Thinking Social Identity, Whiteness, and the Left


Compared to the bleak beginning of 2018, something seems to currently be in the water. A massive teacher’s strike that started in West Virginia has spread to Oklahoma, Kentucky, and Arizona; the protests in Sacramento, following the cowardly murder of Stephon Clark by Sacramento PD, have given the Black Lives Matter movement a breath of fresh energy; and the exceedingly large turnout for the March for Our Lives has put gun violence high on the national priority list. In due time the combination of these and countless other social movements, with the less splashy work being undertaken to staff State institutions with Democratic Socialists, may yet produce an American Left with more power to create progressive change than has existed for decades.

Still, with Trump in the White House for the foreseeable future, Federal and State budgets heavily skewed towards “defense,” and a currently obstructive and hopeless opposition party in the DNC, any optimism that the vast movements created by the struggles of the working, poor, and oppressed is best tempered. Numerous obstacles and divisions still stand in the way of genuine progress, and the means to create this progress in many ways has yet to be created. Lasting efficacy in the future will require honest and careful examination of weaknesses in the present and past, which is a task the current article hopes to contribute to.

One specifically potent division, as the recent fracas between giants of the Left Cornel West and Ta-Nehisi Coates earlier this year showed, to say nothing of the 2016 presidential election, is over the issue of social identity (race, gender, nationality), and what implications it has for struggle, priorities, and activism. Debates over who to represent, the meaning of historical social categories, what issues to emphasize, what issues to put on the backburner, and how to go about doing all of these things are popular fodder for organization discussions, think pieces, and even the national media.

Left to Right: Ta-Nehisi Coates and Cornel West

Left to Right: Ta-Nehisi Coates and Cornel West

To be brief, in many cases an underlying, and even unspoken, topic in these discussions (like that found in the above article) is whiteness and how to go about navigating the peculiar political terrain that it has created in a majority white country with settler-colonial origins and supremacist institutional structures like the US. What is the nature of whiteness? Is white supremacy an essential feature of it? If it is, what does it imply for white activism? On the other hand, is the Black liberation movement, as a stand in for other oppressed peoples liberation movements, necessarily a separatist one? This can be an exhausting and extremely emotional issue to navigate, especially in a country as demographically diverse and historically layered as ours, but doing so is nonetheless necessary. 

Luckily, an under-discussed recent book by CUNY professor of Philosophy Linda Martín Alcoff has provided a sizeable contribution towards this end, with invigorating clarity. The Future of Whiteness offers a path through the complicated terrain of social identity, the history of whiteness and white supremacy, and their mutual imbrication in the colonial capitalist world system, providing sturdy conceptual tools for the Left to think through this recurrent source of disagreement and division, without opting out for cheap and hollow answers. What follows is a brief exploration of some of the main themes of the book, in hope of bringing more attention to the ideas themselves and teasing out some of the implications they might have for the contemporary Left.

A Left Approach to Social Identity

In the first place, Martín Alcoff begins her approach with the choice to refute what she identifies as the “race-eliminitavist,” or just “eliminitavist” tendency on the Left. The “eliminitavist” position is, in short, the Left version of post-racialism. As opposed to the Right version, which simply denies the existence of racism full-stop, the Left-version proceeds through some tacit engagement with the reality of racism before suppressing discussion of race in some way or another.

To either put forward a nice simple class analytic, some claim to the moral virtue of “color-blindness,” or the scientific hollowness of old-fashioned ideas of biological race, many on the Left commit to an analysis which sidelines, denigrates, or outright eliminates a frank discussion of race. Importantly, as Martín Alcoff argues, most of the time this move serves a subterranean impulse to pre-emptively avoid the presence of uncomfortable histories and feelings of guilt that bear on the present moment. To avoid the blame and shame of whiteness, in other words.

Through a white fundamentalist zeal to become traitor to white supremacy, a smug white scientific denial of race, or a white finger-pointing towards impending demographic shifts away from white numerical dominance in the US, the cumulative effect of this elimintavistic position is to not only destroy the opportunity for critical self-evaluation, but also, as stated, to suppress any discussion of race, insofar as this talk ultimately leads us back to the blame and shame of living in and with the debilitating white supremacist reality of the US (and the rest of the colonized world).

Besides prevalent feelings of guilt and cowardice, why else does the Left commonly prevent itself from engaging with the everyday realities of race and whiteness? Martín Alcoff argues that at a theoretical level this practice is based in a bad and influential conception of social identity. This conception sees social identity as little other than an illusion, a form of false consciousness, an ideological-linguistic overlay created by elites and placed on top of an economic base which, in its essence, is based on generic categories of class.

Social identities are thoroughly empirical, often experienced positively, and definitely not mere thought. They are the concretely embedded epistemological venues through which any given experience of a commodified everyday life is itself accessed.

Workers, so the line goes, think and feel that they are white, brown, Black, Mexican, American, men, and so on, and this thinking is what divides an otherwise ready-made solidarity amongst the messianic proletarians of the world. Since economically all workers are the same in their relation to capital, in other words, any obstacle to the culmination of this awareness of economic sameness, like race, gender, or nationality, is a form of made up non-economic deception to mask generic exploitation.  

To the contrary, argues Martín Alcoff, social identities are thoroughly empirical, often experienced positively, and definitely not mere thought. Shaping how we are received and perceived in certain situations where we live and work, often determining why certain resources have been distributed along what lines in various institutions, undergirding the very images and symbols that organize the entirety of our shared social space, social identities are the concretely embedded epistemological venues through which any given experience of a commodified everyday life is itself accessed.

These are positions and groupings that have been historically produced, through actions from “below,” and “above,” which help us explain (in a limited way) why some things are the way they are, which are produced and reproduced within our collective social relations and practices. To maintain that they are somehow neatly separable from class, or non-economic, is not only to dramatically limit our conception of the economy, but also our ability to speak to touchstone experiences that dominate the everyday life of the exploited, disillusioned, impoverished, and imprisoned peoples of the country.

A central thrust of the “realist approach to Social Identity” is accordingly to stop viewing identity in opposition to class, or class in opposition to identity, and instead see them for what they are, which is historically coterminous and co-determining. Totally? No, but as Martín Alcoff urges us, echoing others, we must:

“...let go of the idea that workers ever entered the modern colonial capitalist world system as generic workers, as if their class identity and class interests and class-related opportunities are separable from other elements of their identity.” (pg. 156).

In other words, as many others have been arguing for a while now, class is always already raced, and vice versa. The same applies to gender, which has its own rich history of interconnectedness with race and class. When we are discussing race or gender we have already brought up class, whether it is in a historically residual form or a contemporary empirical one.

The labor required of us in these conversations and in general is to uncover the ways in which the economy is latent in the social identity at hand and vice versa. Marx himself glimpsed this reality when he could afford to turn his attention to the colonies, most famously in Das Kapital when he stated that, “Labour cannot emancipate itself in the white skin when in the black it is branded.” Or, in other words, that the waged white workers and their unions in the North could never achieve true liberty so long as Black slave labor in the South were simultaneously the pillars of, and excluded from, the very cash nexus within which the white workers operated.

March on Washington, August 28, 1963. Included civil rights and union leaders, Martin Luther King Jr., Joseph L. Rauh Jr., Whitney Young, Roy Wilkins, A. Philip Randolph, Walter Reuther, and Sam Weinblatt. Photo Courtesy of US National Archives

March on Washington, August 28, 1963. Included civil rights and union leaders, Martin Luther King Jr., Joseph L. Rauh Jr., Whitney Young, Roy Wilkins, A. Philip Randolph, Walter Reuther, and Sam Weinblatt. Photo Courtesy of US National Archives

Hella White People in the US Y’all

This brings us nicely to a conversation most often avoided, as the conversation on social identity often fails to strike wide enough: the reality of whiteness and what to do with it on the Left in a white supremacist, and majority white nation like the US, based as it is on continued slavery, genocide, exploitation,and imprisonment. As Martín Alcoff argues, the reluctance to discuss whiteness, aside from inciting blame and shame, stems more centrally from a deeply held conviction that whiteness is inseparable from white supremacy. One cannot be white, or hold their whiteness positively, without therefore being supremacist. Whites on the Left, in their attempt to escape whiteness and its presumed fate, accordingly resort to fundamentalist disavowals of their whiteness, semi-ironic cultural chameleonism, color-blindness, class-reductionism, science-isms, and so on, all to relatively comedic effects.

Oddly enough, Martín Alcoff shows us, this white fatalism is itself rooted in an aspect of the very white supremacist logic which it laments. This aspect is the belief that whites, or “the white race,” is somehow fundamentally different from every other racial grouping. In short, white exceptionalism. While other racial groupings are particular in some way or another, the thinking goes, the white racial group is universal, containing special properties not present in other races. Whites are the vanguard of scientific, political, creative, and so on,  achievement—other races are just random inhabitants of a contingent history not based on their actions.

In the early colonial days, logic like this helped European men justify their enslavement and genocide of other human beings. Strange then that it manifests in the good intentioned on the Left, who can fathom the changing nature of, say, Latinx peoples as they navigate a transition from virtual peasantry into middling and upper tiers of a white power structure, but not a white transition away from economic dominance or eternal belief in superiority. 

The alternative modality proposed here by Martín Alcoff, then, is to “provincialize” the white, as the white has done the other races. More specifically, Martín Alcoff proposes to bend historical contingency back into whiteness and white subjectivity, producing a ‘white double consciousness.’

All racial groupings as we know them, Martín Alcoff argues, were historically produced, and continue to shift within the flux of history. Whites are no exception. To maintain otherwise is ahistorical—it ignores not only a rich history of anti-racist whites but also a contemporary landscape filled with, among other things, young white people raised in integrated schools and done with ideas of white supremacy. 

So, while pessimism may be in order—with Trump in the White House, white nationalists in top government and economic posts, and hate-crime related killings on the rise—fatalism is not. Fatalism portends to know the beginning and end of human history and is ignorant of the very history from it emerges. Moreover it is a prison from which there is no escape, as opposed to the more historically grounded approach which while providing no easy solutions, is at least open to the potential of a productive practice.

The alternative modality proposed here by Martín Alcoff, then, is to “provincialize” the white, as the white has done the other races. More specifically, Martín Alcoff proposes to bend historical contingency back into whiteness and white subjectivity, producing a “white double consciousness.” As opposed to the eliminativist tendency, this modality embraces race talk and the reality of whiteness, keeps an awareness therefore of the historical and contemporary atrocities attached to the group identity, but also an awareness of what whiteness can become, and its entirely unexceptional ability to be influenced by other identities and groupings. In her words:

“What is needed is to make whiteness ordinary as one among others, neither more nor less, without state-enforced advantage or border control. This requires a retreat from the vanguard mentality, relinquishing the sense of entitlement to the throne of the human race, or a right share in the spoils of the 1 percent. But beyond the large task of dismantling, rejecting, and removing the accoutrements of whiteness, white vanguardism, and white privilege, it requires inhabiting whiteness, and taking one’s place in line.” (189)

Towards an Identity-Realist Strategem of the Left

Race and whiteness will continue to produce empirical effects, even after we can imagine a demographic de-centering, or political liberation from the current necropolitical world system. To refuse race talk and social identity today, to instead focus on an oversimplified understanding of class, or to elaborate the scientific falseness of race, is head-in-sand problem solving. Moreover, besides being based in a form of bad faith and weak theory, this premature erasure of something as central to the reality of the US as race cedes an extremely lucrative political territory to the Right, who needless to say is happy to run amok with the free gift.

While the Right busily fills up the thinkspace with white supremacist race talk, the Left, with a few exceptions, is stuffily silent, falling back on either the moral supremacy and pragmatic impotence of “politeness,” or the supposedly empty reality of “race”, refusing to offer even basic counters to the constant Right-wing assault.

As for our friendly enemies on the center-Left, we must be able to think and articulate together what in the 2016 election they were able to divideㅡidentity and economy, which are both thoroughly historical. That the power brokers of the Democratic institution in 2016 were able utilize identity politics (which is nothing other than the weaponization of knowledge of social identities) to scramble a nascent socialist Left’s communicative lines with the broader national Left, and ultimately divide them from us to catastrophic effect, is not a sign of the “essential evil” of identity politics, but rather the new socialist Left’s novice level of understanding and skill with dealing with such a powerful aspect of our everyday life.

If the center-Left remains committed to neoliberalism in the years ahead, which it likely will, then we must be able to out-articulate the interrelation of identity and economy, historically, to those who would otherwise heed the cynical dismissal of radical politics by institutional insiders and stay politically uninvolved. 

In other words, if we are to have any chance of overcoming one of the world’s most powerful group of governing elites and their capitalist funders in the arena of liberal democracy, the morphing battlefield of the shop-floor, and the physical and digital streets of our communities, in whatever priority one might choose, then we are going to have develop our capacity to attack and defend on a terrain which the victors have routinely outmaneuvered and bested us on. Martín Alcoff’s realist approach to Social Identity and white double consciousness provide important tools in this task