Home Politics White identity politics is about more than racism – Vox.com

White identity politics is about more than racism – Vox.com

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When people talk about “identity politics,” it’s often assumed they’re referring to the politics of marginalized groups like African Americans, LGBTQ people, or any group that is organizing on the basis of a shared experience of injustice — and that’s a perfectly reasonable assumption.

Traditionally, identity has only really been a question for non-dominant groups in society. If you’re a member of the dominant group, your identity is taken for granted precisely because it’s not threatened. But the combination of demographic shifts and demagogic politicians has transformed the landscape of American politics. Now, white identity has been fully activated.

This is the argument Duke political scientist Ashley Jardina makes in her book White Identity Politics. Drawing on a decade of data from American National Election Studies surveys, Jardina claims that white Americans — roughly 30 to 40 percent of them — now identify with their whiteness in a politically meaningful way. Importantly, this racial solidarity doesn’t always overlap with racism, but it does mean that racial identity is becoming a more salient force in American politics.

I spoke to Jardina about the rise of white identity politics — why she believes America’s diversification has triggered a host of anxieties about who holds power and who does not, and what she thinks we can do to deal with the problems this anxiety has created.

A lightly edited transcript of our conversation follows.

Sean Illing

You open the book with a great quote from James Baldwin about how identity is “questioned only when it is menaced.” What’s the significance of this quote?

Ashley Jardina

It was so fitting when I was thinking about what gives rise to an identity like white identity, or really any dominant group identity. The important thing to note about dominant group identities is that we often think of them as invisible — and part of the reason is because dominant groups like whites in this society typically haven’t been forced to think about their identity.

Prior to a couple years ago, whites felt secure in the belief that they held a disproportionate share of economic and political and social resources, so their lives weren’t over-determined by their race. But now white identity has become salient as white Americans feel more and more threatened, and that fear has activated identity in a way we haven’t seen for some time.

Sean Illing

That’s the thing about identity, right? It’s inherently reactionary. Every identity is defined by what it isn’t as much as what it is. So it’s not surprising that group solidarity spikes when there’s a threat, real or imagined.

Ashley Jardina

Absolutely. The reason we naturally think of African Americans when we think of identity in the US, for example, is because we know this group has a long history of oppression and subordination in this country, and so their identity is quite strong — it has to be, really. Because their identities have been forced upon them by dint of circumstances.

Sean Illing

So when did whites start thinking about their whiteness in a politically meaningful way again? And what precipitated this sudden awareness?

Ashley Jardina

My argument is that it’s the growing diversity of the United States. There’s this series of events that are in many ways a product of that increasing diversity. So I began by looking at the massive waves of immigration that happened in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and how that changed the demographics of the United States.

At this point today, it’s projected that whites will cease to be a majority by the middle of the century. This fact, which was brought into sharp relief by the election of Barack Obama, ignited a wave racial awareness among white Americans, and I think we’re still reckoning with the political consequences of this.

Sean Illing

What does the data tell us about how whites are defining their own anxieties or concerns?

Ashley Jardina

Deep down it’s about this fear that America isn’t going to look like them anymore, that they’ll lose their majority and with it their cultural and political power. It’s also tied up in the belief that whites are experiencing discrimination now.

The gains that racial and ethnic majorities are making, either socially or politically or economically, are coming at the expense of their group. In many ways, it’s about feeling that the privileges and status that whites have by way of their race are somehow being threatened or challenged.

Sean Illing

I find it difficult to distinguish between fear of change and fear of the other. Obviously, these things can overlap, and quite often they do, but it’s not necessarily the same thing, right?

Ashley Jardina

I think that’s right. But here we’re talking very specifically about the loss of status and the loss of power, as a result of some other group. So I think it’s a combination of those two things, both change and fear of the other. In this case, it’s hard to disentangle these things because it’s the “other” that’s creating the change.

Sean Illing

I’m trying to be as fair as possible, because I think some people on the left fail to distinguish between racism and a reasonable concern that the country is changing too fast for the culture to keep up, which historically can create a lot of social unrest.

Ashley Jardina

It’s a very good point. Part of what I’ve done is try to be objective and perhaps even sympathetic to some of the whites that I studied.

I thought a lot about the book The Unsteady March, by Philip Klinkner and Rogers Smith, where they describe how if you grow up in a society where your group is privileged, and you experience that privilege in a way that seems basically natural because you’re so steeped in it, your whole life is just structured around it; when any change comes about that threatens that privilege, it feels disquieting.

And I think that’s a pretty sympathetic way of talking about what’s happening right now.

Sean Illing

The problem, of course, is that too much sympathy is itself problematic.

Ashley Jardina

Exactly. We can’t mask the fact that we’re also talking about the protection and preservation of whites in the United States at the expense of racial and ethnic minorities, and I think that’s part of the problem. So in the book, I make this really crisp distinction between white identity and white racial prejudice, and that’s an important distinction.

Sean Illing

Can you lay out that distinction for me?

Ashley Jardina

When we often talk about white racial attitudes, we talk about prejudice as this antipathy for people who aren’t white, and usually that means white antipathy for black Americans or Muslim Americans or Latino Americans or whoever. But what I’m suggesting is there’s this other force that’s independent of that, and it’s about the desire of white people to protect their group, to preserve their group status. This isn’t the same as racial prejudice, but it absolutely helps maintain a system of racism.

Sean Illing

You’re talking about white people who feel a sense of racial solidarity with fellow whites but would reject any assertions of white supremacy. In other words, it’s about identifying more with the in-group than hating the out-group.

Ashley Jardina

You got it. And one way to think about that is there are a lot of white people in the United States who have a strong sense of racial antipathy or racial prejudice who don’t identify with their racial group, and there are a lot of white people who do have this sense of solidarity but who wouldn’t score particularly high on any social science measure of racial prejudice.

For these whites, it’s about protecting their in-group and showing some sense of favoritism, completely independent of racial prejudice. Most of these whites that I’m talking about and thinking about are not members of the KKK, they would absolutely reject any association with white supremacist organizations, and yet in some instances, they do hold a lot of the same beliefs as some of these groups.

Sean Illing

I want to hold on this point for a second, because I think it will confuse people. How is it that someone can have a strong sense of racial antipathy for “the other” and not identify with their own racial group at the same time? That seems nearly impossible.

Ashley Jardina

Many whites in the US may possess a strong animus, resentment, or dislike toward people of color, but at the same time, these same whites do not necessarily feel a sense of solidarity with other whites. The converse is also true. There are many whites who feel strongly connected with other whites, but they do not simultaneously score high on measures of racial prejudice.

The problem, of course, is that wanting to favor and protect one’s racial in-group can often result in behavior that discriminates against racial out-groups, even if that is not the intention. That’s one important reason why we ought to worry about white identity politics. It often results in whites wanting to protect their group and its status at the expense of more equality for racial and ethnic minorities.

We should also be nervous that there isn’t significant overlap between whites who are racially prejudiced and whites who possess a racial identity, because that means that politicians can now appeal to the two groups, independently, mobilizing them both to participate in politics, often toward the same ends.

Sean Illing

And what percentage of white Americans are we talking about here?

Ashley Jardina

About 30 to 40 percent.

Sean Illing

I’m sure many people will read what you just said and think, “Well, someone doesn’t have to self-identify as a racist to be a racist.” And I think it’s a fair point, because in-group favoritism in the way you’re defining does imply at least a little hostility to the out-group, even if it isn’t fully recognized.

Ashley Jardina

Yeah, social psychologists have been studying the phenomenon of in-group favoritism and out-group animosity for a long time. What we found is that regardless of the type of group that you’re talking about, you can feel fondly about your in-group but not necessarily want to disparage the relevant out-group. They’re not necessarily the same thing; they’re not reciprocal. They’re not two sides of the same coin.

Think about the fact that some people feel very strongly attached to their religious identity, but that doesn’t always manifest in a dislike or animosity toward people who belong to other religions. Now, sometimes, those things are related. Sometimes we do see that type of relationship, but that’s not what I found in my data with respect to white identity.

What I’m suggesting is there are now two things going on. You’ve got the prevalence of white racial prejudice in American politics, and you’ve got this rise of white identity politics. In some ways, they’re two forces pushing in the same direction, but they’re capturing two different sets of white Americans.


Sean Illing

One obvious problem is that these social realities create more incentives for politicians to exploit racial fears and anxieties for the sake of political expediency, and I don’t see any way to prevent this. Do you?

Ashley Jardina

Well, this is definitely a choice that politicians are making. In some ways, we have to rely on politicians to be better. And there are examples of this. If you go back and you think about the campaign that John McCain ran, or that Mitt Romney ran when they were running against Obama, they were very careful not to race-bait. They chose very deliberately not to use Obama’s race as a wedge to try to garner more support from their base.

Of course, Trump very obviously went another direction and exploited racial anxieties as an effective political strategy. But not every politician chooses to do that, and we very desperately need more of this. The fear, though, is that Trump was so effective employing this strategy that other politicians are going to be tempted to follow his lead.

So you’re not wrong to be worried, although it’s worth pointing out that politicians have always exploited racial anxieties. This is hardly a new phenomenon.

Sean Illing

One of the tropes I hear constantly on the right is that the rise in white identity politics is a direct consequence of identity politics on the left. But your analysis suggests that it’s primarily about these deeper demographic shifts, not necessarily about what the political left is doing.

Ashley Jardina

I would say that one thing I’ve learned from studying people who score high on our measures of white identity is that they do seem to be borrowing some of the strategies used by groups on the left. So, for example, complaining that their group experiences discrimination, or trying to demand that their group gets a white history month, or wanting things organized politically around their race. These are cases in which whites are learning the lessons from identity politics practiced by other groups.

On the other hand, identities among black Americans have been consistently strong and powerful and an important force in American politics for decades, particularly the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s. And yet during that time, we certainly didn’t see white identity seeming to matter very much in American politics. So it does seem to be more about these demographics and the deeper concerns they’re producing.

Sean Illing

It’s not clear to me how these fears can be assuaged or appeased without paying a very high political price or simply exacerbating tensions in the other direction.

Ashley Jardina

If I knew definitively how to assuage these fears, then many political consulting firms would be banging at my door. But it’s hard to figure out exactly how to inoculate Americans from the concerns they have about increasing diversity and demographic change.

The provocation of these concerns is why some scholars have begun to worry about the attention the media has paid to covering projections of demographic change, which some argue are overstated. The more we draw attention to growing diversity and to immigration, the more some whites are going to be fixated on these issues.

There are some clues, however, about the ways in which political elites might steer attention in another, more productive direction. Demographic change is inevitable, but it isn’t, arguably, one of our most pressing political issues.

In fact, much research suggests that we need immigrants to help maintain the country’s economic growth, and to provide a solid tax base to fund entitlement programs. And it’s actually with respect to protecting and preserving parts of our social safety net that we might find more common ground among Americans, regardless of race or ethnicity.

For example, in my work, I find that white identifiers are especially supportive of policies like Social Security and Medicare. Unlike means-tested policies that fall under the umbrella term “welfare” and have been racialized such that now they are associated with blacks and other minorities, Social Security and Medicare are viewed as benefiting all groups, including whites.

Whites with higher levels of racial identity like these policies, which means that politicians might garner a lot of support across racial groups by focusing on efforts to protect and preserve these policies.

Trump clearly knew this when he was campaigning for office. He departed from the traditional Republican Party platform and promised to protect these entitlement programs. Of course, Trump is also very good at drawing white Americans’ attention to the anxiety and fears they have about immigration and demographic changes.

Sean Illing

Here’s the thing: White Americans are right to notice that they’re losing cultural and political power. The country is changing. Groups that previously had little power are now asserting themselves. These are not illusory shifts. I suppose the question is, how do we convince people that this isn’t necessarily a zero-sum game?

Ashley Jardina

Well, I’m not sure that it is a zero-sum game, and growing diversity need not be framed by elites as if it is.

For one thing, the claim that whites are going to lose an enormous degree of power in the United States because of immigration and growing diversity is certainly overstated. If anything, immigration will likely increase the size of the proverbial “pie” of economic resources available to all Americans by helping grow the economy.

There’s also just not a lot of evidence that immigrants are depressing American citizens’ wages or taking their jobs. So when politicians claim immigrants threaten American workers, they’re usually just fearmongering.

It is also worth noting that most Americans claim, at least in the abstract, that they want to live in a more racially egalitarian society. It is just going to take some time for white Americans to be comfortable with the reality of greater equality — a reality in which not everyone represented in the media, sitting in a board room, or holding office is white by the standards of our time.

Sean Illing

We’re transitioning from an unjust and hierarchical system into a more just and less hierarchical system, and that means people are going to lose power or influence. How can we make this transition without careening into truly dangerous territory?

Ashley Jardina

There are things to be hopeful about. For one, I’ve observed that levels of racial identity among white Americans have actually decreased since Trump’s election. I’m working now with colleagues to understand better what has motivated some whites to reject a racial identity they were previously willing to claim.

So far, what we’ve found is that whites who felt disgusted by Trump were more likely to abandon their racial identity in the wake of the 2016 election. These results suggest that Trump is actually driving some whites away from a sense of racial solidarity. He’s making people uncomfortable with adopting this identity, and therefore is hopefully driving some whites away from the impulse to protect their racial group at the expense of greater equality.

It is also worth noting that this discomfort over change as we move toward greater equality is hardly new. Think back to the civil rights movement. At the time, public opinion surveys showed that many Americans thought that the leaders of the movement were pushing much too fast for equality. And there was certainly a backlash among whites, one that continues to ripple through American politics and society. But at the end of the day, we ended up with a much more egalitarian nation.

Hopefully, that’s the direction we are moving in today, and there’s some indication that we are. Despite the more obvious and deeply troubling signs of the backlash to diversity we’re witnessing, like the rise in white nationalist groups and an uptick in hate crimes, most white Americans have not become more racially prejudiced over the past two decades.

If anything, in the wake of Trump, we’ve seen whites, especially those who identify with the Democratic Party, becoming more racially sympathetic. Given these trends, political elites should be less afraid to call out the racist remarks made by their peers and to decry efforts to race-bait in political campaigns. Politicians are going to be tempted to adopt these strategies, but we shouldn’t stop trying to sanction them for doing so.

Sean Illing

Are there examples of other countries or societies managing a transition similar to what you’re describing in this book? And what can we learn from their experiences?

Ashley Jardina

That’s a great question. Unfortunately, it’s beyond my particular area of expertise. But I’ll say this: There are examples of other periods of American history where we’ve witnessed this. In the book, I talk a lot about the early 1900s and 1920s when we had very much this same thing happening. We had a huge influx of immigrants from parts of the world where, at the time, those immigrants were not considered white. And if you look at the conversations that we were having as a nation, or conversations our politicians were having, they were talking about the exact same thing.

They were talking about trying to preserve the nation as a “white nation,” and what ultimately happened is we dramatically restricted levels of immigration moving forward but we still had already experienced these big demographic shifts. So the restrictions came well after the composition of the United States had arguably changed. So the consequence was a lot of assimilation and a sort of redefining of what it meant to be white in the United States in a way that kind of reinforced a racial hierarchy.

On the other hand, all of this led to a political conversation that was less zero-sum in nature, and I think that’s ultimately what we need.

Sean Illing

I’m wondering how all these trends play out. The demographic changes are going to continue, and that means the political cleavages they’ve opened up are going to deepen. Where does that leave us?

Ashley Jardina

Well, there’s some speculation about whether whites are actually going to ultimately become a minority or whether we’ll simply redefine what it means to be white in the United States and potentially subsume Latinx Americans into that definition. So that’s one hypothesis and possibility.

But the other thing is it’s going to be quite some time before whites become a minority. I think that what that means, number one, is that whatever losses that whites are worried about as a result of demographic changes are going to continue to happen probably slowly and over a very extended period of time.

But on the other hand, the bell has already been rung. The demographics have shifted in a way that can’t be undone. That leaves the door open for politicians to try to rally white Americans around these concerns and these anxieties. This will be a constant temptation moving forward for politicians seeking to win office, and it’s something we all should be extremely worried about.

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