When Barack Obama was elected president, optimists assumed that most North Americans had finally overcome long-standing racial prejudices and were prepared – as Martin Luther King, had famously recommended – to judge aspirants to high office “not by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character.” At the time, this was evidently true; though Obama won in part because almost all blacks voted for him, he was also supported by large numbers of working men and women who preferred him to John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012.
But that was then. In the last few years so much has changed that politicians who say they share Luther King’s views are liable to be roundly denounced as racist reactionaries who refuse to recognise that “people of colour” – by which is meant everyone who may have a tiny drop of African, Asian or even ‘Hispanic” blood coursing through their veins – will continue to be victims of an unjust order, until it has been replaced by one with them at the top.
As far as many “progressives” or, in US parlance, “liberals” are concerned, a willingness to minimise the importance of race is itself racist and must be stamped out. Though, or perhaps because, most who think this way are of European origin and are guiltily conscious of the “privileges” they imagine this entails, they take it for granted that racism is an exclusively “white” phenomenon and must be attacked whenever it raises its ugly head. Not surprisingly, those who are unaware they are among the “privileged” but feel they are on the receiving end do not take kindly to the notion that for genetic reasons they are evil creatures who should be made to pay for the wicked ways of their counterparts past and present.
Why, such benighted folk ask, is it OK for dark-skinned legislators to form a “black caucus” while it would be unthinkable for the paler ones to set up their own? Why should the offspring of black millionaires enjoy the academic benefits of “affirmative action” at the expense of the sons and daughters of poverty-stricken Asians and, of course, whites who get far higher exam marks?
By encouraging individuals who say they represent supposedly downtrodden ethnic or religious minorities, North American politicians, especially those associated with the now dominant wing of the Democratic Party, have given no-holds-barred racism a new lease of life in the world’s most influential country. Just about everything that happens in the US these days is seen through an ethnic lens. Donald Trump takes a swing at Baltimore, a once prosperous city that according to none other than Bernie Sanders before he saw the light, has degenerated into a “Third World” hell-hole, and is immediately denounced as a racist because much of the population, including the politicians who run it, is black.
Trump was also roundly blamed for last week’s mass shooting in the Texas border town of El Paso by an young “white supremacist” and would have been for the almost simultaneous gunning down of bystanders in Dayton, Ohio, had there not been good reasons to believe that the criminal responsible was a supporter of the leftish presidential hopeful Elizabeth Warren.
White supremacism certainly exists and, as Trump himself has said, it needs to be dealt with harshly, but then so do black, Han Chinese, Hindu, Muslim, whether Sunnite, Shia or one of the smaller sects, and many other versions of the desire to see one’s own community lord it over the rest of humankind. This is what “identity politics,” which the disgruntled have adopted not just in the US but to an increasing extent in other parts of the world, is in large measure about. Instead of looking for what people have in common, the politically-minded in the US and much of Europe as well, needless to say, in Asia and Africa, are currently concentrating on whatever they think makes them different.
In the developed parts of the world, this nasty game is being played not only by racists and religious fanatics, but also by feminists and enthusiasts for ever smaller sexual distinctions. In the English-speaking countries, advocates of such groupings compete to see which of them has been mistreated the most. Apparently, being a victim gives one moral authority. The rapid descent of the US into what many call tribalism has commentators puzzled. Some say this is not really what is happening, or that if something like it is, it is all Trump’s fault. Others argue that the reason so many presumably bright people are joining groups with stridently expressed grievances is their desperate need to respond to the challenges that day after day are being flung down by accelerating technological and social change. They fear they could be left out in the scramble for what is available. Be all this as it may, there can be no doubt that “identity politics” has taken over much of academia in the US and the UK and, as the strange primary debates they are celebrating made clear, many Democrat politicians see it as the wave of the future.
Not that long ago, people who disliked the status quo tended to become supporters of left-wing movements that claimed to have the interests of all human beings at heart, but when it was realised that far too often efforts to reshape the world in accordance with the socialist doctrines most favoured were having truly disastrous consequences – all those gulags, ubiquitous snoopers and failing economies – those thus inclined started looking for something else,
Identity politics gave them what they were after: plausible reasons to denounce with passion the many iniquities they saw in the prevailing socioeconomic order. Unfortunately, as there is no conceivable way each and every identity group can get what it is demanding, the next few years will in all likelihood be marked by conflicts ambitious politicians will help stir up because they think it is in their interest to do so. This is what many are doing in the US and their example is already having repercussions in other countries, among them Argentina, in which a widespread hostility towards “the empire” is not accompanied by any reluctance to adopt its political, social and religious fashions.