Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
We recently witnessed yet more examples of how incoherently the “woke” establishment talks about “race.” This confusion and duplicity can be explained by the Left’s commitment to “any means necessary” as their most important tactic for increasing their power. But it also reflects the strange persistence of the old racialist categories that flourished during the age of Jim Crow and “scientific racism.”
First came the murder of eight people, six of them ethnic Asians, by a clearly insane, guilt-obsessed sex-addict. Despite confessing his motives and their corroboration by friends and family, the “woke” commissars instantly began blaming white “racism” against Asians fomented by Donald Trump and his “white supremacist” minions. This attack, the narrative continues, explains the “outbreak” of anti-Asian “hate crimes” first stirred up by Trump when he insisted on calling the current pandemic “Chinese.”
Of course, this is all blatantly preposterous. Identifying diseases by geographical origin goes back half a millennium to syphilis being called the “Italian disease.” In 1957-58 we had the “Asian Flu,” and in 1968 the “Hong Kong” pandemic. No record of a “breakout” of anti-Asian pogroms back then. As for “white supremacists,” a plurality of “hate crimes” against Asians are committed by blacks. Meanwhile, blatant institutional discrimination against Asian applicants to our most prestigious universities––a lawsuit was making its way to the Supreme Court until Biden’s DOJ tossed the case–– continues to punish Asians for being hard-working and disciplined.
Then quickly followed another mass shooting that killed ten. Once more the itchy twitter-fingers of the “woke” decried psychopathic “white males” as a dire threat to our health and safety. Turned out the perpetrator is from Syria, most likely Arabic. While critics of the hasty “woke” gloated over the blunder, most people seemingly didn’t notice that Arabs are Semites, and Semites are Caucasians just like Swedes. Or at least they used to be: identity politics has turned “Caucasian” into a synonym for people of European descent. As Muslims, alleged victims of “white” Western imperialism, Arabs are now “people of color.”
This is where the incoherence becomes obvious. Those old racial categories were always useless other than for legitimizing the reduction of people to vast, simplistic categories based on physical traits like the color of skin, the texture of hair, and the shape of the nose or eyes. In other words, they are truly racist concepts that in their heyday invidiously defined the world’s peoples and put them into hierarchical ranks.
The premodern meaning of “race,” something like a “people” defined by language, customs, and culture, is better at accurately capturing the astonishing diversity of human beings. Take Africa, a continent we usually reduce to melanin quantities. Yet there are 3000 tribes in Africa and 2000 languages. “Black” is pretty much the least interesting thing you can say about Africans, if you’re really interested in actual human diversity.
“White” is equally banal, encompassing thousands of languages and ethnicities with profound differences among them. These days that extensive diversity can be seen in our DNA, which is a record of our ancestors’ migration and interbreeding. When I got my ancestral DNA analyzed, I discovered I shared 20% of my genes with people living in western Turkey. That’s because my maternal grandmother came from an Albanian village in southern Italy. These had been settled by Albanian refugees and migrants in the 14th and 15th centuries, and over the years developed a dialect of Italian influenced by Albanian. The noun “Italian,” let alone “white,” does not capture this ethnic diversity.
This extensive, complex diversity is typical, particularly for the Mediterranean, the original melting pot. We all are mongrels when it comes to our physical identity. But our true identity comes from our minds, our relationships, and our characters.
And from our cultures, which are more important than “race” in making us who we are. How you live and what you believe are what matter. But today’s self-proclaimed defenders of “racial justice” focus on superficial appearances as relentlessly as the old Jim Crow racists did with their “one-drop rule” and “octoroons.” They had to, for race-based slavery had to believe that any member of the “higher race” is superior to every member of the “inferior” one. That’s how slavery could be justified. To admit even one exception is as much a repudiation of slavery, as William Faulkner chronicled, as a mixed-race child.
That’s why a mixed-race child was always categorized as black, though these days often not always by themselves. A white woman could have a black child, but a black woman couldn’t have a white child. This irrational asymmetry persists today. It is testimony to how stubborn these old racist habits are that mixed-raced children default to “black” when identifying their ethnicity. Indeed, these days white people try to pass for black, not black for white. How does that show “white privilege”?
The more serious fallout from this racialist obsession is the way it obscures all the other ways people are diverse. Take faith. The history of black people in America has been bound up with their Christianity. The heroes of the Abolition and Civil Rights movements were not so much liberal or progressive Caucasians, but the black churches and clergy. Yet in our times, we rarely discuss issues concerning race from the perspective of traditional black Christians. Not a lot of time is spent by our pundits in talking about transgender rights or abortion from the perspective of black Christians.
Or consider socio-economic class. The notion of “systemic racism” simply erases the fiscal and social advantages that come to college-educated professionals. The blacks we see on television, whether a news anchor or an actor in a commercial, are mainly from the “talented twentieth,” to paraphrase Du Bois, that 20% of blacks who have a four-year college degree. Somehow, they are supposed to typify and represent the other 80%, including the working class and those trapped in inner city hell-holes. But their social reality is very different, and those differences are more important than superficial similarities.
It’s long been obvious that the racist color-wheel isn’t about human and social reality. It’s about political identity, demonizing the one demographic that the “woke” most associate with conservatism–– straight “white” males with a whole suite of innate, question-begging dysfunctions like racism, sexism, xenophobia, Islamophobia, homophobia, transphobia, and a general inclination for greed, violence, and selfishness. That’s why once-Caucasian “white” Arabs like Congressman Rashida Tlaib can call themselves “people of color” and reap the benefits of being an official “victim” certified by government agencies, universities, most of the media, and the entertainment industry.
In other words, “woke” racialism is all about leveraging factional political power. Identity politics is predicated on victimhood and grievance. Racial grievances comprise the “crises” the power-hungry Left never let go to waste, and if there isn’t a crisis, they make one up. To these peddlers of impossible utopias, there can never be real improvement until the political ideology of progressives prevails, which means further transforming the government from its Constitutional structure of divided powers and ordered liberty, to a centralized, redistributionist technocracy that threatens our unalienable rights and political freedom.
We’ve been living with these contradictions and hypocrisies for half a century, but the “trauma” of Donald Trump’ presidency drove the “woke” to intensify this dysfunction by several orders of magnitude. Our surveillance and punishment of racialist transgressions is reaching surreal levels, with tweets or statements made years ago by callow youth now being excavated and elevated into capital crimes. Only now it’s a career and social-media access that are cancelled rather than a life.
The real question, however, for those “social justice warriors” presumably angry over “racism” is, how does this endless, non-stop “cancel” purge help those black people who aren’t part of the “talented twentieth” improve their and their families’ lives? How does burning down black small businesses, defunding black police officers, opening the border to illegal workers and welfare dependents, keeping at-risk black children out of school, slamming the door on charter schools for black students, stalling the economy with more intrusive regulations and more deficit spending, and continuing to ignore the epidemic of black-on-black crime––help ordinary black people?
Not only does it not help, it hurts grievously. Over the last four years we saw record-breaking economic improvement for black lives, with unprecedented levels of wages and employment, and just as we are poised to recover from the wounds of the grossly negligent pandemic lockdowns, the “woke” Democrats are rushing to bring back the old tax-and-spend playbook and racialist demagoguery that will threaten that recovery and damage more of those “black lives” that are supposed to “matter.”
No good can come from telling any people, white or black, that they are programmed to fail and need special treatment or rigged rules. Dependence is a dangerous drug, for as the African proverb has it, “The hand that gives is always above the hand that takes.” If you sincerely care about all people succeeding, then just get out of their way.