The white guy has something to say

Speaking of white people and politics, I really enjoyed this Frank Bruni column.  Short version: just because we should not care extra about what somebody has to say because they are white, nor should we automatically discount it.  As a political scientist, I’ve spent a couple decades studying the history and present role of both gender and race in American politics.  Yes, I’m a white man and have the life experiences of a white man, but that doesn’t mean I don’t know what I’m talking about or have valuable contributions on these topics.  Anyway, Bruni:

I’m a white man, so you should listen to absolutely nothing I say, at least on matters of social justice. I have no standing. No way to relate. My color and gender nullify me, and it gets worse: I grew up in the suburbs. Dad made six figures. We had a backyard pool. From the 10th through 12th grades, I attended private school. So the only proper way for me to check my privilege is to realize that it blinds me to others’ struggles and should gag me during discussions about the right responses to them.

But wait. I’m gay. And I mean gay from a different, darker day. In that pool and at that school, I sometimes quaked inside, fearful of what my future held. Back then — the 1970s — gay stereotypes went unchallenged, gay jokes drew hearty laughter and exponentially more Americans were closeted than out. We conducted our lives in whispers. Then AIDS spread, and we wore scarlet letters as we marched into the public square to plead with President Ronald Reagan for help. Our rallying cry, “silence = death,” defined marginalization as well as any words could.

So where does that leave me? Who does that make me? Oppressor or oppressed? Villain or victim? And does my legitimacy hinge on the answer?

To listen to some of the guardians of purity on the left, yes.

Not long ago I wrote about Evergreen State College, which was roiled by protests after a white biology professor, Bret Weinstein, disparaged the particular tack of a day of racial healing. He raised valid points, only to be branded a bigot and threatened with violence.

That reception was wrong. I said so. And a reader responded: “I don’t need one more white male criticizing young people of color.” Other readers also homed in on my race — or on the professor’s: “Weinstein will be fine. He’s white.” That automatically and axiomatically made him a less compelling actor in the drama, a less deserving object of concern, no matter his actions, no matter his argument…

Mark Lilla, a Columbia University professor, got a big, bitter taste of this late last year when he wrote, in The Times, about the presidential election and “identity politics,” which, he argued, had hurt the Democratic Party. He maintained that too intense a focus on each minority group’s discrete persecution comes at the expense of a larger, unifying vision.

Many people disagreed. Good. But what too many took issue with was, well, his identity. “White men: stop telling me about my experiences!” someone later scrawled on a poster that was put up to advertise a talk, “Identity Is Not Politics,” that he gave at Wellesley College.

“But I wasn’t talking about their experience or my experience,” Lilla pointed out when I spoke with him recently. “I was talking about an issue.” …

Should we really have say and sway only over matters that neatly dovetail with the category that we’ve been assigned (or assigned ourselves)? Is that the limit of our insights and empathies? During the Democratic primary, a Hillary Clinton supporter I know was told that he could not credibly defend her against charges of racism for her past use of the word “superpredators” because he’s white.

That kind of thinking fosters estrangement instead of connection. Lilla noted that what people in a given victim group sometimes seem to be saying is: “You must understand my experience, and you can’t understand my experience.”

“They argue both, so people shrug their shoulders and walk away,” he said…

At the beginning of this column I shared the sorts of personal details that register most strongly with those Americans who tuck each of us into some hierarchy of blessedness and affliction. So you know some important things about me, but not the most important ones: how I responded to the random challenges on my path, who I met along the way, what I learned from them, the degree of curiosity I mustered and the values that I honed as a result.

Those construct my character, and shape my voice, to be embraced or dismissed on its own merits. My gayness no more redeems me than my whiteness disqualifies me. And neither, I hope, defines me. [emphasis mine]

Hear, hear.

And, while we’re at it, Damon Linker in The Week:

What such rhetoric reveals is that over the past few decades liberals have effectively abandoned politics, which involves thinking “about the common good and what must be done practically to secure it,” in favor of “a pseudo-politics of self-regard and increasingly narrow and exclusionary self-definition.” Instead of cultivating a sense of “we — of what we are as citizens and what we owe to each other,” liberals have become “mesmerized by symbols,” more interested in recognizing and affirming the sense of grievance cultivated by the members of discrete sub-political groups than in offering “a vision of our common destiny based on the one thing that all Americans, of every background, actually share. And that is citizenship.”

As such formulations reveal, Lilla isn’t so much rejecting a politics of identity as skewering the tendency of “identity liberals” to focus exclusively on sub-political identities. Politics rightly understood is about defining who we are as a political community — what it means to be an American, what we owe to one another as citizens, as members of a collective body, as parts of a whole, engaged in a common enterprise…

The problem with practicing identity politics at the sub-political level is that it becomes just another form of individualism, replicating in a “less sentimental and more sanctimonious” idiom the anti-political outlook that came to power in the United States with Ronald Reagan. Whereas Reagan described a country of atomized individuals liberated from government (including from calls for public sacrifice of any kind), Democrats came to define politics as a form of self-exploration. Look into yourself, explore your background, situate yourself in relation to the various identity categories to which you belong, fasten on to the injustices these groups have suffered at the hands of powerful Others, and then demand recompense. This way of conceiving of politics has rendered incomprehensible JFK’s ringing call to civic service (What can I do for my country?) and replaced it with a “deeply personal one: What does my country owe me by virtue of my identity?”

I should mention that Lilla is an imperfect messenger and (like most) oversells his message.  He also to my non-identity-politics liberal self, seems to way under-appreciate the role of race in American politics (spend some time with the social science, dude!).

But, I think he makes some very good points about seeking common ground.  And, my general take is when your politics are alienating a person like me– who cares quite strongly about racial and gender equality– you are doing  your movement/goals a disservice.

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About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

One Response to The white guy has something to say

  1. R. Jenrette says:

    Moral of the story: If you shut us out we can’t be with you.

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