America’s growing fixation on race

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Martin Luther King famously yearned for the day when Americans would be judged not by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character. He would be unimpressed by US progress towards that goal. Ideologically, conservatives and liberals live in different worlds. Both, however, increasingly view it through the lens of group identity.

By that measure, liberals should be happy with Joe Biden’s cabinet, which is 55 per cent non-white — considerably higher than the non-white share of the US population. Alas, there is no such thing as victory in the politics of job distribution. This week, the nation’s two Asian-American senators, Tammy Duckworth and Mazie Hirono, threatened to block further appointees unless Biden upped the share of Asian-Americans in his cabinet.

They later dropped their vow to block all “non-diversity nominees” following a White House damage limitation operation. But their point was made. In a 50:50 Senate, either one had the power to hold up legislation, including bills meant to benefit Americans of all races. The move came just a few days after a 21-year-old gunman killed eight people in Atlanta, six of them Asian. 

The shooter’s motives remain unclear, although the story relayed by the police was of a self-tormented Christian driven by sexual frustration. Many have presented the slaughter as an anti-Asian hate crime. In a separate killing of 10 people in Boulder, Colorado, initial reports had suggested that the perpetrator was also white. “It’s always an angry white man, always,” said the race and inclusion editor at a major US newspaper in a tweet. The tweet was later deleted when it turned out the suspect, also 21, was in fact a Syria-born Muslim.

At that point, Fox News and other conservative news outlets took interest in a massacre that could be construed as a terrorist attack, although there was no basis to that either. In both cases, Americans were invited to filter the killings through the culprit’s demography. 

The danger is that US politics will deteriorate into a series of feuds, in which ancestral crimes can never be atoned. Where the grievance is a political currency, the incentive to present your group as victims is overwhelming. In some cases, such as Americans descended from slaves or native Americans, the crimes against them were vast and their legacy endures. Other identity groupings, including Asian-Americans and Hispanics, are too broad to be as meaningful. 

Asia accounts for 60 per cent of the world’s population from Hindu-majority India to Shinto Japan, and has every religion and skin tone in between. Only in the west does the category “Asian” — which brackets together the children of Catholic Vietnamese boat people with Brahmin venture capitalists from Bangalore — make sense. As for Hispanics, the children of Cuban exiles born in the US have little except language and religion in common with undocumented fruit pickers from Guatemala. 

America’s most potent ethnic group, meanwhile, remains whites, whose supposed grievances are increasingly the glue that keeps the Republican party together. Since they still make up a majority, Republicans have an interest in inventing resentments. Democrats, meanwhile, rightly condemn the Republican party’s increasingly overt racial incitements. Most of the leading Republican populists, such as Ted Cruz of Texas, Tom Cotton of Arkansas, Josh Hawley of Missouri and Ron DeSantis of Florida are Ivy League graduates. The same educational background applies to much of the Fortune 500-led diversity industry, whose focus on the optics of senior appointments is matched only by uninterest in how much their janitors are paid. 

All of which is a million miles from King’s “content of their character”. It is possible that decades from now, Americans will look back on today as a period of acute social paranoia before the US finally embraced a calmer politics within its multi-ethnic reality. That outcome is by no means a given. Barack Obama’s election was greeted as a turning point in US racial history. Yet Obama was never allowed to forget the colour of his skin.

At the same time, the US left needs to recognise that whites will be the majority for decades to come — not least as many Hispanics define themselves as white. No side ever wins in an endless feud. The only beneficiaries are the elites directing events, far away from most people’s reality.

edward.luce@ft.com



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