A century and a half ago, slaveocrats such as John Calhoun promulgated the idea that race is a deep and unignorable identity. They insisted that race was more significant than class, nationality, religion, or individual character and that this necessitated societal sorting by color. That remained the position of white racists for decades.
Strangely, their heirs today are the scions of identity politics. These activists likewise elevate race above qualities of personality, say that whiteness and blackness are deeper than any commonalities, and insist that racial sorting must be enshrined in law, social practice, and all decisions of everyday life. Their position has obliterated the color-transcending idealism of previous civil-rights leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr.
Woke warriors openly defend racial discrimination. “If discrimination is creating equity, then it is antiracist. If discrimination is creating inequity, then it is racist,” argues bestselling author Ibram Kendi. “The only remedy to present discrimination is future discrimination.”
Government, corporations, and charities therefore increasingly manage people by skin tone. The venerable proposition that it is wrong to judge citizens by the physical group they belong to, that instead they must be assessed as individuals, is now characterized as a hateful claim made only by “the privileged.” Goals of common brotherhood have given way to a prickly race consciousness.
What one might call romantic racism is being promoted by the theoreticians of identity politics. Someone who is black (or gay or female) is assumed to possess “heightened moral knowledge,” as critic Coleman Hughes puts it. Others are just as automatically assumed to be insensitive and imperious. A raw separation of people into oppressors and oppressed, worthy and wicked, now weighs heavily on our social relations, with the moral categorizations determined by historical and biological exigencies beyond any person’s control.
Most troubling, an extraordinary amount of stereotyping by race is now actively promulgated by progressives. Diversity training courses required on college campuses, at corporations, and in the nonprofit world teach that it is “culturally insensitive to expect people to be on time” because among people of color “time may be considered fluid.” It’s Black Lives Matter die-hards, not Ku Klux Klan louts, who now refer to things like hard work, accurate use of language, rational thinking, and respectful behavior as “acting white.”
The rise of romantic racism has validated many varieties of selective bigotry. Asians, Jews, Hispanics, and Arabs are criticized as “white-adjacent.” (Middle Eastern American store owners have had a hard time of it since Palestinian Muslim Mahmoud Abumayyaleh called the police to say George Floyd was trying to pass a counterfeit $20 bill at his shop.) Proponents of identity politics show no qualms about casually wielding stereotypes like the “Karen” and “Becky” caricatures now used rampantly to disparage white women with bossy, unwoke, or otherwise inconvenient worldviews. In a typical recent example, Washington Post editor Karen Attiah tweeted a list of alleged crimes and outrages over the last century that “the lies and tears of White women hath wrought,” then concluded: “White women are lucky that we are just calling them ‘Karens’. And not calling for revenge.”
Not surprisingly, all of this agitation is atomizing us and (in a tragic irony) propelling us toward more separation, more division, and more group resentment rather than less. Amid today’s incessant fomenting of race sensitivity, social relations have grown tenser, fear of speaking honestly has skyrocketed, and tribalism and polarization are surging.
Among blacks themselves, individuals who fail to support tenets of identity politics are frequently marginalized, labeled “inauthentic,” and dismissed. From Thomas Chatterton Williams and Thomas Sowell to ESPN anchor Sage Steele, people of color regularly encounter censure today when they stray from the woke orthodoxies on race. “We don’t need any more brown faces that don’t want to be a brown voice. We don’t need any more black faces that don’t want to be a black voice.” That’s the way socialist Rep. Ayanna Pressley, a Democrat from Massachusetts, recently told Hispanic and black individuals with their own ideas to sit down and shut up.
Rather than working to transcend race and focusing on the universals in humanity, as thinkers ranging from King to Williams to Albert Murray have long urged, most of today’s racial activists are doing the opposite. And American elites, intimidated by the career-ending power of identity politics mobs, are more and more frequently resorting to heavy-handed applications of racial categorization and stringent controls on the way race is thought about and acted upon.
By constantly putting race above other life experiences, the woke are ironically fueling racial determinism. That’s a step backward — by about 150 years.
Karl Zinsmeister has just completed a historical novel about the private activists who battled John Calhoun to turn the abolition of slavery into a mass popular movement. This is adapted from his longer essay in the forthcoming Fall issue of Philanthropy magazine.