‘I’m not racist, but …’

Daniel Trilling

  • Whiteshift: Populism, Immigration and the Future of White Majorities by Eric Kaufman
    Allen Lane, 617 pp, £25.00, October 2018, ISBN 978 0 241 31710 5
  • National Populism: The Revolt against Liberal Democracy by Roger Eatwell and Matthew Goodwin
    Pelican, 384 pp, £9.99, October 2018, ISBN 978 0 241 31200 1

The word ‘Caucasian’ was first used as a term for white people in the late 18th century, by men who believed they were making objective scientific judgments about the world. In 1795, the naturalist Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, a professor at Göttingen University who owned a prodigious collection of human skulls, proposed the existence of five ‘varieties’ of human, based partly on measurements of the head. The ‘Caucasian variety’, by which he meant Europeans, were ‘colour white, cheeks rosy; hair brown or chestnut-coloured; head subglobular; face oval, straight, its parts moderately defined, forehead smooth, nose narrow, slightly hooked, mouth small’. Like many of his scientific contemporaries (there were a dozen competing taxonomies in Blumenbach’s day, classifying humans into between two and seven types), he was also setting up a hierarchy. ‘The white colour holds the first place,’ he wrote. ‘I have taken the name of this variety from Mount Caucasus, both because its neighbourhood, and especially its southern slope, produces the most beautiful race of men.’

The ideas of theorists like Blumenbach tell us something important about race, and about its destructive power. As Nell Irvin Painter showed in The History of White People (2010), Enlightenment scientists were drawing on an old set of assumptions and beliefs: standards of beauty believed to originate in ancient Greece; the plight of enslaved white women from the Caucasus, who were seen as the epitome of purity and vulnerability; distinctions between civilised Europeans and barbaric others. The emerging scientific racism of Blumenbach’s day was later taken up by those who wanted to justify slavery in America, or white supremacy in the European colonial empires – or, later still, the Holocaust. Advances in the study of genetics in the last few decades have destroyed the scientific basis of racism: the vast majority of genetic variation is found within so-called races, not between them. You may well have more in common genetically with someone of a different skin colour than with someone of the same skin colour. But culture came first in thinking about race, and it comes first today.

The idea of ‘whiteness’ continues to be used to make powerful distinctions between the primitive and the developed, the poor and the rich, foreign and native, seen and unseen. Sometimes these ideas appear in the open; most of the time they are latent – in movies, in the news, in politicians’ rhetoric. Every now and then, they manifest themselves in the most violent and shocking form, when a man with a gun walks into a mosque, a synagogue or a black church and shoots people dead because he believes the white race is in mortal danger. Virtually nobody today wants to be thought of as racist. ‘I’m not a racist,’ says the man filmed racially abusing passengers on public transport. ‘You can’t prove I’m racist,’ says the anti-Muslim activist who spreads online propaganda that brown men are a threat to white women. ‘This isn’t racism,’ say defenders of a university system when confronted with evidence that it underpays black and minority ethnic academics. ‘We oppose racism,’ say European politicians whose border policies result in the enforced destitution, deportation and death of non-Europeans. ‘Race,’ as the sociologist Alana Lentin writes, ‘weaves together ideas from biology, culture, nationalism and religion to make inferences about whole populations. It is first and foremost a technique for the management of human difference.’ Because it was used for so long to reinforce ideas of white European superiority, it still has the power to do this even though the era of slavery and empire is officially over, even though majority-white countries support ethnic pluralism as a concept. It drives discrimination and degradation in these countries, and serves to normalise the continuing military and economic subordination of large parts of the world.

Not everyone agrees. Some argue that racism is the legacy of an outmoded belief system that disappeared at some point in the past, perhaps around the end of the Second World War. Racists exist today, but only at the margins of society: the thugs, the malicious, the ignorant – or, as is sometimes heavily implied, the lower classes. It is, they may add, unhelpful to condemn people’s ‘legitimate concerns’ over immigration at a time when apparently growing numbers of people in white-majority countries are voting for nationalist and far-right politicians. Views of this sort have been common among conservatives for a long time, but in recent years they have also been taken up by many liberal intellectuals, who reframe them as arguments for harmony and tolerance.

‘We need to talk about white identity,’ Eric Kaufmann writes at the beginning of Whiteshift, ‘not as a fabrication designed to maintain power, but as a set of myths and symbols to which people are attached: an ethnic identity like any other.’ Kaufmann offers a simple explanation for the rise of right-wing nationalism in ‘the West’, which is that, as a result of immigration, the white majorities in Western countries are decreasing. ‘Today’s populist earthquake has little to do with economics,’ he says. ‘Ethnic change – the size and nature of the immigrant inflow and its capacity to challenge ethnic boundaries – is the story.’

Kaufmann, a demographer, charts the transformation of the world’s population by industrial capitalism. In 1804 the global population was 1 billion. By 1960 it had reached 3.5 billion, and today stands at 7.5 billion. But these figures conceal a ‘demographic transition’. At first populations grew rapidly as birth rates increased and death rates fell, but then they slowed down as birth rates began to fall too. Since this happened at different times in different places, the parts of the world that industrialised earlier – Europe, North America and East Asia – are now seeing their share of the world’s population decline. In 1950, Kaufmann writes, there were 3.5 Europeans and North Americans for every African; by 2050, according to UN estimates, there will be two Africans for every Westerner. While Japan and Korea have historically used automation and guest-worker programmes to counterbalance their ageing populations, wealthy majority-white countries in North America, Western Europe and Australasia have depended on immigration from elsewhere. Even without further immigration, Kaufmann says, the size of white majorities is likely to decline through intermarriage. Most major US cities, as well as states like California and Texas, are already ‘majority-minority’: they have a majority black, Asian and Latino population. According to Kaufmann’s projections, the UK is likely to have a majority of mixed and non-white people by 2100.

Kaufmann believes these trends will eventually result in a situation he calls ‘whiteshift’, whereby white-majority populations will ‘absorb an admixture of different peoples through intermarriage, but remain oriented around existing myths of descent, symbols and traditions’. Kaufmann thinks these populations will generally continue to identify as white, even if they look somewhat different from their forebears. He gives modern Turkey as an example: most people there identify as Turkish, despite their roots in multi-ethnic Ottoman and Byzantine cultures (an unfortunate example, you might think, given that the formation of modern Turkey involved a genocide and devastating ‘population exchanges’).

If we want to want to avert the danger of ‘ethnic unmixing’ – where people retreat into their own ethnic communities and division and hostility abound – governing elites, Kaufmann argues, will need to reorient themselves around an ‘ethno-traditionalist’ concept of the nation. They should, he thinks, base immigration policy not on economic or humanitarian concerns, but on what will fit with ‘the cultural comfort zone of the median voter’: lower rates of immigration that would ‘permit enough immigrants to voluntarily assimilate into the ethnic majority, maintaining the white ethno-tradition’. Such things as speaking the national language and ‘being in an inter-ethnic marriage or of secular or moderate religiosity’ would count as evidence of assimilation. But this perfectly reasonable course of action, in Kaufmann’s view, is being prevented by the ‘anti-white ideology of the cultural left’, which tells people to celebrate their own decline.

His authority to make his case rests on his reputation as a demographer. ‘If we stick to data, the answer is crystal clear,’ he writes near the beginning of the book, which contains extensive information on population trends and voting patterns, with additional material on an accompanying website. But the further he moves away from the data, the more his argument is undermined by the contradictory assumptions on which it is based. One problem is the way he treats white identity, and his claim that it is ‘an ethnic identity like any other’. Ethnicity is most commonly understood as something richer and more specific than race: a matter of shared cultures, languages, traditions and beliefs. Kaufmann’s frame of reference is both too broad and too narrow. On the one hand, the cultures and histories of the countries he writes about are plainly not uniform. The US is a former settler colony in which the dominant Wasp culture excluded black people, and only gradually admitted others now regarded as white – Italians, Jews, Irish – into the national culture. Britain developed a hierarchy of race to suit its colonial empire. France prides the alleged colour-blindness of its secular republic to such an extent that it forbids the collection of census data on the race or ethnicity of its citizens, yet racial discrimination plainly exists in French society. Does ‘white’ ethnic identity mean the same thing in all these contexts? On the other hand, by focusing on ‘the West’ – and within that construct, mainly on English-speaking countries – Kaufmann misses details that would further complicate the picture. Why is it that fears of white decline seem to have the greatest political power in countries such as Hungary and Poland where the immigration levels are negligible? If we’re really talking about whiteness as a shared identity, isn’t it shared in Southern and Eastern Europe too? Why are these regions any less worthy of consideration?

But the countries Kaufmann focuses on do have something in common: power. The West, as Kaufmann determines it, roughly covers the countries that were the centres of white domination during the era of European colonial empire and transatlantic slavery. They share a belief in a particular kind of white racial superiority, whereby whiteness is defined largely in the negative: a norm against which other, supposedly inferior groups are defined. To treat whites in these countries as a discrete and homogenous group seems coherent only because of that history of hierarchical thinking, and it obscures the variety of conflicting traditions that exist among white people. Who represents white Italy: Matteo Salvini, as he cracks down on migrant rescues at sea, or the mayor of Palermo, who appeals to his city’s history as a meeting point of Mediterranean cultures as he allows boats to dock?

Ethnicity in this context seems a euphemism for race rather than an alternative to it. The feeling grows stronger the further you get into Whiteshift, because despite Kaufmann’s opening declaration that whiteness should be considered an ethnic identity, he keeps sliding back into talking about race. One crucial chapter, on the concept of ‘racial self-interest’, argues that a pattern of white people moving out of mixed urban communities into whiter ones shows that people are more comfortable living with their own kind, and that this isn’t a problem because there is a difference ‘between love for one’s group and hatred for the other’. Racial categorisation is inevitable, Kaufmann thinks, because of the way human brains are wired: we perceive discrete colours, not the continuous spectrum that exists in nature, and this, combined with ‘slowly evolved cultural conventions’, results in a tendency to group our fellow humans according to appearance. But this doesn’t tell us much. ‘Cultural conventions’ do not evolve through some benign natural process: they are a product of history and conflict. What’s more, Kaufmann severely underestimates the risks of promoting a specifically ‘white’ identity. The state is far from a neutral actor: policies on refugee protection, for example, have created a category of people – ‘asylum-seekers’ – who have, as a group, become the target of racism. Or take the way in which the ‘war on terror’, and the concomitant claim that there is a ‘clash of civilisations’ between Islam and the West, has helped shape anti-Muslim racism in Europe and the US.

Then there is Kaufmann’s argument that white backlash is all the left’s fault. To support this, he has created his own theory of ‘left-modernism’, an intellectual current that he believes has come to dominate political and cultural life in the West, to dangerous effect. In his definition ‘left-modernism’, which took root in the early 20th century, disdains tradition and has by now debased liberalism to such an extent that a culture in which diversity was tolerated has become one in which it can only be celebrated. ‘Left-modernism’ is based on a ‘trinity’ of sacred values – race, gender and sexuality – but race matters most, and anti-racism has become a ‘religion’ that will brook no questioning, shutting down all rational debate. This part of the argument relies more heavily on anecdote, and skips between countries: he repeats Orwell’s well-worn remark that ‘in left-wing circles it is always felt that there is something slightly disgraceful in being an Englishman,’ and cites culture wars on US university campuses as if they were an index of international trends. As evidence that anti-racism has become a ‘religion’, Kaufmann makes heavy use of an article on a US website that claims nobody on the left dare criticise the black American writer Ta-Nehisi Coates. That would come as news to Cornel West, Thomas Chatterton Williams and Pankaj Mishra, all of whom have publicly criticised Coates’s ideas, from a variety of positions.[*] He treats Marcel Duchamp, New Labour, Herbert Marcuse and US affirmative action policies as if they are all part of the same continuous trend.

More important, Kaufmann gives too little consideration to the difference between top-down initiatives – the celebration of diversity in advertising campaigns or on corporate boards, for instance – and anti-racism from below, which involves people taking collective action to make material improvements to their own lives or the lives of others: the strikes led by Asian women workers at Grunwick in the 1970s, for instance, or the mass campaign to get justice for the family of Stephen Lawrence in the 1990s. It’s easy to single out the excesses of campus politics and go on to depict anti-racism as an elite project – or its opposite, a form of mob rule. It would be harder to do the same with, say, the campaign to ensure that the survivors of the Grenfell Tower fire – the majority of whom are from working-class black and minority ethnic backgrounds – are treated fairly by a state which should have kept them safe in the first place.

*

At the end of last year, after his book appeared, Kaufmann took part in a public debate at Conway Hall in London, co-hosted by the Academy of Ideas – one of the groups clustered around the ‘libertarian’ online magazine Spiked. The event was advertised under the title ‘Is rising ethnic diversity a threat to the West?’, which drew widespread criticism. An open letter, signed by scores of academics, stressed the importance of public debate but argued that the way the discussion was framed ‘targets communities already suffering from discrimination’ in that it presupposed ‘an ethnically homogenous “West” in which ethnic diversity, immigration and multiculturalism are a “problem” to be fixed’. The organisers conceded the title was poorly chosen, changed it and the debate went ahead. But in the days following, Kaufmann and one of his co-panellists, Matthew Goodwin, wrote a piece for the online magazine Quillette accusing their critics of trying to shut down debate by applying social pressure instead of reasoned argument. They concluded by asking whether it was appropriate for the signatories of the letter to teach impressionable young adults. The claim that the left has shut down ‘free speech’ on immigration and race has been widely aired, and some will see the Conway Hall row as yet more evidence supporting that claim. Others might see two media-savvy academics and a cranky political organisation deliberately winding people up.

Like Kaufmann, Goodwin has a reputation as a data specialist. National Populism, co-written with Roger Eatwell, strikes a dispassionate tone but makes a normative argument that overlaps with Kaufmann’s. Eatwell and Goodwin, too, are interested in the spread of nationalist and far-right politics in ‘the West’ (although their West appears to include countries such as Hungary and Poland), a trend they call ‘national populism’. In their view, the trend has four main causes: a widespread and growing distrust of elites; fears that national identity is being undermined by immigration and ‘hyper ethnic change’ (the authors’ term); resentment about the effects of several decades of neoliberal economic policies; and a longer-term decline of traditional political allegiances, particularly between working-class voters and social democratic parties.

Eatwell and Goodwin seek to dispel a series of myths, such as the idea that people who voted for Trump, or Brexit, or Marine Le Pen, are stupid or irrational; or that they are mostly angry old white men; or that these votes were protests that will recede as quickly as they appeared to emerge. Then they go further, arguing that we shouldn’t see national populism as anti-democratic, even though some of the parties and movements involved have their roots in 21st-century fascism. Indeed, ‘most national-populist voters want more democracy – more referendums and more empathetic and listening politicians that give more power to the people and less power to established economic and political elites.’ This ‘direct’ democracy may be different from the system of checks and balances associated with liberal democracy – but, they say, it should not be seen as threatening.

They also want us to understand that national-populist voters have ‘legitimate concerns’ – that phrase again; they use it a lot – ‘about immigrants who cannot speak the language, minorities who do not respect women’s rights, the practice of female genital mutilation and other cultural traditions that appear to undermine or challenge the established community, or ethnic and religious groups which do not seem to integrate into wider society’. Just as Kaufmann makes the distinction between white ‘ethno-traditionalism’ and a desire for white racial purity, Eatwell and Goodwin contend that all this can be neatly sectioned off from racism. ‘Although Trump’s statements have given succour to racists,’ they write, ‘his views are a far cry from fascist racism, let alone Nazi antisemitism.’ National-populist voters simply want to ‘reassert the primacy of the nation’ and ‘cherished and rooted national identities’. The centre left in particular needs to accept this, otherwise it will drive voters away.

Between them, these two books – written by academics who also act as pundits and policy advisers – articulate a split in opinion among liberal governing elites about how to respond to the current political moment. One approach is to shore up the old regime: allowing the state to take on a more aggressive role in policing the nation’s borders – real and imagined – while leaving everything else pretty much as it is. Let’s call this the Hillary Clinton approach; Clinton told the Guardian recently that cracking down on immigration is the best way for centrists to win back power. This is essentially what Kaufmann proposes: governments award would-be immigrants ‘cultural points’ on the basis of their likelihood to assimilate. Once this is done, ‘the West can begin to refocus on priorities such as democratisation, climate change, economic growth and inequality.’ Eatwell and Goodwin embrace more fully the demands of right-wing insurgents: they suggest further restrictions on immigration, certainly, but as part of a deeper economic and cultural nationalism. We might call this the Theresa May response. In her early days as prime minister, she set out a vision that conflated open, cosmopolitan values with uncaring economic elites: ‘If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere.’

Both these approaches are – to say the least – severely limited, in three principal ways. The first is their tendency to treat politics as a marketplace, with voters as consumers and ideas as the products. Kaufmann supplements his analysis of demographics with extensive surveys on voter attitudes. He has a preference for determinist explanations of behaviour drawn from social psychology and market research. ‘Values, the invisible social-psychological makeup of an individual,’ he writes, ‘are much closer to explaining the vote than demographics of any kind, whether income, age, gender or even education.’ Eatwell and Goodwin seem to agree, for the most part disregarding the role that parties and activists, or institutions like the media, play in shaping attitudes and bringing disparate groups of people together around particular demands. Take, for instance, the role Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, better known by his pseudonym Tommy Robinson, has played in shaping an emerging international form of far-right activism. He built up a mass following on social media by sharing stories from a mixture of mainstream news sources and fringe websites that reinforced a set of simple messages: Muslims are a threat to Western civilisation, our borders are being overrun by migrants, the politicians and mainstream media are lying to you. He uses his profile to gather funds from around the world, and to encourage his followers to support campaigns that further his cause. He is part of a global network of social media personalities, think tanks, alternative media platforms and political groups that are shaping any number of local grievances into a single narrative that can be used in Europe, North America, Australasia and elsewhere. This new form of activism pulls mainstream politics and public attitudes to the right, and creates a space for even more extreme ideas to thrive – ideas like the ‘white genocide’ conspiracy theory that apparently motivated the Christchurch shooter. Its impact is hard to gauge if you focus only on electoral politics.

The second problem with both books is how little they engage with capitalism. Kaufmann barely mentions it, while Eatwell and Goodwin give a narrow account in support of their argument that the move away from welfare state economies has undermined people’s sense of self-worth. They argue that ‘relative deprivation’ – even people who aren’t especially poor see the rich getting richer while their incomes stagnate – makes people feel that others (bankers, immigrants, ‘benefits scroungers’) are gaining an unfair advantage. Yet they pay virtually no attention to the fact that the historical roots of capitalism in the West lie in imperial expansion, and that this has played a crucial role in the formation of national identities; not least in naturalising the feeling that it was ‘fair’ for white populations to have an advantage over others. This leads them to make bizarre statements like: ‘British national identity prior to 1945 did not encompass any conception of “blackness”.’ In fact, identities in the imperial centres were for a long time defined in relation to and against those of colonised subjects, and the imperial imaginary still persists long after decolonisation. What was Emmanuel Macron drawing on when he told Africa it had a ‘civilisation’ problem? Why is it that the Windrush generation of Caribbean immigrants arrived in Britain after the war believing they were British citizens, only to be treated for several decades as if they didn’t belong; then, long after many believed these issues had been settled, found their security ripped away by 21st-century immigration policies?

This brings us to the third problem. When viewed from a global perspective, reasonable-sounding arguments that immigration to the West should be limited in order to preserve ‘ethnic and cultural majorities’, or to reassert ‘the primacy of the nation’, take on a different meaning. Aren’t they also arguments for the preservation of historical inequality? It is striking in both books just how little immigrants or minority ethnic groups feature as people. They are liquid quantities, to be allowed to flow or stoppered up as required; or they are potential threats to be neutralised or tolerated. Eatwell and Goodwin take their moral bearings from the Oxford philosopher David Miller, ‘who has defended the right of states to control their borders and exclude immigrants on the basis of community goals and preferences’. It is impossible, they write, ‘for reasonable people not to be deeply saddened by events such as drownings in the Mediterranean’, but ‘the basic responsibility of government is to maximise the welfare of its citizens.’ At what cost? At whose expense? On this they are silent.

*

In 1903 W.E.B. Du Bois predicted that the central problem of the 20th century would be ‘the colour-line – the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea’. In a series of lectures at Harvard in 1994, Stuart Hall asked if the ‘colour-line’ would remain a central problem in the 21st century.[†] It may have been proved that race is not a biological fact, but, Hall argued, it nonetheless continues to structure our ways of thinking about identity. Simply pretending the concept no longer had any power would not allow us to escape it: race, ethnicity and nation are intertwined. What’s more, he continued, globalisation was radically disrupting the way people related to these forms of belonging. Migration, he said, would come to be seen as the central issue. ‘Racism’s simplifications, which endeavour to polarise and separate, mask how deeply our histories and cultures have always intertwined and interpenetrated, how absolutely necessary the other is to our own sense of identity.’ The disruption he identified could provide the opportunity to forge something new, and better, but it could also be seen as a threat.

Kaufmann, Eatwell and Goodwin fail to see the danger in what they are proposing. Their arguments rest on the notion that there is a normal, reasonable amount of nationalism or ethnic preference that can be accommodated in order to keep majority-white populations happy, and that this settlement needn’t shade into racism and violence. They smooth over the differences in culture, history, class and political outlook that exist among people who might be categorised as white, and they are even less careful in discussing everyone else. They do not consider the ways in which the social uncertainty caused by globalisation is a worldwide phenomenon, and do not see that to retreat behind closed doors is the path to disaster. Worst of all, they close off any possibility that the prevailing order might be challenged by people coming together in their difference to work towards common goals. Unless we can move beyond arguments like theirs, sooner or later we will come to realise that the walls we build to defend ourselves are the walls of a prison.

[*] Thomas Chatterton Williams wrote about Coates in the LRB of 3 December 2015; Pankaj Mishra wrote about him in the LRB of 22 February 2018.

[†] The lectures are published in a volume edited by Kobena Mercer: The Fateful Triangle: Race, Ethnicity, Nation (Harvard, 256 pp., £18.95, September 2017, 978 0 674 97652 8).