Whiteness and the Political Imagination

The election of Donald Trump as president of the United States has given the usual suspects of white commentators and pundits the opportunity to once again call for the end of identity politics. The argument goes like this: you complained too much about bathrooms and pronouns, about safe spaces and mansplaining. In turn, you’ve alienated every day white Americans, and, well, look where you are now. This logic posits the concerns of marginalized folks as some kind of fatal overreach; it suggests that our call for the recognition of human dignity has turned the country against us.

Our latest entry in this tired, sad genre appears courtesy of Professor Mark Lilla, of Columbia University, in the NYT Sunday Opinion paper. In “The End of Identity Liberalism,” Lilla moves through a sort of Greatest Hits version of “Marginalized People, Please Shut Up,” with some truly audacious and confounding rhetorical flourishes (e.g. “Liberals should bear in mind that the first identity movement in American politics was the Ku Klux Klan, which still exists.”) Yet what stuck with me most is how little he, and white people more generally, have thought through what it means to be white in America.

This isn’t surprising. I’m no longer a literary scholar (I flunked out of grad school), but I was trained as one. When I read work like this, I can only hear Toni Morrison’s words in my head. In her slim but seminal work, Playing in the Dark, Morrison asks us to contend with the literary constructions of whiteness:

“For reasons that should not need explanation here, until very recently, and regardless of the race of the author, the readers of virtually all American fiction have been positioned as white. I am interested to know what that assumption has done to the literary imagination.”

We might take this powerful passage and twist it slightly to ask the following question: What has the assumption of whiteness as American done to the political imagination? Reader, I’m afraid to say that it is not good. While Lilla gives some token mention to Black Lives Matter and LGBT rights, he simply cannot fathom a progressive politics that doesn’t take (male) whiteness as its default. The mere idea that (male) whiteness might be shifting away from the center of our politics, in the minds of people like Lilla, provokes backlash, which must be met with the recentering of “white working class” concerns.

What do we have invested in the idea of the “white working class”? I’m troubled by the repetition of this phrase. When it is repeated so often, as it has been for the past week, it begins to sound a lot like a directive. That directive is “pay more attention to white people’s concerns.” But why is the white working class separate from the working class? While people of color do not make up the majority of the working class, it’s no secret that communities of color are disproportionately poor compared to white people.

And though all of Trump’s supporters might not be racist, their votes for him signal that openly racist ideas and policies are an acceptable means to an end. Their votes signal that they are willing to place the blame for their economic misfortune at the feet of everyone but the ruling class. Where in these whiny pieces about identity politics are the calls for straight white people to bridge the gaps with those unlike them? Why is the conclusion that everyone else must fall silent and stop asking for so much? The burden to make these connections should not fall at the feet of marginalized communities.

And yet it will, and has. And those communities will try to bridge those gaps. The prevailing black political tradition in America is nothing if not savvy, patient, and forgiving. I, and many people of color, are more than willing to talk about the opiate crisis (ignored until it conquered white communities), loss of manufacturing jobs, and stagnant wages, because they affect us, too. But when our concerns are met with hostility and dismissiveness, one can only expect the thread of that patience to stretch so far — before it breaks.

I suspect that people like Columbia University Professor Mark Lilla have little reason to be concerned. What’s left of the Trump’s serious political opposition, namely Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, has already shifted to addressing those white folks who feel they have been left behind. While Sanders and Warren have taken the time to denounce the mounting racism of Trump’s looming administration, they, too, have yet to address the idea that the economic concerns of poor white people are bound up in those of marginalized communities. The great joke of all of these pieces about the necessary death of identity politics is that they come smack dab in the middle of — and this is no longer hyperbole — a white nationalist takeover of our government. With the appointments of Steve Bannon, Jeff Sessions, Mike Flynn, and Mike Pompeo, Trump has let us know that he intends to govern exactly as he campaigned. He will fulfill very little, if any, of the promises he made to struggling white people; except, of course, to punish those whom they blame for their white misfortune.

As a Socialist, I cherish the renewed focus on class, sparked by the Occupy Wall Street movement, and seized upon by Warren and Sanders. As a black man, however, I am reluctant to indulge my fellow leftists in their rhetoric that subjugates every concern to the bright beacon of class politics. History is all-too-clear about what happens to black people when economic policy is colorblind. Lilla himself cites Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton as two politicians who successfully appealed to the idea of a single “America.” He neglects to acknowledge that one jump-started the AIDS crisis, and the other is significantly responsible for our current carceral state. Again it appears that everything is fine as long as the concerns of white workers take our focus.

It is unclear, and ultimately unimportant, where people like Lilla would place themselves on our degenerate political spectrum. The truth is that you can find white people of all political stripes, including Prescriptivist Leftist White Dudes Who Need To Be Correct On Twitter, who would have us sublimate our very humanity to serve their own purposes. In different ways, they all let us know how little our lives matter.

Black people understand the importance of class politics. Black feminists, like those who made up the Combahee River Collective, have already given us the frameworks with which we can structure this kind of layered, multicultural struggle. In 1989, legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw gave us intersectionatlity. It was an idea specifically focused on the varied oppressions faced by black women, but it remains one of the best ways to think about how our varied positions collide and rebound off one another. Similarly, Martin Luther King, Jr. also gave us ways in which to think about race and class.  He asked us to consider how these positions interact:

Now our struggle is for genuine equality, which means economic equality. For we know now, that it isn’t enough to integrate lunch counters. What does it profit a man to be able to eat at an integrated lunch counter if he doesn’t have enough money to buy a hamburger? What does it profit a man to be able to eat at the swankest integrated restaurant when he doesn’t even earn enough money to take his wife out to dine? What does it profit one to have access to the hotels of our cities, and the hotels of our highways, when we don’t earn enough money to take our family on a vacation? What does it profit one to be able to attend an integrated school, when he doesn’t earn enough money to buy his children school clothes?

King’s conclusion seemed to be that there can be no social justice without economic justice. It’s a conclusion that is difficult to argue against, but we might pose a different set of questions as a modest starting point: Before we even talk about a wage, how does one get a job when resumés are thrown out because names sound too black? How do we confront the reality that a white man with a criminal record is more likely to get a job than a black man without one? How can we work when we are murdered at traffic stops and locked up for drug possession? These questions need answers, and those answers cannot begin with condescension to identity politics.

I want to return, if only briefly, to this idea of white backlash or “whitelash.” Lilla argues that, in the final sense, our obsession with identity has failed because it has encouraged poor, rural, white voters to see themselves as an oppressed group. This argument is completely ahistorical. Any good student of American history — indeed, anyone who had enough time on their sabbaticals in France to watch Ava DuVernay’s excellent Netflix documentary 13th — would know that America frequently indulges in cycles of white backlash. If we only look at the the history of black struggle, we can see this clearly enough. After slavery came Reconstruction. The response to Reconstruction was Jim Crow. Jim Crow was torn down by the Civil Rights Movement. Now, we have mass incarceration. Let’s be honest: White folks have always figured themselves as put-upon by some unknowable Other — no matter how powerless or ineffectual that Other was. This is, actually, exactly how the Other functions. Thoughts about whiteness are so underdeveloped that it’s rarely even conceived of as an identity, though it is, and white people have been organizing around it for centuries to prevent some perceived “loss.” This organizing happened far before blacks and gays and women had any power, far before people were complaining about pronouns and bathrooms.

What no one seems willing to say — what white workers and Trump voters need to realize before we can forge any kind of lasting coalition — is that social justice and economic justice are not mutually exclusive. They are one and the same. We cannot have a discussion about race and gender without also having a discussion about how capitalism reifies and exacerbates these structures.

One final note, one last bit of chaw to chew on. While pundits and leftists come out of the woodwork to blame identity politics for this loss, while they bemoan all of the white working class people who feel forgotten and left behind, Flint, Michigan, a predominantly black city, still does not have clean water.




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