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'Can a White Man Still Be Elected President?' How Identity Politics Are Creating Public Anxiety and Moral Panic

While identity is a crucial place to start in politics, it is a terrible place to finish. As a prism, it is both crucial and deeply flawed.

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Shortly after the far-right British National Party won two seats in the European elections in 2009, its leader, Nick Griffin, conceded there was a “huge amount of racism in this country,” before going on to explain that “overwhelmingly, it’s directed against the indigenous British majority [by which he means white people]. . . . It’s the indigenous majority who are the second-class citizens in every possible sphere, not as a consequence of themselves but because our ruling elite has made us second-class citizens.” The BNP’s magazine is called Identity.

Oftentimes the Right will appropriate the symbols of the Left, to hilarious effect. Back in 2003, Roy Moore, the former Republican chief justice of Alabama, led a failed bid to keep a monument to the Ten Commandments in his courthouse. “If the ‘rule of law’ means to do everything a judge tells you to do,” he said, “we would still have slavery in this country.” I remember standing in amazement on the steps of the courthouse watching people in T-shirts that proclaimed “Islam is a lie, homosexuality is a sin, abortion is murder,” as they sang the civil rights anthem “We Shall Overcome” and waved the Confederate flag – the emblem of the slave-holding South.

The absurdity is not the Right’s use of identity per se. There is nothing inherent in any identity, or the politics that emerge from it, that makes it necessarily either reactionary or progressive. The rights of white people, Christians or men are no less important than those of black people, Muslims or women. The issue is whether those who seek to rally those groups are campaigning for rights that should be exclusive or universal.

The only arena in which identity has been explicitly and consciously embraced in recent years has been marketing. At the Republican convention that nominated George Bush as its presidential candidate in 2000, the leadership felt the need to transform the party’s image, which many Americans regarded as backward-looking, narrow and elitist. To counter that impression, the three cochairs for the convention were an African-American, a Latino and a white single mother. The headline speaker on the first day was Colin Powell. The primetime news slot the next day went to Condoleezza Rice. On the opening night, the pledge of allegiance was delivered by a blind mountaineer while a black woman sang “The Star-Spangled Banner.” On one later night of the convention, the entertainment featured Harold Melvin (black) and Jon Secada (Cuban). The convention was closed by Chaka Khan.

But while the emphasis in presentation was on race and ethnicity, the message was not directed at minority voters (whom the Republican party would effectively disenfranchise in order eventually to “win” the election). “What the Republicans are doing is aimed more at white Americans,” said David Bositis, a political analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in Washington. “Moderates do not want someone who’s negative on race. It says something very significant about America as a whole.” Race had simply become a signifier of the Republican desire not to appear mean-spirited.

Similarly, in 2002, the British newspaper the Daily Mail printed a picture of a range of non-white Metropolitan police staff with a caption stating: “It is a picture that reflects changing times and attitudes within the police service . . . this exclusive picture of Yard employees shows forces are beginning to reflect the racial mix of the community they serve.” The reality couldn’t have been further from the truth. At the time, ethnic minorities made up 25 percent of the capital’s population but only 4.5 percent of Met staff. Just a month earlier, Sir John Stevens, the Metropolitan police commissioner, had conceded he might look abroad for black and Asian recruits because he could not attract them in the UK.

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