The dividing line between liberals and conservatives in the US and the UK increasingly hinges on different definitions of racism.
Liberals attack President Donald Trump’s proposal to erect a wall along the US border with Mexico, and his ban on travel from seven majority-Muslim countries, as racist. Many on the right defend them as necessary protections.
A recent study by Birkbeck College and Policy Exchange found that 72 per cent of Hillary Clinton voters in November’s presidential election consider Mr Trump’s proposed wall to be racist compared with just 4 per cent of Trump voters. But when the views of white and non-white Americans are contrasted, the gap shrinks. So political partisanship, not race, determines whether the wall is seen as racist.
The argument is not just about physical or economic protection, but cultural protection too. Modern liberals tend to believe that preference for your own ethnic group or even your own nation is a form of racism. Conservatives regard it as common sense and resent being labelled as racist.
The challenge here is to distinguish between white racism and white identity politics, or what Muslim-American writer Shadi Hamid terms white “racial self-interest”. The latter may be clannish and insular, but it is not the same as irrational hatred, fear or contempt for another group — the normal definition of racism.
The question of legitimate ethnic interest is complex. Multiculturalism is premised on the rights of minorities to maintain certain traditions and ways of life. But liberals have usually been reluctant to extend such group rights to majorities.
They have justified this reluctance on two grounds. First, the white majority in the US and Europe is itself so diverse it makes little sense to talk of a culturally homogenous majority (though the same might be said for most minorities too).
Second, majorities have been so numerically dominant that their ways of life have felt threatened only in a few small pockets.
The latter is clearly no longer the case, especially in the US where the non-Hispanic white population is now only a little over 60 per cent. In several UK cities, the white British are now a minority too.
When YouGov, Policy Exchange and Birkbeck College asked 2,600 Americans whether it is racist or “just racial self-interest, which is not racist” for a white person to want less immigration to “maintain his or her group’s share of the population”, 73 per cent of Clinton voters but just 11 per cent of Trump voters called this racist. In a companion survey of 1,600 Britons, 46 per cent of Remain voters in last June’s EU referendum but only 3 per cent of Leave voters agreed this was racist. When respondents were asked whether a Hispanic who wants more immigration to increase his or her group’s share was being racist or racially self-interested, only 18 per cent of Clinton voters called this racist. By contrast, 39 per cent of Trump voters now saw this as racist.
When Trump and Clinton voters were made to explain their reasoning, the gap on whether whites and Hispanics were being racist or racially self-interested closed markedly in the direction of racial self-interest. This points to a possible “third way” on immigration between whites and minorities, liberals and conservatives. As Eric Kaufmann argues in a new Policy Exchange paper, accepting that all groups, including whites, have legitimate cultural interests is the first step toward mutual understanding.
Majority rights are uncharted territory for liberal democracies and it is not always clear what distinguishes legitimate group interest from racism. Hardly anyone wants to abolish anti-discrimination laws that ban majorities from favouring “their own”. But while few people from the white majority think in explicitly ethnic terms, many feel a discomfort about their group no longer setting the tone in a neighbourhood. Labelling that feeling racist risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy, driving white resentment.
Minorities often have real grievances requiring group-specific policy solutions. White grievances are more subtle. For instance, lower-income whites sometimes lack the mutual support that minority communities often enjoy — this can translate into a sense of loss and insecurity. This, too, should be recognised and factored into the policy calculus.
The liberal reflex to tar legitimate majority grievances with the brush of racism risks deepening western societies’ cultural divides.