The wisdom and folly (mostly folly) of the Washington Post's decision
Editors’ Note: Damir begins the conversation. Shadi responds. Both agreement and disagreement ensue. The goal, as in all Wisdom of Crowds conversations, is to explore why we believe the things we believe, working through the tensions and contradictions in real time. If you like what you see, subscribe to the newsletter to get future issues before the crowds do.
The Washington Post’s decision to capitalize “White” in its stylesheet seems to me to be the natural progression of a really bad idea. But before we get to that, let me clear some underbrush out of the way:
First, all of these issues are symbolic, and of less import to actually changing things than scribblers, like me and you Shadi, may like to think. Rather, they are reflective of realities already taking place. Scorning the Post for their decision, as if their decision will actually change reality, gets the cart-horse relationship backwards.
Also, I’ve heard compelling cases made for why one should capitalize Black. It stems from the fact that the experience of African Americans is indeed unique within the American context. We capitalize Jews and we capitalize Muslims, and so we should Blacks, especially if the word is being used to describe the descendants of African slaves brought to America against their will. (Is a recent Nigerian immigrant Black, though? I don’t know for sure how this will ultimately get parsed out in the written language. Strictly speaking, she shouldn’t be, but I suspect that Black will end up simply becoming what African-American was not so long ago—a catch-all.)
Capitalizing White, though—clearly a good-faith attempt to make the controversy go away—seems misguided. And like I said above, it’s the unfortunate product of where we are as a nation. Progressives, who seem to be broadly uneasy with creating in-groups and out-groups, are paradoxically solving this by Balkanizing the American experience.
The great success of America has been in its ability to digest newcomer groups and make “Americans” out of them in a mind-bogglingly short timeframe. No other country can, to my knowledge, match this achievement. And while it is important to acknowledge that America’s singular failure has been its inability to make full Americans of the people it had enslaved—and while it may be important to acknowledge it linguistically by capitalizing Black—one would hope that this is a temporary measure. Indeed, it should be our shared national goal to ensure that it is.
The hope and success of America is that we all become alike—homogenized. Sure, we immigrants bring our own cultural baggage into the mix, but as part of the mix we end up losing most of it as well. (And as an immigrant, I say good riddance!) America has made “whites” out of previously “nonwhite” Italians, Irish, Jews, is on the cusp of doing it to Asians, and will in all likelihood soon do the same with Hispanics quite soon. Permanently racializing “White”, as the Post is doing, is a blow against the project of forming a cohesive American nation. In such tough times, we need much less of this, not more.
As an “agonist,” I’m tempted to see this as a reversion to the mean of human experience. Politics, as Chantal Mouffe might say, is about the constitution of a “we” and a “they.” What better way to do that—although it is a bit too on the nose—than to capitalize White?
It is easy to scorn the Post. But you’re right: this is merely a reflection of attitudes that, while still marginal in the overall population, are overrepresented among American elites. It’s been interesting, though, to see how Arabs, Muslims, and others from immigrant backgrounds have been some of the more vocal opponents of such sentiments. If you’ve lived in the Middle East—and, for that matter, if you’ve lived in the Balkans—you know what the drawing of hard lines between groups, based on immutable identities, can lead to. Maybe this is its own kind of American exceptionalism: that we can do the dumb things that other people did and not pay any price for it.
On your other point, though, about homogenization and becoming American, I might have to disagree. (To disagree with you Damir and to challenge you on intellectual terms is a sign of my courage, to my credit, as one tweep kindly reminded me). First, what Blacks suffer from in this country has little to do with their lack of Americanness. No one really doubts that blacks, arriving enslaved as so many did at the founding or well before it, are American, unlike say Hispanics, Arabs, or Asians, whose “foreignness” in terms of language, religion, and culture is much more apparent. But to your broader point, I don’t think that the “hope and success of America is that we all become alike.” That sounds a bit French to me.
Of course, we lose some of our cultural and religious baggage in the process of becoming American, but we can hold on to as much of it as we like, without being any less American. The American idea is big enough and generous enough to encompass those complex, layered identities without them having to be flattened.
On holding on to baggage, sure, vestiges remain. St. Patrick’s Day, Columbus Day (though for how long?)—all these are vestigial remnants of a culture left behind. But they’re pageantry rather than essential. The American idea is more flexible than the French one, true, but it is a mistake—a particularly modern American and indeed a progressive mistake—to think that it is universal. America is not a project of universal redemption for mankind. America is ultimately a bounded in-group, which makes demands of, and reserves privileges for, its constituents. And yes, being from the Balkans, I find that blithely tinkering with cohesiveness is a bad idea.
You’re right that it’s a fringe position, but you can get a taste of the hardline progressive ideology in the debates over immigration. Managing immigration is seen as inherently an unjust and immoral project, as it confers privileges on Americans over “others” and is stingy about universalizing them. You can find people stating that the “construct” of the nation is itself somehow racist because it creates groups of belonging and excludes others. This, to me, is boundless madness.
That said, you’re very right about the “Americanness” of Blacks.* I’m reminded of a conversation I had with Martha Bayles a year or so ago, where she said to me that in fact there is arguably nothing more authentically American than the Black experience. And indeed, when you look at American culture, from sports to movies to music, it’s quite literally impossible to even begin talking about any of it without acknowledging this fact.
So you’re probably right that my assertion above—where I said that America has made “white” people out of the Irish, the Jews, and the Italians—is needlessly provocative and obscures important elements of what’s going on. Blacks have been much more American than any subsequent newcomers, and yet still are clearly suffering the consequences of past injustices. Indeed, my harping on the process of “making white” is as unhelpful as the Post racializing our divisions.
Still, we need recourse to an American idea that focuses more on building a cohesive in-group than it does fretting about that in-group’s differences. A healthy America is not a microcosm of what some idealists would like to think the world could one day become—an infinitely diverse polity held together solely by a set of values and a commitment to moral improvement. America is a nation that will ultimately stand or fall on its ability to remain cohesive. Being reckless about these kinds of questions is very dangerous.
*We need to talk about our stylesheet, Shadi…
Not just baggage, Damir! There’s holding on to not just St. Patrick’s Day (or whatever the Muslim equivalent of that is) but also to old garden variety religious conservatism. A Muslim “Benedict Option” wouldn’t be possible, I don’t think, in Sweden and certainly not in France. There are entire neighborhoods of ultra-Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn (as featured recently in Netflix’s Unorthodox). These aren’t vestiges; this is lived experience, years and decades later, despite otherwise assimilationist pressures.
I certainly agree with the second part of your point—that the American model of integration is not universal. This is precisely why I’m an Americanist (a supporter of nationalism for Americans if not necessarily for others). Ideological states are rare (France and Israel also come to mind), but ideological states that are good at integrating religious and ethnic minorities are even rarer. American liberals who haven’t lived abroad or lived under authoritarian regimes can easily forget these basic facts. As you point out, though, America’s problems with race are not problems of integration, since it’s hard to imagine an ethnic group being better integrated than blacks are. In this sense, the plight of Muslims in France might be the closest analogue to that of blacks in America, but the comparison is also misleading. The question in France is whether Muslims can become French; the question in America is whether blacks can be equal.
But all these questions and challenges can only be resolved in the context of the nation-state. There will always be an “us” and a “them.” With that in mind, what Americans can and should aspire to is the goal of making the us as broad as possible—within limits, because there needs to be a limit. And that limit, sadly but inevitably, is to be found at the border.
My only rejoinder is that you cannot build a cohesive nation out of communities like the ultra-Orthodox and the Amish. The existence of communities so stubbornly resistant to assimilation is a testament to American tolerance, not to the limitless wonders of diversity.
As a coda, I’ll just also say that we don’t really know what the limits of playing with these things actually is, and that, too, is important to keep in mind. As part of one of the reading groups that we’re both part of, we were discussing the stresses which the “woke” agitations are putting on our collective whole. One of the members of the group, broadly sympathetic to and enthusiastic about to wokeism, said that he didn’t think those limits were near to being pushed to a breaking point. To which all I could say is: “I hope you’re right.”
And… I genuinely do hope he is.