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The myth of white exceptionalism

21 December 2018

1:57 PM

21 December 2018

1:57 PM

The British government’s new white paper on immigration has been shaped by a social norm which argues that the white British ethnic majority’s interest in limiting the pace of cultural change and facilitating assimilation is racist.

The emphasis on skills rather than numbers, on economic over cultural considerations, and on rebalancing immigration away from Europe speaks to this. The document reflects the thinking of both Brexit and Remain politicians. Yet it does not align with the motives of many who voted Leave, or a considerable chunk of those who voted Remain. These voters seek lower levels of immigration, and research shows that this is driven more by identity threat than by economic considerations. If immigration numbers remain where they are after Brexit, but shift toward non-Europeans with skills, this could just as easily increase as decrease populist pressures. This is but one illustration of how the myth of white exceptionalism is fuelling populism and polarisation.

The notion that whites are a fallen category who can only redeem their sordid group history by denigrating or ignoring it, and that they must be judged against a different standard than other groups, is preventing a measured discussion of questions of immigration and ethnic change. This opens space for less reasonable voices who are willing to provide answers to questions many are asking.

Many liberals regard the disruptive behaviour of radical anti-racist students and administrators at places like Evergreen State College, Middlebury College and U.C. Berkeley as anti-intellectual and irrational, and feel no connection to them.

But ask yourself the following: is it racist for a white person to vote for reduced immigration? Is it racist for whites to identify with a caucasian racial image as a group symbol? Save your answers. Now let’s change the questions. Is it racist for a Chinese-American person to favour increased Chinese immigration to grow the size of their community? What about for Hawaiians to identify with a Polynesian racial image as a symbol of their group? Now recall your answers. Even if you answered these questions consistently, if you are white, you probably cringed when completing the first set.

Let’s explore this discomfort, because it explains why western mainstream elites are unable to defuse the tensions driving national populism. There is no sensible reason for answering the questions differently. Our cultural cringe can’t be a logical response based on a consistent definition of racism. Indeed, if we bracket critical race theory, which is ideologically-motivated and anti-science, there is no basis for [this response]. As political theorist Yael Tamir observes in her book, Liberal Nationalism:

‘Liberals often align themselves with national demands raised by ‘underdogs,’ be they indigenous peoples, discriminated minorities, or occupied nations, whose plight can easily evoke sympathy. But if national claims rest on theoretically sound and morally justified grounds, one cannot restrict their application: They apply equally to all nations, regardless of their power, their wealth, their history of suffering, or even the injustices they have inflicted on others in the past.’

White ethnic groups’ past misdeeds cannot justify a double-standard, for if that were the case, Turks (Ottoman Empire), Indian Muslims (Mughal Empire), Japanese, Arabs, Mongolians, Zulus, Mohawks, Tutsi and nearly every other group in the world would also have to repress their identities and interests. No civilisation behaved well in the past, let’s face it. Prior to 1919, history was a litany of empire, slavery and conquest.

One assumption is that the attachment of powerful whites to their own group will spell disaster for vulnerable minorities. But that is not the case. Social psychologist Marilynn Brewer shows that in-group attachment is not correlated with out-group hostility except in cases of violent conflict. A white American’s warmth towards their own group is, for instance, associated with warmer feelings toward African-Americans.

Ethnicity is defined by subjective myths of descent, not immutable external characteristics. A moderate ‘white’ majority group that is open to inter-racial marriage (what I term Whiteshift) has a constructive role to play, as ethnic majorities arguably underpin the civic nationalism which is needed to overcome polarisation.

Ethnic majorities are not malign forces: 80 percent of countries have an ethnic majority and the vast majority (think Akan, Tswana, Persian) are peaceful. The systematic study of political violence since 1945 doesn’t find that a moderate attachment to ethnic majority identity predicts genocide. Rather, as political scientist Barbara Harff pointed out, the combination of war, autocracy and an exclusivist ideology which brooks no dissent (whether socialist, civic nationalist, ethnic nationalist or Islamist) is what heightens the risk of genocide.

For instance, civic nationalist Indonesia has suffered far worse violence against its Chinese minority than ethnocratic Malaysia, despite the latter’s ‘sons of the soil’ policy which economically favours Malays. Indeed it is domination by an ethnic or religious minority (i.e. Sunnis in Iraq, Alawi in Syria) that increases the risk of civil war.


A larger ethnic majority doesn’t lead to a greater oppression of minorities: as I show in my book, the numerical preponderance of whites in US states or Latin American countries bears no relationship to the local white-black income gap. Ethnic identity isn’t principally about using group affiliation to acquire money and power, but, as psychologists note, consists of affective attachment to myths, symbols, traditions and memories – regardless of whether the group is in the majority or the minority. The key is to keep this moderate.

What distinguishes the modern world (West and East, North and South) in world-historical perspective is its relatively low rate of violent death, as Steven Pinker demonstrated in The Better Angels of Our Nature.

The analyst mustn’t generalise from rare events such as the Holocaust (‘selecting on the dependent variable’) in which Nordic theories of race played a part. Rather, we must consider all cases where ethnic majority attachment was in play and how this relates to the many cases of genocide. Barbara Harff has done just this, systematically analysing which factors predict an onset of one of the roughly 40 instances of genocide since 1945. By controlling for confounding variables, she has sorted the wheat of causal mechanisms from the chaff of spurious correlation. This shows that ideological extremism of any kind is dangerous. Moderate ethnic, national, religious or socialist beliefs aren’t dangerous. Like fire, these creeds can burn us if we get too close, but we need a little to warm us.

In short, the case for treating whites differently from other racial or pan-ethnic groups rests on sand. The Holocaust was a singularly shocking event which claimed the lives of some of my ancestors; and there’s no doubt that white anti-Semitic racism was part of the rationale behind colonialism. Yet this cannot damn a group for eternity. A robust social science must compare all groups across all ages before delivering a verdict of guilt or innocence. The Holocaust, slavery, colonialism cannot be in themselves first principles from which consistent arguments may be deduced.

The fact white group identity makes us feel uncomfortable suggests that what African-American academic John McWhorter terms the ‘religion of antiracism’ is not the preserve of campus radicals. They may be its fundamentalists, but in moderate form, the religion permeates the deep tissue of western high culture, pervading its liberal institutions. The taboo regarding the open expression of white majority ethnicity, or whites’ defence of what Shadi Hamid terms their racial self-interest, is deeply grounded in notions of deviant and normal, sacred and profane.

The demise of colonialism and the aftermath of World War II can’t fully explain McWhorter’s religion of antiracism. It springs instead from shifts in left-wing thinking. New Left ideas transposing egalitarianism from class to race combined with what Daniel Bell terms the ‘adversary culture’ (which portrayed white Protestantism as stifling and boring) to produce the idea of white original sin.

This then stuck. Western elites pivoted swiftly from being unreflexively racist toward nonwhites to repressing majority ethnic identity as racist.

The sociologist Kai Erikson has pointed out that the definition of deviant and normal is rarely codified, but is established anarchically through precedent, as competing groups in society struggle to define the moral order. Moral panics ensue when those who represent dominant norms sense a threat and target supposed deviants. Accusers – be they the Inquisition, Jacobins, McCarthyites or the ‘politically-correct’ Left – are empowered. People fear to speak against witch hunters for fear of being labelled deviant (i.e. ‘bourgeois’ or ‘racist’). Meanwhile, those who are deemed deviant battle to re-define the normal.

Prior to the late 1990s, the racist taboo was not only applied to apply to hostility to minorities but to policies which could be construed as racist if one adopted the most malign interpretation. Hence, any criticism of multiculturalism, the value of increased diversity, or current immigration levels were labelled racist. In effect, liberalism ‘deviantised’ any opinion which differed from multiculturalism. This involved what psychologist Nick Haslam terms ‘concept creep’ to expand the meaning of racism, hoping to silence challenges to favoured policies.

Multiculturalism and high-immigration were never popular; they came to be accepted through elite institutionalisation rather than electoral politics. Meanwhile, some national courts interpreted non-specific international human rights precepts such as ‘non-discrimination’ to apply to immigration, removing cultural considerations from immigrant admissions and compelling western states to admit wider categories of refugees for settlement. Elite moral leadership has its place if it rests on sound liberal principles, such as gay rights or black civil rights, in which case people will often come to accept a new dispensation. But when the moral basis of elite policy innovation lies in myths of white exceptionalism or cosmopolitan liberalism, this is likely to end in anti-elite backlash.

The collapsing of the complexity of the real world into a simplistic binary of racism/openness is why western cultural elites are unable to defuse the cultural grievances driving populist right politics. The liberal sacred value of white exceptionalism also explains liberal intransigence in the face of populist claims. In order to fix the mess, we need to start seeing the world in shades of grey rather than black and white.

As immigration increased and ethnic change accelerated, populist concern was sidelined by the media in many western countries (the UK being an exception) and by mainstream politicians. They feared being decried as racist, creating a gap in the political market that populist right political entrepreneurs moved in to fill. The mainstream press and parties typically attacked the new parties as deviant, which helped forestall their appeal – for a time. Many people struggled to reconcile their dislike of rapid ethnic change with their adherence to the new antiracist ethic. This frowned on any expression of majority group interests. Yet disquiet metastasised, like kindling awaiting the arrival of a match.

Beginning with Jean-Marie Le Pen and Jorg Haider in the 90s, coming to include Pim Fortuyn in the early 2000s, and culminating with Ukip, Donald Trump, the Sweden Democrats and the AfD, populist innovators breached normative redoubts. Longstanding resentment at the elite-normative repression of anti-immigration politics burst into the open, acting as force multipliers for populism, especially in America.

Shifts in the moral order ensue when attempts by established societal forces to deviantise fail to register their desired effect. Once this occurs, norms rarely recover their power. Bernie Sanders, for instance, openly describes himself as a socialist, something that would have been unthinkable during the Cold War. His breaking of this taboo means it is unlikely to be easily reinstated.

These populists set a self-perpetuating cascade in motion as they crossed the threshold, allowing the system to tip. As centrist parties sought to win voters back from the insurgents, they first criticised multiculturalism as divisive, then began to compete on issues of immigration restriction and integration. The Overton Window of acceptable debate widened, and old taboos began to be washed away. In the process, things went too far, eroding important norms protecting Muslim religious liberty (France, Switzerland), independent judiciaries and a free press (Poland, Hungary) and respect for political opponents and minority groups (US under Trump).

As the taboos against opposing immigration and voting for populist right parties fell away, the normative restraints that dampened the populist right vote eased, smoothing the way for higher totals. The Front National’s ‘shock’ poll of 18 percent which brought over a million demonstrators onto the streets in 2002 was superseded by Marine Le Pen’s 34 percent in 2017. Jorg Haider’s 27 percent vote share in the Austrian election of 1999, which led to EU sanctions, was left in the dust by Norbert Hofer’s 49.7 percent performance in 2016.

We are currently living through a period of change in our moral order, with anti-racist norms in retreat from their late 1990s high-water mark across much of the West. This is creating a self-fulfilling dynamic whereby weaker anti-racism norms reduce resistance to populist right voting and issue positions. Yet attempts to reinstate old taboos only invigorate populism, as experimental research by Lucian Conway and Ashley Jardina on Trump’s appeal shows.

Contrast this with the period of anti-racist norm expansion between the early 1960s and late 1990s, an expansion which continued in liberal circles such as university humanities departments into the 2010s. I chart this rise in my book by tracking the increasing frequency of the term ‘racist’ (compared to the flatlining of the term ‘anti-Semitism’) in the West during this period on Google’s Ngram viewer and Google Trends.

The way forward is not to restore the ancient regime – which is what produced our current malaise – but to stake out a defensible core of anti-racist beliefs that applies equally across all groups, times and places. These can form the basis of a consistent, evidence-based norm on which those of all political stripes can agree.

We must accept that white majorities are a group like any other, whose conservative members have a non-racist cultural interest in slowing ethnic change and facilitating voluntary assimilation. Only then can a less fraught, more clear-eyed immigration debate can take place. When immigration rates are discussed as calmly as tax rates, people will accept they have been heard and that a compromise has been reached. Nationalist populism will slowly fade away.

Eric Kaufmann is the author of Whiteshift: Populism, Immigration and the Future of White Majorities.


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