The 2020 presidential race may appear to be about impeachment, Donald Trump’s character, and the state of the economy. But lurking within all of this is a more significant issue.

It’s whiteness.

White political identity may seem to be in the shadows. And it is, in the sense that it is almost never discussed explicitly, certainly not by candidates.

Even in the shadows, it will be at the center because a significant and fast-growing portion of white people now think of their white-people selves as a political group with cohesive interests.

This requires a different kind of political understanding. Why so important and why is a revamping of our political understanding so necessary?


Trump Inauguration 2017 supporters crowds near the Capitol Building. Washington DC. 20 jan 2017
Donald Trump’s presidency has illuminated a growing movement of white identity politics, as seen in this photo from his 2017 inauguration. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2017

First, consider the sheer numbers. According to Ashley Jardina’s recent book “White Identity Politics,” in the last 15 or so years there has been a significant increase in the number of people who strongly identify as white. They view their white group as an oppressed minority.

Presently 40% of white voters feel this way, with about one-fifth of those feeling especially aggrieved and willing to get politically involved on behalf of white interests.

At the root, they feel that their way of life is being threatened by cultural diversity, globalization and most of all by immigration. America as they knew it and benefitted from is disappearing.

Many are candid about the privileges whiteness allows and say they don’t want to give them up.

The basis of white political identity is not the usual suspect — racial resentment. In fact, Jardina shows that it’s common for strong white political identifiers to have views sympathetic toward African Americans.

What makes this group important, and quite possibly different from its predecessors, is its diversity. White identifiers are an extremely diverse group that cuts across age, gender, income, occupation and even political identification.

Education level makes no significant difference. Personality traits make only a very small difference.

So we are not talking about a small, fringe group of white supremacists or KKK sympathizers. Very few white identifiers, even the most ardent ones, take kindly to those groups.

Not race-baiters, not Klansmen, but instead — and this is what makes them especially significant — people “like us,” your white friends and neighbors.

Imagine yourself standing between two groups of five “regular” white people. Two on your left and two on your right will be white identifiers.

This exposes characteristics of America’s politics that don’t get the attention they deserve.

All the talk about political and social polarization usually emphasizes the differences between Republicans and Democrats or liberals versus conservatives.

We need to quit being in denial about the strength and especially the cross-cutting pervasiveness of white identity.

Of course there is overlap between party identification and whiteness. Well over 50% of white people vote Republican, and a heavy majority of white identifiers voted for Trump.

But, as Jardina’s findings show, whether a person identifies as white may be a more significant determinant of how a person votes than that old and historically accurate standby, party identification.

Think of 2020 politics as the politics of white identity limbo. On the one hand, the power and potential of white identity and the ability to mobilize it is apparent. That of course is what Trump will continue to do.

Not just Trump, though, but other Republican candidates running for national offices will use more than ever the surrogates and dog whistles appealing to this nascent but large group.

Same old same old, easy peasy.

The Democrats, particularly their presidential candidates, however, have a white person problem. Identity politics works well for Democrats if it involves the identities of people who are not white. Yet Democrats need to increase their white vote. A dilemma for sure.

Of course this issue is disguised. No Democratic candidate is going to say, “What can we do for white people?”

They may talk instead about coalition-building, appealing to the disaffected, or to “all Americans.” All this is in no small part about tapping into the white vote.

It is hard to look past 2020, but there are two dangerous developments so serious that we need to consider them right now.

One is the potential for run of the mill white identifiers to become serious, committed white nationalists.

White nationalism and supremacy have come out of the shadows. Its direct advocates, as well as its more indirect ones like the president, often make it a point to sound more mainstream and link their beliefs to the larger bunch of worried, aggrieved white people.

Reframing is a potent political tool.

The second danger is more subtle. When white identifiers describe their status, they commonly compare it to African Americans; for instance, “There is  a Black History Month. There should be a White History Month.” Or  “Black identity is acceptable. So shouldn’t white identity be?”

Black identity has a totally different and unique history. It’s called slavery and its legacy. The white identifiers’ “just like black people” analogy trivializes the continuing impact of this legacy.

Here is what we can do right now.

We need to quit being in denial about the strength and especially the cross-cutting pervasiveness of white identity.

Those of us who oppose this kind of white identity have to quit using the term “white privilege” as a cudgel. Like “ok boomer” it’s a handy, accurate but limiting expression.

You have to be a combination of Rip Van Winkle and an ostrich to deny the role of white privilege in American history. At the same time, dropping that accusation into a conversation about white identity tends to stifle that conversation, as if saying that is all you need to know.

That’s not an effective way to know your enemy.

Let me end with questions for you:

Where do you think we haoles in Hawaii fit into all this?

Are we different, less aggrieved, less conscious of and worried about our white identity, or does our whiteness increasingly come out of the shadows?

Help power our public service journalism

As a local newsroom, Civil Beat has a unique public service role in times of crisis.

That’s why we’re committed to a paywall-free website and subscription-free content, so we can get vital information out to everyone, from all communities.

We are deploying a significant amount of our resources to covering the Maui fires, and your support ensures that we can pivot when these types of emergencies arise.

Make a gift to Civil Beat today and help power our nonprofit newsroom.

About the Author