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, South Carolina Senator John C. Calhoun, a white supremacist, urged whites to rally around their racial identity. “With us the two great divisions of society are not the rich and poor, but white and black,” he declared in an 1848 speech; “and all the former, the poor as well as the rich, belong to the upper class, and are respected and treated as equals.”

White Identity Politics
by Ashley Jardina
Cambridge University Press, 368 pp.

Calhoun was far from the last American conservative to encourage 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.

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 helps make sense of these questions, in part by revealing that white voters can be motivated by favoritism toward their own group rather than hostility to others. Her central finding, based on polling, 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 and 40 percent of whites—feel a 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, are more likely to be women than men.

The distinction between in-group love and out-group hate is helpful. 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. The problem is that, in America, 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. Protecting the status of white people, Jardina writes, ultimately means “preserving a system of inequality.” More broadly, in a democratic society, we do not want people to care only about their own kind; we 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. 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, they did not have to think about race in the way others did. But that is changing as the white share of the population declines. White people could shrink from the majority of Americans to a plurality within a generation or two.

Meanwhile, as the sociologist Arlie Hochschild has documented, many whites see efforts to help disadvantaged minorities as allowing nonwhite groups to “cut in line.” Perceived as unfair, affirmative action—as well as other government programs viewed, though often mistakenly, 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.” 

The moral and historical case for affirmative action programs is powerful; racial preference programs should in no way be equated with antiblack discrimination. The fact remains, however, that the combination of rapid 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; predictions 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. First, liberals could educate whites about the roots of racial inequality and white privilege in hopes of changing their minds. Second, they could downplay racial justice issues. Third, they could try to achieve racial equality through race-neutral programs. Finally, they could champion an affirmative and inclusive American identity as an alternative to group-based identity. The first two ideas have serious flaws. But the latter two might work. 

You might think that educating whites about the reality of unearned privilege would make them less likely to identify proudly as white. But, as Jardina observes, the research suggests otherwise. Many whites already recognize that their skin color gives them privileges “and yet they express no interest in relinquishing it.” They are “glad to be white” and do not feel particularly ashamed about it.

The opposite approach would be to downplay racial issues. Former Trump adviser 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 even if Bannon were right, 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. To ignore these issues would be to engage in the worst kind of white identity politics. 

When it comes to 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, 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. 

Empirical evidence has backed up King’s argument. In 2014, Anthony Carnevale, Stephen Rose, and Jeff Strohl of Georgetown University found that if the 193 most selective universities adopted a form of race-blind socioeconomic affirmative action, the combined African American and Hispanic representation would rise from 11 to 13 percent—withoutthe use of racial preferences. Meanwhile, socioeconomic diversity and mean SAT scores would also increase.

Finally, in order to reduce the pernicious phenomenon of white identity politics, liberals could try to supplant it by championing an inclusive American identity. As Jardina notes, the need to identify with a group—to have “a psychological, internalized sense of attachment”—is a deeply human impulse. 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. 

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.

According to Jardina, when asked what makes someone “truly American,” the vast majority of whites 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.” The challenge for today’s liberal politicians is to broaden that group.

This piece has been updated.

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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.