The origins of the politics of identity lie not on the left but on the reactionary right. Photo: PA Images

The rise of white identity politics

Even a decade ago, discussions of “white identity” belonged to the fringes. Today it has become a significant political issue on both sides of the Atlantic
July 13, 2020

“White Lives Matter Burnley!” ran the banner trailed by a plane above the Etihad stadium, Manchester City’s ground, during a match with Burnley in June. Since the Premier League resumed after the coronavirus hiatus, players and officials have “taken the knee” at the start of matches in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement against racism and police brutality.

The stunt was roundly condemned by almost everyone: Burnley captain Ben Mee, football administrators, and most people in the Lancashire town, black, Asian and white. Yet if the banner drew near-universal opprobrium, implicit in the slogan were several themes that resonate more widely today—the claim that the needs of white people are being ignored, the notion of white victimhood and the growing significance of “white identity.”

Even a decade ago, discussions of “white identity” belonged to the fringes of politics. It was Nazi-speak. Today it has become a significant political issue on both sides of the Atlantic. In Britain, the debate about the so-called “left behind” has focused mainly on the travails of the “white working class.” Many commentators bemoan the way that traditional working-class culture and heritage has been eroded by mass migration. There has been growing interest in the problems facing certain poor towns, many of which remain overwhelmingly white.

Figures showing falling life expectancy in the most deprived areas of Britain have prompted fears of the UK following the US. There, economists Anne Case and Angus Deaton have documented a shocking drop in longevity caused by “deaths of despair”—people dying from suicide, alcoholism and drug overdoses—specifically among less-educated whites. The poor performance of working-class white boys in schools has added to the sense of “white neglect.” Last year, educationalist and philanthropist Bryan Thwaites offered two private schools a £1m donation to provide scholarships for disadvantaged white working-class boys. When the schools turned it down, Trevor Phillips, former head of the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), said the refusal showed “the liberal guilt of a largely brahmin caste” standing in the way of someone who “wanted to do the right thing by families who need support.”

In the US, a new genre of books about the lives of poor whites has emerged, the most celebrated of which is JD Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy. There are also serious accounts of the way that poverty among white communities has long been ignored, such as historian Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America. American polls show that almost half of white workers feel like “strangers in their own land,” while a third believe that not enough is being done to “preserve its white European heritage.” Meanwhile, Donald Trump heightens “white consciousness” by drawing on the deep-seated tropes that Sarah Churchwell elucidates here. The British-based Canadian political scientist Eric Kaufmann has stirred controversy—but also found a sympathetic hearing across the political spectrum, including from the Spectator’s Douglas Murray to Prospect’s founder David Goodhart—by arguing that whites should be able to assert their “racial self-interest” like any other ethnic group.

Lurking in the background of this debate are myriad interlinked developments: the erosion of the power and standing of the working class; the blurring of the old divisions between left and right; the creation of a new fault line separating the winners from the losers of globalisation; and the rise of populism and the emergence of anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim movements. Most of these issues have been dissected at length. Less attention has been paid, though, to the nature of white identity itself, and to its historical roots. Identity politics is usually viewed as a politics of the left, and white identity seen as a latecomer to the scene—an attempt to replicate the success of minority groups. A longer view reveals the opposite to be the case: that progressive forms of identity politics were the ones late on the scene, and that the origins of the politics of identity lie not on the left but on the reactionary right.

Before discussing this history, we need first to distinguish between identity and the politics of identity. Identities are of great significance for our sense of ourselves, our grounding in the world and our relationships to others. Politics, though, is a means, or should be a means, of taking us beyond the narrow sense of identity given to each of us by circumstance and personal experience. As a teenager, I was drawn to politics because of my experience of racism; but if it was racism that drew me to politics, it was politics that made me see beyond the narrow confines of race. I came to see there was more to social justice than challenging the injustices done to me. I discovered the writings of Marx and Mill, of James Baldwin and Hannah Arendt, of CLR James and Frantz Fanon. Most of all, I discovered that I could find more solidarity with those whose ethnicity or culture was different to mine, but who shared my values, than with those with whom I shared an ethnicity or culture but not the same political vision. Politics was not shackled to my identity, but helped me to reach beyond it.

Today, though, far from taking us beyond our narrow identities, politics is increasingly constrained by them. What we are defines what we should cherish or value or believe. Many imagine that to be Muslim or gay or European is to accept a particular package of ideals. The story of contemporary white identity becomes one more thread in the broader story of how politics came to be circumscribed in this fashion.
The original practice of “identity politics” emerged well before it acquired its modern name. Its roots go back to the late 18th and early 19th century, its fullest expression being in the notion of race—the idea that humans could be divided into a number of distinct groups or races, each defined by distinctive biological, social and moral characteristics. The germ of this idea can be seen in the 18th-century writings of Enlightenment thinkers such as Hume, Kant and Jefferson. It only matured, however, in the 19th century, against the background of disenchantment with—and hostility to—Enlightenment ideas of universalism and equality.

Today, we think of races as defined primarily by skin colour, or continent of origin. In the 19th century, “races” were distinguished by class as much as by colour. It may be difficult to comprehend now, but 19th-century thinkers saw the working class as a racially distinct group in much the same way as many now view black people as being racially distinct from whites. As an 1864 vignette of working-class life in the weekly newspaper Saturday Review put it, “the distinctions and separations… of English classes… offer a very fair parallel to the separation of the slaves from the whites.” We might look upon Victorian society as largely mono-racial but that’s not how Victorians themselves saw it. The meanings of both “race” and “whiteness” were significantly different from what they are now.

“The origins of the politics of identity lie not on the left but on the reactionary right”

In 1865, there was a banquet in Southampton in honour of Edward John Eyre, the governor of Jamaica. That year, Eyre had put down an uprising on the island with ferocity. The Jamaica Committee, set up by liberals and radicals to prosecute Eyre for his actions, organised a counter-rally to the banquet. On the protest, the Daily Telegraph reported, “There are a good many negroes in Southampton who have the taste of their tribe for any disturbance that appears safe.” In fact, as historian Douglas Lorimer observes in his book Colour, Class and the Victorians, “the Daily Telegraph’s ‘negroes’ were… the very English and very white Southampton mob who thronged the streets outside the banquet hall.”

The Southampton incident reveals the 19th-century elite view of black people and white workers as being part of the same “tribe.” This was not simply an English phenomenon. The French Christian socialist Phillippe Buchez, in a talk to the Medico-Psychological Society of Paris in 1857, wondered how it could be that “within a population such as ours, races may form—not merely one but several races—so miserable, inferior and bastardised that they may be classed below the most inferior savage races, for their inferiority is sometimes beyond cure.” The “races” that so troubled Buchez were not from Africa or Asia, but constituted the working class and the rural poor.

Today, “white identity” is discussed largely in the context of the working class. But, historically, the working class was seen as “savage” and as inferior as any non-white race. Whiteness in the contemporary sense began to emerge only at the turn of the 20th century, propelled by two developments: the coming of democracy and a new imperialism, exemplified by the “scramble for Africa.”

As western nations became more democratic with the eventual extension of suffrage to the whole adult population, so the racial view of the working class, which had dominated 19th-century elite consciousness, slowly faded from public view. The widening of suffrage coincided with the expansion of imperial rule in a frenzy of land-grabbing by European nations from Africa to the Pacific. In the coincidence of democracy and imperialism, support for imperialism became “democratised.” Racial thinking evolved from an elite ideology to become part of patriotic popular culture. The racial superiority of the British people was celebrated in mass circulation newspapers, penny-dreadful novels and popular entertainment.

“The term “identity politics” was coined in 1977 by a black lesbian organisation called the American Combahee River Collective, which argued that the most radical politics came from people placing their own experiences at the centre of their struggles”

The language of race became, as a consequence, refocused more exclusively on skin colour. The “colour line” developed into the chief way of understanding and dividing the world. From America’s 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, to the “White Australia” policy to Britain’s Aliens Act of 1905, designed primarily to prevent east European Jews from entering the country, immigration laws became means of institutionalising racial difference and identity. It was important, the American historian and journalist Lothrop Stoddard wrote in The Rising Tide of Color: The Threat Against White World-Supremacy (1920), that “the rising tide of color finds itself walled in by white dikes.”

Where racial supremacists of both left and right viewed the world through the lens of racial identity, radicals challenging inequality and oppression did so in the name of universal rights. They insisted that there existed a set of values and institutions under which all humans could best flourish. It was the same universalism that would fuel the great movements of emancipation, from anti-colonial struggles to the campaigns for women’s suffrage. All were struggles against the politics of defining people by their identity.

But imperialism and racial thinking posed difficult questions. If Europe had been responsible for the enslavement of more than half the world, many asked, what worth could there be in its political and moral ideals, which at best had failed to prevent that enslavement, at worst had provided its intellectual grounding?

Over time, opposition to European rule became associated with opposition to European ideas, too. Universalism came to be seen as Eurocentric, even racist, because it sought to impose Euro-American ideas of rationality and objectivity on other peoples. The ideals that flowed out of the Enlightenment, many argued, grew out of a particular culture and history. Non-Europeans had to develop ideas and values rooted in their own cultures and needs. The result was first, the flourishing of a host of 20th-century separatist movements, such as Garveyism, pan-Africanism, black nationalism and negritude, and then—eventually—the emergence of radical identity politics in the decades following the Second World War.

In the wake of Nazism and the Holocaust, and amid struggles for independence across Africa, Asia and the Caribbean, the relationship between left, right and the politics of identity changed. Racism did not disappear. But where ideas of racial superiority had been, in the pre-war world, the norm within western elite circles, racial equality now enjoyed the moral high ground. At the same time, the radical rejection of universalism in favour of particularist claims took new political forms. The struggle for black rights in the US fostered fresh ideas about identity and self-organisation. Squeezed between an intensely racist society on the one hand, and an often-indifferent left on the other, many black activists in the 1960s ceded from integrated civil rights organisations and set up separate groups, giving rise to the Black Power and Black Panther movements.

Many began to argue that African Americans had to organise separately not just as a political strategy but also as a cultural necessity. “Negritude,” the activist Julius Lester wrote, “is the recognition of those things uniquely ours which separate ourselves from the white man.” Black radicalism provided a template for many other groups, from women to Native Americans, from Muslims to gays, to look upon social change through the lens of their own cultures, goals and ideals.

The term “identity politics” was coined in 1977 by a black lesbian organisation called the American Combahee River Collective, which argued that the most radical politics came from people placing their own experiences at the centre of their struggles. Nevertheless, they insisted, too, that such struggles were necessarily interwoven with broader campaigns for change. Identity politics of that time provided a means of challenging oppression as a specific part of a wider project of social transformation.
Over the past half-century, that wider social project has disintegrated. Trade unions, the old left and the “new” social movements have all withered. The recognition of identity became not a means to an end, but an end in itself. Values and beliefs were reimagined as something that, at least partly, consisted in being black or gay or Muslim.

An important distinction historically has been that between the inward-looking “binding” politics of identity, and the outward-looking “bridging” politics of solidarity. The former mobilises by emphasising shared membership of a particular identity, be that gender, sexuality, race or nation. The politics of solidarity also stresses collective endeavour, but views commonality as emerging not from particular identities but out of a shared set of values and beliefs, and the struggles to win acceptance for those values and beliefs. The distinction is not always clear cut—elements of both co-exist in many forms of collective politics. But where the politics of identity divides, the politics of solidarity establishes common purpose across fissures of race, gender, sexuality, religion and nation. It is, however, the politics of solidarity that has crumbled over the past three decades as radical movements have declined. For many today, the only form of collective politics that seems possible is that rooted in identity.

“Solidarity” has become increasingly defined not in political terms—as collective action in pursuit of certain ideals—but in terms of ethnicity or culture. The question people ask themselves is not so much: “What kind of society do I want?” as “Who are we?” The two questions are, of course, intimately related, and any sense of social identity must embed an answer to both. But as the political sphere has narrowed, and as mechanisms for political change have eroded, so the answer to the question “What kind of society do I want?” has become less about values and institutions than about the kind of people they imagine they are. And the answer to “Who are we?” has become defined less by “progressive” aspirations for the society we want to see tomorrow, than by the history and heritage to which supposedly we belong.

Notions of white identity did not disappear in the postwar period, any more than racism did. But they were submerged and marginalised, and when they did express themselves—as in Southern opposition to the civil rights movement in America or through Powellism in Britain—the mainstream, to a greater or lesser extent, condemned them as racist.

By the 1970s, it was only on the far-right fringes that the notion still had purchase. Rather than simply defend discredited ideas of biological superiority, however, some far-right thinkers began also appropriating cultural arguments, and ideas about difference, to generate new racist notions of identity.

The French philosopher Alain de Benoist, one of the founders of the Nouvelle Droite movement in the 1970s, and someone with a complex and ambiguous relationship to the far right, used the concept of droit à la différence (“the right to difference”) to defend French national culture from being “swamped” by immigrants. The mixing of cultures, he argued, would damage the cultural identity of both host and minority communities. “Will the Earth be reduced to something homogenous because of the deculturalising and depersonalising trends for which American imperialism is now the most cynical and arrogant rector?” he asked. “Or will people find the means for the necessary resistance in their beliefs, traditions, and ways of seeing the world?” Here was an early instance of the radical argument for pluralism appropriated for reactionary ends. It has since come to shape the thinking of radical right groups on both sides of the Atlantic. Former Trump aide Steve Bannon, for instance, has long expressed his admiration for Benoist-type identitarian politics.

“Sociologists and journalists often talk today about the white working class but rarely about the black working class or the Muslim working class”

The same trends that transformed the 1960s social movements into the insular contemporary politics of identity have also driven the rehabilitation of white identity. Central to this story are the sinking fortunes of the working class. Throughout Europe, economic and social changes—the decline of manufacturing industry, a squeezed welfare state, more atomised societies, the rise of the gig economy—have all bred insecurity. Political shifts, including the growing gulf between increasingly metropolitan social democratic parties and their old working-class voters, have left many feeling politically voiceless at the same time as their lives have become more precarious. Where once there were institutions to foster solidarity, dignity and indeed identity, what’s left today is anger and disaffection. It is against this setting that falling life expectancy in the most deprived communities, or the educational failures of white working-class boys, is generating such anguish.

The marginalisation of the working class is, at root, the product of economic, social and political changes. But many have come to feel it as a cultural loss. When the working class was central to British politics, it was easy to see how issues of housing or wages related to economic and social policy. Today, the only time “class politics” seems to be discussed is to highlight not the material roots of social problems, but the gap between elite and working-class norms. As culture becomes the lens through which social issues are refracted, many within the working class turn to the idiom of identity to express their discontent. And as the language of politics and class has given way to the language of culture and identity, so class has come to be seen not so much a political or economic as a cultural, even racial, attribute.

Sociologists and journalists often talk today about the white working class but rarely about the black working class or the Muslim working class. Black people and Muslims are regarded as belonging to almost classless communities. The working class has come to be seen primarily as white, and white has become a seemingly mandatory adjective through which to define the working class. It is a perspective that denies both the long history of black and Asian involvement in the working class, and the present-day economic role that minorities play—a role whose importance the “essential workers” of the pandemic has underscored.

Meanwhile, radical right movements have helped reshape politics by linking a bigoted form of identity politics, rooted in hostility to migrants and Muslims, to economic and social policies that were once the staple of the left: defence of jobs, support for the welfare state, opposition to austerity. The result has been the refashioning of the reactionary politics of identity for a new age.

Some commentators argue that not taking seriously the desire for white people to assert their identity will open the door to the far right. The opposite is true. By suggesting that the white population should have the right to reduce the inflow of non-whites into a country, or that it is a social problem if whites become a minority in a city like London, mainstream commentators echo the assertions of the far right and legitimise racist claims such as the “Great Replacement” theory, the belief that whites are being driven out of their “homelands.” The normalisation of “white identity” allows racism to rebrand itself.

It is true that politicians have long neglected working-class grievances, and that issues such as “deaths of despair” or the poor educational attainments of white working-class boys have not received the attention they should have. The “white lives matter” claims are driven not just by bigotry, though clearly there is a large element of that, but also by anger over such neglect.

Working-class grievances cannot, however, be understood in terms of “whiteness.” There is no singular set of “white” interests. Those responsible for the marginalisation of the working class are also largely white—politicians, bureaucrats, bankers, company bosses. The problems facing white workers are similar to many of those facing non-white workers. The notion of “white identity” obscures the real reasons for the precariousness of working-class lives and so makes it more difficult to tackle them.

The challenge is to address the problems facing working-class communities in terms other than that of identity. The politics of identity, whether radical or reactionary, encourages people to repose their grievances into forms that make them less resolvable. Rather than ask “What are the policy reasons for falling life expectancy or the poor education achievements of white working-class boys?” people are pushed into blaming migrants or Muslims or black people, and into retreating into a narrow, racial identity. If we are honest about improving working-class lives, we need to confront, not promote, ideas of white identity.