White Blindness and Liberal Racism

On Friday, the New York Times published an op-ed by Mark Lilla in which he calls for an end to “identity liberalism.” Couching his thesis in flowery praise for surface-level diversity intended to establish him as part of the liberal in-group, Lilla argues that the individuals who constitute America’s diversity are too focused on fighting for their own self-interests and in the process have lost sight of the common good. He goes so far as to blame this movement for the prominent visibility of White identity politics in the most recent election. White people have, by his reckoning, worked tirelessly only for the common good up until now and have just now decided to press for their self-interest in reaction to the selfishness of the Others.

Such a view is, of course, ahistoric. So it is in some ways bizarre that Lilla–who is in fact a professor at Columbia and presumably has at least a 10th-grade level understanding of American history–would sign his name to it in the paper of record. As admittedly petty as that last sentence is, I don’t actually want to accuse Lilla of stupidity because I don’t think that is what’s at play here. Rather, I think his issue is White Blindness, which is the inability to perceive Whiteness in himself or others. Without the ability to perceive Whiteness, the interests of his White community are perceived as simply “the common good,” while those of Others are “special interests.”

In this framework, as institutions and culture are modified to meet the needs of a greater number of people, Lilla’s perceived “common good” (which is really just White interest) appears to be damaged and neglected. However much the common good of the larger community grows, White Blindness makes Lilla perceive only loss.

The ahistorical nature of White Blindness makes it difficult if not impossible to appreciate how White-identifying groups have used and continue to use their sociopolitical power to advance their special interests at the expense of non-White groups. On the other hand, tacit understanding of this fact combined with a touch of projection may be the reason that Lilla appears so fearful of non-White groups gaining sociopolitical power.

I want to call particular attention to this piece because as Trump has shifted the Overton Window and brought more explicitly racist viewpoints into the realm of acceptable political discourse, I think we very much risk losing sight of the equally (if not more) pernicious forms of implicit racism (such as White Blindness) that go unchecked in liberal social circles. In other words, as liberals expend energy calling out the obvious racism of people like Stephen Bannon and Jeff Sessions, it’s easy to start believing that the internalized racism that informs our own beliefs and practices is benign or non-existent. After all (to state the obvious), it is not just White conservatives that suffer from White Blindness.

This self-critique is extremely important right now because as the Democratic Party reshuffles and re-imagines its 270+1 strategy in the face of electoral defeat, it will be easy for DNC to return to appeals to the White identity politics of Bill Clinton’s era at the expense of marginalized groups. We must resist this at all costs if there is to be a viable progressive party in US politics and not just two flavors of White supremacy.

Calling attention to the racism of liberals is often critiqued as petty infighting or thought-policing. However, this is a necessary work if we are the continue to build the inclusive coalition necessary to create a just society that serves everyones needs. We need to always be pushing  back against our natural tendency towards self-justification and the ego fragility at its root. In any case, a certain level of humility about these things is necessary if we are to strive for continual self-improvement.

This being a blog which serves first and foremost as a space I’ve given myself to clarify my thoughts through writing, I want to be clear that I myself am the target audience of any advice I give. With that being said, over the next couple weeks I plan on writing a bit more on the types of bias I have seen in liberal circles which I hope will be received in a spirit of humility and self-improvement because we all can and should do better every day.

If you’re a White-identifying person interested in subverting Whiteness, here are some resources to start with:

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Author: Harrison Kalodimos

I'm a family medicine resident at Swedish Medical Center in Seattle.

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