The Unified Field Theory of Non-Whiteness
with John McWhorter
The term “people of color” attempts to unite an extraordinarily diverse segment of Americans of many different racial and ethnic backgrounds, of different classes, and of different cultural predilections under a single umbrella. What is the justification for this? Some progressives will tell you that all “people of color” share a common experience, which is that they have suffered the oppression of white supremacy or systemic racism. Even granting the existence of such universal oppression (which I do not), would it justify describing the experiences of, say, a newly arrived South Korean delivery driver and the second-generation child of Harvard-educated Bahamian lawyers as, in any meaningful way, “the same”?
Of course not. To group two such people together, you would have to ignore everything about them except the fact that they are not white. You can’t even call this “racial essentialism,” since the only race it essentializes is the so-called white race. The “people of color” moniker doesn’t so much propose a coherent theory of non-white identity as it quietly legitimizes an even less respectable, more dangerous theory of whiteness. Advocates of “people of color”-type identity politics will tell you they oppose white identity. But I regret to inform them that they are, in fact, perpetuating and empowering white identity.
A cynical reading of this situation could lead one to conclude that Democratic strategists, progressive pundits, and identitarian radicals need a broad non-white coalition to exist because, without it, whiteness would cease to have any meaning. And without the insidious specter of whiteness, the demands of Black Lives Matter-type activists would cease to have any force. As long as Democratic national strategy relies on linking the fates of a broad, ethnically and culturally diverse non-white coalition to a narrow set of grievances about black-white disparities, the left needs to keep the fiction of whiteness, and of racial essentialism, alive and well.
In the following excerpt from our most recent conversation, John McWhorter and I ask how long the center can hold. The immense diversity and vitality of first and second-generation immigrants cannot be reduced to the archaic politics of black and white. It’s only a matter of time before “people of color” whose values don’t align with those of the narrow segment of black society that have come to represent them start peeling off in the voting booth. What will happen to our politics when the Democrats’ unified field theory of non-whiteness is definitely disproven?
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JOHN MCWHORTER: What I'm seeing from what you're describing is that there are some parties in, for example, Britain—and I know there some parties in France on this—where what they're afraid America is going to [export] is something very peculiar about us, and it's easy to forget how odd and modern it is. And I'm fascinated by—I almost wish I had the tools to study it formally—the difference between a person who is told, “You've really had it hard,” who bristles and doesn't want to be seen that way and wants to show that they can get past it, and a person who is told, “You've really had it hard,” who finds that validating and is insulted if that isn't said and acknowledged and forms an identity around having had it hard.
And the idea in America, educated America, is that there's something enlightened about wanting to be seen that way. Whereas I think that the human norm is to go into a little bit of denial about how you have it hard. You don't want to be seen that way. And I think that many Nigerian immigrants here are inclined to think, “No, I don't want to focus on how I have it hard, even if I do. I'm going to kick butt anyway.” Some people are better at it than others, but you see certain differences that people like Amy Chua get in trouble for calling attention to, the Nigerian immigrant success. Amy Chua, the Yale Law School professor who wrote a book with her husband, Jed Rubenfeld, and doing this thing, giving little index cards.
GLENN LOURY: The Triple Package.
Right. And I just find it interesting. A lot of the problem that you and I have is that we just don't have that gene, or whatever it is, that says that you're supposed to focus on the obstacles and to be insulted if they're not dwelled upon. That's what I think they're afraid is going to be imported. Because that's become an educated American way to frame these sorts of issues.
And the sad thing is, and this is something that I see coming, we're talking about these black-white issues as if it was 1960, when America is black and white and then there are like two Chinese immigrants and 16 Latinos. Of course I'm exaggerating. But we're in an America where we're talking about this racial reckoning, where it's mostly about black people. We are a vast minority of the population, and there are a great many other people who are not white who are here with a full range of issues and with a very different way of viewing what sociologists call victimization and agency.
It's getting to the point where black America has a certain power to get a great deal of attention, to have the whole country, to some extent, focus on our issues when really we're, what, one in nine people, and it's a very different scenario than it used to be. And the idea is that we have a particular history. But that's a thin justification for the amount of attention that we often are claiming we're supposed to get. And I imagine it's going to change. There are just too many other kinds of people.
When I walk around in New York City, I think to myself, this idea that it's all about what was done to black people in the past and what we're going to do about black people now doesn't work when you see all of these South Asian immigrants, all of these Southeast Asian immigrants, all of these East Asian immigrants, all of these white people from Europe with thick accents, all of these people from so many places, not to mention the Caribbean and Africa, where every second black person from there doesn't agree with this ideology. It's going to change. I'm not sure what would tip it, because the idea is that you express a certain fealty to issues being centered around the concerns of native-born black Americans. But it's beginning to be a vast distortion in terms of what the whole country consists of, and I'd be interested to see where that's going to go.
GLENN LOURY: That was very well said. That summarizes my concern quite accurately. I do think it's a ticking time bomb. Maybe that puts it a little bit hyperbolically. But you did say “tipping.” And “unraveling” is another metaphor that comes to mind, a kind of consensus that the descendants of slaves are in the driver's seat in terms of the narratives about “people of color,” diversity, equity, and inclusion, and all of that, where our enslavement and marginalization and subjugation becomes the master tale about white supremacy, and so on. It's not even an accurate characterization of the Negro saga, in my opinion. Yes, I used the word “Negro,” and I used it intentionally.
You said “Negro”! (laughs)
I used it intentionally. I don't even think that's an accurate story about black folks who descend from slaves, frankly. There are black billionaires in this country. There's a huge black middle class. This is a completely different country than it was in 1970, et cetera. I could go on for a very long time about that, as you know, and I won't. But in any case, it's definitely not true about Nigerian immigrants in the United States of America, or second generation, who are all over the Ivy League, as you may have noticed. I don't know if you can get the official statistics, but my impression is that at least a third and maybe more ...
... “black students” are second-generation Caribbean and African immigrant families who are at Brown.
Generally about two-thirds here [at Columbia].
That high. Okay. So there. It's not even true about them. Moreover, you've got other people of color like the Latinos. This majority-minority vision that some Democratic pollsters and others say guarantees a progressive domination of American politics soon enough. This is the flip side of the great replacement theory rhetoric that you hear on the right, of people sounding an alarm that the country is going to become non-white because too many non-white people are taking over, that the white racists who are afraid of people of color—“swarthy hordes,” as you called them the last time we talked—the flip side of that are the crowing progressives who are bean-counting heads of non-white people and thinking Texas is going to go blue because the Latino population is going, and so forth and so on, and are operating on this unified field theory of non-whiteness in which they reckon that all of these various non-white groups are in the same basket, politically speaking.
And I think that's dead wrong. And I think you begin to see the unraveling when you look at the diverse political behavior of Latino populations. I can't cite statistics, but the numbers were up voting for Trump in 2016, up by voting for Trump in 2020. We'll see what happens. They're more conservative, culturally. They're not all pro-choice. A lot of them are Catholics. Oh, heaven forbid. Whereas the progressive thinks there are too many Catholics on the US Supreme Court, and you find the occasional pundit being willing to say such a bigoted, anti-religious statement as, “There are too many Catholics on the US Supreme Court.” Oh, were there are too many Jews on the US Supreme Court when the Jews were overrepresented amongst those who are on the Supreme Court? Is that the way you want to talk about the United States Supreme Court?
Well, I'm not sure how that goes over with a working-class Catholic Latino family sitting in the Southwest of the United States. They're culturally conservative, and you can't take their votes for granted if you're a Democrat, it seems to me. The “people of color” argument, it seems to me, is a pretty thin argument. And the confidence with which the ultra-radical black spokesmen of the Black Lives Matter stripe wield this weapon of non-whiteness as if they were speaking for all of these people, when they may find when they look around that law and order actually appeals to a whole lot of “people of color” and that defunding the police and castigating and attacking of the instruments of the maintenance of order in modestly endowed social environments is not a winning formula. Chesa Boudin may well get recalled in San Francisco, for example. But we could, you know, run down the list of them.
We're fish that don't know that we're wet. Take somebody my color. I'm middle-brown. Some people call me light-skinned. I don't know what that means. I am red, as they used to call it. I'm in the middle. Take me, and then take somebody who has Bangladeshi immigrant parents. They're probably a little darker than me, but let's say we're about the same color. Now, there's this idea that we're both people of color, and the overtones of “person of color” is that we're both oppressed in some way by the white hegemony. Now, that person who is the child of— You know we're talking about Reihan Salam. Hello, Reihan.
Baby Reihan! You should explain that. Explain to people how it is that we're talking about Reihan Salam, who's President of the Manhattan Institute and is a man of color himself. I'm not sure exactly what his ethnic background is. He's an intellectual of some formidability, if that's a word. Is that a word?
And he has been making statements along the lines of what you and I are talking about, and quite pointedly and articulately, including the interview that he did with Ezra Klein in the New York Times last week.
I call that to everyone's attention. It was outstanding. Ezra Klein and Reihan Salam.
Yeah. But anyway, my point was just going to be that that Bangladeshi immigrant's child, whether it's Reihan or not, has certainly suffered some discrimination now and then. You know, somebody calls that person a name, somebody underestimates that person in some way. There are little things that happen. But that person generally is not inclined to think of themselves as oppressed by some hegemon the way black people are encouraged to.
And we're the same color. We're the same “people of color.” And yet, the Reihan person is thinking, “Yeah, not perfect. But certainly better than where my parents came from, and I'm doing fine. I have friends, I date, I get married. Everything's fine.” Whereas if it's me, I'm supposed to feel more oppressed. And the reason is supposed to be, one, my history in slavery. But frankly, it was a very, very long time ago, as was Jim Crow. And then it's also supposed to be that I live in fear of being abused or killed by the police, whereas the Bangladeshi immigrant kid doesn't.
As far as I'm concerned, that risk that I run is not significant enough to forge an identity. And so I'm “of color,” this other person is “of color,” and we're both in the same boat. No, because that person isn't encouraged to think the way I am. And the way that I'm encouraged to think is not justified by slavery, Jim Crow, redlining, or the fact that the police might interpret me differently than they interpret him. And yet we're stuck with this whole notion. Yeah. We're both “people of color” and we're supposed to be worried about the white man.
These people are living often cheek by jowl with black populations that have high rates of criminal participation. And they're being victimized by them. That might factor into it. Patriotism. These people think the streets are paved with gold in this country. It's the land of the free, almost quite literally. There's no place else on Earth they'd rather have moved from Bangladesh to than here, where they and their children can realize the American dream. Whereas the standard Black Lives Matter line is, “The American dream is a lie.” That's what Ta-Nehisi Coates will tell you. That's what Ibram X. Kendi will tell you. It's not cut out for you, because you're black.
Values. These people often affirm a conservative value of family, of sexual modesty, of birth within the sanctity of marriage, of respect for parents, of a kind of parental et cetera, et cetera. Which I regret to report is not always manifest in the behavior and the value matrix that characterizes much of the lower strata of African American society. Of course, I'm not supposed to say that. I'm not supposed to say that. But it would appear to be the case. So the coalition is grounded on a kind of eliding of these very fundamental differences in worldview characteristic of various elements, components of the people of color aggregate.