Since the November election, many liberals—and a fair number of leftists—are beating their breasts about the overlooked white working class that was “lost” to Trump and has to be brought back into the fold. This new solicitude for white workers usually comes bundled with an attack on “identity politics,” which, we are warned, splinters and weakens the resistance. These two fraudulent arguments pander to white supremacy. They should be rooted out of our struggle against Trump.
The tens of millions of white workers who voted for Trump committed a racist act. They didn’t do it because they’re stupid, but because they like what Trump stands for. They pledged their fealty to an aspiring white nationalist strongman who promised impunity to gangster cops and torturers; who welcomed open white supremacists into his movement; who swore he’d deport millions of Muslim and Latin American immigrants, all in an effort to Make America White Again.
White people without college degrees (a category including most white workers) chose Trump over Clinton by 39 percentage points. Those voters don’t really believe that he’s going to magically transform the Rust Belt into a workers’ paradise. It’s enough that he dog-whistles his intent to reestablish a clear-cut racial hierarchy.
Many white workers confront deteriorating economic conditions. But that’s no excuse for racism. White workers are, by any statistic, much better off than non-white workers. And as we know, workers of color face additional burdens of discrimination, police violence, mass incarceration and dehumanization in US culture. Nevertheless, when white workers have grievances, they normally scapegoat and attack oppressed nationalities. This is a recurrent feature of US history.
I’m not arguing that white workers can’t be part of the resistance, or that they should be written off. White workers didn’t all vote for Trump. Some are staunch anti-racists. But relying on white workers as a class to start acting like a reliable bulwark of progressive change is delusional at best, utterly reactionary at worst.
White working class
This is a perennial issue for US Left. A widespread, false narrative holds that white workers—because they are workers—must be inherently progressive. Whenever white workers commit racist acts, it’s claimed that they do so out of ignorance, acting against their own best interests. J. Sakai’s classic book, Settlers: The Mythology of the White Proletariat, demolished this opportunist narrative decades ago. But it keeps spontaneously regenerating within the US Left, like a vampire rising from the crypt.
The white working class isn’t part of the world proletariat. It’s a systematically privileged worker elite. It was created and cultivated by the US ruling class to serve as a population of overseers, wardens, shock troops and labor fakers. Originally deployed to contain and control rebellious workers of color, the white working class later became a willing social base for the US’s rise as a predatory world empire. Like the white working class in apartheid South Africa, or the Zionist working class in Israel today, the white working class in the US is essentially parasitic. In return for its special privileged status, which is enshrined in a system of institutional racism, this class consistently opposes and undermines the struggles of oppressed peoples both in the US and around the world. Over the course of generation after generation, the white working class has embraced the atrocities of US capitalism: land theft, genocide, slavery, imperialist war, segregation, mass incarceration. And now, Trump.
Fighting racism among white workers is possible and necessary. But catering to the politics of the white working class is poison to the struggle against racism and capitalism. It’s disloyal to the freedom struggles of oppressed nationalities and nations, which have always spearheaded meaningful social change in the U.S., often while being forced to battle white workers. Out of pure necessity, those national movements are autonomous struggles, struggles for survival, self-defense and self-determination.
That’s one reason it’s so damaging when activists attack “identity politics.” Oppressed peoples have national cultures, institutions and histories: nationalities. These nationalities aren’t just a matter of individual choice or personal style; they’re social collectivities, communities. National identities are inherently political for those subjected to colonialism, and they’re absolutely integral to oppressed peoples’ resistance and survival. Trivializing or subordinating them merely reinforces whiteness—the “default” identity.
Bernie Sanders recently trumpeted that “we have to get beyond identity politics.” He later tried to walk that statement back a bit, but everybody knew what he meant. Oppressed people shouldn’t be so “divisive” with their demands. What Sanders wants us to concentrate on are “universal” needs, like single payer health care and free college tuition. He argues that this will unite progressives, appeal to white workers, and gain votes. Isn’t that classic white settler “leftism”? The oppressed get to compromise on their life-or-death issues; Bernie gets…elected.
Sanders’ view is standard liberal fare these days. The New York Times recently published an opinion piece by Columbia professor Mark Lilla. His take: “Amerian liberalism has slipped into a kind of moral panic about racial, gender and sexual identity that has distorted liberalism’s message and prevented it from becoming a unifying force capable of governing.” Well, that puts it right out there.
But isn’t it true that radicals have their own versions of this discourse? Some activists use “identity politics” as an epithet because they dislike any form of nationalism, including revolutionary nationalism. They imagine that it’s a diversion from class struggle, or think it constitutes an unacceptable form of “essentialism.” Others accuse activists of color of engaging in “identity politics” if they act pushy or egotistical. The internet is full of radicals, belonging to a variety of political trends, bemoaning the damage “identity politics” is doing to their organizing efforts; complaining that “identity” divisiveness or “identity” bullying are hurting the cause of socialism or anarchism. Are we supposed to believe that they mean something completely different from what Sanders and Lilla mean?
Let’s not forget that it was sellout ex-radicals who helped create the “identity politics” trope, back in the 1990s. Marxist-turned-conservative David Horowitz was a key figure in getting the ball rolling. He started out by arguing that “identity politics” was terrible for the Left, but he soon stopped pretending he cared about that. Now he just says flat out that “identity politics are anti-American.” (One elaboration of this is that “Black Lives Matter is a racist group.”) Todd Gitlin, a former leader of SDS, became another anti-“identity politics” warrior. He’s been blaming the Left’s problems on “divisive” Black people and women for 25 years. That isn’t a trajectory any radical should want to emulate, although it’s been good for his academic career.
Unfortunately, a lot of Left activists, along with their liberal counterparts, assume that the fundmental goal of people of color should be to assimilate into white-led movements and integrate into some version—liberal or “radical”—of white society. People of color who reject that option, deciding instead to rely on strengthening their own peoples and on finding solutions independent of white people, are often viewed as selfish and unrealistic—hung up on “identity.”
Yet if there’s anything that the last few decades demonstrate with utter clarity, it’s that when oppressed nationalities do try to assimilate in the US, they’re usually rewarded with violent white backlash, without achieving much (if any) justice or equality. Meanwhile, under the rubric of integration and assimilation, oppressed peoples’ communities and institutions are hollowed out, gentrified, privatized and bulldozed over.
During the last few decades, a seductive dream of multiculturalism arose in the US. It advocated peaceful respect among nationalities and genders—and who could argue with that? But from the start it was a shallow and compromised mix; a combination of honest idealism and corrupt neoliberalism that, among other things, sought to paper over deep and intractable national fault lines.
It must be said quite plainly that this surge of multiculturalism—which was protected and even sponsored by the biggest globalist capitalists—was fully compatible with continuous genocide against Black, Native, Puerto Rican and other oppressed peoples. And, more to our specific point, multiculturalism in the US relied for its viability on the good intentions of white people, many of whom actually hated it with a deep passion. Today the multicultural dream has turned into a nightmare: another sudden reawakening of violent populist white supremacy. So much for good intentions.
Radicals need to regroup around some basic truths about US society and “identity.” We live in a deeply reactionary settler state that relies on white nationalism for its survival. It’s a prison-house of colonized nations and oppressed nationalities. Its white population is completely unreliable as a force for justice or freedom. Based on its long and ugly history, most of that population will cling to white supremacy until the settler state is finally uprooted. The liberation struggles of Black/New Afrikan, Mexican, Native, Puerto Rican and other oppressed peoples are central to overthrowing US imperialism. These are struggles for self-determination; they’re not subordinate to white definition, priorities or leadership.
White activists should support and defend the freedom struggles of oppressed nations and nationalities politically and culturally. We should engage in a deeper and more principled practice of internationalism that’s firmly anchored in that support. We should also attack white supremacy in all its forms where we work and live, including inside the white working class. In that specific regard, our task isn’t to unite white workers but to divide them: to split as many white workers as possible away from the deep-seated racist, anti-proletarian politics of the majority.
In the 1960’s and 70’s, the most advanced parts of the Left recognized these truths. That Left—repressed by the state and undermined by white and male opportunism—is mostly gone now. It’s up to new activists to lead. But a new Left shouldn’t have to re-invent the wheel. Catering to the white working class while denigrating “identity politics” will do nothing whatsoever to stop Trump, defeat white supremacy, or overthrow capitalism. Instead, it will strengthen all three.