“White Identity Politics Is Bigger Than the KKK” Transcript
Guest: Dr. Ashley Jardina
Ashley Jardina: So it’s when we start to see the U.S. becoming more racially diverse, we see the election of the first black president, suddenly there are all these things in the political environment that make whites start to think about their race and think about it in a way that we might observe blacks and other people of color in the United States thinking about their race.
Betty Teng: Welcome to another episode of Mind of State. I’m Betty Teng.
Michael Epstein: And I’m Michael Epstein. And together we’re your hosts for Mind of State, a podcast for both political junkies and armchair shrinks. Hi, Betty.
Betty: Hi, Michael.
Michael: Our guest today is Ashley Jardina. Ashley is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Duke University in North Carolina. She studies the nature of racial attitudes and group identities and their influence on public opinion and political behavior. Her upcoming book, White Identity Politics, is about to be released, and it explores the conditions under which white racial identification and white consciousness among white Americans is a predictor of policies, candidates, and attitudes towards racial and ethnic groups. We’re really happy to have Ashley with us today on Mind of State. Ashley, welcome and thank you very much for joining us.
Ashley: Thank you so much. I’m delighted to be here.
Betty: My first question is the impetus for this book. Why did you want to do research and write a dissertation and write a book on white identity politics?
Ashley: Yeah, that’s a great question. Well, for one, I know in my own personal life and in my experience, in part having grown up in the South, I was thinking a lot about the fact that white people think about themselves as being white. And this seems to mean something to the people that I grew up with and the people I was observing around me. And at the time, I was doing a lot of work in graduate school thinking about racial prejudice and white racial prejudice. And part of that literature essentially argued that white people don’t really think about race in the same way that racial and ethnic minorities do. And it seemed to me that that wasn’t entirely true. And of course, I couldn’t have predicted that the world would look the way it did in 2016 and it does today. But I did think that race mattered to white people in a way that we hadn’t really thought very thoroughly about in the social sciences and political science in particular.
Betty: And when you talk about people that you grew up with and that you know and that you’re white and that they think of themselves as white, what do you mean by that?
Ashley: So they think that their race matters to them. They feel a certain sort of attachment to it. They think that it matters for how they go about their day to day lives. They recognize that being white has afforded them some advantages, some privileges that they’re happy to have, that they sort of worry about their racial group and that they kind of they recognize that their friends are white, their family members are white, that they do, in fact, see race and that means something to how they think about the political and social world.
Michael: Yeah, I think that was the interesting thing about the book. And I’m going to go to an anecdote that you have in the book, but is that the traditional social science notion is that whiteness almost doesn’t exist. That it’s not a category, even though we’re asked to fill it off on lots of forms, right. That that group identity isn’t something that’s quantifiable. And when it is, when you think if somebody does think about themselves as white, they’re Aryan Nation person or they’re part of the KKK. And what your very nuanced, fascinating book asks us to think about it differently. Is that a fair–
Ashley: Absolutely. That’s an excellent assessment. And there’s a good reason why social scientists have made this argument that whiteness is invisible. And that’s that for most of recent history, if we think particularly in the post civil rights era, whites have had unchallenged, they possess, you know, the economic and social and political power disproportionately in the United States by way of being white and being the dominant group in the United States. They don’t have to think about their race. It’s not something that really matters to them that often or in a way that we think it matters for people of color in the United States. Their lives are not determined largely by their race. The argument that I make is that while that’s true, until circumstances change or conditions in the political environment start to shift. And so it’s when we start to see the U.S. becoming more racially diverse, we see the election of the first black president, suddenly, there are all these things in the political environment that make whites start to think about their race and think about it in a way that we might observe blacks and other people of color in United States thinking about their race.
Michael: You know, it’s funny you even say that, Ashley, because it feels to me even that some people would be listening to this conversation and almost say, why even talk about white identity? You know, there’s a kind of resistance in it, in this notion that that’s all we do is talk about whiteness all the time. Why study it? Why write about it? Why do a podcast about it? There’s something almost unseemly, or at least maybe not, and I don’t mean to sound like Donald Trump here–
Ashley: Well, it’s also–
Michael: –not politically correct.
Betty: I mean, I think it is also a question of sort of equating white identity with that of racial minorities. And that it means, this might be a misinterpretation, but it means that white identity is the same as black identity, which it is not. It is absolutely not. Or that of Asian Americans or Latinos or you know–
Michael: But it’s becoming that. I think that is what Ashley’s book is saying, it’s kind of becoming that.
Betty: Is that what you’re saying, Ashley?
Ashley: I’m not saying that it’s becoming that. There is an argument to be made that in some ways the psychological process is the same, right. That white identity is just like another social identity. It’s an attachment that people have to some social status, that in the environment. It’s not the same in that it certainly matters for outcomes quite differently. We know that identities that are formed among subordinated groups or oppressed groups across societies are a function of the fact that members of those groups experience discrimination, they experience subordination. And so certainly white identity is not like that in that way. But a lot of the factors that give rise to the development of any type of group identity are factors that are present in the formation of white identity. The major difference is, first of all, the fact of white identity and the fact that it is an identity that’s formed among a dominant group, a group of people based on race, who have a disproportionate share of social and economic power in society.
Michael: Right. And that’s your argument. That there’s real political consequences in the political, I mean, Donald Trump is as good an example as any, of the consequence of white identity.
Ashley: Yeah, absolutely. So it matters.
Betty: And the growth of white identity.
Michael: Right. You know, I want to go, if I can, just to an anecdote that you tell in the book of a guy named Jim Boggess. Basically Jimbo’s Deli in New Jersey who put up a sign in his shop that read Celebrate Your White Heritage in March, White History Month. So I guess, you know, if you’re listening in, when you see that somebody or you hear that somebody put up a sign that says celebrate your white heritage in March, White History Month, I would ask you for just a second, if you’re driving or listening, how do you feel? How does that anecdote make you feel? And Ashley, how do you read it? And why did you tell that story in the book? Because I thought it was fascinating, because he doesn’t seem, when he talks, like a bad guy.
Ashley: No. I mean, he seems well-intentioned as are many white people who possess a sense of racial identity or think that whites ought to be able to, you know, celebrate whiteness. And so one of the things that I find is that this subset of white people who do feel this sense of attachment, one of the things that matters to them is the idea that they ought to be able to be proud to be white. That they should be able to form organizations around their racial group. Now, of course, the problem with doing so is that, for one, it ignores the fact that essentially every day we celebrate whiteness. Whiteness has been institutionalized. We don’t have to have a white history month.
Michael: Every month is white history month, right.
Ashley: Yeah. Every month. Exactly. Yeah. Absolutely. And so, you know, part of what’s happening is that it’s kind of a denial of the real structural inequality that we see across groups. But a lot of white people don’t really know about that or aren’t aware of that. So there is some degree, some innocence in this, but it’s an innocence that’s problematic for, you know, achieving a more racially egalitarian society. And the other thing that’s happening is that a lot of whites are starting to believe that because they’re being admonished for trying to form these organizations, that that is more evidence that whites as a group are being discriminated against and that they are being unfairly maligned or unfairly treated for being a white person and wanting to feel some sense of pride in their race. And again, that’s a problem.
Betty: When you talk about the innocence of white people that don’t know about this, I mean, I’m a little bit caught by this because there is the history of slavery in the United States and that, you know, that–
Michael: And Jim Crow.
Betty: And Jim Crow and segregation and is it possible that whites could be ignorant of this–
Michael: How is it possible?
Betty: Yeah. How is it possible, given that this is, kids are taught–
Michael: Well, people don’t know history
Betty: Well, but this is fairly basic. I mean, is this a result of the decline of historical knowledge in the United States?
Michael: If I can, I don’t think, and Ashley correct me, but when I think about somebody like Jim, I don’t think he’s denying that or ignorant of it because his quote when he was attacked for the sign was, no matter what you are, Muslim, Jewish, black, white, gay, straight, you should be proud of what you are. I shouldn’t have to feel bad about being white. I don’t think he’s denying it in his mind.
Betty: No but Ashley was speaking to the innocence of people. So can you talk about that?
Ashley: Absolutely. I mean, there are two important points here. One is that I do think that people are incredibly unaware of racism and the degree to which racism matters in American society. I think that they’re unaware of racial discrimination. I mean, even when I talk to my students, I teach a class where essentially I lay out the landscape of wealth inequality between blacks and whites in the United States. I talk about discrimination in hiring. I talk about things like redlining and housing policy. And this for many of my college students is going to be the first and only time they will have ever really talked about these things in detail and been exposed to talking about racial inequality in the United States. So I do think that there is certainly a lack of awareness among some people. But there’s another thing that’s going on here, that’s in some ways a bit more insidious, which is that whites, some whites, are starting to sort of co-opt the language that racial and ethnic minorities have used as part of the development of their group identity, as part of their effort to try to achieve racial equality and political equality in the United States, right. So the language of like we should celebrate our group, we should have these spaces, we should have these organizations. A lot of whites are saying that we should be able to do that, too, like they get to do it, so why can’t we do it?
Betty: Well, I mean, that’s the thing that I’m a little caught by again. And I’m assuming that your students who have heard about this for the first time are white students and are unaware of this because certainly students of color live this inequity and are highly aware of, either they’ve experienced racism or they’re aware that they’re not part of the majority. But this piece about being able to, as you put it, the insidiousness of co-opting the language of minority subjugation is kind of interesting and it is disturbing because whites have not been. So to a degree, you’re saying that they now experience subjugation because that’s what’s interesting to me. The language that’s being co-opted is language of people who have experienced being labeled and being so subjugated into one label and being restricted–
Michael: And that’s what Jim Boggess did in his deli. So when he comes under attack for being racist because of the sign, the other quote that I pulled from your book, Ashley, is if there’s any racial discrimination going on here, it’s by people who are objecting to the sign because I’m white. I just want to be included. Why is this such a big deal? I don’t get it. So he feels like there’s racism against him now.
Betty: Well it’s the–
Michael: For celebrating his whiteness.
Betty: Well, it’s an interesting thing about the inclusion and the exclusion here. What is he feeling excluded from that he wants to be included with, Ashley?
Ashley: He wants to be able to celebrate being white and to celebrate his race, just as he observes members of other races doing, right. But the problem is that that ignores the whole fact that we don’t have a white history month for a reason. It ignores the fact that there are very real differences in the lived experiences of blacks and whites in the United States and the fact that we don’t need a white history month. We don’t need whites to form all white organizations. They do that already. They have done that historically.
Betty: Right. History is white history. I mean, it’s written by white people and men. You know, I mean, this is just interesting. I mean, something that you’re talking about. I’m Asian-American, but my parents were born and raised in China by way of Taiwan. And when I have visited Taiwan and China, I am part of a homogenous culture. But I grew up as a minority in the United States. It’s a very unique experience to have lived and been born here in the United States and lived with racism and lived with being a minority and being very, very aware that sometimes I’m the only Asian in the room. And then to go to a country where I’m like everybody else, I’m a part of the majority. And in China, being Asian is not something that folks think about. And that is highlighted by the fact that I was working with some students who were patients of mine and they were really shocked to come to the United States and start experiencing that minority experience that they’d never experienced before as Chinese, you know, nationals. And so can you, sort of, say something about this comparison that in Asia, somebody who’s Asian and born into, you know, an Asian country does not feel, I mean, at least in my anecdotal experience, their race. And that American whites do feel their race. So is there something about the American context that is different?
Ashley: It’s not that the American context is necessarily different. I mean, what you’re describing would describe the way that whites sort of operated and thought about race, even if we were to go back just 10 years ago. So the way in which identities and social identities often become salient is relative to something else, or when something happens that make people start to think about their group because they are exposed to sort of the contrast of that, right. And so for whites in the United States for a huge swath of American history, whites were the mainstream. They were the numerical majority. And, of course, they still are right now. But what’s happening in the United States is that as it’s becoming more racially diverse and as we know that the numerical majority of whites is on the decline, whites are starting to think more about their racial group, largely because of the increase in racial diversity in the United States. So if we were to go back into a time in which–
Michael: Which is why immigration is such a big topic.
Ashley: Right. So if we were to go back to a period in which, you know, we weren’t talking about population projections in which whites are gonna be the minority, when we hadn’t experienced a giant wave of immigration to the United States, we weren’t talking about whiteness in the same way. I would argue that we wouldn’t be talking about white identity politics in the same way. Whites, for the most part, were not thinking about their race as they are right now.
Michael: Well, I guess that’s the question for me. When I was reading your work, which is what is the driver of whites? And I think what’s fascinating, and again, I think we need to say this again, just in case listeners are missing it, you know, identifying is white is not the same thing as wanting to be in the Klan. And I think that’s the difference. There’s this ingroup, outgroup. And maybe before we get too much further, you can help us understand what you mean by white identity politics, because I think a lot of people would listen in and think, I well she’s talking about racists. She’s talking about people who see whiteness as something racially superior. Is that, can you make that distinction because you do it well in the book?
Ashley: So I’m not talking about people who are members of the Alt Right or card carrying members of the KKK by any means. I mean, to be fair, those people are certainly very high on white identity. But actually, I’m talking about a much wider swath of the American population. So if we look across surveys, I find that about 30 to 40 percent of whites in the United States possess a sense of identity. What I mean by that is that they feel an attachment to their group. They think that being white is important to them. It’s important to who they are. And they feel some sense of commonality with other whites and they feel to some extent proud to be white and not in this sort of like white pride, let me, you know, go become a KKK member, but rather, they think that being white affords them certain advantages that they’re happy to have and they’re worried about the status of their group in an increasingly diverse country.
Betty: And when you say white, you know, the awareness of being white, I mean that’s a racial distinction, but it obscures the fact that some people are Italian, some people are Irish, some people are Germans–
Michael: But those have gone away.
Betty: And that does seem to be a trend that, yeah, have those national identities or the cultural identities that come with being from different countries, having immigrated many generations, has that been flattened into whiteness?
Ashley: For many decades in the United States, you know, I think a big portion of the 20th century, we thought that those ethnic identities mattered for whites and it seemed that they were consequential for some period of time. But for the most part, whether someone is white and they think of themselves as Italian or they have some Irish ancestry, those aren’t, for one thing, they’re not especially politically consequential nowadays. So I couldn’t go out and ask somebody, you know, how important is being Italian to them and then be able to have a good sense of who they were going to vote for in the upcoming election. Those identities just aren’t as especially salient to people as they once were. And there also is certainly an argument that they have been kind of folded into the sort of general umbrella of like pan-European whiteness. When we think about white people in the United States, we think about people from Europe generally.
Michael: Yeah. And I think one of the things that you mention a lot, I mean, this is to my mind, there’s two drivers here and one of the big drivers is immigration. You know, Betty, if you’re talking about, say, the Irish Americans, the last big wave, prior to this one, of immigrants coming in at the end of the 19th and early 20th century, American identity felt under assault by the waves of Irish–
Michael: –German immigrants. Largely, you could look at prohibition as an anti-immigrant legislation because those cultures all drink, right. And so, you know, you were going to use that amendment to make them American. Certainly, you know, there were signs no Irish need apply and they met that kind of discrimination. And I–
Betty: And there was very anti-Catholic–
Michael: Profoundly anti Catholic thread in the United States. Profound. KKK is anti-black and anti-Catholic and anti-Jewish, right.
Betty: And Kennedy was at risk for not being elected because of his Catholicism.
Michael: So I assume, Ashley, if you were taking that survey in 1890 or 1905, Irishness would have a huge you know resonance–
Betty: Impact on voting.
Michael: –on voting. And today, infinitely less so. So I think the question is then, you know, immigration changes as a result of the civil rights movement in the mid 60s, the door that had closed in the 1920s on immigration was reopened and America starts to change again. And it becomes much, much more diverse in no small measure because of immigration. So how much of a driver of that, and I think the second part of what we want to talk with you about, is what are the consequences? How has this changed our politics? How has this changed our political life and our political discourse? Because it’s more than just how people self identify. It’s also–
Betty: How they behave out of that identity.
Michael: –how they vote and the policies that we are left with as a country.
Ashley; So I want to go back in time and go back actually to the early 1900s, because immigration is such an important component of this story. And so, you know, it’s really interesting what you were talking about here, about the fact that at the time people didn’t think of the Irish or the Italians, right, as white. And there are plenty of historians who have thought about the fact that well over the course of the 20th century, you know, sort of eventually Irish and Italians and other groups were subsumed under this label of whiteness. But if you go back and you look at the conversations that we as a country were having in the 1920s about immigration and about race, and even if you go and look at the congressional record and what politicians were talking about prior to passing the 1924 Immigration Act, which put huge quotas and restricted immigration for most of the 20th century, they were talking about whiteness. They very explicitly were having conversations about protecting America as a white nation and preserving it as a white nation. And they used language like we need to preserve the Nordic stock of the country. And so for most of American history, race and the definitions of whiteness and the definitions of American and who gets to be considered American are deeply tied together. And so it’s not surprising that once again, when we’ve experienced another wave of immigration from groups that aren’t considered white by today’s standards, that we’re having these conversations again. I like to say that if we could go back and measure public opinion in, you know, the early 1920s and ask about white identity, that we would have seen very similar results to what we’ve observed today.
Michael: But now it’s Latinos instead of–
Betty: Right. And it’s dynamic because whiteness did not include Irish and Italian Americans or Jewish Americans. And I mean, there’s something that you said about the identity of whiteness, including all these different religions and ethnicities in this pan-European sort of identity. But, you know, I remember Eliot Spitzer when he was, you know, still a viable political figure here in New York City. Some folks, because he was so dynamic as New York attorney general, were hoping that he would become the first Jewish president. And yet that was something that was going to be questionable because he was Jewish. And Bernie Sanders as well. His identity as a Jew, even though he’s white, was a factor in the 2016 campaign. So, you know, in terms of how we define whiteness, I mean, you know, as somebody who was non-white I stand up–
Michael: You’re going to be white eventually. Asians will be white, too.
Betty: Well, you know, and I resent that. I really do. I mean, because it really denies–
Michael: Latinos will become white.
Betty: Well, and I think people of color and people who have had to deal with racism and being subjugated, and there’s also an erasure of our cultural associations. And so I’m just curious, what you point to is this, that whiteness is not a fixed thing. It’s an idea.
Ashley: Part of why this is so important is it’s important to the story about thinking about racial equality in the United States. And so I think that’s one of the key points that I try to hone in on in the book. And it kind of gets to the sort of larger question about why do we care about white identity politics in the first place? And that’s because the United States is organized along a racial hierarchy where whites are at the top and other groups fall somewhere down in line. And part of the effort to redefine whiteness over time is, in fact, part of an effort to allow whites to preserve their position at the top of the racial hierarchy. So some people see the story of the Irish and Italians and Jews becoming white as one of sort of assimilation. But another argument is that it was a way for whites in the face of feeling like their group was losing its numerical majority, just as they are today, to sort of recapture or preserve their position at the top of this racial hierarchy. So white identity politics is a problem for racial egalitarianism. It’s not the same as racism. It’s not the same as prejudice in terms of just sort of an outwardly expressed psychological, sort of, feeling of animus toward a group. But it’s very much part of a system of racism and racial inequality. And that’s why it matters.
Michael: Right. And implicit in all of this is that African-Americans can never become white and are always held at the bottom and they’re held at the bottom by a system that discriminates, as you say, redlining or any number of other very institutionalized and pernicious things and I want to shift a bit, because one of the triggers in all of this modern is the election of Barack Obama. And for a while, you know, maybe for 24 hours, there was a sense of hope that we had entered into a new era, that Obama’s election meant we were post-racial, in the phrase, that we finally were accepting. There were a couple of people who you quoted in your book the next morning, or shortly thereafter, Obama’s election. One of them was Rush Limbaugh, who’s kind of like our Father Coughlin of this era, who’s quoted as saying, “I went to bed last night thinking we’re outnumbered. I went to bed last night thinking we lost the country. I don’t know how else to look at this.” And the other wonderful person is Bill O’Reilly who was quoted about Obama’s election as saying “the white establishment is now the minority.” How much of what you’re seeing in terms of white identity is about the elevation of our first black president?
Ashley: It’s certainly one of the most important components of the story. And it’s hard to separate the sort of confluence of events that have happened here, right. So we have the election of the first black president, which is, of course, deeply symbolic. And it’s not just symbolic because of how meaningful, right, it is for people of color in the United States. But for many whites it became part of this narrative that the country, as they knew it, had changed and had shifted. And in fact, you know, there’s some reality to it. And to the extent that Obama was successful and won, particularly when we look at the percentage of whites who voted for him in 2012 and compare that to the coalition of people of color that voted for Obama. Obama won in part because the country had become more diverse and in part because so many people of color turned out to vote for Obama. I like to point out that in 2012, Obama had the lowest share of the white vote of any successful or victorious Democratic presidential candidate ever. Ever. So Obama didn’t win reelection thanks to white voters. So, yeah, the country had become more diverse.
Michael: He won because of people of color, right. He won because of people of color.
Betty: Of a coalition.
Michael: A coalition of people of color that was sizable, if not the most significant part of the coalition that put him in the White House. And that seems to have triggered a whole lot of things, including the birther lie and other things, and I guess–
Betty: You know, it seems to have triggered the election of Donald Trump.
Michael: Exactly. So that’s the other question, Ashley. And then the question is how you parse out what seems, at least to me, and I assume Betty, racist, right. I mean, like, you know, I can’t sign off on that kind of comment from Limbaugh or O’Reilly or the birther stuff. And the birther stuff just seems racist. And how much, how nuanced should we be and how much you sort of want to say, hey country’s changing. Deal with it. And if you can’t deal with it, you’re not a good person.
Betty: And would you call Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly white identified people? I mean, they are, I mean, I would call them racists. I mean–
Michael: Those are not good comments.
Betty: Would you equate them with the Jim Boggess’s or are they different.
Michael: Well Jim Boggess doesn’t seem to be ugly in this way to me.
Betty: Well, I mean, I think that there’s a distinction in your book that is distinguishing people who are outgroup, thinking of racial minorities as outgroup, meaning they’re anti-outgroup. They have racial animus vs. those who are trying to protect their ingroup status. I mean, for a person of color like me, I say you say tomato, I say tomato. But you’re trying to make a distinction and I want to understand how that distinction is useful.
Ashley: It’s a very important question. So I don’t want to dismiss by any means the power and the importance and the significance of racial prejudice. So to first answer your question, do I think that the people like the Rush Limbaugh’s and the Bill O’Reilly’s of the world, are they also probably racially prejudiced in addition to scoring quite high on white identity? Absolutely. I’m sure that that’s true. I mean, I don’t spend a whole lot of time listening to either of them, but it seems to me that there’s plenty of evidence that in addition to worrying about whites, that they also don’t have particularly pleasant or happy favorable views toward people of color in the United States. This is a distinction that matters to some extent, but also doesn’t matter. So it doesn’t matter in that a lot of what we’re observing with respect to the consequences of white identity looks a whole lot like the same things that we observe the consequences of racism. But the psychological phenomenon are different, and that does matter. And it also matters for how politicians talk about race and to the extent to which they’re able to sort of use the politics of white identity to win elections.
So there are many whites in the United States who don’t hold high levels of racial animus. They don’t feel a sort of sense of negative attitudes toward people of color or toward blacks. But nevertheless, they feel attached to their group. They’re worried about their group. Well what that means, in effect, is that they’re still willing to support policies that protect their group or benefit their group, often at the expense of people of color. But they’re not motivated purely because they dislike people of color. I mean, we can think about this when it comes to like building the wall, for example, right. Like there’s some people who want us to build a border wall because they really dislike Latinos and they don’t want them in the country. There are other people who are like, I kind of would prefer that we decrease levels of immigration because I’m worried that the United States is going to look different. And what does that mean for me? I mean, what does that mean for my family and my children? Does it mean that we won’t have the same advantages that we had before? I mean, those are different arguments. They get us to the same place, but I would also say that there’s a way the politicians can use these strategically that is really problematic, but we’re less likely to censor them when they use the language of white identity than when they use sort of the language of racial prejudice.
Now, don’t get me wrong, we’re also in a political environment where it’s pretty clear that politicians can say pretty egregious things about people of color and get away with it. But at the same time, to the extent that we do sanction that, I think it feels a lot more palatable to people when politicians say things like, well we just need to protect Americans or we need to make sure that white people are getting their fair share, that we’re paying attention to the needs of white people as well–
Michael: or make America great again.
Ashley: Yeah. So, or even when it’s like well, we should worry about the competition of the country. We should worry about the effects of immigration, right. That sounds so much more innocuous to people than this more inflammatory language of racial prejudice. But it has the same effect. It’s just arriving at it from a different angle.
Betty: Right. And the perspective on it, the positioning on it is still from a white perspective, you know, because I listened to language on the wall as a child of recent immigrants. And I’m not–
Michael: You don’t belong here in other words.
Betty: Exactly. I don’t belong here. I have people–
Michael: We don’t want you.
Betty: –who were born here, who fear for their citizenship, who were born here. So then, the symbolism of the wall, it becomes, you know, whatever the language is to talk about it is, can be seen as a dog whistle on the other side. And this is painful. I mean frankly–
Michael: I can see the emotion.
Michael: I feel the emotion for you.
Betty: Yeah. I mean, and it, this is what I want to understand, because this is where the partisanship and the lines start to become really entrenched. And so I want to kind of understand how this nuance helps us understand or maybe helps the progressive side of the equation address this trend. I mean, I think your book speaks to a growing trend. And that Trump is a symptom of this trend. And I think the more that we do our interviews, that Trump is a symptom rather than a cause. So can you comment on that?
Ashley: So it’s certainly clear that politicians on the right are far more likely to use, well, racialized language of any kind, whether that’s the language of white identity politics or whether it’s just to make more blatant racial appeals. I mean, we’re as a country sorting along party lines increasingly so with respect to race, but also with respect to racial attitudes. And so it’s a, you know, a strategy that Republicans can use and they can use effectively. There’s sort of an argument that this kind of demographics or destiny argument that people make that imply that if Democrats could just sort of hang on for a couple more years, enough people of color will, and certainly enough Latinos in the population will, vote. And so they’ll just be more likely to win elections. But I think that the line that Democrats have to walk is a little bit more precarious because they’re sort of in this position where they still need to win over the favor of white voters and their white base, many of whom are, in fact, concerned about immigration and sort of concerned about the demographic changes that they’re observing. But they need to do it without simultaneously alienating people of color in the United States. And so they are in sort of, at least in the short term, in a very tricky position.
But I think that we have to also think about just what it means for Republicans and Republican politicians to, you know, be playing on race and using that as a political strategy, I mean it’s certainly not anything new. But it’s troubling. And I guess if there’s anything to be sort of optimistic about is that we are starting to see some sanctioning of this, right. We’ve got Steve King and the wake of his comments, which I would argue are both very much about racism, but also not that far afield from the comments that you’d see a lot of people who care about whiteness and are thinking about whiteness is sort of like, well, why can’t we worry about white civilization or the race of the country?
Michael: Well, that was his argument, right? Which is, what did I say that was so wrong? I mean, it’s ugly, but his argument was, what did I do that was so wrong? And I think this is the interesting and difficult thing. And, Betty, I can see your sense of discomfort, but I think it’s an important conversation because, you know, so many people are seeing or listening to identity politics, at least as it’s described on the left, and saying, well, why is it okay, right, to tell stories about identity or for the Democrats to say, you know, only a person of color or only a woman that’s, you know, no more white men to, you know, to lead the party. You know, we need a person of color. We need a woman. So some of it’s driving by immigration. How much of it do you feel like is being driven by the kinds of conversations that the left is also having about identity, that we’re sort of at this tipping point and we don’t know how to discuss this question?
Ashley: Well, I think that that is a component of it. And to the extent that we do observe whites in the United States, as I mentioned before, sort of co-opting the strategies of women and racial and ethnic minorities and blacks, in particular, when it comes to identity politics. They’ve learned how to do this. But I think that it’s a really fraught territory to claim that identity politics in the United States are just generally bad. The argument that I like to make is that identity politics traditionally have, they are a product of discrimination and subordination. They have been a tool that people of color in particular have used in order to achieve greater political power and political empowerment in the United States. They are a result of oppression and subordination. We wouldn’t have identity politics to the same extent if we did, in fact live in a more egalitarian society.
Betty: This is the language of conservatives about identity politics, that it’s a tool rather than a language that emerges out of structural–
Michael: But if you don’t identify as an African American, you don’t assert your rights as an American, I think is what you’re saying, right. It’s an important piece to racial equality which has been denied.
Ashley: Right, racial consciousness absolutely has been essential to the ability for people of color in the United States to organize politically, to seek out policies, and to fight for equal rights in society. I mean, it’s a tool, but it’s a tool that has been used in attempts to gain more equality in the United States. It is, and I mean, it’s not just political strategy, right. It’s also, in fact, the consequence of living a life in which your race or your gender overdetermines the outcomes in the way you experience your day to day life in the United States–
Michael: And not in a good way.
Betty: I mean, it’s sort of, you know, it’s the language of different disciplines like tool is a, you know, a political term, but you would call it finding a way to speak and a way to find efficacy and to use the principles stated in the Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal which–
Michael: And white people really don’t need to use that language to get their fair share. They have it. They have more than their fair share, actually.
Betty: Correct. Correct. And that the United States has had this bifurcated history that is stating an aspirational goal that all men are created equal even though the country was founded upon a system of slavery. So that there’s a denial of a whole group of people that were present at the founding time of the country and that our history has risen on this bifurcated two systems or two perspectives that all men are created equal. But white people are more equal than others.
Ashley: And that’s part of the problem with these critiques or these attacks on identity politics, is that they sort of fail to recognize that the reason that important social cleavages and identity with respect to race has developed in the first place is because not all groups have been equal or had equal access to power and resources in American society. And so part of the development of identity is because they’ve experienced discrimination and because they’ve worked together collectively as members of a group to try to achieve political, social, and economic equality.
Michael: Yeah. So I’m curious, Ashley, if you can, we don’t have a whole time left, but how do you read Trump? How do you read Trump’s election? Because certainly when he started, people didn’t take his election, his candidacy seriously. And even his election was, his final victory in the Electoral College was a shock, I think, to many people who didn’t think of him as a viable candidate. And yet it seems to me that white identity politics propelled him into the White House. Or at least that was a huge factor of it, if not the only, but among many.
Ashley: You’re right to say that in some ways Trump is a symptom, not a cause. And so we know that white identity and white identity politics and the sense of attachment that whites had toward their group mattered well before Trump entered the scene. But if someone could write a playbook based on white identity politics and based on a lot of the things that I describe in the book, Trump knew exactly what to do. He knew exactly how to appeal to this particular subset of white voters. So for one thing, he began his campaign by focusing almost entirely on this issue of immigration. I like to point out to people that if you go and you look at Trump’s campaign website in August of 2015, when he was just first launching his presidential bid, that the only issue, the only one on his website was immigration reform. You can use the Internet wayback machine and go look yourself to see what the website looked like in August of 2015, and you’ll see that it’s the only issue there.
The other thing that Trump did that was interesting is that he departed from the traditional Republican platform when it came to supporting particular social welfare policies. So for decades, Republicans have campaigned on trying to privatize Social Security, to cut back on Social Security, to cut back on Medicare. And what we know is that these policies are, they’re associated with whiteness. First of all, they disproportionately benefit whites in the United States. But the other thing about them is that they sort of stand in contrast to other racialized policies like welfare. So they’re seen as, like, rewards for hard work rather than government handouts. So they’re in this way, linked to whiteness and to white people. And Trump came along and was like, I’m not going to cut Social Security. I’m going to protect it. I’m not going to cut Medicare. So we’ve got immigration, we’ve got the preservation of these particular social welfare policies, we’ve got sort of this opposition to Obama, right. This sort of like very, you know, the term is in quotes–
Michael: Arguing that Obama is illegitimate, right. I mean, arguing that Obama is not legitimate.
Ashley: Exactly, right. The whole birther movement. And so Trump very much appealed to these sentiments, this concern about diversity, about changing demographics, and about sort of protecting policies that benefit white Americans.
Michael: Right. And I think one of the things you point out in your book is that the protection of these big government programs like Social Security was anathema in the Republican Party prior to Trump’s successful presidential campaign. And he kind of, there is a realignment in the party now around Trump and around Trumpism. And it’s not just sort of, as some people like to think about it, as a kind of authoritarian thread, but also, I think a very important consequence, this is why I think your book is so important, maybe difficult, but important, to recognize how white identity has reshaped our politics and how we seem to be, in the decades ahead, going to be fighting it out over this question of identity. It seems to me the 2020 election coming up, you can only see in the Democratic field a fight over this kind of issue.
Betty: And do you see this as a reaction? I mean, obviously, you mentioned that Obama’s coalition, which elected him to the presidency in 2012 or re-elected him to the presidency in 2012, was not motivated by white votes. And here comes Trump as a reaction. And is this, as some people in the media have said, that this is a last gasp? And in your book, you look at the numbers and you do a lot of statistical analysis saying that while this, the demographics are changing in the country, in the United States and in a certain sense, Democrats can wait this out, but that this is not something that is is going to be fading very quickly.
Ashley: Right. I mean, whites still make up the disproportionate share of the electorate in presidential elections, and they will for some time. And the other problem is that, you know, Obama’s election, because of its significance, its historical and symbolic significance, Obama was able to turn out people of color in far greater numbers than we’d seen in the past. And so it’s unclear whether that’s going to happen again in 2020, even if we have a person of color running as the Democratic candidate. Are they going to be able to turn out people of color at the same rate? It’s not, we don’t know. It’s not clear that they will be able to do that. And so if they can’t, then more white voters are going to be voting. And it seems that people are going to continue to be concerned about issues like immigration and certainly, you know, even if we just look at the things that Trump has been talking about in recent, well not in recent since he became president, right. You know, anytime there’s an election or any sort of question about, like Trump’s political legitimacy, he raises the issue of immigration again and it rallies the base and whites who are concerned about immigration, you know, kind of they go out and they vote for Republican candidates or they rally around Trump. And so given that we’ve observed it’s an effective strategy. Yeah.
Michael: Right. Because they feel their whiteness is under attack or they feel the status of their whiteness is under attack. And you know what it just reminds me of, you know, it’s the United States of America and, really it’s race matters. And it’s a very fraught, emotional, important conversation because we’re, many whites, too quick to sort of think after the Voting Rights Act, the Civil Rights Act, that we’ve sort of solved the problem of discrimination and we’ve solved the problem of institutional racism and feel that when people bring it up, it’s not a legitimate conversation, but you can’t avoid race in America. And it’s a really painful conversation to have.
Betty: It’s, I mean and I think it’s something to talk about is the trauma of racism that, you know, I’m interested in hearing your thoughts on this, Ashley, because as I mentioned, that you say tomato, I say tomato aspect of identity politics, white identity. It seems to, I mean, it’s obviously from the perspective of whites, but it seems to obscure the pain of racism. You know, whites, maybe they’re experiencing this trauma as well. But that kind of subjugation where a person is reduced to a label and where we are to enjoy many different identities and subjectivities and does not, is not afforded to people of minority races and cultures and so is that something that white identity is experiencing as well? This trauma.
Ashley: I mean, you’re right that, I mean, of course, racism is a deep and significant problem in the United States and I think that we don’t have the conversations about it that we ought to be having. And it’s clear that, you know, I think just from the development of white identity generally, but also in my work on race and racism and in my own anecdotal experience teaching about race, that most whites don’t really understand what racism does to people of color in the United States. But I think the danger of white identity politics is that it’s allowing whites to claim that they too are experiencing discrimination, that they also know what it’s like to be an oppressed group and that’s certainly not the case, right. That’s not, they do not experience the world in the way that blacks experience life in America by any means.
Betty: It’s absolutely impossible.
Michael: Yeah. I think what’s so interesting about your work is that by identifying it, you run the risk of saying you’re endorsing it or explaining it. And that’s obviously not what you’re doing. But it’s hard because it’s clearly a phenomena. It’s a statistical phenomena. You can quantify it. You can measure it. It’s driving politics. And if we ignore it because it’s uncomfortable, we ignore it at our own risk. So seeing it and talking about it is not the same thing as signing off on it. And I think that’s really the great highwire and risky act that you’ve taken here, which is to go out and to say, hey we need to have this conversation. You need to see that people are now identifying as white, but not doing it in the way that social scientists have traditionally done, which is to say, you know, that they’re joining the Aryan Nation and that’s their white identity. It’s kind of mainstreamed and it’s being driven by a demographic shift in the United States. And if we don’t recognize it, we do so, we ignore it at our own risk.
Betty: And yet there’s an implication of, I mean, I agree with everything that Michael saying, but in focusing on white identity politics, and I think it’s a function of being a part of the field of political science, I mean, I come from the field of psychology and psychoanalysis and trauma. And when we look at a bigger picture of what this does, meaning that this taking on of the language and the pain of what whites do not experience is personally for me a little bit egregious. I mean, it’s a trend and we must pay attention to it. But how do we find language and how do we, I mean, it’s creating a rift. It’s created a rift in the country. It’s brought us Trump, who has spun this into a ever consuming conflict. And how do we get out of this? How do we emerge from this place that we’ve fallen into?
Michael: Ashley’s going to run for office.
Ashley: I wish I had the answer to that particular, I wish I had a definitive answer to that question because it’s exactly the right question to ask. But it’s a hard one to answer. I mean, because in part, what it requires is for us as a country to have real serious conversations about race and it would require whites to more systematically, right, both deny that, well not deny. It would require them to both understand that they have a disproportionate share of power and resources and they have to be willing to give it up, but it also would require a lot of hearts and minds just changing when it comes to racism and racial prejudice. And, you know, I want to go back to this point because I do think this is in part where the distinction between white identity and racial prejudice is really important, right. We often think of racism and racial prejudice as just sort of this feeling that some white people have. They just don’t like people of color. And that’s absolutely true.
But the other thing that’s going on here that I talk about in the book, and I want people to understand, the conclusion is that, you know, this is sort of an objective explanation, description, and observation of white identity. But the conclusion I draw is very, very clear, which is that this is not a good thing for the world or for the country and especially not a good thing if you care about racial egalitarianism. Because what I’m demonstrating and showing is that there are many white people who don’t feel this dislike or animus or hostility toward people of color, but nevertheless don’t want to relinquish the privileges that they have as a result of being white. And they will fight to preserve those privileges and to maintain their power. And so therefore, they’re helping to preserve a system of racial inequality in the country. And that’s not good.
Michael: And that’s driving their identity.
Betty: And we’ve talked about in other interviews this sort of appropriation of being persecuted, of grievance. And that, you know, white men feel put upon at this moment in history and Trump is giving them some voice to that being aggrieved. And that there’s a race to being the most victimized in the country. And it seems to obscure true structural racism and inequality. And so, it seems to be a perception vs. fact.
Michael: I think that’s what Ashley is saying. Yeah, exactly. And I think that, you know, in closing, I think what we’ve also discussed is we’ve lost a sense of a common story. You know, the United States, and that seems to be running through your work. We are a nation of too many stories and not one unifying story that holds us all together and makes us recognize we have something at stake in each other’s equality and in the humanity of other people who may come from a different place than us, maybe different gender, different sexual orientation, whatever it is, different race. We’ve lost that common thread.
Betty: Certain definition of humanity. Like that, you know, our Declaration of Independence. We go back to that. All men are created, all people are created equal. That was our aspiration as the United States and that brought a lot of people to this country. But we do not acknowledge that has not been the actual fact of American history.
Ashley: When you think about the history of the development of the United States and you think about how central race has been to how we’ve come to be who we are as a country, I’m not sure that I think that the idea that we should all have the sort of common story and we should all be working together toward equality is something that we’ve aspired to. But I don’t think that it’s something we’ve ever achieved by any means. And clearly, we’re at a point in time where it seems like we’re more fractured with respect to race than ever. But my less optimistic view of sort of the long view of American history is that we’ve never really gotten particularly close to that goal either.
Michael: Yeah, but we should try, God knows. To not try is to give up on the experiment. Well, listen, Ashley, thank you so much–
Betty: Thank you so much.
Michael: –for joining us. We’re really grateful. And good luck with the book. It’s really interesting and provocative. And we loved having you on Mind of State.
Ashley: Yeah, absolutely. Thank you.
Betty: Thanks for your time.
Michael: Well, we’ve reached the end of yet another session. And as my analyst likes to say, time to take your problems home with you. Mind of State is a production of Mind of State Media LLC and Hangar Studios NYC. Our crackerjack producer is Caroline Kwash. Our engineer is Jack Dixon. Mind of State’s original music is composed by Joel Goodman, courtesy of Oovra Music. I’m Michael Epstein.
Betty: And I’m Betty Teng. You can connect with us on Twitter at Mind of State Pod, on our Facebook page, and at our website, MindofState.com. You can also subscribe to our show at Apple podcasts or wherever you get your podcasts. Thanks for listening. And we’ll see you next week.