Is it wrong to take pride in being white? This is not meant as a trick question, but it might be a little tricky. Americans generally associate white pride with slavery, segregation, and skinheads. For most of us those are negative associations so, yes, we think it’s creepy to be proud that you’re white.
There’s a complication, though. If whites can’t take pride in our ethnicity, is it okay for blacks or Hispanics to have ethnic pride? Our society looks on that kind of boosterism with a much more tolerant eye. What’s the difference? Have we so succumbed to the siren song of privilege theory that white people are the only ones left who are not allowed to feel good about ourselves?
That Damned ‘Invisible Backpack’
As David Marcus explained in this insightful essay, privilege theory is indeed a real problem. It helped re-awaken tribal loyalties that would have been better left shifting in their shallow graves. Everyone is better off when whites don’t think too much about their whiteness. It should be normal without being normative, and regular without being right. It’s having a one-story house. It’s writing in black pen. It’s Times New Roman.
Liberals, sadly, were not prepared to let whiteness remain Times New Roman. They poked and they prodded, and eventually got the resentful backlash they were provoking. Privilege theory has done real damage, and white liberals should be assessing their mistakes. Nevertheless, it’s hard to believe that privilege theory is the only culprit.
When higher allegiances break down, lower ones become more prominent. Everyone wants to fit in somewhere, and that involves finding reasons to align yourself with this group of people, instead of that other one. Group allegiances are not necessarily an excuse for hatred or bigotry (although they can give rise to those evils). They’re about belonging somewhere, and having people you can turn to when the road gets rocky. People need that.
It’s no secret that Trumpism and the alt-right have found their strongest footholds in places where social and economic breakdown are the worst. Family structures break down, church communities dwindle, the economy sags, and ethno-nationalism becomes more appealing.
Proud to Be a (White) American?
Is Trumpism racist? It’s been a contentious question of late. While it’s perfectly evident that Trump does have racist supporters (which he is suspiciously reluctant to condemn), many contend that Trumpism is itself not racist, but merely a justified reaction to the Left’s racial patronage. All Trump’s supporters really want is a properly colorblind society.
It’s not a terribly convincing argument because, among other reasons, Trumpism so obviously represents a desperate cry for group recognition and a demand for group patronage. How has the market been good for us? Bring back our jobs. Even the “America first” motto is clearly focused on a particular vision of America that only a minority of its citizens seem to share.
We may be reaching the point where we need to define more carefully what “racism” really means. To that end, the rhetoric of the alt-right may perhaps be worth examining as an indicator of what some of our “white boosters” are thinking nowadays. There’s admittedly some distance between ordinary Trump supporters and alt-right quasi-intellectuals, but the latter have clearly attracted a non-trivial following in the Trump camp. Alt-rightism shouldn’t be lazily dismissed as a totally detached, insane fringe. It has hit a chord with many ordinary Americans, thriving on the mainstream’s predictable preference for shunning its arguments instead of answering them.
Many alt-right thinkers are willing to argue openly that race matters, that genetics play a non-trivial role in the progression of cultures, and that race is naturally a deep component of personal identity. These arguments can get a lot of oxygen in a world already obsessed with race. Liberals have had their identity politics parties and now alt-righters want theirs, which they expect will be truly amazing because they are in possession of western culture, the best cultural heritage there is.
Conquering Western Civilization
Hear them roar! Alt-righters love to talk about how smart and strong and savvy they are. (Fun game: count the number of times this article brags about those smarty-pants alt-righters and their incredible intellectual heft.) They usually get away with it because they surround themselves with amateurs, who are unprepared for their juvenile jibes. After Steve King’s offensive implication that white people own Western civilization, Chris Hayes predictably responded with an idiotic remark about Western civilization giving us Hitler.
Try again, Hayes. Don’t validate the white supremacist’s claim to own Homer, Aristotle, Cicero, Augustine, Boetheus, Bonaventure, Michaelangelo, Shakespeare, Milton, Da Vinci, Tolstoy, Columbus, Newton, our Founding Fathers and alright, yes, possibly Hitler. Instead, ask him to justify his emphasis on whiteness as a cornerstone of western thought.
Undoubtedly, white men feature prominently among the heroes and visionaries of the West, and it’s reasonable to conclude on those grounds that white men can’t just be natural degenerates, as some liberals seem to suppose. Still, the greatness of the Western tradition doesn’t lie in its whiteness and maleness. It lies in its breadth, adaptability, and universality.
Terence, great playwright of the Roman Republic, told us “I am a man; nothing human is alien from me.” St. Paul told us that in Christ, “There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither bond nor free; there is neither male nor female.” The great thinkers of the high Middle Ages were intensely focused on the human condition, not the Italian or French or male condition. No student of the Western canon ever pauses in the middle of “City of God” to ask, “Wasn’t St. Monica born in Northern Africa? Why are we reading this Augustine clown?”
In short, the Western ethos at its best is profoundly un-tribal. To claim this rich tradition specifically for whites, therefore, is to muddy it and betray its core tenets. American whites can absolutely take pride in their Western heritage. They came from the old world and settled this immense, wild place, extending the great traditions of their forefathers to a whole new land. But if we’re going to take pride in our Western heritage, we should understand that legacy calls for transcending xenophobic ethno-nationalism. We shouldn’t need that, and we have something much better.
The downside of the glorious Western tradition, though, is that its perversion can be ugly, raising dreams of totalitarian domination. (Now a Hitler reference would be acceptable.) Especially here in America, a young nation founded by old-world immigrants with classically liberal commitments, there just isn’t a healthy or grounded way to take pride in whiteness per se.
Slouching Towards Bethlehem
Let’s return to the title question. Why is white pride creepy when black pride isn’t? Shouldn’t we have to choose between a universal ethic of colorblindness, and one that endorses ethnic tribalism at least to some degree?
It turns out that white pride really is categorically different. To understand why, though, we have to think carefully about traditions and their role in lives and cultures. Melanin levels are not in themselves a significant indicator of human character or worth, and whites are not morally inferior (or superior) to any other ethnic group. Nevertheless, cultures do matter, and it could be that “white culture” just isn’t a healthy or organic phenomenon in the way that black culture is or at least can be.
Ethnic pride really isn’t a necessary feature of a healthy psychology, but it can be acceptable when attached to a meaningful tradition that also imposes expectations and requirements. Most of us have probably known kids from Asian backgrounds whose elders are constantly reminding them that their behavior and work ethic will reflect back on their family and clan. That ethos definitely seems to contain an element of ethnic pride. However, it’s incorporated into a tradition and community ethos in such a way as to be a mostly positive influence.
Black pride is connected to a minority subculture that developed in response to intense historical oppression. For most of American history, the non-integration of blacks into mainstream culture was imposed from the outside, so taking offense over the existence of a distinct black subculture would hardly be reasonable. (Of course it doesn’t follow that this culture should be impervious to critique.) It’s an authentic tradition that incorporated an ethnic element for extremely understandable historical reasons. Something similar could be said of most Native American traditions.
Blacks and Native Americans, as the most obviously oppressed ethnic groups in our nation’s history, have also been the most averse to mainstream integration. Other ethnic groups tend to be absorbed more organically into mainstream American culture with the second, third, and fourth generations. They may retain a certain cultural distinctiveness in their names, diets, or cultural festivals, but insofar as they do stand apart, these groups generally adhere to traditions that are substantive enough to keep megalomaniacal urges in check. Ethnic pride isn’t just an entitlement; it’s also an expectation.
Will the Real Cuckservatives Please Stand Up?
White pride really doesn’t have an honorable tradition to call its own. Its claims on Western culture are tenuous, and none of the other reference points (segregation and skinheads) are particularly admirable. So it really does seem reasonable to say that whiteness, although in no way shameful, is not per se a healthy source of pride.
Viewing the matter in this light, it’s somewhat unsurprising that our alt-right partisans actually seem to pride themselves on being brainy rebels and devil-may-care pranksters. They’re not traditionalists in any normal sense, because they stand outside the circle of ordinary civil discourse, and even take joy in the fact. They’re what happens when traditionalism meets expressive individualism, in a world with too many resentful loners and not enough churches. They brilliantly combine the worst of cosmopolitanism (its rootlessness) with the worst of provincialism (its narrow-minded tribalism).
Just as much as the progressives they loathe, alt-righters are the bad fruit of a collapsing culture, taking pride in whiteness because they’re too alienated from more-substantive cultural institutions (family, church, community) to find a more fitting link to their Western forbears. Will the real cuckservatives please stand up? I don’t think it’s the Paul Ryans of the world who are disgracing the legacy of the West.
As every literate conservative has now realized, the collapse of Middle America is one of the great challenges that faces our society in the present moment. We need to rebuild our families and our cultural institutions so people of all backgrounds can find meaningful community and personal identity. White pride is a bad starting point, however. Let’s not sell our Western heritage for a mess of identity-politics pottage.