This video by Vice about the creation of a white student union at a small university in the suburbs of Baltimore sheds an interesting light on the state of contemporary political discourse. To many on the left, this guy seems outrageous; misinformed at best, racist at worst. He sees a symmetry between the predicaments of black and white students, which seems to ignore the reality of a white-dominated system that continues to exist. He advocates for a self-consciously white, European identity that bears eerie resonance with colonial notions of European superiority.
But to understand this guy by analogy to white advocacy groups of the 1950s or 1850s is, it seems to me, to fundamentally misunderstand what is going on here. When you listen to him talk, it is clear that he lives thoroughly within the post-1960s world of identity politics. The language in which he makes his claims about European or white identity is very clearly a language that acknowledges the existence and legitimacy of other cultures and peoples.
In a sense, he is re-producing a tension that has always been present in “identity-based” political movements from feminism to civil rights to aboriginal advocacy. These groups advance two sorts of claims. On the one hand, there are the minimalist, “negative” claims: stop oppressing us. Treat us like everyone else. End these forms of discrimination. At this level, this guy’s claims fall somewhat flat. This comes out about eighteen minutes in to the video, when Matt claims that white people are not politically organized and his black interlocutor responds that they have the US Senate. The notion that white people are excluded from the corridors of political power in today’s society is nonsense (although there are, of course, tales of exclusion at the hands of affirmative action policies, etc).
But these claims to equality are not the only sort of claims that identity-based political groups make. They also make positive claims – that their identity is unique and worthy of celebration. That there is something not neutral but good about being gay or Hispanic or black.
Within the context of something like the civil rights movement, these two claims get muddled together, and it’s hard to say where the former ends and the latter begins. But they are distinct, and as the most obvious forms of systematic oppression are pushed back, the latter becomes and increasingly obvious and important element.
The White Student Union in this video should be understood as responding to this second set of claims. It’s in this sense that the absence of an “NAACP for white people” is a sign that Europeans “have not been organizing to advocate for their best interests”. Congress and the Senate may be full of white people, but they are ostensibly neutral bodies. More or less effectively, they represent all citizens, and not simply European citizens.
‘Shorty,’ the black community member who argues with Matt, suggests that the political institutions of America – the constitution, congress, and the senate – do not represent the interests of black people. For him, this is because they are essentially white European institutions.
What he misses is that Matt, and others like him, also feel alienated from these institutions. One of the consequences of the culture wars in America has been a growing sense that the traditional aspects of White-European culture – particularly adherence to a distinctively “Christian” way of life – are under attack. This is usually construed as a conflict between “progressives” and “conservatives,” but it could equally be construed as a conflict between, say, “modernity” and “traditional ways of life”. Framed in this way, it starts to become clear why Matt Heimbach would feel that white people need to organize to represent their own way of life. They aren’t oppressed, per se, but they are alienated and under-represented by their society. They don’t need a civil rights movements – but they might just need a student union.
So that’s what I think is going on here. This isn’t a story about racism resurgent, this is a story about the complexities of placing identity politics front and center in political discourse. I don’t have my thoughts about all of that sorted out yet, so I’m going to save it for a follow up post. But as a concluding point, I’d like to say that I used to joke about this. In elementary school, I thought it was funny to suggest that we needed a “straight white protestant male pride day”. We were oppressed, because we didn’t have a pride day. It was a joke – even then I understood that not having a pride day wasn’t, you know, oppression. But I think the story illustrates just how much that form of politics was in the air for our generation. It’s hardly surprising that someone who does feel genuinely alienated from his society would turn to that language of community solidarity.
(Just to be clear, and ‘spoil’ my follow up post, I’m not particularly sympathetic to this guy’s project, nor his read on contemporary American society. I just think that if you have some basic commitment to the ideals of group solidarity and the politics of recognition, as many on the left (including most people who would strongly object to this video) do, then this is a very interesting case study)