I can’t recall the first time I heard the phrase “white male” hissed as if it were some form of particularly vile insult. I know it happened in law school, where it was used as a short-hand way of saying that I should be silent, that my views were not welcome. Over time, I learned that, to a certain set of people, there was something positively wrong with being white. “We” were the great privileged oppressors of history. And “we” were the great privileged oppressors of the present.
Our law schools are, in many ways, incubators for the identity politics that dominate the social-justice Left. For those soaked in progressive identity politics, skin color was a stand-in for virtue. It was impossible for a black person to be racist; it was impossible for a white person not to be. Any in-depth discussion of history had to acknowledge past injustice. It was tough even to talk about, say, Omaha Beach without in the next breath acknowledging the systematic segregation in the World War II–era U.S. Army.
Oddly enough, this self-loathing doesn’t diminish the power of the white progressive. The movement is still chock-full of rich white men and women. Indeed, they mainly lead the American Left. They simply purport to hate and mock “white males” with the same intensity as do their black friends.
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Here’s the problem: Progressives don’t like to admit this, but identity politics work as the mirror image of white supremacy — compressing the extraordinarily rich and complex histories of nations, continents, and cultures into one characteristic: skin color. For the white supremacist, white people are natural-born victors. For the identity-politics leftist, white people are natural-born predators.
But actual history belies the stereotypes. To take just one hot-button example, the history of slavery since the colonial era is not just a history of Europeans and white Americans enslaving Africans. It’s of Africans enslaving Africans, of Africans enslaving Europeans, and of Arabs enslaving Africans (and that’s just a partial summary). Yes, brown people enslaved white people by the millions: Should Americans of North African or Turkish descent check their privilege and believe their wealth was built on plunder?
When identity politics rule, racism and polarization thrive.
I’ve seen friends and neighbors tempted by this same mindless reductionism. You hear it whenever someone says, “When do we get a white-history month?” Or: “Where is the National Association for the Advancement of White People?” Or: “Why isn’t there affirmative action for white people in the NBA?” But lumping the history of England with the history of, say, Ukraine and calling that “white history” is absurd — just as absurd as linking the ancient history of Ethiopia with the modern history of Liberia and calling that “black history.” The answer to misguided identity politics isn’t more misguided identity politics.
Indeed, race obsession obscures the far more important discussion of culture. If you think, for example, that there’s a single monolithic “black” culture, talk to a recent Nigerian immigrant who’s experiencing his own culture clash — even while surrounded by black Americans. If there is one “white” culture, why are there such enduring and profound differences between Germans and Greeks?
There is nothing wrong with being white. There is nothing right with being white. And there is something bizarre about being proud of past accomplishments (or repentant of past failures) based merely on sharing a skin tone with unrelated prior generations. It is far more enriching — and humbling — to learn of our own individual histories. When you learn more about the past, you realize how much we all stand on the shoulders of giants, but also how just a single lifetime of decadence and irresponsibility can sweep away the work of generations.
I prefer to speak in terms not of pride, but of gratitude. How can I be “proud” that my relatives came over on the Mayflower and stood with Washington at Valley Forge? I had nothing to do with those achievements and would be hard-pressed to demonstrate the same courage. Instead, I’m grateful — deeply grateful. And I’m grateful also for the history of my nation and culture — a nation that through great effort and enormous sacrifice cultivated and preserved principles of individual liberty and human freedom that have benefited billions of human souls.We’ve always had a race problem in this country, but to deny our progress on this front is to deny reality. That progress, however, is not inevitable, and this political generation — in its mindless rage and commitment to identity politics — threatens to undo the work of generations before. When one side screams that white is wrong, another side will scream that white is right, and the concept of an actual “racial conversation” — much less the notion of “racial healing” — will be little more than a sad joke.
I don’t see the problem as primarily political. Instead, our nation is undoing its progress on race issues more in the academy, on social media, and in Hollywood than it is in the halls of power. Politicians are responding to culture, not driving culture, and we’re driving our nation apart piece by piece, from Facebook to 4chan. The day when a critical mass of our nation can’t truly say — and mean — “all lives matter” is the day we’re truly lost.
— David French is an attorney and a staff writer at National Review.