ashley jardina and “white identity politics”

“White identity politics” is just another euphemism the media uses for racism. It’s not a real thing. Vox just published an interview with Ashley Jardina, white lady in denial:

Sean Illing

You open the book with a great quote from James Baldwin about how identity is “questioned only when it is menaced.” What’s the significance of this quote?

Ashley Jardina

It was so fitting when I was thinking about what gives rise to an identity like white identity, or really any dominant group identity. The important thing to note about dominant group identities is that we often think of them as invisible — and part of the reason is because dominant groups like whites in this society typically haven’t been forced to think about their identity.

Prior to a couple years ago, whites felt secure in the belief that they held a disproportionate share of economic and political and social resources, so their lives weren’t over-determined by their race. But now white identity has become salient as white Americans feel more and more threatened, and that fear has activated identity in a way we haven’t seen for some time.

She’s speaking as if she were a disembodied intelligence on Mount Olympus, not a white lady. Is there anything whiter than that?

She says “we” often think of “dominant group identities” as invisible, but that’s just white people talking amongst themselves. This phrase makes no sense:

Prior to a couple years ago, whites felt secure in the belief that they held a disproportionate share of economic and political and social resources, so their lives weren’t over-determined by their race.

In fact, white people continue to hold a disproportionate share of resources, and now they’re afraid that might not last forever, so they’re lashing out violently. They’re upset precisely by the idea of their success not depending on race.

The James Baldwin quote accomplishes two things for her, rhetorically. She gets brownie points for being aware of a black author, and she validates the idea that black people are “menacing,” all at the same time. Is there anything more white liberal than that?

Sean Illing

That’s the thing about identity, right? It’s inherently reactionary. Every identity is defined by what it isn’t as much as what it is. So it’s not surprising that group solidarity spikes when there’s a threat, real or imagined.

Ashley Jardina

Absolutely. The reason we naturally think of African Americans when we think of identity in the US, for example, is because we know this group has a long history of oppression and subordination in this country, and so their identity is quite strong — it has to be, really. Because their identities have been forced upon them by dint of circumstances.

Compare what Frantz Fanon said about black identity:

…we are witness to the desperate efforts of a black man striving desperately to discover the meaning of black identity. White civilization and European culture have imposed an existential deviation on the black man. We shall demonstrate further that what is called the black soul is a construction by white folk.

The educated black man, slave of the myth of the spontaneous and cosmic Negro, feels at some point in time that his race no longer understands him.

Or that he no longer understands his race.

He is only too pleased about this, and by developing further this difference, this incomprehension and discord, he discovers the meaning of his true humanity. Less commonly he want to feel a part of his people. And with feverish lips and frenzied heart he plunges into the great black hole. We shall see that this wonderfully generous attitude rejects the present and future in the name of a mystical past.

I’d like to understand what Jardina means when she says black people’s identity is “strong.”

It’s also fascinating that, to her, “identity” means “black people,” even though the people who get tagged with “identity politics” are usually talking about how complicated and fluid and intersectional identity is. This is an example of a white lady disavowing solidarity with black feminism.

Sean Illing

So when did whites start thinking about their whiteness in a politically meaningful way again? And what precipitated this sudden awareness?
Ashley Jardina

My argument is that it’s the growing diversity of the United States. There’s this series of events that are in many ways a product of that increasing diversity. So I began by looking at the massive waves of immigration that happened in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and how that changed the demographics of the United States.

At this point today, it’s projected that whites will cease to be a majority by the middle of the century. This fact, which was brought into sharp relief by the election of Barack Obama, ignited a wave racial awareness among white Americans, and I think we’re still reckoning with the political consequences of this.

Let’s talk about something else that was in the news the very same day: that white guy in San Diego who shot up a synagogue. Here’s how he opens his manifesto:

My name is John Earnest and I am a man of European ancestry. The blood that runs in my veins is the same that ran through the English, Nordic, and Irish men of old. I am a descendant of one of the original colonists of Roanoke—John Earnest. What happened to him I do not know, and nor does anyone. But I do know that he left his wife and son, James Earnest, back in England. This son shortly after made the same daring journey across the Atlantic to the New World. From my mother’s side I inherited the blood of very wealthy Yankees—intelligent, resourceful, uncompromising. From my father’s side I inherited the blood of poor Southern farmers—intelligent, musically gifted, self-sufficient. A part of my ancestors lives within me in this very moment. They are the reason that I am who I am. Their acts of bravery, ingenuity, and righteousness live on through me. Truly, I am blessed by God for such a magnificent bloodline.

To my family and friends. I can already hear your voices. “How could you throw your life away? You had everything! You had a loving family. You had great friends. You had a church. You were doing well in nursing school. You could have gone so far in your field of study. You could have made so much money and started a happy family of your own.” I understand why you would ask this. But I pose a question to you now. What value does my life have compared to the entirety of the European race? Is it worth it for me to live a comfortable life at the cost of international Jewry sealing the doom of my race? No. I will not sell my soul by sitting idly by as evil grows. I’d rather die in glory or spend the rest of my life in prison than waste away knowing that I did nothing to stop this evil. It is not in my blood to be a coward. I do not care about the debt-based currency that Jews like to pretend is money. I do not care for the bread and circus that Jewry has used to attempt to pacify my people. I willingly sacrifice my future—the future of having a fulfilling job, a loving wife, and amazing kids. I sacrifice this for the sake of my people. OUR people. I would die a thousand times over to prevent the doomed fate that the Jews have planned for my race.

I think it’s fascinating that he includes slavery and genocide as a problem he has with Jews, with no sense of irony:

…for their role in voting for and funding politicians and organizations who use mass immigration to displace the European race; for their large role in every slave trade for the past two-thousand years; for promoting race mixing; for their cruel and bloody history of genocidal behavior…

All of this sounds so much nicer, more distant, abstract, and benign, when Ashley Jardina uses social science euphemisms for it.

Sean Illing

What does the data tell us about how whites are defining their own anxieties or concerns?

Ashley Jardina

Deep down it’s about this fear that America isn’t going to look like them anymore, that they’ll lose their majority and with it their cultural and political power. It’s also tied up in the belief that whites are experiencing discrimination now.

The gains that racial and ethnic majorities are making, either socially or politically or economically, are coming at the expense of their group. In many ways, it’s about feeling that the privileges and status that whites have by way of their race are somehow being threatened or challenged.

In this next exchange, two white people agree on the importance of sympathy for white supremacists. Together, they realize they’re Gone Too Far, so they agree white supremacists are still Good People who mean well.

Sean Illing

I’m trying to be as fair as possible, because I think some people on the left fail to distinguish between racism and a reasonable concern that the country is changing too fast for the culture to keep up, which historically can create a lot of social unrest.

Ashley Jardina

It’s a very good point. Part of what I’ve done is try to be objective and perhaps even sympathetic to some of the whites that I studied.

I thought a lot about the book The Unsteady March, by Philip Klinkner and Rogers Smith, where they describe how if you grow up in a society where your group is privileged, and you experience that privilege in a way that seems basically natural because you’re so steeped in it, your whole life is just structured around it; when any change comes about that threatens that privilege, it feels disquieting.

And I think that’s a pretty sympathetic way of talking about what’s happening right now.

Sean Illing

The problem, of course, is that too much sympathy is itself problematic.

Ashley Jardina

Exactly. We can’t mask the fact that we’re also talking about the protection and preservation of whites in the United States at the expense of racial and ethnic minorities, and I think that’s part of the problem. So in the book, I make this really crisp distinction between white identity and white racial prejudice, and that’s an important distinction.

It’s important that there’s a REALLY CRISP distinction between themselves, Good Liberals, and Those Other White People. Their political identities intersect with their racial identities! Amazing!

Sean Illing

You’re talking about white people who feel a sense of racial solidarity with fellow whites but would reject any assertions of white supremacy. In other words, it’s about identifying more with the in-group than hating the out-group.

Ashley Jardina

You got it. And one way to think about that is there are a lot of white people in the United States who have a strong sense of racial antipathy or racial prejudice who don’t identify with their racial group, and there are a lot of white people who do have this sense of solidarity but who wouldn’t score particularly high on any social science measure of racial prejudice.

For these whites, it’s about protecting their in-group and showing some sense of favoritism, completely independent of racial prejudice. Most of these whites that I’m talking about and thinking about are not members of the KKK, they would absolutely reject any association with white supremacist organizations, and yet in some instances, they do hold a lot of the same beliefs as some of these groups.

Except that this very dynamic of hiring your bros is the reason that, for example, the tech industry has a diversity problem.

She’s saying that there are conservatives in very white areas who don’t think about their whiteness much, but Others make them uncomfortable. Then there are colorblind liberals who just, y’know, instinctively know they’re on Team White People when the race war happens. I’ll go out on a limb and say they enjoy TV shows about cops, prisons, and soldiers.

In other words, there are rabid white people and white moderates, just like MLK said in olden times. They roughly correspond to Republicans and Democrats, it turns out. But now we demonstrated it with, like, really precisely validated paper-and-pencil tests and laboratory procedures, enough to employ a small army of grad students. We’re so much more sophisticated and scientific, now! Those primitives knew nothing before we came along. Sad.

The difference between now and olden times is that, today, just being straightforwardly racist comes across as tacky.

Ashley Jardina

I would say that one thing I’ve learned from studying people who score high on our measures of white identity is that they do seem to be borrowing some of the strategies used by groups on the left. So, for example, complaining that their group experiences discrimination, or trying to demand that their group gets a white history month, or wanting things organized politically around their race. These are cases in which whites are learning the lessons from identity politics practiced by other groups.

On the other hand, identities among black Americans have been consistently strong and powerful and an important force in American politics for decades, particularly the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s. And yet during that time, we certainly didn’t see white identity seeming to matter very much in American politics. So it does seem to be more about these demographics and the deeper concerns they’re producing.

We certainly didn’t see white identity seeming to matter very much in American politics! LOL. Those decades correspond to Nixon, the War on Drugs, Ronald Reagan, Clinton and crime/welfare, etc. Conservatives self-consciously strategized about how to implemen racism without talking about race, which they’ve actually done since the New Deal. They do it because it works on liberals who want to believe it, among other things. Of course, she acknowledges that a few minutes later:

In fact, much research suggests that we need immigrants to help maintain the country’s economic growth, and to provide a solid tax base to fund entitlement programs. And it’s actually with respect to protecting and preserving parts of our social safety net that we might find more common ground among Americans, regardless of race or ethnicity.

For example, in my work, I find that white identifiers are especially supportive of policies like Social Security and Medicare. Unlike means-tested policies that fall under the umbrella term “welfare” and have been racialized such that now they are associated with blacks and other minorities, Social Security and Medicare are viewed as benefiting all groups, including whites.

Whites with higher levels of racial identity like these policies, which means that politicians might garner a lot of support across racial groups by focusing on efforts to protect and preserve these policies.

Trump clearly knew this when he was campaigning for office. He departed from the traditional Republican Party platform and promised to protect these entitlement programs. Of course, Trump is also very good at drawing white Americans’ attention to the anxiety and fears they have about immigration and demographic changes.

Notice how technocratic the language becomes. She sounds like a government bureaucrat who wants to take away your freedom with red tape. This is how liberals defend Others, as a result of their insincerity.

Notice the similarity to this letter by a Nazi to his superiors:

I immediately lodged the sharpest protest against this, in which I emphasized that a liquidation of the Jews could not take place arbitrarily. The larger portion of Jews still present in the city consisted of craftsmen and their families. One simply could not do without the Jewish craftsmen, because they were indispensable for the maintenance of the economy. Furthermore I referred to the fact that White Russian craftsmen were, so to say, utterly unavailable, that therefore all vital enterprises would be paralyzed with a single blow if all Jews were liquidated. At the conclusion of our discussion I mentioned that the craftsmen and specialists, insofar as they were indispensable, had identification on hand, and that these Jews were not to be taken out of the workshops. It was further agreed that all Jews still in the city, especially the craftsmen’s families, whom I also did not want to have liquidated, should first of all be brought to the ghetto for the purpose of sorting. Two of my officials were to be authorized to carry out the sorting. The commander in no way opposed my position, so in good faith I believed that the action would therefore be carried out accordingly.

Several hours after the action began, the greatest difficulties were already becoming apparent. I discovered that the commander was not at all abiding by our arrangement. Contrary to the agreement, all Jews without exception were being taken from the factories and workshops and sent off. A portion of the Jews were in any case taken through the ghetto, where many were grabbed and selected out by me, but most were loaded directly on trucks and without further ado liquidated outside the city.

Shortly after noon, complaints were already coming from all sides that the workshops could no longer operate because all Jewish craftsmen had been removed. Because the commander had driven on to Baranovichi, I contacted the deputy commander, a captain, after a long search and demanded that the action be immediately stopped, because it was not taking place according to my instructions and the economic damage already inflicted could not be made good.

Illing and Jardina are two white people speaking as if they were neutral, objective observers. I don’t actually think it’s impossible for white people to write critically about race. Andrea Dworkin wrote critically about racism in America and Israel, but it required a degree of alienation that Illing and Jardina don’t seem to have. Robin DiAngelo writes about these things, but with more emotional honesty.

I think most liberals would agree that trickle-down economics is bullshit, and that Republicans are full of shit when they say tax cuts will pay for themselves by improving the economy. Yet she makes a similarly unconvincing argument in defense of non-whites:

Sean Illing

Here’s the thing: White Americans are right to notice that they’re losing cultural and political power. The country is changing. Groups that previously had little power are now asserting themselves. These are not illusory shifts. I suppose the question is, how do we convince people that this isn’t necessarily a zero-sum game?

Ashley Jardina

Well, I’m not sure that it is a zero-sum game, and growing diversity need not be framed by elites as if it is.

For one thing, the claim that whites are going to lose an enormous degree of power in the United States because of immigration and growing diversity is certainly overstated. If anything, immigration will likely increase the size of the proverbial “pie” of economic resources available to all Americans by helping grow the economy.

There’s also just not a lot of evidence that immigrants are depressing American citizens’ wages or taking their jobs. So when politicians claim immigrants threaten American workers, they’re usually just fearmongering.

It is also worth noting that most Americans claim, at least in the abstract, that they want to live in a more racially egalitarian society. It is just going to take some time for white Americans to be comfortable with the reality of greater equality — a reality in which not everyone represented in the media, sitting in a board room, or holding office is white by the standards of our time.