Magazine | December 17, 2018, Issue

What’s the Matter with White Liberals?

(Yuri Gripas/REUTERS)
The answer, they increasingly believe, is that they’re racist

Business is booming for Robin DiAngelo, a retired sociologist and the author of White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism. Since resigning from Westfield State University three years ago, DiAngelo has become a full-time “writer and presenter.” What she writes about is the pathological inability of white people to understand their passive complicity in America’s “white supremacist culture,” and whom she presents it to is white people looking for lessons in how to overcome it. “Now breathe,” she instructs her readers. “I am not saying that you are immoral. If you can remain open as I lay out my argument” — here, the argument that she can credibly judge your racism by virtue of your whiteness even if she has never met you — “it should soon begin to make sense.” Like therapy, it doesn’t always go over well: DiAngelo recounts a woman’s bristling after being told that her comments “invalidated” another person’s “experience as a black man.” But that is just white fragility in action.

Released this year to positive reviews and making the New York Times best-seller list, DiAngelo’s book draws on her years of experience running cultural-competency seminars for American companies. After its release, she went on a book tour in which she hosted similar seminars for readers interested in overcoming the “racial innocence” out of which she intends to shock them. At one, in Seattle, various participants came away with some observations about themselves. “All correct information that I was ever given was provided by a white person,” said one. “[I had] white friend groups, white peers, white mentors.” “I never had a teacher of a different race.” “It’s been very easy for me to not think about race.” DiAngelo, meanwhile, began the workshop with the necessary confession: “I’m Robin DiAngelo — I’m white.”

The business of a white person’s explaining the evils of whiteness to other white people might seem strange, but DiAngelo provides a service for which there is plenty of demand. The strain of left-wing politics that purports to have the interests of the marginalized in mind happens to have a lot of white adherents. A nonpartisan group called “More in Common” commissioned a survey of the various political types into which Americans fit, and, by its measure, “progressive activists,” those who believe that American institutions were “established by socially dominant groups such as straight white men, for their own benefit,” are the most racially homogeneous political type in the country. The people who “seek to correct the historic marginalization of groups based on their race, gender, sexuality, wealth, and other forms of privilege” are overwhelmingly white, rich, and well educated.

Is that really a surprise? Think of the places where these ideas are preached. White liberals are overrepresented among professors and administrators on elite college campuses, where students and faculty criticize the U.S. and its institutions as fundamentally unjust and administrators rush to codify those criticisms in mandatory seminars. Comedians Jimmy Kimmel, Samantha Bee, and Stephen Colbert years ago dispensed with the pretense of being mere entertainers and now sermonize constantly about the deeply embedded injustices of American life. Previously apolitical publications from Teen Vogue (“The History of the SAT Is Mired in Racism and Elitism”) to Eater (“[Netflix Show] ‘Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat’ Is Marxist Fantasy Porn”) invoke ideas once consigned to fringe pamphlets. The belief that modern life was founded on the sinister plinths of whiteness, masculinity, and capitalism can be called “wokeness,” and wokeness is in.

We have heard much this century about the supposed “asymmetric polarization” of the Republican party — the idea that the GOP moved in an extreme direction as the rest of the country remained moderate — and the attendant radicalization of white conservatives. One writer argued after speaking with “dozens” of Donald Trump voters that the vast majority were voting for white nationalism while denying it to themselves and others. Something like this has become a popular explanation of American politics in the era of Trump: With the Democratic party and its rainbow coalition on the verge of ascendance, white conservatives were radicalized and organized around a revanchist political party that promised to arrest demographic trends and entrench itself in power. But there’s mounting evidence that the other side is organizing around a different set of beliefs that is radical all the same. It’s not just DiAngelo and her mainstream epigones who are embracing wokeness. It’s ordinary white liberals.

In recent years, says political scientist Matt Grossmann, “baseline measures of racial and gender attitudes show more change among liberals than they do among conservatives.” The turning of the public against the party in power and all it represents is an old phenomenon, but white liberals have undergone a sea change in their political opinions. In a draft paper, Georgia State University graduate student Zachary Goldberg identifies a series of sudden, “seismic attitudinal shifts” among self-identified white liberals that took place largely between 2012 and 2016.

Goldberg uses data from Pew, the American National Election Survey (ANES), and the General Social Survey (GSS) to identify the shifts. By 2016, more than 60 percent of white liberals believed discrimination against black Americans was the root cause of the white–black achievement gap. Up from approximately 42 percent in 2012, that is a record high for white liberals since the GSS began asking the question in 1977 and a larger share than that of all black Americans surveyed. In a 2017 Pew poll, almost 80 percent of white liberals viewed discrimination as the major obstacle to black achievement. The ANES shows more white liberals than ever perceiving high levels of discrimination against blacks, Hispanics, women, and Muslims — a trend, Goldberg argues, that is not matched by accompanying rises in discrimination as measured by self-reported workplace incidents and the Police-Public Contact Survey. (One explanation could be that President Trump’s much-publicized and inflammatory approach to racial issues during the presidential election contributed to rising perceptions of discrimination.)

Goldberg finds that white liberals increasingly describe white people as lazy and prone to violence, attitudes often associated with racist or prejudicial thinking. But anyone operating from woke premises knows that traditional definitions of racism are passé. Whites can no longer be the victims of racism, which, DiAngelo writes, “occurs when a racial group’s prejudice is backed by legal authority and institutional control.” White liberals think whites have this in abundance: In 2016, more white liberals than ever believed that “whites have too much political influence,” with 75 percent of 18- to 24-year-old white liberals agreeing.

The white-liberal shift extends to both abstract attitudes and specific policies. Levels of sympathy toward racial minorities, as measured by Goldberg, reached a high in 2016. So did feelings of warmth toward illegal immigrants and feminists. Thirty-eight percent, up from 23 percent in 2012, supported allowing higher levels of immigration — another record high — and the share supporting unconditional amnesty for unauthorized immigrants peaked. Support for affirmative action and raising welfare benefits for African Americans also reached record highs. Even the major ongoing affirmative-action debate, the discussion surrounding the lawsuit alleging that Harvard discriminates against Asian Americans in its admissions policies, is focused not on that allegation but on concerns about lessening black and Hispanic admissions to the university.

In his 1978 classic of American cultural history, American Jeremiad, Sacvan Bercovitch observed that sermons in Puritan New England followed a predictable rhetorical pattern. After a host of angry charges and threats of divine wrath, preachers would offer a slender but palpable chance of averting God’s righteous judgment through repentance. Long after the starch went out of old-fashioned Calvinism, Bercovitch noticed, this formula persisted in non-religious, popular discourse.

It persists today in woke rhetoric. The Atlantic’s Emma Green has noted the increasingly religious character of progressive activism, and as linguistics professor John McWhorter has written, “the call for people to soberly ‘acknowledge’ their White Privilege as a self-standing, totemic act is based on the same justification as acknowledging one’s fundamental sinfulness is as a Christian.” White people bear America’s original sin, and their road to salvation lies in reading Ta-Nehisi Coates and attending DiAngelo’s seminars. Goldberg’s most intriguing finding is the precipitous fall in religious observance among white liberals, suggesting that, perhaps, their attitudinal shift is no mystery.

There may be further explanations besides declining religiosity. Goldberg argues that the ubiquity of social media and the increasingly fractured media landscape play a role. But whatever its origins, the white-liberal shift augurs a strange future for American politics.

Such a morally urgent politics is not obviously conducive to pragmatic political compromises. Legislating, for instance, requires bargaining toward consensus on touchy issues. Yet witness the outrage from the left flank of the Democratic party any time party leaders appear willing to strike a legislative compromise on a hot-button issue such as immigration, or the special opprobrium reserved for red-state Democrats, such as senator Joe Manchin (W.Va.), who deign to vote with the Republican party on occasion.

If the constitutional system is shot through with discrimination, its institutions are infected by sinister forces, and certain policies are nonnegotiable, then there’s no value in procedures and political norms. Take the recent calls to pack the Supreme Court, heard not only from voters but also from intelligent legal scholars who believe that the judiciary as currently incarnated is unacceptably counter-majoritarian and is imposing fundamentally immoral outcomes. Gerrymandering becomes not an old but ugly business in which both parties participate but a way for the Republican party to cement white rule; a Court that allows it must be remade. (Of course, the raw use of political power to remake institutions such as the Supreme Court in a woke image may cannibalize itself: Court-packing would obviously invite counter-packing from the other political side, and in the long term such maneuvering may well undermine the legitimacy of the judiciary and diminish its power.)

Woke liberalism has also reintroduced — and here it is far from the only culprit — certain patterns of speech into our political discourse. DiAngelo’s account of racism as a condition all whites necessarily have is just one example of rising race and gender essentialism on the left. At times Brett Kavanaugh was attacked during his confirmation hearings not for the allegations against him but for his whiteness, his maleness, his prep-school, frat-bro vibe.

But the most salient feature of the white-liberal turn may be its effect on the Democratic party, that vehicle that was supposed to redeem the U.S. from the sins of its lily-white past. Confident liberals once believed that when the Democratic party inevitably took power with support from racial minorities in a country undergoing demographic change, it would mark the end of white domination in American politics. But with woke whites so visible in contemporary liberalism, we may be on the cusp of new political conflicts. Could white liberalism threaten the stability of the Democratic coalition?

The Democratic party is less homogeneous in both the appearance of its elites and the composition of its electorate than the GOP. Yet support for President Trump among black and Hispanic men has ticked up since 2016: In January, Ronald Brownstein found that 23 percent of African-American men supported the president, as did 40 percent of Hispanic men over 50. This midterm cycle, most of the progressive candidates who generated fawning enthusiasm among out-of-state cosmo­politan whites were unable to translate such enthusiasm into electoral success. One wonders whether white liberalism will mesh well with nonwhite voters who might not share its ideological obsessions. Will militant progressivism really resonate with Hispanic Catholics or black Baptists? How will second-generation Chinese Americans react to a policy of dismantling the meritocracy to overcome the sins of the past? If white liberalism begins to dominate the Democratic party, it could wind up isolating a growing number of black, Hispanic, and Asian moderates.

That wouldn’t be a shock. Even if some white liberals are sincere in their desire to rectify historical injustices, it’s hard not to conclude that others are playing status games, eager to demonstrate their enlightenment and distinguish themselves from their benighted counterparts. DiAngelo’s readers may be white, but to them, they’re different, not like the rest. Distinct from whiteness, wokeness is its own reward. That has played well in college towns, conference rooms, and gentrifying neighborhoods across the country, but odds are slim that it will play quite as well in Middle America.

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