White People and Identity Politics

Some people look at American society and feel that the media, the education system, and the economy, are increasingly biased against white people, that many white people are taught a distorted view of politics and history which leads to them disliking their own racial group, and that explicit displays of hatred of white people are increasingly becoming normalized while opposition to such norms is becoming taboo. This post is aimed at the subset of people who already think this is true.

Among such people, there is a divide about how to deal with all of this. One group of people thinks that the correct solution is to get all groups to let go of their group identities. Others would encourage white people to resist these norms by developing their own sense of racial identity. In this post I am going to argue for the later option while also trying to make clear that this is a position one can take without being a white nationalist or encouraging any extreme sort of racial-politics.

Identity Politics

With that in mind, I’ll start by noting that identity politics is close to inevitable. That is, almost anyone who advocates for any policy does so on the behalf of some group or set of groups. The only exception to this are people who advocate for policies on the basis of moral norms that have nothing to do with what is beneficial or harmful to anyone.

There is a certain kind of conservative who tries to pretend otherwise. They act as if advocating for policies in such a way that the interests of all Americans are weighed equally is somehow not a form of identity politics when it obviously is. Granted, I doubt many people believe conservatives who claim to be only thinking of the American interest, but even if we did buy this rhetoric we should regard this position as strange and seemingly inauthentic. After all, no one lives their live as if they value the interests of all Americans equally. Rather, people live their lives as if they believe in a hierarchy of interests where some groups are valued more highly than others. Conservatives sometimes act as if adopting a purely American viewpoint of politics is somehow the default and that any deviation from it must be justified, but in fact it is their view that should be seen as surprising and in need of justification.

The supposed benefit of looking at politics from a purely national standpoint is that it will decrease the probability of conflict internal to the nation. Even if this is true, history makes it very obvious that a strong nationalist sort of politics can increase the probability of conflict between nations, which is plausibly even more dangerous.

In any case, this whole line of thinking fails to recognize that group conflict exists because groups really do have different interests. The idea, for instance, that poor people and rich people should have the same views about policies that redistribute resources from the rich to the poor is just not plausible. If a given policy helps one person and hurts another based on their group membership, then asking them to ignore their group interest is asking them to sacrifice their individual interests as well in the name of some abstract ideology.

And this is just not how the world plays out. America is probably the most individualistic nation in the history of the world, and our politics has always been partly about group conflict. The nature of the groups changes with time, sometimes the conflict is based on region, other times religion or economic class, other times race, but in no lasting period has American politics ever been just about what is in the interest of America. The only thing like an exception to this is in times of war, but of course this is just another manifestation of group conflict and, if anything, the fact that Americans can only really be united by a common enemy speaks to the inevitability of group interests in politics.

Of course, it is true that people can act unethically on the basis of group identity. Group identity can cause people to be biased in how they process information and to treat others unfairly. But the exact same thing can be said of personal identity, and conservatives are not trying to get rid of that. In both cases, the solution is to set up norms such that people are mindful of their biases and know to treat everyone with a basic level of decency while also allowing them to form a healthy sense of self rooted in both their group and individual based identities.

This is a far cry from the norms we’ve presently established surrounding identity politics. Currently, certain groups, for instance white people, are taught to not think in terms of their group interests while everyone else is taught the opposite. And everyone else realizes that certain groups don’t think in terms of their group interests and so they can be scapegoated at little to no cost. This scenario in fact incentivizes group conflict in the same way that an individual having no spine encourages other individuals to walk all over them.

Of course, the people who are against identity politics don’t mean for this to happen. They don’t tell select groups to not think in terms of group interests. They tell everyone to. But intentions are no guarantee of outcomes and the fact is that its mostly white males listening to such people. As long as this is true, it is hard to regard the idea of collapsing all group identifies as anything more than Utopian.

The most recent surge of anti-identity politics is partly a reaction to Black Lives Matter. Now, I also opposed Black Lives Matter, but not because it was identity politics. It seems obvious to me that if it were true that white police were killing black people just because they were black then it would make sense for people to protest this and it would make sense for Black people to be especially concerned with the issue since themselves and the people they feel closest to would be the people being victimized. The central problem with Black Lives Matter is not that it is identity politics but, rather, that its narrative is totally false. And the perpetuation of this false narrative has been aided by a cultural context in which there is little to no check on the tendency of black people to use white people as a scapegoat.

The anti-identity crowd also often complains about the left’s tendency to evaluate an argument based on the demographics of the person making it rather than the argument’s soundness. This complaint is valid but the right often goes to far in the other direction suggesting that we should care about nothing but the logic of arguments. The fact is that people’s political views can be predicted with some accuracy based on their demographics and this is of interest. The critical move here is to see that why someone is making an argument is a separate question from whether their argument is valid, but both questions are often worth asking if we are trying to fully understand the discourses we participate in.

Group Identity and Psychological Well-being

A worthwhile fact which is normally absent from discussions on identity politics and group interests is that group identity seems to be part of what makes up a psychologically healthy person. For instance, Postmes et al. (2018) meta-analyzed 76 previous studies (N=31,016) and found that group identification negatively correlated with depression. This was especially true of people in non-stigmatized groups, contrary to what leftists might predict. 

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To be clear, this effect is at least partly driven by the cognitive act of telling yourself a narrative about how the group is part of who you are. Multiple studies have produced evidence that the benefits of group identity are not merely a function of increased social contact with group members. For instance, Wakefield et al. (2017) found that social identification predicted life satisfaction after controlling for social contact in a sample of 3,829 Europeans.

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Similarly, Sani et al. (2012) found that group identification beats out social contact (with that same group) as a predictor of mental health in two samples (N = 194 / 150).  Jetten et al. (2015) conducted a number of studies, the best of which was a set of longitudinal studies showing that increased group membership increases self-esteem and this is true after controlling for interpersonal ties and is partly explained by the impact that group membership has on people’s sense of pride and the meaning people derive from their groups.

This effect also persists when controlling for wealth and class. In fact, Cientanni et al. (2017) found that group membership had a larger impact on mental health than did socioeconomic status  (N=976).

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Turning to longitudinal research, Greenaway et al. (2015) found that group identification predicted better psychological well being after controlling for an early baseline measure of psychological well being and group identification ( but N = 70).

Saeri et al. (2018) conducted a longitudinal analysis (N=21,227) of New Zealanders and found that social connectedness and mental health exhibited a bidirectional relationship after controlling for base lines of both variables and other potential con-founders. But the relationship was stronger running from social connectedness to mental health than vice versa.

Similarly, Miller et al. (2017) conducted a longitudinal analysis on 409 Scottish adolescents and found that their degree of identification with social groups (family, school, friends) exhibited a bidirectional relationship with psychological well being.10

Moving now to identification specifically with very large groups, Zdrenka et al. (2015) found that national identity was positively associated with personal well being in a sample of 5,390 New Zealanders. Ethnic identity was also associated with well being, but only for Asians. 14

Khan et al. (2019) examined the the longitudinal relationship between national identity, mental health, and physical health, in a sample of 6,784 participants from 18 nations. They found a weak but statistically significant correlation between national identity at time one and better mental health at time 2.

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Reeskens et al. (2011) found a positive and reasonably large relationship (b = .40) between national pride and subjective well being in a sample of 40,677 Europeans. This effect was especially strong among people who identified as nationalists.

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Turning to America, Smith and Silva (2011) meta-analyzed 184 studies on the relationship between psychological well being and ethnic identity among non-whites. They found correlates of .23 for self esteem, .24 for general well being, and .04 (ns) for mental health symptoms.

Similar results were found in longitudinal and cross sectional research and in each ethnic group examined. Notably, these studies were all of non-whites, and the positive impact of racial identity on well being was stronger the more assimilated the sample being analyzed was. The effect was also shown to be weaker among the poor.

If it is true that ethnic identity relates more strongly to well being among people who are well assimilated and who are not poor, then we might expect the relationship between ethnic identity and well-being to be especially strong among white Americans.  I’ve been able to find a few studies that compare the relationship between ethnic identity and self esteem by race. These studies have an aggregated sample size of 6,990, and they do support the prediction that ethnic identity is most strongly related to self esteem among white people.

Citation N Whites Blacks Hispanics
Phinney et al. (1997) 669 .44 .17 .27
Phinney et al. (1999) 5,423 .24 .14 .14
Carlson et al. (2000) 898 .27 .39 .27
Average (N-Weighted) 6990 .26 .18 .17

Thus, ethnic and national identity both seem to be associated with better well being and, at least in America, the effect seems to be larger for racial identity than for national identity.

The Roots of Group Conflict

Importantly, humans are designed so that we can strongly identify with totally arbitrary groups and form biases on this basis. This was famously shown to be true of children in a study from the 1950s where kids were assigned into differing camp groups and ended up identifying with their own groups enough to hate the other group once the two groups were put into conflict via sport game. Other research has shown that in-group favoritism develops when people are grouped based on the results of things as arbitrary as a random coin toss.

We see something similar in sports. Consider the following from an article published in The Atlantic:

“Following a loss, fans are more likely than usual to eat unhealthy food, [1] be unproductive at work, [2] and—in the case of the Super Bowl—die from heart disease. [3] What about fans of the winning team? Well, their testosterone levels tend to increase, [4] which may account for why triumphant fans are more likely than other fans to suffer a postgame traffic fatality if the score was close. [5]

A recent neuroimaging study found that fans experienced greater pleasure when watching a rival team fail, as opposed to non-rivals. The same subjects were significantly more willing to heckle, threaten, or hit rival fans. [6] This ill will extends even to the health and welfare of opposing players. Fans in another study reported feeling schadenfreude when reading about the injury of a rival team’s player, and gluckschmerz (sadness at others’ good fortune) when later reading about the player’s unexpectedly speedy recovery. [7]

Yet a substantial volume of research shows that being a fan can also have positive effects. It can ward off depression and alienation and build a sense of belonging and self-worth—provided the object of one’s devotion is a local team. [8] “

Other research has shown that a high degree of identification with a sports team combined with a perception of threat from competing teams predicted fan violence (Newson et al., 2018).

As I noted earlier, politics usually has something to do with group conflict whether that conflict is within or between nations. The identities salient here include class, religion, region of origin, and race. In sports we see that group conflict is also central. Even among the fans of anti-tribal intellectuals like Jordan Peterson we can observe that their fans are often most excited when attacking the left, and in this particular case we can note that Peterson’s psychological advice only gave rise to a mass following once he began to get involved in the tribal battles of politics. The most plausible evolutionary origin for this sort of thing is the small groups that humans used to travel in prior to recorded history, and this surely involved a fair amount of conflict as well.

I suspect that this connection runs pretty deep even though empirical research has not, to my knowledge, been carried out to demonstrate as much. For one thing, group conflict allows group membership to imbue members with a sense of purpose: to defeat the other group. Further, to the degree that group identity functions like personal identity, and we’ve seen that to a some degree it does, people will probably tend to judge their group’s value relative to the value of other groups just as we tend to judge our value as individuals relative to the value of other individuals. And just as in the individual case, when our group isn’t doing well the natural inclination is to blame other groups. As I’ve said, we should constrain our tendency towards group conflict with ethical and rational norms, but I think these considerations further the conviction that it is hopeless to try to totally eradicate group conflict.

Group Pride

Group identity is strongly tied to the notion of group pride and some people really don’t like the idea of someone being proud of things they did not personally do. Generally, these people have been socialized to think that it is self evidently true that pride should be localized to the level of the individual and they can’t explain why they think this. This intuition can be challenged, I think, in two ways.

First, many people who have this intuition about big groups do not have it about families. That is, there are many people who will object to something like racial pride but not object to familial pride even though the basic mechanics of the two are the same, and even though, genetically, race isn’t all that dissimilar from a very high level notion of family. This seems inconsistent and unreasonable.

Secondly, given how much individuals change over their life we can bring some of the same objections aimed at group pride to individual pride. For instance, someone might object that it is improper for people to take pride in things other people have done because it gives them a false sense of self esteem, as they themselves could not have actually done the thing they are taking pride in. But then we might ask why a 70 year old should feel pride over something they did when they were 20. The 20 year old version of themselves no longer exists, and the person who does exist today probably couldn’t do what they did when they were 20. So the person is taking pride in something which they could not do.

What unites an older person with a younger version of themselves is a narrative they tell themselves, and while the sort of identification here is different in some ways than in the case of group identification these differences are not so large as to in any obvious way explain why one act of pride is valid and the other is not.

Even if these thoughts don’t challenge the intuitions of someone arguing for the exclusive validity of individual pride, such a person still owe’s us a reason for why we should fight against something which is both natural and probably beneficial, and I don’t think they can produce any such reason.

It is also sometimes said by conservatives that only a loser would be interested in something like group pride in the first place. Similarly, leftists sometimes say that group identity is only useful for groups that are being oppressed.  This entire notion is simply made up and is demonstrably false since, as we saw earlier, group identification is most beneficial to people who are economically successful and when that identity concerns a group which is not seen as being stigmatized. So we can disregard this line of reasoning without even engaging in an argument about who is and is not really victimized by modern society.

It’s also worth mentioning that it is at least plausible that group pride can motivate individuals to achieve more than they otherwise would because they may feel a sense of needing to uphold the standards of their group or improve it.

Group Responsibility

It is worth pointing out that accepting group pride does not entail accepting group responsibility. The difference I have in mind here is the difference between a person allowing their self esteem to be impacted by their group on the one hand, and people being rewarded or punished for actions taken by their fellow group members on the other. In fact, in the real word these concepts are often kept distinct. With the exception of white people, most people have some degree of racial identity, and many sports fans come to identify with their teams. But in neither case do these identities logically entail anything like group punishment or reward.

There is a clear practical rational for this. People have a lot of control over their own behavior and so punishments and rewards can be used to condition future behavior. While not being totally untrue of groups, it is clearly less true in the case of groups than in the case of individuals. So, unlike in the case of pride, here we have strong reasons for applying responsibility to the level of individuals which do not apply nearly as well to groups.

Moreover, most of us have moral intuitions which are strongly against group responsibility. It seems very unjust to most people in a way that someone taking pride in their culture or heritage does not.

On White Identity

So, what about the idea of white Americans fostering a sense of shared identity?Group identity is generally good, there are political problems stemming from white people’s refusal to defend themselves, and white Americans are involved in group conflict whether they recognize it or not. That alone is generally sufficient for a sense of group identity, but on top of that white people have a culture, in terms of psychology, food, music, religion, philosophy, political orientation, etc., which differentiates most white people from most non-white people. These norms aren’t always recognized as white, sometimes they are just seen as normal, but they are not in fact equally normal for all groups.

And, of course, white people all share a biological heritage do a degree that they generally do not share a biological heritage with non-white people. This heritage means that the same biology and culture that allowed past Europeans to do great things is  literally within each of us as individuals, though perhaps to varying degrees. It might also matter more than that if white Americans came to see themselves as part of a longer term project passed on from earlier generations which built this civilization, in part, for us, and this might give us a sense that we should do the same for our own future descendants.

To be clear, I am not talking about white nationalism or making most white people obsessed with racial politics. I’m talking about racial identity, the sort that many non-white Americans have while also not being racial nationalists. The sort that allows a minority within each group to actively work for their group’s interests while having the electoral and social support of the majority of their co-ethnics.

White people are becoming a minority in this country, and I’m suggesting that it would be helpful, materially and psychologically, to set up a culture which allowed for the creation of something like a white caucus in congress, white civil rights groups, and a general push against anti-white norms. White nationalists would probably not object to this, but this is not a white nationalist idea. It is not about setting up a white ethnostate. It is about setting up a more white-friendly state in our existing and future country.

So, if that is a worthwhile political goal, how can it be achieved? At the most general level, what has to happen is that more white people must become convinced that “it is okay to be white”, that they have a history and people they can identify with, and that they should stand up to the anti-white bigotry that is rising in our society.  Ideally, people will then form social networks with like minded people and these norms will spread while people generally continue to live their lives as normal and while retaining their various other group identities.

But this process has many challenges. The people spreading such messages are regularly censored on social media and ostracized offline. When people do come around to this sort of message, they often come to feel a deep pessimism when they consider the trajectory of our society, and they can easily come to feel alienated from even pre-existing relations and even white people generally as they come to see that so many white people are against their own group.

Overcoming these obstacles concerns strategic questions that are beyond the scope of this post and I don’t know that I have the answer to them in any case. This post is just about arguing that, if it can be achieved, white identity is a worthwhile political goal, and hopefully I’ve shown that it is.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

4 thoughts on “White People and Identity Politics

  1. This was a fantastic study, but truly I think the best option for White people would be to separate. I just don’t think that most white people want to share a congress with Hispanics and Blacks, it wasn’t even a country made form them in the first place.

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  2. I’m also of the mind to separate. It’s like you said in your recent video, Jefferson, Madison, Jay, et al., intended for blacks to be sent away from American society post-slavery. Beyond racial issues, this country is degenerate and disintegrating on even the most fundamental level – family. There is no fixing it, we must go full circle. At the same time, an apocalyptic war is on the horizon. Cities are death traps – primary targets in the coming war and centers of massive dependency, ie. desperation, chaos, violence, etc., when systems fail.

    >This pictures a time when inferior people are pushing forward and are about to crowd out the few remaining strong and superior men.
    >The power of the inferior people is growing. The danger draws close to one’s person; already there are clear indication, and rest is disturbed. Moreover, in this dangerous situation one is as yet without help or friendly advances from above or below. Extreme caution is necessary in this isolation. One must adjust to the time and promptly avoid the danger.
    >He splits with them.
    >Here the disaster affects not only the resting place but even the occupant. No warning or other comment is added. Misfortune has reached its peak:

    -I Ching, chapter 23

    >After a time of decay comes the turning point. The powerful light that has been banished returns…The old is discarded and the new is introduced. Both measures accord with the time; therefore no harm results. Societies of people sharing the same views are formed…The idea of RETURN is based on the course of nature. The movement is cyclic, and the course completes itself.
    I Ching, Chapter 24
    http://www.akirarabelais.com/i/i.html#24

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  3. Dear Sean

    I greatly enjoy your content. I’m not American myself, but Western European so we live in similar societies as regards this problem.

    Like you, I’ve rejected white nationalism. For me, the train of thought was that, in Ernest Renan’s sense, a nation is a civic association, a political actor, so to speak. So I’d say white nationalism is the wish to associate with whites in a given territory (wherein non-whites are not really seen as part of the civic association).

    A peaceful example of this, to the best of my understanding, is Israel. Arabs on paper have political representation, but these parties tend to be boycotted by the Israeli parties. Ergo Arabs are seen as a contaminant for the wider nation.

    In my opinion this is illiberal and politically impossible anyways. Western societies are way too mixed to expect whites to suddenly reject all meaningful political say of non-whites. So the best we can hope for realistically is what you describe: a white interest group.

    But here’s my question: if we accept such a mixed society where we are a minority, won’t it take long before we’re all mestizos anyhow? Doesn’t seem like the end of the world to me; but I wonder how long a white interest group will be meaningful.

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