White Noise

By Paul DelanyMarch 24, 2019

White Noise

Whiteshift by Eric Kaufmann

DONALD TRUMP LAUNCHED his presidential campaign with an attack on Mexican undocumented immigrants and a promise to “build a great wall” to keep them out. The wall is not yet there, but immigration is still Trump’s signature issue, and the keystone of his revival of “white identity politics.” In Whiteshift, Eric Kaufmann will surely be attacked for legitimizing such politics, even though his book is 600 pages of saying, in many different ways, that matters are more complicated than they seem.

This starts with Kaufmann’s own racial ancestry of white, Hispanic, Chinese, and Jewish. He grew up in Vancouver, lived in Japan for eight years, and now teaches at the University of London. Here he is at his most provocative:

For me, the more useful question isn’t why Trump voters voted for him, but, rather, why they wouldn’t. It seems self-evident that minorities would generally vote for the party that goes out of its way to consider — and protect — the rights of minorities … Why would whites, or at least a large percentage of them, act any differently?

This is what he calls “the Shadi Hamid question,” after a Muslim political scientist, born in the United States to Egyptian immigrant parents. One of Hamid’s beliefs is that religion is going to be a persistent force in human affairs, and not just in the Middle East. Enlightenment secularism, he argues, is not the inevitable next stage of history. Another of his beliefs, taken seriously by Kaufmann, is that “we are naturally — even biologically — tribal […] [n]one of us are exempt from the tribal instinct, and none of us necessarily should be.”

Until recently, most respectable opinion would dismiss Hamid’s views. Religion must, in the long run, give way to reason; tribalism is irrelevant since the disappearance of hunter-gatherer societies; white self-assertion is intrinsically racist. Racism has been defined as “prejudice combined with power.” Marginalized groups can legitimately call out the center that oppresses them, while the center must acknowledge its guilt for enjoying “white privilege.”

But now, all over the West, populists and ethnic nationalists are shouting out their own answer to the Hamid question. They are making the rules symmetrical, saying: “If you have an identity that you value, then so do we.” Kaufmann tells us in great detail how many people are saying this, what sort of people they are, and how they justify their views. Having made his inquiry, he concedes that these people have a point. It can no longer be taken for granted, he says, that “no group should have a self-interest unless it is a minority […] not only is white group self-interest legitimate, but I maintain that in an era of unprecedented white demographic decline it is absolutely vital for it to have a democratic outlet.” Kaufmann’s explosive claim is that it is not enough to blame a resurgent racism for today’s populist revolts. Yet after this latest massacre in New Zealand, is it even possible to dissociate white nationalism from its murderous fringe?

More banal explanations should be considered. As we discussed Catalan separatism over the dinner table, my daughter said: “Well, I suppose that in order for there to be an us, there must be a them.” Indeed. Ethnic groups create their identity through “boundary markers,” in Kaufmann’s terms: some combination of race, language, or religion. South African Boers, for example, defined themselves by all three. To this we can add nativism: the privileged status claimed by an in-group of settled individuals, who react against those who have arrived more recently, and who may bring with them alien cultural practices.

Nativism can rest on relatively minor differences between people, as we see with Brexit. About a million and a half Eastern Europeans — two percent of the UK population — have come to Britain seeking work since 2004, when their countries were admitted to the EU. Most of them are white, Christian, and functional in English. Yet their presence has stirred up what Kaufmann calls “ethno-traditionalist nationalism,” a feeling that old-established cultural habits are under threat. Kaufmann is convinced that populism, whether in the United Kingdom or elsewhere, stems from cultural rather than economic resentment. The migrants have come because the UK economy has been growing, and is relatively more open than in other Western European countries.

Kaufmann argues that opinion polls and voting patterns confirm that culture has replaced economics as the determinant of political allegiances. Support for Trump correlates closely with level of education, rather than with income or geography or economic hardship. White males with no college voted for Trump at the same rate, regardless of whether they were in Appalachia or in a coastal metropolis. In turn, education determines where people place themselves on the authoritarian/liberal spectrum or, in David Goodhart’s terms, whether they are “somewheres” or “anywheres.” Trump voters oppose themselves to immigration flows, and to globalizing elites. Japan and Korea, Kaufmann says, are societies of “closed ethnic nationalism.” They may have economic divisions, but they have no immigration, and therefore no right-wing populism.

Much of Kaufmann’s argument rests on the assumption that one can get a transparent view of people’s motives by seeing how they respond to opinion polls. But polls may not reveal how people experience their economic troubles, but rather who they blame them on. In 1932, unemployment in Germany was at 30 percent — and we know who got the blame. Unemployment was a necessary condition for Hitler’s rise, if not a sufficient one. Kaufmann’s book could use a deeper analysis of scapegoating as a factor in current politics, helped by leverage from new media that peddle paranoia and conspiracy theories.

Old media have also played a bigger role than is recognized in Whiteshift. Without Rupert Murdoch’s UK newspapers — the Sun and The Times — plus the Daily Mail, the Brexit vote surely would have fallen short of 50 percent. US politics would not be the same if there were no Fox News network, while Canada is different partly because it has no ethno-nationalist mass media. Because foreigners are effectively banned from control of newspapers and TV stations, Canada is a Murdoch-free zone. Even in the UK case, though, one can debate about the direction of the causative arrow: did the Daily Mail cause Brexit, or were its readers already committed to leaving the EU, and just liked to read stories that hardened their views?

Kaufmann invites more controversy by identifying a “Left-Modernist” strategy of “repression.” This ensures that any statement of ethno-nationalist sentiments, no matter how mild, will be fiercely attacked as racist and therefore something that never should be said. If so, one can only observe that “you can’t say that” no longer applies in the US public sphere. They are saying it, and up to 40 percent of voters are listening. Kaufmann himself is saying it, even if he’s doing so in the technical language of social science. Still, he considers himself to be closer to Left-Modernism than populism, and can try to deflect criticism by pointing to his own mixed heritage.


The second part of Whiteshift comes with a twist. White nationalism will not become dominant in the United States, Kaufmann says; but neither will the country fragment into ever-smaller multicultural tribes. White majorities still have great magnetic power: newcomers are drawn to the center, rather than remaining on the margins. In a metaphorical sense, they “choose whiteness.” Margarita Cansino and Issur Demsky accepted that they could not be Hollywood stars until they became Rita Hayworth and Kirk Douglas. I grew up as an English boy because my ancestors, in 19th-century London, stopped being Irish, Belgian, and Spanish. All that remained was that when I went with my Catholic schoolmates to Rugby internationals at Twickenham, we all cheered for Ireland.

Kaufmann redefines whiteness as a Western cultural norm, rather than a racial categorization. In the 19th century, Irish, Jews, and Italians were said to be different from the Anglo-Saxon “race.” Now they are all white. Fifty percent of Latinos in the United States identify as “white,” and the percentage will surely rise. Most immigrants to the United States have already crossed the ethnic boundary marker of language, and some proceed to cross the religious one — for example, Asians who join a Christian church after they arrive. Becoming a baseball fan, or holding a barbecue on the Fourth of July doesn’t change your color, but does signify that you want to do what the majority does. Perhaps one could say the same about the 28 percent of Latinos who voted for Trump: whiteness and Republicanism will overlap in a Venn diagram. Some immigrants become super-patriots, thanking God that they have become part of the greatest country on earth. Democrats cannot be sure that support from minorities is going to give them a permanent hegemony in US politics.

One may still argue that in the West the palefaces are in retreat, at least demographically, as immigrants flood in and the melting-pot keeps doing its work. Ninety years from now, on present trends, “unmixed whites” will be only 20 percent of the Canadian population. People with mixed heritage, like Kaufmann, will be the rule, not the exception. But he is already seen as “white,” Kaufmann says, because the Chinese quarter of his identity is only noticed when he draws attention to it.

We cannot be certain, though, that traditional whiteness will remain dominant by co-opting minorities into its way of life. In North America alone, we now have three different political orthodoxies: multiculturalism in Canada, mestization in Mexico, and ethnic nationalism in the United States.

Canada has high levels of immigration — approaching one percent of the population per year — with selection by skills, language, and employability. Illegal immigration is negligibly small. Most immigrants are visible minorities: 57 percent come from Asia, and three of the four top supplying countries are the Philippines, China, and India. Once arrived, there is no affirmative action for minorities, except for indigenous people, who get free college tuition. Admission to college depends mainly on high school grades. In British Columbia, around 50 percent of undergraduates are Asian-Canadian.

Why has there been little protest against immigration in Canada, even though levels have been at least twice as high as in the United States or United Kingdom? Largely, perhaps, because entry has been orderly, legal, and selective. Many immigrants in cities like Vancouver and Toronto vote for conservative parties and, reciprocally, politicians compete for immigrant electoral support. Nativists may grumble about this state of affairs, but neither the media nor politicians do much to amplify their discontent. Québec selects its own immigrants and favors proficiency in French, so that many immigrants come from the Maghreb, West Africa, or the Caribbean.

Mexico’s point of reference has been José Vasconcelos’s idea of “The Cosmic Race.” This was to be a fusion of Europeans, Africans, and indigenous people. The hybrid race would be greater than its component parts, and would found a new civilization: Universópolis. In the century since Vasconcelos wrote, his dream has been realized, at least to the degree that the normative Mexican identity is the mestizo, a blend of the European and the indigenous. Less than 15 percent of the population are now of unmixed indigenous descent. The African slaves who came to Mexico before 1800 have virtually disappeared as a visible minority, and only about one percent of the population still speaks an indigenous language.

Mexico has approached a limit case of what Kaufmann calls métissage, the consolidation of distinct identities into a new national standard. In practice, a Mexican’s status may be affected by whether they have lighter or darker skin, or “Spanish” features. Still, racial stratification as it exists in the United States, or even Brazil, is much less marked in Mexico. Recently, some Mexican intellectuals have criticized the mestizo orthodoxy as a false universalism that suppresses historic identities.

So where is the United States going? It is in some ways more multicultural than Canada, at least in the sense that ethnic identities are constantly in the spotlight, as battle rages between the MAGA people and the PC people. It is hard to imagine how ever-fiercer polarization might yield to “whiteshift,” in Kaufmann’s sense of the integration of immigrants into a nominally white cultural norm. If that does happen, it must extend over successive generations. Meanwhile the “one drop rule,” established in the South as a barrier against interracial marriage, has been revived in a contradictory form, as a positive marker of identity. Barack Obama grew up in the United States’s only culture of métissage — Hawaii — but chose, as an adult, to affirm an unquestioned black identity. Elizabeth Warren has repeated the process, though this time as farce.

Still, the emergence of a significant mixed-race group is evident, and may in time lead to a shift in US practices of racial classification. Tiger Woods has called himself “Cablinasian” (for Caucasian-Black-Indian-Asian), and has said that he wants all elements of his heritage to be recognized. Tulsi Gabbard and Kamala Harris are in the running for the Democratic presidential nomination; Naomi Osaka is ranked number one in tennis. One could add a long list of racially mixed achievers from every field. If everyone may now claim the right to choose their own identity, some might want to tick the box called “mixed race.” There is no such choice in the United States census yet; instead, the closest you can come is to check more than one box under “race.” Perhaps “transrace” is the word we are looking for?

Kaufmann notes that some ethnic groups have both high fertility and opposition to out-marriage. Amish and Mormons in the United States fall into this category, as do ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel (who now represent at least one-third of children entering first grade there). But ethnically closed countries like South Korea and Japan tend to have low fertility and face long-term population decline. In the United States, population growth depends heavily on porous borders.

Can we assume that the identity wars will grind on in the United States; that cultural grievances will count for more than economic ones; and that the political system will continue to polarize around a majority/minority and closed/open dialectic? Kaufmann proposes that “whiteshift” will help the survival of a majoritarian cultural norm, even if many “whites” — even a majority of them — will be mixed-race. Would it still make sense, then, to speak of “white power”? Perhaps Pareto would be a better guide, with his claim that all societies will be dominated by an elite, though different groups may circulate into or out of it. Hostility to whites could be replaced by hostility to elites. Is that already happening?

Kaufmann’s remedy for present troubles begins with a call for a reasoned debate about immigration levels, even if the outcome may well be that numbers will be reduced. There is ample research showing that hostility to newcomers will moderate in time. In Britain, people may complain loudly about the Polish plumber, while accepting the Afro-Caribbean bus driver as “one of us.” Recognize that Western societies have a limited absorptive capacity for immigrants, Kaufmann says, and adjust numbers accordingly. Strive for positive-sum relations between groups, instead of current chronic struggles to gain the upper hand. Our reward could be a “more relaxed,” “harmonious,” and “trusting” society. To complaints that his views are implicitly racist, Kaufmann suggests that if you listen respectfully to the proponents of white self-assertion, and make some adjustments to immigration policy, they might respond with a more generous and inclusive approach to US politics. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem that either Trump or his enemies are interested in playing the game in that style. Kaufmann has done a service in assembling the facts about present inter-ethnic relations in the West. But I fear that his ideas about “what is to be done?” may end up being filed under “wishful thinking.”


Paul Delany, emeritus professor at Simon Fraser University, has written previously for LARB about George Eliot and Svetlana Alexievich.

LARB Contributor

Paul Delany taught at Columbia in the ’60s, then from 1970 at Simon Fraser in Vancouver. Recent books include Literature, Money and the Market from Trollope to Amis (Palgrave, 2002) and three biographies: Bill Brandt (Jonathan Cape, 2004), George Gissing (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2008), and Fatal Glamour: The Life of Rupert Brooke (McGillQueens, 2015).


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