the Americas a century before the British arrived. This selective outrage, like the silence about the role of Arabs and African kings in the trans-Atlantic slave trade, confirms that our identity-politics assaults on our past have nothing to do with truth or morality, and everything to do with a racialized propaganda useful for a leftist ideology that has always seen the U.S. as its mortal enemy.
But apparently, because Spaniards are “Hispanic,” a silly term that refers to language, they too are “people of color.” We see this confusion in National Review’s Jim Geraghty, who wrote that Ms. Baldwin “has apparently been pretending to be Latina.” No, Jim, a Spaniard is not a “Latina.” This term is used for women from Latin America. Of course, it’s another overbroad signifier applied to anybody, even rich “white” Spaniards or Argentines––Argentina is 80% Caucasian––just because he or she speaks Spanish or has a Spanish surname. It’s a political term used to designate “victims” worthy of some kind of reparations, especially through affirmative action programs.
You can find evidence for this phenomenon in universities. For decades the pressure to hire more faculty “of color” has been eased by importing usually “white” Latin Americans or Spaniards. All that the “diversity” commissars need to see is the surname, and they tick the “Hispanic” box and presto, they have increased a school’s “diversity” profile.
I know this because as chairman of a foreign language department in California, I was involved in hiring Spanish professors. And because I grew up in a rural, white-minority area inhabited mostly by Mexican-Americans, I knew how wide the cultural and social gulf is between a Caucasian PhD from an upper-class family in Spain or Argentina or even the upper class in Mexico; and uneducated, rural, Mexican farmworkers, some Amerindian as well as mestizo. It’s about as wide as the gulf between a Dust-Bowl, grade school dropout like my father, and an upper-class “white” WASP with a college degree. From accent, dialect, and vocabulary, to attitudes toward the authority and the appropriateness of physical violence for settling disputes, the differences make a term like “white privilege” utterly meaningless.
Unfortunately, the reduction of identity to crude, superficial categories associated with historical oppression from long ago distorts our politics by worsening factional competition, and preventing alliances, such as working-class “whites” with working class blacks or Latinos, that could provide momentum for needed policy changes that would benefit those constituencies instead of privileging the cognitive elites of a few ethnicities. It has empowered one faction, progressives, at the expense of others––exactly what our divided and balanced government was designed to prevent.
As long as our culture and politics trades in the racialist, illiberal categories of the same “scientific racism” used to justify segregation, we will be troubled by divisiveness and a hardening of the class divide between the cognitive elites of all races and everybody else. And we will have policies that confirm and increase the privilege of those elites while the problems of black inner cities and rural white drug addiction continue to be ignored.
To paraphrase Chief Justice John Roberts about discrimination, if you really want to stop racism, stop talking like racists.