The Morning Jolt

PC Culture

French Rioters and American Liberals

Vandalized cars on Avenue Foch the morning after clashes with protesters wearing yellow vests, a symbol of French drivers’ protest against higher fuel taxes, in Paris, France, December 2, 2018. (Benoit Tessier/Reuters)

Making the click-through worthwhile: We spend some time inside the heads of white liberals and read about the riots in France.

More on White Liberals

I wrote a piece for the most recent print issue of  National Review:

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.

White liberals increasingly think that whites possess too much political power, social capital, and economic resources — and that whites use all of this nefariously to entrench racial inequality. In short, the piece asked “What’s the matter with white liberals?” and the answer, according to them, is that they’re racist. Self-identified white liberals are moving left; toward the end I suggest that their political obsessions might not be so relevant to moderates in the Democratic party’s multiethnic coalition. There are lots of strange things going on, in my view, with white liberals.

Here’s a headline for your consideration: “White Liberals Present Themselves as Less Competent in Interactions with African-Americans.” That’s from a forthcoming study by Yale researcher Cydney Dupree, who found that “white liberals tend to downplay their own verbal competence in exchanges with racial minorities, compared to how other white Americans act in such exchanges.” Dupree says she wanted to know how “well-intentioned whites try to get along with racial minorities,” and what were “their strategies for increasing connections between members of different social groups.”

Dupree first examines speeches by Democratic and Republican presidential candidates to mostly white and mostly minority audiences. They found that, before minority audiences, Democrats would change their language to use words connoting “warmth” rather than words connoting “competence.” Meanwhile: “The researchers found that liberal individuals were less likely to use words that would make them appear highly competent when the person they were addressing was presumed to be black rather than white. No significant differences were seen in the word selection of conservatives based on the presumed race of their partner. ‘It was kind of an unpleasant surprise to see this subtle but persistent effect,’ Dupree says. ‘Even if it’s ultimately well-intentioned, it could be seen as patronizing.’”


This dispatch by Jeremy Harding in the London Review of Books is useful for understanding the recent riots in France. Harding considers what political loyalties can be attributed to the budding movement, which was sparked by anger over France’s regressive carbon tax:

Fighting on the Champs Elysées last weekend between French security forces and the so-called ‘gilets jaunes’ led to more than 100 arrests. According to the police, roughly eight thousand demonstrators took part. Barricades were built — and set alight — by what looked from a distance to be groups of rampaging lollipop people in dayglo yellow tops. But the gilets jaunes are not championing pedestrian safety: their revolt has been prompted by a sharp rise in the price of diesel and unleaded petrol at the pump, which they blame on President Macron’s fossil fuel tax. This is a drivers’ movement, at least at first sight, and despite the turmoil on the Champs Elysées, it is deeply provincial. Macron responded on Tuesday not with a U-turn, but with a concession enabling parliament to freeze the carbon tax — which is set to keep rising year on year — when the oil price goes up. A freeze is a very different proposition from a reduction and the gilets jaunes don’t like it. . . .

Last week the movement appointed eight official spokespeople . . . , but it’s still acephalous and averse to party-political appropriation, whether from the [right-wing] Rassemblement National — likely to make a strong showing in the European parliamentaries next year — or the tatters of the Parti Socialiste. [Left-wing populist party] La France Insoumise has its eye on the gilets jaunes as raw material for a ‘left populist’ project of the kind proposed by the Belgian philosopher Chantal Mouffe, a key intellectual for Jean-Luc Mélenchon.

But LFI will have its work cut out if, as some in the press are saying, the gilets jaunes are really a Poujadist phenomenon. Pierre Poujade led a populist anti-taxation drive in the 1950s, and spoke with an invective against government that the gilets jaunes have yet to surpass. Parliament, Poujade said, was a brothel, and MPs were a bunch of ‘pederasts’. Unlike Thatcher, Poujade was a premature opponent of finance capitalism; like Thatcher, he was an enemy of big government and organised labour, a ferocious chauvinist who championed ‘the little guy’ as a Prometheus in chains. Poujade’s dream died with the reappearance of De Gaulle in 1958 and the founding of the Fifth Republic.

Many local business people in south-west France support the gilets jaunes: bakers, plumbers, roofers, electricians, small farmers, and most of the shopkeepers left standing now that the supermarkets have put weaker contenders out of a job. All depend on their cars and those of their customers to stay afloat. But the small business contingent isn’t enough to justify the description ‘Poujadist’. This is a leaderless, spontaneous surge of impatience against an ‘elite’ which is thought to spurn poorer citizens or milk them dry. . . . I’m guessing that the vests are worn to make a simple point: ‘don’t pretend you can’t see us.’ . . .

Christopher Caldwell has argued that populists “usually internalize the idea of their inferiority and immorality,” and predicted that “they will be subject to a ‘paralyzing apathy’ unless a leader is there to light a fire under them.” Throughout his piece, Harding is clearly interested in whether these riots could be constructive for the French Left — and particularly in whether LFI could harness its energy. If we buy Caldwell’s argument, then Harding is right to note the current headlessness of the gilets jaunes. Because who eventually becomes the head will matter a great deal to both the movement’s success and its ultimate political direction.

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