“To accept one’s past – one’s history – is not to drown in it; it is learning how to use it.” -James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time
Rising homicide rates, billions of dollars in property damage, dissenters purged from mainstream institutions, and few tangible policy changes to show for it. The initial excitement over America’s “racial reckoning” in the wake of George Floyd’s death this past summer has coagulated into a slow burning hangover. It was supposed to be different this time, we were told. Virtually every major institution, media outlet, and corporation came out in vocal support of Black Lives Matter. The crucial moment to grapple with the brutal legacy of historical racism had finally arrived, so went the prevailing narrative. But, judging by the look of things, it was not meant to be. Tearing down statues, changing building names, calling to literally defund the police and stigmatizing anyone who disagrees with us as racist certainly make for great moral theatre, but bear little resemblance to the demands, exigencies, and realities of the present. And now, months after its peak, we stare at the abyss of an even more polarized cultural climate, continuing political stagnation, and one of the most tumultuous election cycles in American history, and many are left wondering what in the world just happened.
The Invention of Race and The Banality of Racism
It’s impossible to make sense of 2020’s cultural upheavals without the context of America’s unique historical challenges around race and identity. For most of our collective past, having European ancestry was a prerequisite to American citizenship and the inferiority of nonwhites was reflexively assumed. The chaos of this uncharted continent called for an organizing principle off which to base an identity, and, because such a unifying force was not forthcoming, the colonists latched onto the one thing they held in common: their skins. A new category of human was invented, and it was called white. Likewise, to meet the economic demands of the New World, with an abundance of soil and a scarcity of people to till it, a subordinate category of human was also invented: it was called black. This marked the incursion of race in the American context and ushered in the age of white supremacy.
Modern discussions of historical racism naturally focus on its most appalling and obvious injustices, from slavery to the failures of Reconstruction to the rise of Jim Crow and ritualistic lynchings to ghettoizing redlining policies and the exclusion of blacks from vital New Deal programs – all of which were justified by the moral logic of racial essentialism, or more specifically, by notions of intergenerational bloodguilt and innocence based on skin color.
What’s most significant about the era of white supremacy, however, was its banality. The terms of America’s racial contract, white innocence and black guilt, was simply the water in which we swam. The mental contortion necessary to uphold that contract is utterly breathtaking to modern sensibilities. But it’s important to recognize that the smiling lynch mobs looking back at us in those pictures were normal human beings, and to maintain the humility to empathize with them as a bulwark against the excesses of our own time. The tendency to condemn the past in accordance with the ethical standards of the present can bind and blind us to our own moral failings.
Moral Authority and American Identity
By the 1960s, however, the tide had changed. The outrageous hypocrisy of touting the universal ideals of the constitution, while simultaneously denying the humanity of anyone who wasn’t white, was too great of a moral contradiction to live with by the post-war years. Here was the most powerful and greatest country in the world, which had just defeated racist evil abroad, and could not even extend the full rights of citizenship to a full 10% of its population because of nothing more than stubborn prejudice and ethnic tribalism. It aggravates virtually every human instinct toward justice. But it was not merely the sheer evil of racist oppression that ultimately made change happen. Evil, in actuality, is relatively easy to tolerate. If it were not, human history would look quite different. What is less tolerable is the phenomenon of hypocrisy, when we say one thing and do another. It was the double standards around race and their exposure to the public in the form of the civil rights movement, along with the build-up of what James Baldwin called the “gratuitous humiliations” blacks underwent as those double standards were culturally and historically sanctified (such as in the form of school books referring to blacks as happy slaves who liked to sing and dance), that helped shift the moral norms of society.
This is why race in America is among our most polarizing issues and arguably lies at the root of our present culture war. After all, it was the acknowledgment of racism as America’s essential failure that granted moral legitimacy to the 1960s counterculture, as many other historically marginalized groups joined the fight against traditional norms and values. This was the societal transformation that stigmatized racism, sexism, and xenophobia out of a polite society and put an end to the age of white supremacy. This, we should all be proud of and thankful for. But this phase transition also represented the beginning of a major fissure in American society between those who sought to preserve the past in spite of its sins and those who wanted to purge their guilt by dissociating themselves from the past altogether.
Any major shift in the moral substructure of society inevitably opens up a vacuum of authority and legitimacy that something else will invariably swoop in to fill, and what filled it was an anti-majority identity politics meant to compensate for historical racism and other injustices. A new racial contract was born as the age of white supremacy crested into the age of white guilt: blacks were seen primarily as victims and whites as potential racists whenever the local subject of race emerged.
But extricating the national identity from the collective American past came with the consequence of interrupting an important historical continuity between past, present, and future that’s necessary for a society to know itself. Likewise, abolishing segregation and other racist policies shifted the cultural and political focus from individual to group rights, rendering one’s group identity all-important, allowing grievances to foment amongst minority groups and resentment to set in among members of the majority. Further, the emphasis on negative liberty (freedom from) was replaced by an emphasis on positive liberty (freedom to) in exclusive group terms, erasing an important category distinction between entitlements and rights, introducing the strained concepts of privilege and cosmic justice into public discourse, and incensing fruitless debates over who “deserves” what.
This set of circumstances makes for a major dilemma in the moral consciousness of the United States. The moment we reach back into our history for a shared identity, we hit the brick wall of race. Yet without a healthy relationship to the past, populations devolve into a hotbed of petty tribal antagonisms. This state of affairs was masterfully unpacked in Arthur Schlesigner Jr.’s book The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society.
Schlesigner argues the American experiment in multi-ethnic democracy was both ingenious and tragic as regards race, engendering the possibility of a “new race” of assimilable people that were no longer bound by their ancestry but also justifying the oppression of nowhite groups as a springboard to affirm majority status. The asymmetric power relations of history has galvanized a cultural battle over history itself, where the past is used as a weapon by various groups to establish identity in the present. Schlesinger notes a dichotomy between what he calls exculpatory history, which justify the excesses of a majority group’s past to maintain its hold on power, and compensatory history, which exaggerates or invents past glories and injustices to gain esteem and power in the present. This more or less describes the conflicting visions of history projected by the American right and left today.
In short, the moral weight underlying our racial history makes race into a meta-issue that forms the subtext of other seemingly unrelated cultural and political debates, particularly around questions of privilege, identity, and structural oppression. The crisis of American identity set the stage for the rise of Black Lives Matter.
White Guilt and Anti-Racism
The ideology underlying this year’s political convulsions – sometimes called “the successor ideology”, Critical Social Justice, progressive activism, or simply wokeness – is an extension of the compensatory vision of American history that has been harnessed in elite institutions since the 1970s. The perpetual motion machine of white guilt and black power politics after the 60s set the moral and cultural tone for a new wave of scholarship and social movements explicitly geared toward unpacking the dynamics of historical oppression. In small doses, majority guilt and minority victimology can be useful in exposing historical blindspots. But once Pandora’s Box is opened it’s difficult, if not impossible, to close again. The evils of history can be used to vindicate the overreach of present political doctrines in perpetuity, and without checks and balances can swiftly turn into a cultural hegemony. We enter dangerous territory when an upcoming power structure identifies itself as victimized and innocent, leveraging moral authority without having to take responsibility for the outcome. This is how the age of white guilt turned into the age of institutional anti-racism.
While it was once possible for whites to dissociate from the stigma of racism by gesturing concern over its continuing prevalence, now the gesture itself proves one’s guilt. We’ve come full circle. Instead of backtracking and saying no, I don’t feel personally guilty about events that happened before I was born, but I’d still like to live in a less racist and racially stratified society and will do my part in that, the longstanding American tradition of racialized guilt has become self-replicating and self-fulfilling. Once the stigma of collective guilt is given credence in public life, it compounds with time, even if the original issue we were meant to feel guilty about has vastly declined. In the age of anti-racism, no white person is innocent. There is no such thing as a non-racist; everyone is either racist or anti-racist. Every disparity in society that disfavors a historically harmed group is thought to be the result of racism, and there can be no justice until all groups have approximately equal outcomes on all relevant socio-economic metrics. Every aspect of American life is shaped by race and racism. And we can only move forward as a nation once every citizen, particularly every white citizen, grovelingly acknowledges the brutal history of racism and their own complicity in it.
Of course, the ideological roots of wokeness have more charitable interpretations, such as those found in the foundational texts of Critical Race Theory. But, upon closer inspection, even the best of CRT naturally leads to the extreme caricatures of anti-racist thought espoused by activist scholars like Ibram X. Kendi and Robin DiAngelo, and, worse, it remains bound by notions of intertemporal retributive justice and intergenerational collective guilt that was the very essence of racism to begin with. Critical race theorists base their analysis of society on two undeniable facts, that America has a history of racism and that disparities between whites and blacks persist. Structural or systemic racism is the explanation for how these facts are related, characterized by a confluence of historical, economic, and cultural forces that perpetuate racial inequity. As the philosopher and Twitter personality Liam Bright, a CRT man par excellence himself, describes it, “Critical Race Theorists think of racism in terms of social or institutional structures systematically favouring the dominant group – in our society white people – over non-dominant groups. Core claim is: racism, so understood, is persistent, influential, and maintains itself whether or not the individuals staffing bureaucratic roles have ill will towards black people or non-whites.”
CRT scholars acknowledge that explicit racist attiudes have been stigmatized out of polite society, but posit that implicit bias, structural inequality, and the cultural damage done by past racism explain the endurance of racial gaps. Moreover, the majority group has a psychological and material investment in preserving their privileges at the expense of minorities. And because these structures are socially constructed, they are also subject to change with the right amount of political and social pressure. By recognizing how these forces operate, we can prevent future injustices and rectify past sins.
There isn’t space in this essay for a full throated critique of CRT, but it’s not hard to see how its basic framework caters to the extremes of woke radicalism. CRT assumes the omnipresence of race in American society, presupposes that historical oppression determines the present, commits to the disparity fallacy that every gap between two groups is due to one group oppressing the other, and bundles so many different factors into the concept of structural racism that misapplication is virtually guaranteed among the lowest common denominators (which is to say, everyday people). Further, the door is left prescriptively wide open, helping to explain why woke solutions are so jumbled and weird (“Defund The Police” almost seems like it was pulled out of a hat last minute) and why it relies so much on moral muscling to get what it wants. And finally, the infinite expansion and concept creep of the term racism, and the corresponding inflation of the “racist” stigma, stems directly from the amorphous definitions provided by CRT. Whatever its merits in raising awareness on important issues, this worldview is completely and irredeemably zero-sum.
National Identity and The 1619 Project
The major difference between the “Great Awokening” and past social movements is how ready the country was to receiving it. Although the popularity of its core tenets is very much up for debate, the broader message of Black Lives Matter clearly resonated with many Americans in an unprecedented way. Some attribute this phenomenon to the religious elements of social justice ideology that fill the meaning-shaped hole at the heart of our heavily secularized society. But there is another element that is often overlooked: Woke anti-racism is attached to a redemptive politics that is unique to American culture, history, and identity. It is not just a system of belief, but also takes the place of a collective national ethos.
This is why anti-racism appropriates the language of patriotism, but in an exclusively compensatory way that only highlights the nation’s moral failings on race. The New York Times highly controversial 1619 Project, which “aims to reframe the country’s history by placing the consequences of slavery and the contributions of black Americans at the very center of our national narrative”, is a prime example, but there are others. In her headline essay for the Project, renowned journalist Nicole Hannah-Jones writes, “I wish, now, that I could go back to the younger me and tell her that her people’s ancestry started here, on these lands, and to boldly, proudly, draw the stars and those stripes of the American flag.” In another long essay for The New York Times Magazine arguing for reparations, Hannah-Jones writes “If black lives are to truly matter in America, this nation must move beyond slogans and symbolism. Citizens don’t inherit just the glory of their nation, but its wrongs too. A truly great country does not ignore or excuse its sins. It confronts them and then works to make them right. If we are to be redeemed, if we are to live up to the magnificent ideals upon which we were founded, we must do what is just.” Likewise, in his famous 2014 essay The Case For Reparations, Ta-Nehisi Coates describes the act of reparations as being “national reckoning that would lead to a spiritual renewal” and “a full acceptance of our collective biography and its consequences.”
A curious observer might be wondering how an ideology that views America as structurally and fundamentally racist and oppressive to its very core and across time, could ever represent a form of patriotic nationalism. How could a framework that sees America as moral and a cosmic mistake, guilty of innumerable crimes against humanity that it has yet to reconcile with and maybe never will, ever contribute to a positive national identity that will carry us into a flourishing American future? But the national narrative posed by the 1619 Project makes sense when we realize it isn’t a contribution to American patriotism, but is actually a replacement. Modern anti-racism tells a national redemption story, establishing a new form of citizenship defined exclusively in reaction to historical racism that is innocent of the nation’s legacy of white supremacy.
I wish it were possible here to just live and let live; if only it were so easy. What is wrong with allowing people to carve out their own little slice of nationalism in the service of participating in a broader community? Similarly, what is wrong with focusing on the mistakes of the past so as not to repeat them? Unfortunately, the compensatory vision of history shares the same problem as the exculpatory vision: its incompleteness. Focusing solely on historical racism to promote activism in the present is just as misplaced as focusing solely on our national triumphs to justify the status quo, and I would even go as far to wager that the former vision is as close to representing the status quo and holds as much or more power as the latter vision in contemporary American society. Both visions use history as a weapon for partisan purposes, rather than as a vast continuum that provides enduring lessons on the nature of human life.
But there is another issue with anti-racism as a national identity. By condemning American culture and history as systemically evil, anti-racists stigmatize both white identity in particular and conservatism itself in general. As the political scientist and author of WhiteShift: Populism, Immigration, and the Future of White Majorities, said to me via email,
“Attacking American history as racist is experienced as an insult to ethnic identity by many white Americans in a way *less* true of other groups. Though conservatives of all backgrounds will also be more offended. This means that an excessive focus on the sins of the past is not just some ethnically-neutral exercise, but has a disparate impact, and feeds ethnic conflict and alienation. One group, whites, thus feels that it is being picked on while other groups’ pasts are not. That’s racial discrimination and unequal symbolic treatment. Which is why ‘anti-racism’ is actually a form of racial discrimination, and will never work unless negatives are balanced by positives, and contextualized against the sins of other groups.”
Therein lies the problem. A robust multi-ethnic and multicultural society would allow for disparate strands and layers of the national identity to exist together in unison. Eric Kaufmann is onto something when he says that national identity should be thought of as a menu that we can select from in accordance with our respective tastes and dispositions. We can have multiple strains of national identity so long as they are treated symmetrically in mainstream discourse, aren’t linked to identifiable and immutable traits such as race, and are not ideologically exclusive. “There is no single, superior form of national identity”, rather “we are all glancing at it from a different angle and belonging to it in our own way.”
Thus it’s necessary to reject both the exculpatory and compensatory vision of history in exchange for a synthesis. Is it really out of the question to acknowledge both America’s failures and triumphs at once? Can we not appreciate how far we’ve come while also recognizing how far we have to go? Is it so hard to live with people whom we disagree on major moral and political issues without seeing our own countrymen as the embodiments of historic evil? Not so fast.
A more holistic vision of America’s national identity, history, and culture is not so difficult to come by. Indeed, it’s been with us all along. E Pluribus Unum, the traditional motto of the United States meaning “out of many, one”, or the unity in diversity, has been our central guiding principle since the dawn of the country. This motto may seem like a contradiction, but it speaks to the paradoxical and unlikely foundations of this country. Underlying this principle is a sensibility that is uniquely American, a certain versatility and adeptness to change that teeters somewhere between hysteria and genius. We have always been a multi-ethnic society, what the literary critic Albert Murray saw as a mongrel nation with no pure racial identity but an amalgam of interwoven ethnic and cultural identities: part Yankee, part Negro, and part Backwoodsmen. Our ancestry is not merely multiracial, but exposes the reality that race is just a category invented to navigate chaos. The notion of racial purity was always a lie. We are in a position to be the first major civilization to transcend this pernicious illusion. America is first and foremost a land of pluralists and that is the identity we must embrace.
As Murray writes,
“The United States is in actuality not a nation of black people and white people. It is a nation of multicolored people. There are white Americans so to speak and black Americans. But any fool can see that white people are not really white, and black people are not black. They are all interrelated one way or another. American culture, even in its most rigidly segregated precincts, is patently and irrevocably composite. It is, regardless of all the hysterical protestations otherwise, incontestably mulatto. Indeed, for all their traditional antagonisms and obvious differences, the so-called black and the so-called white people of the United States resemble nobody else in the world as much as they resemble each other.”
Eclipsing the racial impasse means rediscovering and inculcating an American sensibility that is sufficiently tough and honest enough to draw together the different parts of the American experience into a unified whole – to uncover the essential unity in our experiential diversity. But to achieve this, we must acknowledge our actual original sin: not slavery or Jim Crow or even racism itself, but the belief in race and identity as a means to power. By ascribing moral and social meaning to the arbitrary and immutable fact of skin color, in my view woke discourse actually represents a continuation of the legacy of white supremacy – a historical overcorrection for past racism that keeps the social construction of race categories alive and well. In short, anti-racism is a terrible replacement for national identity in a country so rich with character and cultural texture. We are still so young. We will find our way. We can do better. We may not have a choice.