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Opinion Stop blaming white supremacy on ‘identity politics’

Protesters at the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville on Saturday. (Evelyn Hockstein for The Washington Post)

Turns out it wasn’t President Trump’s race-baiting that led a mob of neo-Nazis to swarm Charlottesville’s streets Saturday. It was “identity politics.”

This way of explaining the public resurgence of white nationalism has been all over Facebook and Twitter since the weekend, and now it’s also on the news and even the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal. The argument goes something like this: The civil rights movement ended with an agreement to focus on equal opportunity, with everyone united by their shared Americanness. Now identity politics acolytes seek to divide the country once again by bringing our differences — gender, class, religion and, most of all, race — back into the foreground. And by singling out race as the defining aspect of American life, activists on the left are basically asking white men to “own” their identity. In Charlottesville, they did.

There are plenty of problems with identity politics. Some social-justice movements stifle speech, such as when Yale University students condemned an early-childhood educator serving as a college dean for suggesting that students should be allowed to choose what Halloween costumes they wear. Others drive away people who agree that black lives matter but flinch at what they see as an excess of political correctness. Oberlin College students’ furor at the campus dining hall’s “cultural appropriation” when it served sushi is an especially egregious example.

But deterring reasonable people from dealing honestly with race-based social problems isn’t the same as inspiring young men to join the Ku Klux Klan. Those who suggest identity politics are to blame for white supremacy are getting it backwards.

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It’s bizarre to suggest race in the United States didn’t matter in the decades between the civil rights movement and today. Colorblindness in a society where one color has always been favored above others was never the way forward, and not talking about race was never a sign of progress. Instead, it was a sign that white Americans had, after wrestling with an anti-racist uprising in the ’60s and ’70s, found another stable foothold from which they could gaze comfortably down.

White supremacy is not a response to identity politics; identity politics are a response to white supremacy. They’re a response to life in a country that built itself on the theory that “all men are created equal” but a reality where the opposite was true. And they’re a response not just to the outright racism that survives on websites such as Stormfront and at Confederate flag rallies but also to the stubborn structural barriers that still hold back people with darker skin.

What was surprising this weekend in Charlottesville was not that racism was alive and well in America. What was surprising is that we were surprised. As many have pointed out, whites have identity politics, too. We just call it “politics.”

Tossing out identity politics as we understand it today would hardly heal the wounds of an America torn asunder. Even if it stopped Nazis from being Nazis — and it wouldn’t — it would arrest the very progress we’re making in talking openly about race, one of the developments that get white nationalists so mad. That willingness to talk is where the work of healing should actually begin.