The History of White Politics and Identity

By Kenan Malik –

This is a transcript of a talk I gave to the Literarisches Colloqium Berlin on 5 March 2019.

Identity politics is one of the defining – and one of the most divisive – issues of our age.  And no identity is more contested or fought over than white identity.  For some it is a means of giving voice to a group whose identity has previously been denied.  For others it is simply as an expression of racism.

The political context of the emergence of white identity is that of the rise of populism, of politicians such as Donald Trump in America and of Victor Orban and Matteo Salvini in Europe, of growing hostility to immigration and of the rise of nativism.

In much of the debate around these changes, the politics of identity is seen primarily a politics of the left, the politics of minority and oppressed groups. White identity is viewed as a latecomer on the scene, an attempt by whites to replicate the success of minority groups.

I want to turn this perception on its head. The origins of the politics of identity lie not on the left but on the reactionary right. Radical forms of identity politics were the ones late on the scene. Now, contemporary white identity is reclaiming its original reactionary heritage.

To understand all this, I want to retrace the history of identity politics, to tell the story of identity politics before it was called identity politics. Inevitably, as I will be covering a lot of ground, and discussing a wide range of topics, in a short space of time, my argument will be compressed, and I will have to skate over many nuances. I hope the discussion afterwards will help restore some of the nuance.

‘When the first Africans arrived in Virginia in 1619, there were no ‘white’ people there; nor, according to the colonial records, would there be for another sixty years.’

So wrote Theodore Allen in his groundbreaking 1994 study The Invention of the White Race. The Africans who arrived in Virginia in 1619, arrived, of course, not as free people but as slaves, having endured the horrors of transatlantic transportation, to be bought and sold by Europeans, who had begun to colonise the Americas.

So, in what sense were there no white people in Virginia? In the sense, as Allen observes, that the Europeans in Virginia did not see themselves specifically as white. They were English, their children were English. They were never referred to, nor did they refer to themselves, as white. Whiteness as an identity had to be constructed. And it was constructed as the notion of ‘race’ was constructed.

We have become so accustomed to looking at life through a racial lens that we imagine that all societies and all ages have done so, too. That is not so. It was only with the emergence of modernity that both the scientific concepts and the political language underlying the concept of race came to be developed.

Between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries Europe underwent a series of intellectual and social transformations that laid the basis of the modern world. It was the period in which the modern idea of the self, and of the individual as a rational agent, began to develop; in which the authority of custom and tradition weakened, while the role of reason in explaining the natural and social world was vastly expanded; in which nature became regarded not as chaotic but as lawful, and hence amenable to reason; and in which humans became part of the natural order, and knowledge became secularised.

Humans were now seen as part of the natural order. So the question arose: how did humans fit into that order? Natural philosophers had begun classifying all of nature. How should humans be classified as part of this project?

A succession of scholars from Carl Linnaeus to Johann Friedrich Blumenbach and beyond set out to answer this question. And in so doing they began classifying different categories of humans.

It was the German anthropologist Blumenbach, often considered the founder of anthropology, who established the five-fold human taxonomy – CaucasiansMongolians, EthiopiansMalay and Americans – that is still widely used today, though the terminology is different. It was with Blumenbach that the term Caucasian enters our vocabulary.

The 18th century, the Enlightenment, was marked by a passion for classification, and for bringing order to the seeming chaos of the world. But it was marked, too, by another belief, as deeply held: a belief in the universality of human nature, in the importance of universal values and the possibility of a common civilisation.

These two key aspects of Enlightenment thought seemed to pull in different directions in the debate about the nature of human differences. For much of the eighteenth century, though, most thinkers did not perceive a contradiction. That’s because the belief in universality led Enlightenment philosophes to view human groups less as natural classes than as artificial creations.

It is true that a number of leading eighteenth century thinkers – Hume, Kant, Voltaire, Jefferson – dabbled with ideas of innate differences between human groups. Yet, with one or two exceptions, they did so only diffidently or in passing. In the main, eighteenth-century thinkers remained highly resistant to the idea of race. Philosophical attachment to ideas of universality and human unity restricted the room for racial arguments.

It was not till the nineteenth century that racial thinking – the idea that humans could be divided into a number of essentially distinct groups – became established. And it did so in the context of opposition to Enlightenment universalism.

‘There is no such thing as Man’, wrote the French arch-reactionary Joseph de Maistre in his polemic against the concept of the Rights of Man. ‘I have seen Frenchmen, Italians and Russians… As for Man, I have never come across him anywhere.’

De Maistre was a key figure in the counter-Enlightenment: the reactionary opposition to Enlightenment ideas equality, democracy and universality. For the counter-Enlightenment, tradition and authority, status and hierarchy, inequality and unreason, were the foundations of order and stability.

A more progressive critique of universalist ideas was developed by the German philosopher Johann Gottfried Herder, a key figure in the Romantic movement, whose concept of culture came to be highly influential, and still shapes much thinking today. For Herder what made each people or nation – or volk – unique was its Kultur: its particular language, literature, history and modes of living. The unique nature of each volk was expressed through its volksgeist – the unchanging spirit of a people refined through history.

Herder was no reactionary – he was a staunch supporter of equality. He occupies, however, an ambiguous role in modern political thought.  In the eighteenth century, Herder saw himself as part of the Enlightenment tradition, but also as someone forced to challenge some of the basic precepts of the philosophes in order to defend the cherished ideals of equality.  In the twentieth century, his pluralism, and celebration of what we now call particularist identities, would become the root of much antiracist thinking.

In between, in the nineteenth century, Herder’s impact was to encourage, albeit unwittingly, a racial viewpoint. Once it was accepted that different peoples were motivated by different sentiments, it was not a great step to view these sentiments as racial. Over time, Herder’s volksgeist became transformed into racial type.

The concept of racial type developed through the nineteenth century, as a group of people linked by a set of fundamental characteristics and differing from other types by virtue of those characteristics. Such characteristics included not just mental and physical traits, but also social needs, aspirations and values. Each type remained constant over time and there were severe limits on how far any member of a type could vary from the basic characteristics of the type. Here was the original politics of identity.

For proponents of racial science, the most superior racial type was the white race. The meanings of both race and of white identity were, however, significantly different in the nineteenth from what they are now.

Today, we tend to think of race as defined primarily by skin colour, or by geographic continent of origin. In the nineteenth century, it was defined by class as much as by colour. And that inevitably shaped the meaning of white identity.

In 1865, there was in Southampton, in southern England, a banquet in honour of Governor Eyre, the governor of Jamaica. In October 1865, Eyre had put down with the greatest ferocity a local peasant uprising. His actions divided opinion in England.  In response to the Eyre banquet, the pro-independence Jamaica Committee organized a counter-rally, on which the Daily Telegraph reported:

There are a good many negroes in Southampton who have the taste of their tribe for any disturbance that appears safe, and who are probably imbued with the conviction that it is a proper thing to hoot and yell at a number of gentlemen going to a dinner party.

In fact, as the historian Douglas Lorimer observes in his book Colour, Class and the Victorians,

the Daily Telegraph’s ‘negroes’ were… the very English and very white Southampton mob who thronged the streets outside the banquet hall, while their more respectable working class colleagues attended the largest popular meeting in the city’s history to protest against the official reception given to Governor Eyre.

The Southampton incident reveals well the nineteenth-century elite view of blacks and English workers as being part of the same ‘tribe’.  This was not simply an English phenomenon.  The French Christian socialist Phillipe Buchez, giving a talk to the Medico-Psychological Society of Paris in 1857, wondered how it could happen that ‘within a population such as ours, races may form – not merely one but several races – so miserable, inferior and bastardised that they may be classed below the most inferior savage races, for their inferiority is sometimes beyond cure.’ The races that he was talking of were not from Africa or Asia, but the working class and the rural poor.

Today, when we talk of ‘white identity’ we do so largely in the context of the working class. Hostility to immigration and support for populism are seen primarily as working class phenomena. In talking of white identity, commentators talk continually of the ‘white working class’.

But, historically that is not what white identity referred to at all. ‘Race’ in the nineteenth century was about class and social status, as much as about skin colour. And the working class had the status of not being white. As the historian VG Kiernan observes

discontented native in the colonies, labour agitator in the mill, were the same serpent in alternate disguises. Much of the talk about the barbarism or darkness of the outer world, which it was Europe’s mission to rout, was a transmuted fear of the masses at home.

Whiteness in the contemporary sense only begins to emerge at the turn of the twentieth century. Two developments transformed the meaning of white identity: the coming of democracy, and the new imperialism, exemplified by the ‘scramble for Africa’ from the 1880s on.

The extension of suffrage to large sections of working class men (though not till later to women) modified the application of the language of racial inferiority to working class. In a political democracy, the racial view of the working class, which had dominated nineteenth century elite consciousness, was more difficult express openly, and slowly faded from public view.

The expansion of suffrage coincided with the expansion of imperial rule. There was, in the second half of the nineteenth century, from Africa to the Pacific, a frenzy of land-grabbing by European nations. Between 1874 and 1902, Britain alone added 12m square kilometres and 90 million people to her Empire.

In the coincidence of democracy and imperialism, support for imperialism became ‘democratised’. Nationalism and racial thinking ceased to be an elite ideology, as it had been for most of the nineteenth century, and became part of popular culture. The racial superiority of the British people, for instance, was celebrated in mass circulation newspapers, in penny-dreadful novels, and in popular entertainment.

The consequence of all this was that the language of race became refocused more exclusively on skin colour, and on the distinction between Europe and the Empire. The ‘colour line’ now became the chief way of understanding and diving the world. ‘Colour bars’ and racial exclusion became a way of life both in the colonies and in the metropolitan countries. The 1890s and the first decade of the twentieth were the age of immigration controls. From America’s Chinese Exclusion Act, and the promotion of the ‘Yellow Peril’ panic, to the ‘White Australia’ policy to Britain’s ‘Aliens Act’, designed primarily to stop Jews fleeing East European pogroms from entering the country, immigration laws became a means of institutionalising racial difference and identity. It is important, the American historian and journalist Lothrop Stoddard wrote in his book The Rising Tide of Color Against White World Supremacy, that ‘the rising tide of colour finds itself walled in by white dikes’.

By the early decades of twentieth century, the concept of race had transformed. Whereas previously belief in the inferiority of non-European peoples was an extension of the belief in the inferiority of the lower orders at home, now it became the heart of racial thinking. Race became a black and white issue, and white identity took on its contemporary garb.

The roots of white identity lie, then, in the reactionary opposition to Enlightenment universalism. That history has long been ignored in contemporary discussions of the politics of identity. Instead the politics of identity is identified largely with the left. But here, too, there is historical amnesia. For much of the past 200 years, radicals challenging inequality and oppression did so in the name, not of particular identities, but of universal rights. They insisted that equal rights belonged to all and that there existed a set of values and institutions, under which all humans best flourished. It was a universalism that fuelled the great radical movements that have shaped the modern world – from anti-colonial struggles to the movements for women’s suffrage to the battles for gay rights.

That universalism was perhaps best expressed in the Haitian Revolution of 1791. It’s a revolution that today is almost forgotten, and yet was to shape history almost as deeply as the two eighteenth century revolutions with which we are far more familiar – those of 1776 in America and 1789 in France. It was the first time that the emancipatory logic of the Declaration of the Rights of Man was seen through to its revolutionary conclusion.

The leader of the insurrectionists was Toussaint L’Ouverture, a self-educated former slave, deeply read, highly politicized and possessed of a genius in military tactics and strategy. His greatest gift, perhaps, was his ability to see that while Europe was responsible for the enslavement of slaves, nevertheless within European culture lay the political and moral ideas with which to challenge that enslavement. The French bourgeoisie might have tried to deny to the mass of humanity the ideals embodied in the Declaration of the Rights of Man. But L’Ouverture recognized in those ideals a weapon more powerful than any sword or musket or cannon.

The Saint-Domingue slaves rose in rebellion on 24 August 1791. In the space of twelve years they defeated, in turn, the local whites and the soldiers of the French monarchy, a Spanish invasion, a British expedition of some 60,000 men, and finally a second French force. In 1803, the only successful slave revolt in history gave Haiti its independence.

Yet, the relationship etween anti-colonialism and Enlightenment universalism soon began to be questioned. The entrenchment of racial thinking and the expansion of imperialism posed difficult questions for those challenging European power. If Europe was responsible for the enslavement of more than half the world, what worth could there be in its political and moral ideas, which at best had had failed to prevent that enslavement, at worst had provided its intellectual grounding? Did not those challenging European imperialism also need to challenge its ideas?

Over time opposition to European rule came increasingly to mean opposition to European ideas, too. As the Martinique-born Algerian revolutionary Frantz Fanon observed, it is ‘in the name of the spirit of Europe that Europe has made her encroachments, that she has justified her crimes and legitimized the slavery in which she holds four-fifths of humanity.’

From this perspective, the ideals that flowed out of the Enlightenment grew out of a particular culture, history, and tradition, and spoke to a particular set of needs, desires and dispositions. Non-Europeans had to develop their own ideas, beliefs and values that grew out of their own distinct cultures, traditions, histories, psychological needs and dispositions. The result was the flourishing of a host of separatist movements: Garveyism, Pan-Africanism, black nationalism, negritude.

This was the background to the postwar emergence of radical identity politics.

The relationship between left, right and identity changed in the decades after the Second World War. In the wake of Nazism and the Holocaust, overt racism became far less acceptable.

It was not that racism disappeared. Far from it. But where ideas of racial superiority, and of white superiority, had been, in the pre-war world, not just socially acceptable but largely uncontested within elite circles, now ideas of racial equality came to occupy the moral high ground. By the 1960s, this transformation was well under way.

By the 1960s, too, the radical rejection of universalism, and embrace of more particularist, separatist ideas, had begun to take new form. One of the questions that postwar radicals had asked themselves was why it was that Germany, a nation with deep roots in the Enlightenment, should succumb so completely to Nazism. For many, the answer seemed to be that it was the logic of Enlightenment rationalism itself that gave rise to such barbarism. Drawing on the work of anti-colonial thinkers such as Frantz Fanon, as well the ideas of the Frankfurt School, and other movements of critical theory, many came to see universalism as Eurocentric, even racist, because it sought to impose Euro-American ideas of rationality and objectivity on other peoples.

At a political level, these ideas began developing in the 1960s through the New Left and the new social movements. The struggle for black rights in America, in particular, was highly influential in developing new ideas both of identity and self-organization. Squeezed between an intensely racist society, on the one hand, and, on the other, a left largely indifferent to their plight, many black activists ceded from integrated civil rights organisations and set up separate black groups.

Many began to argue that African Americans had to organise separately not just as a political strategy but also as a cultural necessity. ‘In Africa they speak of Negritude’, wrote black power activist Julius Lester. ‘It is the recognition of those things uniquely ours which separate ourselves from the white man.’

Black radicalism provided a template for many other groups, from women to Native Americans, from Muslims to gays, to look upon social change through the lens of their own cultures, goals and ideals. ‘The demand is not for inclusion within the fold of ‘universal humankind’ on the basis of shared human attributes; nor is it for respect “in spite of one’s differences”’, wrote feminist and sociologist Sonia Krups. ‘Rather, what is demanded is respect for oneself as different.’

The term ‘identity politics’ was coined in 1977 by the American Combahee River Collective, a group of black Lesbian militants, in their ‘Black Feminist Statement’. The most radical politics, they argued, came from placing their own experiences at the centre of their struggles. ‘Focusing upon our own oppression’, they wrote, ‘is embodied in the concept of identity politics’.

For the Combahee River Collective, as for many within such identity movements in the 1960s and 70s, their specific struggle was inextricably attached to broader campaigns for change. Identity politics of that time provided a means of challenging oppression, and the blindness of much of the left to such oppression, as a specific part of a wider project of social transformation.

A key shift over the past half-century has been the disintegration of those wider social movements and radical struggles. Labour movement organizations have weakened, the new social movements have disintegrated, as indeed has the left.

As the old social movements and radical struggles lost influence, so the recognition of identity became not a means to an end, but an end in itself. As the political philosopher Wendy Brown has put it, ‘What we have come to call identity politics is partly dependent upon the demise of a critique of capitalism.’

Through these changes the meaning of belongingness and of solidarity transformed. Politically, the sense of belonging to a group or collective has historically been expressed in two broad forms: through the politics of identity and through the politics of solidarity.

The former stresses attachment to common identities based on such categories as race, nation, gender or culture. The difference between leftwing and rightwing forms of identity politics derives, in part, from the categories of identity that are deemed particularly important.

The politics of solidarity draws people into a collective not because of a given identity but to further a political or social goal. Where the politics of identity divides, the politics of solidarity finds collective purpose across the fissures of race or gender, sexuality or religion, culture or nation. But it is the politics of solidarity that has crumbled over the past two decades as radical movements have declined. For many today, the only form of collective politics that seem possible is that rooted in identity.

‘Solidarity’, therefore, has become increasingly defined not in political terms – as collective action in pursuit of certain political ideals – but in terms of ethnicity or culture. The question people ask themselves is not so much ‘In what kind of society do I want to live?’ as ‘Who are we?’. The two questions are, of course, intimately related, and any sense of social identity must embed an answer to both. But as the political sphere has narrowed, and as mechanisms for political change have eroded, so the answer to the question ‘In what kind of society do I want to live?’ has become shaped less by the kinds of values or institutions people want to struggle to establish, than by the kind of people that they imagine they are. And the answer to ‘Who are we?’ has become defined less by the kind of society they want to create than by the history and heritage to which supposedly they belong. The frameworks through which we make sense of the world are defined less as ‘liberal’ or ‘conservative’ or ‘socialist’ than as ‘Muslim’ or ‘white’ or ‘English’ or ‘European’.

And so we return to white identity.

Notions of white identity did not disappear in the postwar period, any more than racism did. But they were increasingly marginalized, and when they did express themselves – as in Southern opposition to the civil rights movement in America or through Powellism in Britain – it was regarded by mainstream commentators straightforwardly as expressions of racism.

By the 1970s, it was only on the far-right fringes that the notion still had purchace. But within sections of the far right, the concept of white identity was reformulated. Rather than rooting it in ideas of biological superiority and inferiority, some far-right thinkers began appropriating cultural arguments, and ideas about difference, to embed racist notions of identity.

The French far right was particularly assiduous in exploiting the ideas of pluralism to promote a reactionary argument against immigration. The philosopher Alain de Benoist, one of the founders of the Nouvelle Droite, used the concept of droit à la difference (‘the right to difference’) to defend French national culture against the impact of immigration, to protect it from being ‘swamped’.

The mixing of cultures, he argued, would damage the cultural identity of both host and minority communities. ‘Will the earth be reduced to something homogenous because of the deculturalizing and depersonalizing trends for which American imperialism is now the most arrogant rector?’, he asked. ‘Or will people find the means for the necessary resistance in their beliefs, traditions, and ways of seeing the world?’ Here was the radical argument for pluralism appropriated for reactionary ends.

The argument that in the 1970s was confined the far-right has, over the past decade, come to be a mainstream view. Mainstream politicians, liberal and post-liberal commentators, even academics, now argue that whites should be able to assert, what the political scientist Eric Kaufmann defines as their own ‘racial self-interest’ like any other ethnic group.

The same trends that transformed the sixties social movements into the contemporary politics of identity have also driven the rehabilitation of white identity. Central to this story are the changing fortunes of the working class.

Throughout Europe, many sections of the working class feel both economically and politically marginalized. Economic and social changes – the decline of manufacturing industry, the crumbling of the welfare state, the coming of austerity, the atomization of society, the growth of inequality – have combined with political shifts, such as the erosion of trade union power and the transformation of social democratic parties, to create in sections of the electorate a sense of anger and disaffection. The forms of social organization that once gave working class lives identity, solidarity, indeed dignity, have disappeared.

The marginalization of the working class is largely the product of economic and social changes. But many have come to see their marginalization primarily as a cultural loss. The very decline of the economic and political power of the working class and the weakening of labour organizations and social democratic parties, have helped obscure the economic and political roots of social problems.

And as culture has become the medium through which social issues are refracted, so many within the working class have also come to see their problems in cultural terms. They, too, have turned to the language of identity to express their discontent.

The language of politics and of class, in other words, has given way to the language of culture. Or, rather, class itself has come to be seen not as a political but as a cultural, even a racial, attribute. Sociologists and journalists talk often today about the ‘white working class’, but rarely about the black working class or the Muslim working class. Blacks and Muslims are regarded as belonging to almost classless communities. The working class has come to be seen primarily as white, and white has become a necessary adjective through which to define the working class.

Once class identity comes to be seen as a cultural or racial attribute, then those regarded as culturally or racially different are often viewed as threats. Hence the growing hostility to immigration. Immigration has become the means through which many in the working class perceive their sense of loss of social status.

This has been exacerbated by the changing relationship between the working class, the left, and the far-right. Social democratic parties in Europe have moved away from their old working class constituencies. Many sections of the working class have found themselves politically voiceless at the very time their lives have become more precarious, as jobs have declined, public services savaged, austerity imposed, and inequality risen.

These issues have been taken up by the identity movements of the right. Such movements often link a reactionary politics of identity, rooted in hostility to migrants and Muslims, to economic and social policies that once were the staple of the left: defence of jobs, support for the welfare state, opposition to austerity. The result is a new kind of mass politics and the refashioning of the original reactionary politics of identity for a new age. Through the normalisation of ‘white identity’, racism has acquired a new legitimacy.

The reactionary politics of white identity can no more defend the interests of the working class – white or not – than the supposedly radical politics of identity can defend the interests of minorities. Both transform solidarity from a sense of commonality with those sharing my values and aspirations, though not necessarily my skin colour or culture, to an identity with those who do not share my political hopes, and may undermine my interests, but whose skin colour or cultural background is similar.

There is no singular set of interests shared by all whites. Those responsible for the marginalisation of the working class are also largely white – politicians, bureaucrats, bankers, company bosses. The notion of ‘white identity’ obscures the real problems facing the working class and so makes it more difficult to challenge them.

White identity is the original identity of identity politics, and reveals the reactionary roots of the politics of identity. To challenge inequality and injustice, to defend working class interests, requires us to challenge also the politics of identity, however it expresses itself.


The images are, from top down: Kazimir Malevich, ‘White on white’; Illustration from Samuel George Morton’s ‘Crania Americana’; LS Lowry, ‘The Canal Bridge’; ‘Toussaint L’Ouverture’ by Jacob Lawrence; One of Emory Douglas‘ posters for the Black Panther Party; Lisa Reinke, ‘Hymn to the masses’; Portrait by Pablo González-Trejo.

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