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Whiteness And Identity Politics


In these last few weeks before the midterm elections, we've been having a series of conversations about how the groups we come from affect our point of view, what's often called identity politics. And when we talk about identity and politics, we - and yes, that includes NPR - can be specific about some identities and vague about others. To explain and discuss, we're joined now by Nikole Hannah-Jones. She covers race for The New York Times Magazine. Welcome to the program.

NIKOLE HANNAH-JONES: Thank you for having me.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So we often talk about African-American voters or Latino voters. But we use different language for white voters, right?

HANNAH-JONES: Yeah. I mean, typically, when we talk about black voters or Latino voters or any racial minority, they're presented as a monolith. Black voters think this. Black voters are here on this issue. They're courting black voters. But when we talk about white voters, we rarely mention their race at all, unless it's a story about race. We talk about them in terms of their varied interests and their varied identities. So, you know, we talk about suburban moms, or we talk about working-class voters, or we talk about educated voters or evangelicals.

We have a thousand euphemisms that we use for white voters. What happens is we then tend to think that the things that concern white voters are not the things that concern voters of color and that voters of color are, somehow, the only ones who engage in identity politics. And we know that that's also not true.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, and somehow, that white is neutral in some sense.

HANNAH-JONES: Right. White is the default. So I have tweeted frequently that when we see something like, you know, Democrats need to win suburban voters, they need to go after suburban voters, that there's a silent white in front of that statement. And that silent white, to me, is very detrimental because we are centering whiteness in a way that it should not be.

But we're also just not accurately reporting the story. Democrats don't need to win suburban voters. They need to win white suburban voters because they are getting black and Latino suburban voters. And in fact, more than half of the black population lives in the suburbs now.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What are the political implications of not being specific when we talk about white people?

HANNAH-JONES: Well, I think, one - we really downplay - I mean, we saw this leading up to the election of Donald Trump and then in all of the coverage until, really, rather recently since the election. What we saw was that we did not see white people as voting in a racialized way because by ignoring their race, we're saying, oh, they're voting on their economic anxiety. Oh, they're voting on this issue or that issue.

And in fact, what the research showed was that they were voting on demographic anxiety, that they were feeling that, culturally, they were under attack and that their whiteness was under attack. And so by - and instead, focusing almost exclusively on all of these other issues and ignoring the role of race, we actually ignored the biggest story in our country - that racial anxiety really propelled Donald Trump into the White House.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Another way politicians may not explicitly say white but are evoking it is when they talk about the past - the good old days, a 1950s kind of world - something that Donald Trump did very well. I mean, he was employing the words of sort of white identity politics.

HANNAH-JONES: Oh, absolutely. And so this also, I think, speaks to the very unsophisticated way that we talk about race in this country. Many journalists are unable to actually call out the dog whistles. So when Donald Trump says that, people of color clearly understand what that means.

America was never that great if you were a person of color. We had legal apartheid in this country until 40 years ago. But white voters also hear the racial implications of that. And so our inability as journalists to call out the racial implications, even when it is not explicitly racist, means we are not actually reporting what everyone is hearing and what everyone knows.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: When we're discussing this and the media's responsibility about using language precisely, one of the things, obviously, is that most newsrooms are overwhelmingly white. But there's also this sense that news organizations, specifically the fact-based media, want to be fair. So how do those two things then fit when you're trying to discuss some of these racial divisions in this country?

HANNAH-JONES: One - I would clearly argue we are all biased. I think the way that we covered the election showed that bias to be very glaringly clear because we were ignoring literally what voters on the ground were saying, right? Voters on the ground were saying, no, I haven't lost my job or, I don't know anyone who's lost their job to Hispanics. But I want them to build that wall anyway because they're coming here, and they're changing our country. Like, they were saying exactly how they felt.

And we were like, no, no. They don't know what they're talking about. It's economic anxiety. So that's bias. But also, when we talk about fairness, is it fair, is it accurate to say you're talking about suburban voters if, in fact, you are only talking about a segment of those voters who are white? To me, that is not fair. It's not fair to all of the people in a country that, at this point, is about 40 percent non-white, who we are rendering invisible in our coverage.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Nikole Hannah-Jones of The New York Times Magazine, thank you so much.

HANNAH-JONES: Thank you very much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.