Identity politics are born of racism and slavery, time to reject them.
In a nation still so obsessed with race such as ours, where “white nationalism” and neo-Nazi buffoons still roam around making trouble, it is hard to imagine a time when the very concept meant something almost entirely different. Yet history shows us that before slavery grew in economic importance in the Americas, the clearest separation between groups of human beings was religion and nationhood. Europeans in particular, killing each other over the centuries as was their custom, saw themselves as vastly different peoples with completely divergent origins and destinies. It was only Christianity that united them, and even that was torn asunder in the barbarity of the 30 Years War.
The very idea of a “white” race is an invention of the late 17th century, created out of a need to prevent converted slaves from using their new-found Christianity to escape bondage. Soon after the founding of our nation and again as a means to protect slavery the Naturalization Act of 1790 made becoming a citizen predicated on being “white”, a notion that was never really stable or coherent and that often included some groups we might not expect and excluded others we would. In the years after independence, groups such as the Irish were almost universally despised, as were subsequent waves of immigrants such as Italians, Greeks and Poles. Today the white nationalist fool might describe all of these groups as “white”, yet the inclusion of those peoples into the category was not automatic and they suffered tremendously for many decades as a result.
As the early scientific disciplines matured and started to look towards human beings as the subject of inquiry, they unfortunately added weight to the idea of different races within humanity and tried to fit the existing prejudices into their taxonomy for such “races”. Looking at the power disparities present throughout the world as Europeans came in contact with different people, these pseudoscientific theories imagined concrete and biologically determined characteristics that made some races superior to others. Thus, even as slavery was destroyed through valiant effort and bitter war, its justification was emboldened and formed the base of the remaining institutionalized racism.
Race in America therefore became a prominent part of the social and political landscape, more so than in other nations which did not have such an organized system of separation and control. Freed slaves and their decedents became the focus of an identity politics game that is still being played today by various groups. The source of bigoted groups like the KKK was to be found in the idea of having been stripped of some former dignity and honor, of having lost a way of life and of needing to fight not for one’s individual place in the nation, but for the “respect” of ones so called race. In some ways, the entire evil campaign of these groups was predicated on the offense of a nation finally trying to live up to its founding principle, namely that all men are created equal and endowed with certain inalienable rights by their creator. They wanted to ignore the truth of who we always were meant to be in favor of their twisted vision of a nation divided along racial lines.
The fight of King and all those who marched against tyrannical racism was based on a vision of individual and universal human liberty and justified in historical terms by the idea that it was high time America’s grand ideals finally extended to all of its citizens. In essence the dream of the founders, even those imperfect ones who lacked the courage and the means the fight slavery from the beginning, became the dream of King that he shared with the nation on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. We cannot pretend that racism is not part of our history, but we can understand that it didn’t have to be and that it was and still is justified on the basis of a lie. There is and always has been only one race of human beings. Whatever phenotypical differences exist between groups of people are minimal compared to the differences between actual individuals within any given group.
Those well-meaning but extreme souls that want to continue to make everything about race share the same flawed vision of the American legacy as those they most bitterly disagree with. As much as they would hate to admit, they see race everywhere and think only of how oppressive everything was and continues to be. While all of us might recognize we are far from done in living up to our ideals, they can’t seem to accept that even from the beginning there was strong intellectual and moral opposition to the idea of a division of mankind based on that faulty notion. Even going back to the Enlightenment, the Renaissance, Middle Ages and further all the way back to Rome, Athens and Jerusalem, we see seeds of the concepts which would later be used to fight racism and slavery all over the world.
Never fully realized back then as today, those concepts nevertheless made it possible to assert that all human beings have an in born dignity and right to liberty that no force on earth can take away without setting itself up against the very moral law of the universe. These ideals that we now take for granted took millennia to develop and were spread by prophets, leaders, and philosophers. Our true legacy and the one that we should embrace, is not about identity at all, at least not an identity predicated on ethnic group grievances or ambitions. The legacy bequeathed to us by the founders, as flawed as they may have been, was the possibility of a country based on civic rather than ethnic or religious nationalism.
Those that want to subvert or destroy the constitution that forms the base of that civic nationalism be they followers of Hitler or Lenin, have no future in our country and should be opposed by every legal measure we have and every social pressure at our disposal. Further those that dream of Robert E. Lee and Jefferson Davis are suckers for lies and falsehoods, of a time that was not even that good for the majority of the so-called whites of the time. The ones that have a desire to bring the nightmare back to our country should also be fought, and maybe it is time to put their monuments in a museum where they can be seen and contextualized but not glorified. But we cannot be so bitter and fearful ourselves that we seek to eradicate every trace of our history from the public sphere or try to declare than anyone who has some fondness for Dixie is a secret member of the KKK.
Further we must resist the temptation to overplay the idea of people with lighter complexions having some sort of privilege or associated guilt for the crimes of the past. No one likes to be called a racist, let alone a secret one, especially when they are working hard just to get by and never seem to get ahead. Tell the poor Appalachian single mother of 3 she has special privileges and is really racist at heart because she is “white” and see how quickly the insidious tentacles of white nationalism begin to slither into her psyche. Identity politics, even if used to achieve a positive end for those who are still feeling the effects of centuries of oppression or exclusion, is ultimately a losing game that leads only to more resentment and even more dangerous tribalism and in-fighting.
No one can honestly deny that the rise of our current President and his erroneous and divisive policies was not at least in part due to years and years of beating down the anti-American and anti-white drum by well-meaning but ultimately bitter people. This is never to excuse those who have gone down the path of bigotry and violence, but just as it makes sense to not create more terrorists in your counter-terrorism efforts, we should avoid creating more racists in our fight against racism.
Ultimately, we must all recognize that identity politics is was formed in our country as a tool of those that wanted to maintain a racially divided society even when the constitution and our Declaration of Independence would have logically made that impossible. To get to where we need to go and unite once more as a country, we need to embrace those founding principles and reject fighting our battles on the basis of false racial identities. Of course, we have different cultural experiences, and skin color overlaps with those experiences, in many cases in ways that are profoundly unjust and unfair, but we have to be able to move past that if we are to endure as a nation. That starts by seeing race as the illusion that it is and rejecting those who want to use it to further their political ambitions, regardless of what side they are on or what intentions they may have.