The Rise of White Identity Politics

White voters increasingly see themselves as a threatened ethnic group. By championing an inclusive American identity, liberal politicians can offer an alternative.

Conservatives and moderates are often dismissive of “identity politics,” by which they mean liberal efforts to motivate voter turnout by raising issues of particular concern to women, people of color, and other marginalized groups in American politics. But it is important to remember that the original identity politics play was for whites. Long before women or people of color won the right to vote, it was the South Carolina Senator John C. Calhoun, a white supremacist, who wanted whites to rally around their racial identity. As Ta-Nehisi Coates has observed, Calhoun outlined his vision in an 1848 speech: “With us, the two greatest divisions of society are not the rich and poor, but white and black. And all the former, the poor as well as the rich, belong to the upper class, and are respected and treated as equals.”

Calhoun was far from the last American conservative to stoke white identity in order to get white working-class people to vote their race rather than their class. But no successful modern candidate has done so as blatantly as Donald Trump did in 2016. The timing thus could not be better for Duke University political scientist Ashley Jardina’s eye-opening book, White Identity Politics, which uses extensive survey research to explore the meaning of white identity today.

White Identity Politics
By Ashley Jardina
Cambridge University Press, 300 pp.

Trump’s election sparked a furious debate on the left: was his popularity among white voters due more to racism, or to so-called “economic anxiety”? Extensive polling showed that racial resentment correlated much more strongly with support for Trump than did economic factors. But could tens of millions of Trump voters really be out-and-out racists?

Jardina’s book helps make sense of these questions, in part by revealing that white voters can be motivated by race without necessarily being motivated by racism. The traditional social science focus on white hostility and prejudice toward out-groups, Jardina suggests, misses a much bigger phenomenon: in-group white identity and favoritism. Her central finding is that while 9 percent of whites are unabashed racists who hold favorable views of the Ku Klux Klan, a much larger group—between 30 to 40 percent of whites—strongly identify as white, meaning they feel strong attachment to their whiteness. Whites who have high levels of white identity are not confined to the working-class; they make up a “much wider swath of whites,” and perhaps surprisingly, include a disproportionate number of women.

On one level, the distinction Jardina draws between in-group love and out-group hate is helpful and has some intuitive appeal. One can strongly identify as Muslim or Christian, or Irish or Greek, without being hostile to people who practice a different faith or whose ancestors come from a different country. But, as Jardina points out, in American society an agenda based on white solidarity will in practice be hardly distinguishable from one driven by racial hatred, even if the motivation is less malicious. “By promoting policies that protect their group, whites are of course seeking to maintain the power and privileges of their group, ultimately preserving a system of inequality,” she writes.

More broadly, in a democratic society, we do not want people to care only about their own kind; one would hope that elderly people will care about the effects of global warming on the next generation; straight people will care about gay rights; and white people will care about racial justice.

What explains high levels of group identity and consciousness?  “Threat to one’s group,” Jardina argues, “activates one’s group identity.” That is why, in a society where African Americans have had so much to fear, black racial identity is high. Between 69 and 85 percent of black people have high levels of racial identity, a much higher proportion than in any other racial group, Jardina writes.

By contrast, whites have been the economically dominant group throughout American history, and from 1790 to 1990 they constituted more than 80 percent of the population. As a result, whites did not have to think about race in the way others did. But that is changing as the white share of the population declines. As President Bill Clinton noted, “No other nation in history has gone through demographic change of this magnitude in so short a time.”

This demographic shift is occurring at a time when whites remain deeply opposed to programs that provide preferences in college admissions and employment for African Americans and Latinos. A February 2019 Pew Research Center poll found that 78 percent of whites (and 73 percent of Americans overall) think race should not be a factor in college admissions decisions.  Universities routinely ignore that public sentiment. Careful researchers find that such programs provide a college admissions boost for African Americans over whites that is comparable to scoring 310 points higher on the SAT (out of a possible 1600). The sociologist Arlie Hochschild has documented thatwhites often described these types of preferences as allowing non-white groups to “cut in line.” Perceived as unfair, these programs—as well as other government efforts viewed, rightly or wrongly, as providing targeted aid to minority groups— can trigger white identification. In surveys, three-quarters of whites say it is at least somewhat likely that “members of their racial group are denied jobs because employers are hiring minorities instead.” More than three-quarters also say it is at least somewhat important “for members of their group to work together in order to change laws unfair to whites.” In sum, Jardina notes, “many whites have described themselves as outnumbered, disadvantaged, and even oppressed.”

The moral and historical case for affirmative action programs is powerful; racial preference programs should in no way be equated with anti-black discrimination. The fact remains, however, that the combination of rapidly demographic change and programs that whites perceive as unfair provides a ripe political opportunity to today’s would-be John C. Calhouns. (It is no accident that California, one of the earliest states to become majority-minority, was the first to institute a ban on racial preferences.) Whites whose racial identity is strong, Jardina finds, are much more likely to support conservative policies (on issues such as immigration) and politicians (such as Donald Trump).

These findings should be deeply troubling to liberals. Despite the pace of demographic change, whites still constituted 70 percent of the vote in 2016; Trump’s victory proved that predictions of a lasting era of Democratic hegemony built on a multiethnic coalition were wildly premature. Liberals thus have an urgent interest in countering the troubling rise in white racial identification. What, if anything, should they do differently? Four alternatives seem possible. Liberals could (1) educate whites about the roots of racial inequality and white privilege in order to get white people to change their views; (2) downplay racial justice issues; (3) try to achieve racial equality through programs that don’t explicitly apply differently to people of different races; and/or (4) champion an affirmative and inclusive American identity as an alternative to group-based identity. The first two have serious flaws. But the latter two might work.

Educating whites about the reality of white privilege would seem a logical response to white racial identification. If whites felt more guilt about unearned privilege, they might be less likely to identify proudly as white. But Jardina says she is “less optimistic of this approach” because research finds many whites already recognize that their skin color gives them privileges “and yet express no interest in relinquishing it.” They are, Jardina writes, “glad to be white,” and do not feel particularly ashamed about it.

The opposite approach would be to downplay racial issues. Former Trump advisor Steve Bannon famously said of Democrats: “I want them to talk about racism every day. If the left is focused on race and identity, and we go with economic nationalism, we can crush the Democrats.” But surrendering the fight for racial justice would come at an enormous moral cost. Policymakers urgently need to confront housing discrimination, voter suppression, school segregation, and racial inequalities in the criminal justice system. For liberal politicians to fail to stand up for the grieving black mother whose child has been wrongfully shot by a white police officer would be to engage in the worst kind of white identity politics.

When it comes to the issue of racial preferences, on the other hand, there are ways to shift course without giving up on the goal of racial equality. The key is to implement new class-based policies that disproportionately benefit people of color without explicitly taking race into account. This argument has distinguished roots. In the 1960s, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. argued that America should remedy its history of slavery, segregation, and discrimination through an inclusive Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged rather than a race-specific Negro Bill of Rights. Such an approach, he said, would disproportionately benefit black victims of discrimination, but “as a simple matter of justice” would also benefit poor whites. More recently, Barack Obama suggested during his first presidential campaign that as a basic matter of fairness, his own privileged daughters did not deserve a preference in college admissions.

Empirical evidence suggests that class-based affirmative action can indeed benefit people of color. In 2014, Professors Anthony Carnevale, Stephen Rose, and Jeff Strohl of Georgetown University examined how socioeconomic affirmative action programs could work at the nation’s

most selective 193 institutions. They found that if these schools used class-based affirmative action—which would include a mix of socioeconomic considerations including parental education, income, savings, and school poverty concentrations—the combined African-American and Hispanic representation would rise from 11 to 13 percent—all without the use of racial preferences. Meanwhile, socioeconomic diversity and mean SAT scores would also rise.

Finally, in order to reduce the pernicious phenomenon of white identity politics, liberals could make it a priority to champion an inclusive American identity centered on the nation’s best democratic ideals. Liberal politicians need to give voters—including white voters—a way to feel as though supporting them means supporting some group to which they feel a powerful allegiance. As Jardina notes, the need to identify with a group—to have “a psychological, internalized sense of attachment”—is a deeply human impulse.

Liberals could nurture a new American patriotism by, for example, backing a public school curriculum that frankly acknowledges American mistakes but also emphasizes that the genius of democracy is that when there is free speech and the right to assemble, slavery gives way to the abolition movement, segregation to the civil rights movement, and the oppression of women to the feminist movement. A new national service program could also do much to build a national identity that brings young people of all backgrounds together to learn what they have in common as Americans.

America’s first black president understood this and knew that if white Americans identified more by race than by country, he would be in deep electoral trouble. When Obama won 43 percent of the white vote in 2008—a higher share than some of his white Democratic predecessors—it surely did not hurt that he emphasized national pride and unity. He famously declared, “There is not a black America and a white America and Latino America and Asian America—there is the United States of America.”

According to Jardina, when asked what makes someone “truly American,” the vast majority reject the idea that being white is important and, instead, suggest that the key ingredient is “to feel American,” whatever one’s race. Jardina further finds that “there are many white Americans who do not identify with their racial group but do identify strongly as American.”

Liberals need to find ways to broaden that group. By backing civics and national service programs and rhetorically emphasizing a common commitment to American identity—the ideals that make the United States different from other nations—the changing racial and ethnic makeup of the nation becomes less threatening. What becomes important is a mutual commitment to democratic values that includes people of all racial and ethnic backgrounds, bound together by a common purpose.

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Richard D. Kahlenberg

Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, is the author of All Together Now: Creating Middle-Class Schools Through Public School Choice, and is working on a book on economic segregation in housing and education.