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White Identity Politics

My recent post, Blackness is the Fulcrum struck a nerve. It landed me on Blacking It Up, a radio show hosted by L. Joy Williams and Elon James White as the Asian man who opposes anti-Black racism. It was a valiant but sad performance. To all of you I’m supposed to be representing, I apologize in advance for the two shows I’m on this week. If you follow @nakagawascot I’ll tweet you the pod casts.

I’ve been busy. But busy or not, I can’t help making trouble and I’m guessing this post will stir some up.

Here goes –

Whiteness has a political meaning as much as does Black or Asian or any other racial category. In order to define non-whites as inferior and deviant, whites needed to be defined as superior and normal. By claiming the category “normal,” whites imagined themselves outside the racial paradigm they had created. But, in fact, they were and are at the center of it.

For this reason, unless whites consciously oppose white privilege, their identities are defined by it.

I call the subtle and not so subtle ways this system of privilege/injustice works white identity politics.

In recent decades, overt white racial supremacy has met some serious challenges. It’s no longer socially acceptable to say that people of color are racially inferior. However, white privilege hasn’t been eradicated. In fact, measured in terms of wealth, the privilege gap between whites and non-whites is at it’s widest in 25 years.

White supremacy still exists in deed if not in word, and the fact is that we’re not doing much as a society to fix it. Worse, when programs like Affirmative Action are created to address this injustice, they are attacked as reverse discrimination.

No doubt it has become uncivil to claim white supremacy as a birthright. Credit goes to the Civil Rights Movement for that change. Instead, in the age of colorblind racism, overtly racist justifications for white privilege are avoided. Overt racism is substituted with a normative standard that begins with white privilege as a baseline of what is just, rather than as a political achievement of white supremacy.

In (not) post-racial America, white privilege is considered the baseline of fairness.  No one, it is argued, should have to settle for less. However, because no one should have to settle for less, no solution that erodes white privilege is tolerated. Yet, white privilege is the basis of racism. As long as it is preserved, racial justice cannot be achieved.

Seem like a circular argument to you? Then you’re getting the picture. To me, it’s not just circular, it’s a downward spiral. And that spiral is white identity politics.

White identity politics is a game in which whites demand they be judged by what they intend, not by the unintended consequences of what they do. But what they do (including keeping the spoils of what their ancestors did before them) has everything to do with what they have relative to people of color regardless of intention, as evidenced in the Census statistics cited in the link about the wealth gap above.

Because of white identity politics, the suffering of people of color is acceptable until solutions can be discovered that don’t erode the value and meaning of whiteness. This me first mentality of the white majority requires efforts to materially address unjust racial relations to pass an impossible test. If the problem is economic inequality, the opening question of the test is: can you address the economic consequences of historical racism without changing the way that racism has distributed economic resources?

If you can’t, you fail the test. Either our solutions are only symbolic, or they eventually fall to white resistance.

That’s white identity politics. It’s a tough nut to crack, especially because it’s been business as usual for so long, it’s invisible to most white folks.

Lucky though that the value that accrues to whiteness in the white identity game aren’t evenly distributed. Most of the cash value of whiteness accumulates at the top. In order to address this problem, white folks need us, and they need to break with white identity as we’ve known it til now.

So we gotta call it out. White identity politics is essential to the perpetuation of racism.

Scot Nakagawa

By Scot Nakagawa

Scot is a community organizer, activist, cultural worker, and political writer. He has spent the last four decades exploring questions of racial injustice and racial formation and effective forms of resistance and strategies for change through community campaigns, cultural organizing, popular education, writing, and direct political advocacy.

Scot’s primary work has been in the fight against vigilante white supremacist groups, white nationalism, Nativism, and authoritarian evangelical political movements. In this work, he has served as a strategist, organizer, and social movement analyst. Scot is a past Alston/Bannerman Fellow and the Association of Asian American Studies 2017 Community Leader. He is busy at work on a number of projects, including writing a playbook for anti-fascists, and a primer on race and power. His writings have been included in Race, Gender, and Class in the United States: An Integrated Study, 9th Edition; Killing Trayvons: An Anthology of American Violence; and Eyes Right!: Challenging the Right Wing Backlash.

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