Why Are There So Many White Progressives?

White Progressives
Photo credit: (Yuri Gripas/REUTERS)

Remember the good old days when to be disparaged as “white” meant you couldn’t dance or jump? “White” has evolved as a pejorative: it used to mean a person was lame and uncool but common usage in the context of political ideology it means to embody privileged, segregationist, supremacist, etc. policies.

“Identity politics” has also evolved. It used to be individuals who share immutable characteristics (marginalized due to the demographic(s) birth consigned them to) banding together to fight existing (and to reconcile historical) injustices. Now, identity politics is about immutable characteristics dictating an individual’s political ideology.

Progressives believe to be white is to be privileged, inherently racist and to support policies that marginalize other groups. So, if embodying evil is so inescapable, then why are there so many white progressives? In their telling, to be white is to be on the Right, and to be on the Right means you’re not on the side of the angels, but the devils. If it is wrong for a Black person to be conservative, it should also be wrong for a white person to be progressive. If white progressives really believed in racial essentialism, they’d all join the Republican Party!

How do you shed yourself of villainy when that villainy is created by immutable characteristics and inescapable? Rachel Dolezal is an extreme example, but it shows the lengths a person can travel to uphold the belief that some demographics are righteous, and some are wicked.

Are white progressives “good whites?” Part of essentialism is that it can legitimize existing social hierarchies. Progressives have positioned themselves as the arbiters of what is acceptable to say, think and do, and by virtue of their belief in anti-racism and employment of racial essentialism, they believe that white people are inherently superior to other races and cultures.

That is an admittedly glib take, but how sincerely can we take progressives that engage in glib rhetoric?

During the 2020 election, President Joe Biden had to apologize for saying that Black voters who couldn’t choose between him and President Donald Trump “ain’t Black,” but that hasn’t deterred many other progressives from implying the same thing. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has been the subject of these kinds of attacks on his character for years, the most recent one being in a Washington Post article which claimed Thomas was a “Black justice whose rulings often resemble the thinking of White conservatives.” The Post later issued a clarification due to the outrage at the slander that Thomas’ judicial philosophy is rooted in racial betrayal and/or servile obedience to white people and “whiteness.”

According to the rhetoric of progressives, Thomas has not lived the authentic life of a Black man. This is of course absurd. Thomas’ character was forged in the fire of Jim Crow. Thomas’ commitment to Constitutional Originalism is the result of studying law with a free and brilliant mind, not due to skin color. It is absurd to believe that the amount of melanin in a person’s skin is the driving force behind a person’s interpretation of colorblind rights such as freedom of speech and rights to privacy and to not self-incriminate.

Today’s typical progressive leans hard into anti-racism, so it is baffling when they also invoke racial essentialism. “The (Biological or Cultural) Essence of Essentialism: Implications for Policy Support among Dominant and Subordinated Groups” from the website Frontiers In Psychology states:

The literature commonly defines racial essentialism as a belief in a genetic or biological essence that defines all members of a racial category. Researchers have identified biological basis as one of the dimensions of essentialism. However, the imagined essence of a racial group need not be biological; people also define racial groups in terms of particular cultural characteristics, or conflate race and culture…Applied to racial identity, cultural essentialism is the belief that racial categories are associated with distinct, fixed, and stable cultural patterns (e.g., values, beliefs, practices, and lifestyles); these fixed cultural patterns definitively and permanently shape the psychological characteristics of individuals within a racial group, and differentiate them from members of other racial groups. Cultural and biological forms of racial essentialism share the idea that differences between racial groups are determined by a fixed and uniform essence that resides within and defines all members of each racial group…

Research suggests that people from subordinated categories may often resist essentialist understandings; for example, when they aim to overcome discrimination by challenging constructions of an identity category as a homogeneous entity. This resistance may be particularly true of biological essentialism of race. Historically, people have developed and deployed arguments about genetic differences between racial groups to argue that certain groups of people are naturally inferior in ability, fitness, or intelligence compared to dominant groups, thereby legitimizing forms of racial oppression such as colonialism, slavery, and segregation. Given the historical role of beliefs in biologically determined racial differences in justifying racial oppression, endorsement of these beliefs is likely to be incompatible with support for social justice policies, especially those designed to address racial inequality by providing academic and occupational opportunities to people from marginalized communities (e.g., various forms of affirmative action). Endorsement of biological essentialism is likely to be weaker among people from subordinated than dominant identity categories, given the implications of such beliefs for the assumed inferiority of subordinated groups…

Unlike biological essentialism, beliefs in cultural essentialism may have more divergent implications for endorsement of social justice policy. Similar to the case of biological essentialism, among people from dominant categories, endorsement of cultural essentialism may imply a belief that racial inequality reflects the essential superiority of their own cultural practices and essential inferiority of other practices.”

Contemporary progressives employing racial essentialism to conflate race with ideology is the height of irony since individuals from subordinated groups were compelled by essentialism to fight for parity with dominant groups in the first place, and some progressives are so monomaniacal about creating demographic equity that they do not hesitate to expel individuals from traditionally marginalized demographics who are not in ideological lockstep.

Progressives denigrating Black conservatives as “white” are just as cringey as white conservatives holding Thomas, Senator Tim Scott, Thomas Sowell, Dr. Ben Carson, Condoleezza Rice, and the late Herman Cain and General Colin Powell in extra high esteem. Those public figures’ skin color should not add any points to their conservative grade curve. Progressives that employ “white” in a derogatory manner (and they certainly never use it as a compliment) are just as corrosive as anyone on the Right that uses “white” to denote superiority.

An individual owes no fealty to his demographic membership in deciding how or what he or she believes, and physical characteristics do not pre-determine what an individual believes and values.

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Dillon Eliassen is a former Managing Editor of Being Libertarian. Dillon works in the sales department of a privately owned small company. He holds a BA in Journalism & Creative Writing from Lyndon State College. He is the author of The Apathetic, available at Amazon.com. He is a self-described Thoreauvian Minarchist.