The Identity That Still Shall Not Be Named

One really idiotic thing on the leftish side of the spectrum this election season has been an incredibly simplistic view of race and class. While I’ve discussed this before, an article by Amanda Taub makes a very good point (boldface mine):

Identity, as academics define it, falls into two broad categories: “achieved” identity derived from personal effort, and “ascribed” identity based on innate characteristics.

Everyone has both, but people tend to be most attached to their “best” identity — the one that offers the most social status or privileges. Successful professionals, for example, often define their identities primarily through their careers.

For generations, working-class whites were doubly blessed: They enjoyed privileged status based on race, as well as the fruits of broad economic growth.

White people’s officially privileged status waned over the latter half of the 20th century with the demise of discriminatory practices in, say, university admissions. But rising wages, an expanding social safety net and new educational opportunities helped offset that. Most white adults were wealthier and more successful than their parents, and confident that their children would do better still.

That feeling of success may have provided a sort of identity in itself.

But as Western manufacturing and industry have declined, taking many working-class towns with them, parents and grandparents have found that the opportunities they once had are unavailable to the next generation.

That creates an identity vacuum to be filled.

“For someone who is lower income or lower class,” Professor Kaufmann explained, “you’re going to get more self-esteem out of a communal identity such as ethnicity or the nation than you would out of any sort of achieved identity.”

Focusing on lost identities rather than lost livelihoods helps answer one of the most puzzling questions about the link between economic stress and the rise of nationalist politics: why it is flowing from the middle and working classes, and not the very poor.

It’s not that there isn’t racism involved. Obviously, there is. But to treat the situation as an either-or situation ignores how racism and economic insecurity interact. In a world that makes no sense, racism, like any other number of belief systems, is something that a person can latch onto to make sense of things. And scarcity can make good people mean.

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One Response to The Identity That Still Shall Not Be Named

  1. jrkrideau says:

    I must admit I have never understood what an American defines as a Latino.

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