Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
Recently, terminal Trumpophobe Max Boot went after chronic Trumpophobe National Review for not being extreme enough in their denunciation of “white grievance politics” and “whining” whites, who “can justify everything from a public temper tantrum to a shooting spree,” and expose their belief “that white supremacy is the natural order of things.” Boot counsels “clueless white people” to “get a grip” and tone down the “sense of outrage that white people feel when they fear losing their privileged position to people of color.”
John Nolte on Brietbart humorously dissects Boot’s racialist drivel and the NeverTrump civil war, and John Hirschauer ably defends NRO’s real point. What I find interesting 50 years after the Civil Rights legislation is the continuing use of empty terms like “white.” Such racial categories are left-overs from early 20th century “scientific racism,” which dressed up irrational and self-serving bigotry in the technical terminology and quantitative procedures of real science. Today, they are the instruments of the progressive project of dismantling the Constitutional order at the expense of freedom.
Back in the heyday of “scientific racism,” the category “white” was an incoherent amalgam of superficial physical characteristics like skull shape and skin-color, with subjectively defined inherited “traits”––including vague qualities like “gumption” or “stick-to-it-ive-ness”–– that in fact reflected cultural differences, different social mores, affluence, and geographic diversity. Soon “white” denoted the Anglo-Norman, Nordic, and Germanic peoples, often compressed into WASPs, who comprised America’s socio-economic, political, and educational elite. That same demographic provided the intellectual and political advocates of “scientific racism” and the eugenics movement, which sought to limit immigrants from southern Italy, eastern Europe, and the Middle East, who by the Darwinian laws of nature were incapable of functioning in a politically free, economically advanced society.
These “inferiors,” then, were not considered “white,” even though on the basis of another, earlier classification system equally misguided, they were all “Caucasian,” a word now used as a synonym for the cruder simplicity of “white.” Originally, however, “Caucasians” included coal-black South Asians, lily-white Swedes, and swarthy Semites such as Arabs and Jews. It is testimony to how fluid, politicized, and zany our racial categories are that a self-proclaimed woman “of color” like Congressman Rashida Tlaib is an original Caucasian just like Benjamin Netanyahu or Donald Trump.
Terms like “Caucasian” and “Negroid” at least didn’t make skin-color the sole determinate of racial identity. But “scientific racism” made categories like “white” even more subjective and reflective of social prejudice. For example, for decades southern Italians were not considered “white.” In the Twenties, a black man in Mississippi was convicted of violating anti-miscegenation laws for marrying an Italian woman. But an appellate court overturned the conviction, arguing that no reasonable man would consider a southern Italian “white.” It is an irony of history that a people whose ancestors created the Roman Empire, the foundational civilization of the West, and who dismissed the northern European Celts, Vikings, and Germans as barely human barbarians, were two millennia later considered inferiors by the descendants of peoples their Roman ancestors deemed savages.
The fundamental error of “scientific racism” is the one still lying behind our use of “white”––confusing traits, values, customs, levels of economic development, and mores, with indelible, inherited physical characteristics that are not determinative of any of these markers of human identity. The extreme poverty of southern Italy or the Pale of Settlement in the western Russia borderlands, which accounted for the lack of development, squalor, and physical marks of nutritional deficiencies of their inhabitants, were deemed instead to be the products of inferior “germ plasm,” as the eugenicists were calling DNA after these peoples began immigrating to America.
Today we have distorted even further the meaning of “white.” Now political ideology and class tastes define whiteness. But we’ve added even another twist: rather than the triumphalist assertion of “white” identity that typified true “white supremacists” like the Boston Brahmins, we see the rhetorical self-flagellation of progressive whites proclaiming their “guilt” and “privilege” even as they do little to improve the dysfunctions of the black underclass, one created not by racism, but by the character-destroying, big-government redistributionist policies and programs supported by progressives. These white sham penitents and their public rituals of “woke” racial consciousness are ways to misdirect people from the left’s complicity in implementing and supporting such policies, their exploitation of those dysfunctions for partisan political gain, and their personal wealth and status that they decry in the abstract and project onto actual “whites” who have little of either.
Moreover, these “white people” doing the scolding of white “racism” generally come from the college-educated “managerial elite,” as James Burnham called it, the “technocratic elite of credentialed managers” like Elizabeth Warren, “Beto” O’Rourke, or Pete Buttigieg, who can afford to practice the racialist voodoo of “white privilege” and “white nationalism,” and who have had in their lives little day-to-day experience with less privileged “people of color” and “whites” who are not, like themselves, from the same upper class backgrounds.
So we are faced with the spectacle of furiously virtue-signaling, self-proclaimed antiracists of pallor relying on concepts that have nothing to do with human reality, and everything to do with class gate-keeping, group-think, and status affirmation. Rather than recognizing the complexity of American identity and its “factions,” they merely perpetuate the crude, invidious division of people into warring tribes based on superficial characteristics rather than culture, language, religion, customs, and all the other ways that actual human diversity has manifested itself in America since the country’s beginnings.
“White,” then, as used by the progressive race-industry and its NeverTrump fellow travelers, refers not so much to flesh-and-blood, unique human beings, as to an abstract demographic collective defined by an ideological caricature. On the one hand, you have an affluent elite pretending to confess their racial sins and calling for redress, knowing that such displays of moral preening are to them cost-free, and sure to garner the approval of the bipartisan managerial elite’s political and cultural hall monitors. On the other hand, you have the objects of their hatred and contempt: the Trumpkin “bitter clingers” and “deplorables” of fly-over country, those “smelly” Wal-Mart shoppers, gun-owners, hunters, toxically masculine males, false-conscious females, lovers of God and country, and repositories of common sense and practical wisdom who see though the pretensions, hubris, hypocrisy, and credentialed stupidity of their self-proclaimed betters.
In short, “white” is a political term serving the interests of the progressive utopians feathering their own political nest. Given the astonishing diversity of the peoples who settled America, the range of religions, dialects, and regional customs, a word like “white” has no real descriptive power. As it was at the height of “scientific racism,” it is a tool for forming an artificial collective one can demonize for political gain.
Worst of all, it is a way to ignore the fundamental reality of what we are: not “white” or “black” but unique, complex individuals whose identities are not materially determined, but are a consequence of our minds, virtues, experiences, and free choices––an identity that can change through time, and become better or worse. And most important, it is these individuals who possess inalienable natural rights that no collective or external power can redefine, diminish, or destroy without destroying our humanity.
Genuine diversity, then, is the diversity of individual human beings––the exact opposite of the fake diversity practiced today. That “diversity” comprises superficial physical characteristics and artificial “cultural” differences that camouflage a relentless uniformity of political ideology of the sort prized by fascism, Nazism, and communism. But unlike those totalitarian collective identities, we allow this ideological uniformity to coexist with the fashions, tastes, and life-style choices typical of an affluent, mass consumer culture. Hence the rank hypocrisy and bad faith of well-heeled jet-set “socialists” condemning the “white privilege” of working-class people without college degrees.
Our political order took into account that diversity of regions and individuals by checking and balancing political power. They knew such diversity could tend to intertribal conflict that threatened the freedom of individuals as well as state and local governments. Today’s obsession with an empty concept like “white” has threatened that freedom by ignoring true diversity and seeking to concentrate and expand power at its expense. “White privilege,” “white nationalism,” and “white supremacism” are the premises of endemic “racism,” and “racism” is the crisis that the totalitarian-minded find necessary for diminishing the freedom of individuals and civil society that do not share their political prejudices.
Chief Justice John Roberts once said, “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” But first we must stop using empty, politicized racial categories like “white,” and instead take humans one at a time.