hen I heard the words “you are white,” it startled me. I had heard far worse in my life, including racial epithets, but none with quite the sting carried by those three short, successive sounds. I struggled for a response, something to gain the upper hand, but I could only think: Had we really come to this point in America? Was I merely the color of my skin?
The year was 2014 and we were sitting at one of the communal tables at the White Privilege Conference in Madison, Wisconsin, where I had settled after a day of filming. It was late in the afternoon and the light coming off the frozen Lake Menona was turning blue. One of the four conference attendees at the table, a professor, gestured to my camera gear and asked me what my documentary was about. I told him that I was investigating why our nation was in the thrall of identity politics, leading to more Americans being divided into race-based groups. Why was this happening, I wanted to know, at a time when Americans were crossing the color line in record numbers?
Then I disclosed that I was multiracial—the offspring of two generations of Americans who married across the color line for love—and that I was not sold on the idea of white privilege. The latter revelation turned the temperature up on the conversation. I argued that the idea of white privilege was nothing more than a modern-day version of the white man’s burden, the racist 19th-century idea that white people had a collective responsibility to educate and modernize the black people who lived in their colonies. I felt the stare from a college counselor sitting across the table with her arms crossed over her black yoga jacket. Her patience was fading as she listened to me and, finally, her voice cut through the conversation and she declared me white.
“But my black ancestors were enslaved by whites, and my Jewish ancestors were hunted in the Holocaust by whites,” I said. “How can you ignore my history, my individuality, and see only my skin color?” Her smile was sympathetic yet she was unconvinced. This was religion to her.
At that moment, I heard an echo of a not-so-distant past. I remember my father telling stories of his childhood on Chicago’s segregated South Side in the 1950s and ’60s. He couldn’t cross certain streets, caddy the Olympia golf course, or be a ball boy for the local YMCA’s baseball team because he was black. His own father was extremely well-read and ran several businesses in addition to working at his regular job, yet he parked his Rambler blocks away from work to avoid showing up his white boss. If my father and my grandfather ever protested that their humanity should be recognized over skin color, they too got, at best, sympathetic smiles.
Never did I think that what happened to my father and grandfather would happen to me decades later. If I had been born in the 1940s, I’d have been classified as black by the white-supremacist “one drop” rule, according to which someone with even a single black ancestor was deemed black. But I was born in the 1970s, after a succession of civil-rights victories promised that we as a nation were moving away from the evils of racial orders and their social constructs. Yet here I was, being reduced to the color of my skin and being dismissed as white.
The behavior of the college counselor was really no different from that shown by the white bigots of my father’s time. Of course, she would scoff at such a comparison. After all, she saw herself as part of the effort to redeem America’s horrific racial legacy. She was doing her fair share to dismantle her “unearned” privileges as a white woman. But her act of defining me by my skin color revealed that identity politics had become the very thing it promised to defeat: a racial order.
onservative writers and academics, such as Jordan Peterson and Commentary contributor Matthew Continetti, believe that identity politics has reformulated Marxist class divisions as divisions of race and gender while keeping alive the war between victim and victimizer. It’s true that there is an undeniable Marxist influence at work, but the roots of American identity politics are racial and go back to the white-supremacist classification system that defined the eras of slavery and segregation. It could even be said that white supremacy was America’s very first form of identity politics.
Long before the American Revolution, America was a class-based society in which slaves, free blacks, white indentured servants, and Native Americans intermingled at the lower end of the economic spectrum. In 1676, these destitute individuals sought better living conditions and rebelled against the white ruling class in what became known as Bacon’s Rebellion—and they lost. To prevent future rebellions, the ruling class reorganized what existed of a class-based society into a more strictly race-based society by introducing an early variation of the one-drop rule. Suddenly, wealthy and poor whites were united simply by the virtue of their white skin. Thus the one-drop rule shaped and enforced the racial order of white supremacy.
Americans found themselves reduced to absurd mathematical equations based on racial bloodlines. Individuals such as Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington, born to enslaved mothers and white fathers, were classified as mulattos. Those who had three white grandparents were labeled as quadroons, and those with seven white grandparents were octoroon. Yet, in the end, they were all marked Negro or colored to preserve the purity of white blood, especially that of the white woman.
Many Americans protested these dehumanizing constructs. In 1892, two years after Louisiana mandated separate rail cars for whites and coloreds, a man named Homer Plessy boarded the white-only car. As an octoroon, he could have easily passed for white. But he told the conductor that he was colored, and his refusal to move into the colored car led to the Supreme Court case of Plessy v. Ferguson. Ultimately, justice did not prevail and the court’s ruling further embedded the one-drop rule in America’s soil through widespread segregation—de facto and de jure.
One of the forgotten lessons of the civil-rights movement is that many Americans, including my grandparents, fought to end the use of race in public affairs for any reason. They knew that classifying people by race was poison no matter the intention; the Negro box had been judged inferior, the white box superior, and both assessments were lies that had to be destroyed.
After the success of the civil-rights movement, policymakers traded in this binary paradigm for a system of five primary races to be used on official documentation: white, black, Hispanic, Asian, and Native American. While this change was intended to better identify racism in its various forms, it wasn’t long before an activist movement found a larger purpose for these boxes: America’s racial redemption. Americans from every nation on earth were forced into five race boxes, each with its own related historical grievance. The movement championing this paradigm became identity politics, a supposedly redemptive order that would lead America to racial justice.
But if classifying people by race was poison, how could it also be the cure for what ailed our country?
It was into this America that I was born a failure. The running joke began in the early 1980s when I, born to a Jewish mother and a black father, failed to fit inside any of the race boxes provided on my school forms. The joke became less funny as I grew older and made the conscious decision not to compromise my racial heritage by forcing myself into one of the provided categories.
As a child, I was fascinated by the story of my grandparents’ interracial marriage in 1944 in segregated Chicago. My parents’ own interracial marriage in 1967 in the same city wasn’t much easier; at the time, America burned with race riots. My grandparents and parents had every reason not to marry across the color line, but they chose love over their racial order. I believe that they were better Americans than the white supremacists opposing their marriages, and, from a young age, I’ve seen it as my birthright to defend the principles of freedom, equality, love, and a greater humanity beyond racial orders of any kind.
When I hit my teens, I encountered a tremendous pressure to conform to one race on school applications and in personal encounters. My identity, which I thought had to do only with the choices I made and the responsibilities I accepted, all of a sudden became currency for someone else’s political power.
But it was not until I applied to college in the early 1990s that I truly saw behind the curtain of identity politics for the first time. By the late 1960s, in hopes of leveling the playing field, universities adopted a system of racial preferences based on the five race boxes, and they gave racial preferences to certain races based on historical grievances. My grades and SATs were borderline acceptable for top-tier colleges, and my high-school counselor, along with most university officials, urged me to boost my chances of being admitted by checking the “black” box on applications. When one university official saw my reluctance, she urged me to reduce my multiple races to one race box in the name of “diversity.” In truth, those who had been freed from the box marked inferior were being objectified all over again in the form of a box now marked “victim.”
But the most troubling aspect of this sham went beyond my own discomfort. From the 1960s to the early 1990s, the percentage of all blacks on college campuses who were from lower economic backgrounds had fallen to the single digits. These students had been replaced by middle- to upper-class blacks, Africans, Caribbeans, and multiracials like me. By checking the “black” box, I was being asking to mask over the very problems and inequities that undermined the efforts of lower-class blacks—all so university administrations could claim the pretense of racial redemption through higher enrollment numbers.
Checking the “black” box on college applications would have forced me to enter what I call the minority state of mind. The word “minority” is often used generically along with the word “majority” to refer to population numbers. But the minority is also a social construct used by some on the left to enforce loyalty to the politics of a given oppressed racial group. To enter the minority state of mind therefore meant that I would divorce myself from my larger American identity in order to embrace a far narrower identity based on the politics of race. In my case, that meant embracing a victim mindset in which everything is defined by slavery, segregation, and racism.
If I had indicated “black” on my college applications, it would have opened the door to black scholarships, black-only orientations, black fraternities, black housing, black-oriented majors, black student associations, and so on. How could I have gone through these experiences without becoming beholden to the politics of blackness?
Once I graduated from college, I expected identity politics to weaken and fade away. Instead, it strengthened and became more resilient. In my lifetime, identity politics has grown so powerful that practically every government office and nearly every institution, business, and school must pledge allegiance to its versions of diversity, equality, and inclusion. After the election of President Barack Obama in 2008, there was much talk to the effect that we had finally reached some kind of utopian Promised Land known as post-racial America. No one was more threatened by such talk than the identity-politics establishment. To quash this post-racial claim, identitarians had to prove that America was still a profoundly racist country.
One way they did this was by exploiting the 2012 killing of Trayvon Martin. It was not the killing itself so much as the white and Peruvian identity of the shooter, George Zimmerman, that triggered a war over identity politics. Before the killing, the governing rules of identity would have encouraged Zimmerman to choose “Hispanic” on school or job applications. In the days following the killing, however, many media outlets committed to a categorization of Zimmerman’s ethnicity that could advance a white-on-black crime narrative.
The New York Times described Zimmerman with the awkward label “white Hispanic,” which kept the charge of whiteness alive. This opened up the identity-politics establishment to claims of hypocrisy. How could the rules be changed mid-game to put Zimmerman into the white box instead of the Hispanic one? That’s when proponents of identity politics began talking a lot about “white privilege,” a phrase I had first heard years ago in the halls of academia.
The concept of “white privilege” had long been viewed as academically suspect because there was nothing original in its assertion that America was racist or that whites enjoyed the advantages of power. But after Trayvon Martin was killed, the introduction of white privilege into the national conversation overtook the “white Hispanic” debate. Zimmerman’s light skin meant that he derived unearned privileges under a white-supremacist justice system, making him white by all accounts. By using literal skin color in the way that white supremacists had used the one-drop rule—as a mechanism for instantly replacing individual identity with group identity—activists on the left were able to argue that America was still a profoundly racist nation.
ince the shooting of Trayvon Martin, identity politics has strengthened its hold on power. It was this very battle for power that defined my experience at that communal table at the White Privilege Conference. Despite my attempts to humanize myself before the college counselor, she refused to back off. I was my white skin. As I watched her walk away from the table with her sympathetic smile, I felt the sting of her superiority, her conviction that she was right.
On the plane home to Los Angeles, I became deeply sad. We are once again becoming a nation that puts race before humanity, I thought. We’re betraying the very hope of the civil-rights movement. As I looked out the window, I was reminded of a story that my father told me about my grandfather. It was the early 1970s, before my birth, and my father had told my grandfather that he and my mother were thinking about joining the Black Panthers. My father’s hair was picked out into an Afro, and he was running his mouth about black this and black that. After hearing enough, my grandfather stopped him and asked, “What is black?”
This story always stuck with me, though I never quite understood it. Then I realized that I was considering it from the wrong perspective: my father’s. When I looked at the story from my grandfather’s point of view, I saw that his question revealed something about his psychology and the way he saw himself in relation to America. He lived in an age when the aim of white supremacy was to convince him that he was black and thus inferior. Though his movements were successfully limited, my grandfather’s victory over white supremacy was that he never allowed himself to be reduced to mere blackness. He became the very thing that white supremacy feared most: an individual in possession of his own mind. And he held on to that at all costs, even during the most brutal days of segregation when it would have been far easier to surrender. It was his individuality and that of many other Americans that eventually brought down the racial order of white supremacy.
It will take the same kind of courageous individuals to bring down the racial order of identity politics.