Certain white people like to bitch about identity politics. There are elements of this argument that I understand, and partially agree with. But if we’re going to discard identity politics white people should go first.
Last weekend I saw “I am Not Your Negro” a documentary film based on the words of James Baldwin. You should go see it. It helped me formulate some ideas I’ve been mulling over since listening to the soundtrack to the Hamilton musical. If you voted for Clinton, the chances are higher you know all about Hamilton. If you voted for Trump you may have no idea what I’m talking about it. The video does a fairly good job of explaining the phenomenon.
What follows is another white guy pontificating on race relations. Feel free to avoid it.
I believe that the United States could have a post-racial future. As James Baldwin says in the video above, we can forge a new identity on this continent. Many would argue that we already have. Most of my college professors held that the concept of “Whiteness” as currently practiced in this country is a wholly American invention. This was always served with heaping mouthfuls of Marxist interpretations of labor relations, so I’m not sure I’m completely on board. But I’ll eagerly concede that “White” and “Black” are slippery definitions. Italians weren’t necessarily seen as white 100 years ago, and the Irish weren’t 50 years before that.
Some would argue that the definition of “Whiteness” requires an “Other” to use as contrast. In this view the Italians and Irish assimilation to US whiteness relied upon the out group of African Americans to look down on. I’m not sure I buy that. But I’m happy to retire the concept of whiteness entirely. If the 20th century was the story of the color line, why not let the 21st century be the story of its disposal?
Accession to white privilege used to be the sign of successful assimilation. We can do better. Here’s a standard white privilege line: “What’s with all the hyphenations!? Why can’t we just be Americans!?” I’m actually kind of sympathetic to that, not that it’s my business how folks define themselves. Most people pushing that line, however, would probably take issue with the video above. In particular the fact that the only white guys in Star Wars movies seem to be the bad guys nowadays has been a real sticking point for a lot of white people. There seems to be a growing movement for “White Rights”.
Leaving aside about a million other objections to that idea, it strikes me as the wrong strategy. If you’ve got a problem with “identity politics”, jumping on the bandwagon is exactly the wrong way to go about opposing it. If you’re interested in a color-blind “American” identity, then you should be celebrating the de-whiting of our national mythology. An “American” identity should be built on our civic culture and history. To do that well, we need to make that culture and history as accessible as possible.
US history has never just been about folks from Europe. Paler folks were in the drivers seat for a lot of it. But people of color were making contributions every step of the way, and not just involuntarily. We need to do a better job of highlighting that fact. “Hidden Figures” my pick for the year’s best film, does an excellent job of just that. It surfaces the true story of African American women who contributed to the engineering of the space race. It’s also a lot of fun. These uses of history are to be applauded, and we need more of them.
I take history very seriously, I’m a big fan of Western Civilization and I’m also a committed Anglophile. The details of the ideas and culture that shaped the Founding Fathers are incredibly important. We should never lose sight of those things. But it’s also important to recognize that our sense of the American Founding isn’t completely accurate at the expert level either. 150-odd years of US friendship with the UK has probably over-emphasized the example of the British system in our study of law and government. Examples like Switzerland and an array of Southern European republics were more important to the Founders than is currently recognized. It doesn’t make sense to be sticklers for a particular expert vision of the Founding Fathers, because it’s not “perfect” either. History is always incomplete.
History nerds like me will always be playing in this toolbox, and that’s great. But US history isn’t just history. It’s also myth, renewed and changed with every generation. On the popular level, things like “European Heritage” and “Judeo-Christian Tradition” are over-emphasized. Lincoln saw these United States as the “last, best hope of Earth”, not the last best hope of white Christian dudes.
Look at that picture of “Black Thomas Jefferson” above. How cool would it be if 100 years from now, the main thing people saw as weird about the depiction was the fact that his clothes look odd? Perhaps that oddness would prompt a future student to look further into the details of the Founding Fathers. Depictions of the Founding Fathers that “look more like America” could lead to a broader class of US history nerds. And what could be better than that?
Oh, one last show note. If I remember my history (and my Hamilton) correctly, Thomas Jefferson was out of the country during the writing of Constitution. That could be construed as an error in the video. Sorry. If you caught and were annoyed by that, I love you, and am grateful you’re watching my stuff.
Video Transcript after the jump…