The Categorial Error At The Heart Of White Nationalism

And what the responses to it from both the right and the left get wrong

One of the assumptions of white nationalism, and of white identity politics more generally, is that “white people” are a distinct group united by a common heritage and a common interest in preserving that heritage.

This assumption is false.

A number of ethnicities and cultures have been absorbed under the category of “whiteness,” not because they share a common heritage, but because the members of those ethnic groups have relatively light skin. Yet shared skin color hardly forms a proper basis for a cohesive political community.

Of course, there is at least one people group in America whose members, despite having diverse ethnic backgrounds, have become a discernible ethnic and cultural group with a shared heritage. I refer to African-Americans, particularly those whose ancestors were brought here as slaves. The people who were brought over from Africa long ago belonged to various distinct tribes (seeing themselves as distinct, having different family histories, speaking different languages, etc.), but the shared experience of being forcibly brought to a foreign land as slaves, and the culture that grew out of that experience, was sufficient to provide the basis for a new shared identity. That shared identity was reinforced by generations of Jim Crow, and made possible the self-defensive political cohesion among blacks which, in turn, made possible the civil rights movement.

Nothing comparable exists for white people. There is nothing that makes “whiteness” into a legitimate basis for a shared identity among members of diverse ethnic groups. This is why white nationalists have to make up examples of anti-white oppression and “white genocide”; the threat of violence or oppression against “white people” would give whites a reason to unite in political self-defense. And generally, when white nationalists want whites to act in “self-defense,” they mean writing white supremacy into the law.

A counterargument might point out that groups most closely associated with white nationalism — Nazis and Southern Confederates — do in fact see themselves in ways that might challenge my thesis. After all, Nazis place an ethnicity/shared heritage at the heart of their vision: Aryan people; Confederates place a shared heritage and common interests at the heart of theirs. Wouldn’t “white,” under this sort of reading, rather than whiteness in general, qualify as a distinct people group?

But even if we grant that these groups are people groups in their own right, their “shared heritage and common interests” are incompatible with the common good of the United States, whereas the shared experiences, heritage, and interests of other groups are not incompatible but rather congruous with it.

Both the right and the left have their own ways of responding to white nationalism, and both of their approaches have serious drawbacks.

Conservatives tend to downplay the significance of ethnicity entirely, arguing for a kind of liberal individualism that takes no account of ethnic background. This approach, while rebuking white identity politics, also calls into question the basis for political unity among black Americans and other historically oppressed minorities. It is also in tension with conservative support for Israel, which was founded with the explicit purpose of providing political self-determination and protection for a particular ethnic group: Jewish people.

Progressives, on the other hand, tend to accept that white people constitute a cohesive group, yet argue that this power ought to be limited. But then white nationalists are able to spin such arguments in such a way as to claim that progressives are targeting white people as a group.

An alternative approach that avoids the vices of both the conservative and the progressive responses to white nationalism is to affirm the significance of ethnicity while maintaining that “white” is not an ethnicity in any meaningful sense.

A shared history and culture can form the basis for cohesion as a political community. A group of people who have a real common cultural heritage do nothing wrong when they organize themselves politically and act in concert for the purpose of preserving that heritage. This, however, is not what the white nationalists are doing. The white nationalist agenda is not to “protect white culture,” because there is no such thing as white culture. Rather, the white nationalist agenda is to elevate the status of whites at the expense of racial minorities.

The writings of Yoram Hazony, a political theorist who is president of the Herzl Institute, can help to clarify what I mean when I say that ethnicity is a basis for political cohesion, but mere skin color, or “race,” is not. In an article on nationalism, Hazony defines “nation” as “a people or group of peoples that are united — or that are capable of being united — around a shared history, language, or religion, permitting them to act effectively as a body for the common defense and other large-scale enterprises.” He goes on to say that this concept of nationhood “has nothing to do with biology, or what we call race.” Indeed, people who were once strangers to the nation can become incorporated into it by accepting the nation’s “shared understanding of history, language, and religion.”

The United States is a nation in that it has a history and a creed that bind together its citizens and make them into a unified people. Americans aren’t American by virtue of being a certain race; rather, being American is defined by subscribing to the vision set forth in our founding documents, especially the Declaration of Independence, which states that “all men are created equal.” However, the United States is also a pluralistic nation, and there are many sub-groups within the country that have their own peculiar histories in addition to the broader shared history of the United States. African Americans are one such group; Irish Americans are another. You could rightly call the United States a nation of many nations, as these separate sub-histories and identities coexist within the broader shared history and identity of the nation.

Most ethnic sub-groups in the United States seek only to protect themselves and preserve their peculiar heritage while also participating in the life of the nation. This is why Martin Luther King, Jr. used the image of the “bad check” in his “I Have a Dream” speech to describe the treatment of African Americans in the United States. Far from rejecting the core history and creed of the nation, the civil rights movement sought to more fully realize the nation’s founding ideals by ensuring that the benefits of citizenship that the Founders sought to win for themselves would no longer be denied to anyone on account of race.

White nationalists, on the other hand, deny that members of other races can take part in the nation. They seek to exclude racial minorities because they define America in racial terms, rather than in terms of history or creed. Whereas a commitment to protecting and preserving one’s ethnic group can co-exist with the United States’ version of creedal, or civic, nationalism, race-based exclusion cannot.

Recently, Fox News personality Laura Ingraham offered the following lament:

In some parts of the country, it does seem like the America we know and love doesn’t exist anymore. Massive demographic changes have been foisted upon the American people. And they’re changes that none of us ever voted for and most of us don’t like.

This is an example of a perspective that depends upon a conception of Real America along racialist lines. It is not surprising that notorious white nationalist David Duke strongly endorsed Ingraham’s comments.

Yet both the right and the left make significant errors in the way they respond to white nationalism. The right tends to downplay ethnicity too much, forgetting that the founding ideals of America do not preclude Americans from maintaining firm commitments to their peculiar cultures, languages, and religions. The left acknowledges the importance of pluralism, but also treats white people as a cohesive group, which inadvertently helps white nationalists to convince whites that they need to protect “white culture and heritage,” even though there is no such thing.

It would be better to develop an understanding of what shared features are relevant to forming a political community. While ethnicity—encompassing culture, history, religion, and language—is, race is emphatically not.

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