Aggrieved Whiteness: White Identity Politics and Modern American Racial Formation

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by Mike King
May 4, 2017
Abolition Journal

Recent social psychological research, opinion polls, and political movements, such as the Tea Party and the candidacy and election of Donald Trump, have highlighted an increasingly widespread sentiment among white Americans that they are a structurally oppressed racial group. In spite of persistent socio-cultural and political economic structures of white supremacy, real racial inequalities that serve to privilege rather than oppress white people as a group, a politics of aggrieved whiteness has become increasingly prevalent. Aggrieved whiteness is a white identity politics aimed at maintaining white socio-political hegemony through challenging efforts to combat actual material racial inequality, while supporting heavily racialized investments in policing, prisons, and the military, and positing a narrative of antiwhite racial oppression loosely rooted in an assortment of racialized threats. This political manifestation of white supremacy does not deviate from previous incarnations; it lacks a legitimate grounding in reason and fact, but still produces very real social consequences. This article will sketch how W.E.B. Du Bois’s concept of socio-psychological wages of whiteness, Paula Ioanide’s discussion of modern racial affect, and Wendy Brown’s application of ressentiment to modern political conceptions of identity can help provide a contextualized understanding of aggrieved whiteness and the challenges it poses to pursuits for genuine racial justice.

Keywords: Aggrieved whiteness, racial formation, wages of whiteness, racial affect, neoliberal carcerality


Since the time of this country’s origins, race has been the fundamental political contradiction of our society. White supremacy in the United States has been challenged and has evolved a great deal, as has the society in which it is embedded, since the initial formulaic construction of racial social ordering. From the conception of the American racial system in the U.S. South in the early 1600s to the current moment of mass incarceration, unequal education, and persistent state and vigilante violence, white supremacy has been challenged but also refashioned, repackaged, and reproduced. This article argues that aggrieved whiteness is a historically new facet of U.S. racial formation, cohering as an approach to race politics after the civil rights movement and gaining material and ideological support throughout the neoliberal era. Furthermore, social wage retrenchment in the neoliberal era and the concomitant five-fold expansions of state expenditures throughout the criminal justice system are symbiotically entwined with aggrieved whiteness and its political mobilization.[1] This politics has become far more vocal, visible, mobilized, and violent[2] during the Obama presidency, as economic crisis, burgeoning class inequality, social atomization, and a lack of responsive political institutions have become more acute.

Aggrieved whiteness is a dominant pillar of contemporary U.S. racial formation, linking the material political projects of neoliberal carcerality with racial representations and identities. Michael Omi and Howard Winant defined a racial project as the ideological connective tissue between material inequality and socially constructed racial identities: “A racial project is simultaneously an interpretation, representation, or explanation of racial dynamics, and an effort to reorganize and redistribute resources along particular racial lines.”[3] Racial projects connect racial attitudes to ideological structures and political processes, and are socio-historical products of the material conditions and political conflicts of particular eras and social relations. Racial projects are more than individual attitudes or viewpoints, but also distinct from broader racial ideologies, as abstract sets of ideas. Racial projects link individual identity and opinions with ideological and political structures of race to mobilize political actors in efforts to reorder racialized power relations in society. Including but not limited to individual racial animus or fear, the racial project of aggrieved whiteness has organized white public feelings toward specific material ends of racial redistribution of power, wealth, and social standing in the era of neoliberal carcerality.[4]

The two primary politico-economic and ideological trends differentiating the racial project of aggrieved whiteness from earlier conceptions of white political identity are neoliberalism and individualistic identity politics. Attitudes of white racial resentment are longstanding. However, contemporary resentment attitudes (and the broader ideology and politics of which they are a part) are now affectively attached to and articulated through the assumptions, values, beliefs, and objectives of a neoliberal political terrain defined by a carceral/warfare state that privileges security over previous obligations toward the general social welfare, within an increasingly atomized and unequal society where government revenue and expenditures are understood through dog whistle racial politics.[5] Contemporary white racial resentment also differs from past eras of resentment due to the ways in which it is articulated through normative de-historicized and nonmaterial identity politics that, combined with dominant notions of a postracial social order, give the aggrieved white political subject internal ideological coherence and a political terrain to stand on. The racial project of aggrieved whiteness is oriented toward reconstructing white racial hegemony through a) positing a postracial social order, in which evidence of material racial inequality is explained through meritocratic individualism, and b) defining efforts to recognize or address real material racial inequality (through government policies and programs, or through social movements) as a form of social injustice that ultimately systematically disadvantages whites. While the ideology of white supremacy, and white resentment as a subset of that ideology, are by no means new, their ontological grounding within a political context of dominant postracialism allows white victimhood politics to be popularly expressed as simply the unbiased pursuit of group interests. The politics of aggrieved whiteness has been mutually constituted by racialized neoliberal/carceral restructuring and the subjectivities of race and class that they have been producing.

Public opinion polls and psychological research demonstrated the prevalence of aggrieved whiteness beliefs throughout the years of the Obama presidency. Aggrieved whiteness has become more ideologically cohesive through the covert and overt political mobilization of its adherents in the Tea Party and “Birther” movements, and most visibly through Donald Trump’s candidacy and electoral victory.[6] This politico-ideological project asserts that white citizens in the U.S. are racially subjected and structurally discriminated against by powerful structures which systematically limit their life chances due to their whiteness. Despite clear and persistent socio-cultural and political economic structures of white supremacy, real racial inequalities that serve to privilege rather than oppress white people, a politics of aggrieved whiteness has nevertheless become increasingly prevalent – refashioning “bootstraps” arguments that individualize and dehistoricize real racial disadvantage for people of color, while elevating a long and variegated list of racialized scapegoats which demand punitive containment, and validating and amplifying longstanding white racial resentments far beyond earlier moments of hostility to perceived affirmative action and welfare. Aggrieved whiteness is a white identity politics aimed at maintaining white socio-political hegemony through challenging efforts to combat actual material racial inequality, while supporting heavily racialized investments in policing, prisons, and the military, and positing a narrative of antiwhite racial oppression loosely rooted in an assortment of racialized threats. Racially-coded neoliberal carcerality has long been formulated through attacks on already weakened social welfare and affirmative action programs as well as support for repressive state intervention against racialized targets—from Muslims and undocumented immigrants to urban Black populations.

A Public Religion Research Institute poll found that 44 percent of all Americans and 61 percent of Tea Party supporters in 2010 thought that discrimination against whites was just as great as discrimination against racial minorities.[7] A Pew Research poll taken in August 2014, two weeks after the killing of Mike Brown in Ferguson, MO revealed that “about seven-in-ten whites (71%) expressed a great deal or fair amount of confidence in local police to treat blacks and whites equally, compared with just 36% of blacks.”[8] When asked about the Black Lives Matter movement, respondents to a September 2015 PBS poll revealed, “59 percent of whites think it distracts attention from real issues.”[9] These polls illustrate the extent to which white majorities identify themselves as racialized victims, a politics that goes beyond a simple resentful reaction to the election of the first mixed-race president, or blowback to emerging Black social movements. These polls reflect more than persistent individual biases or long-standing projected fear among white respondents; they highlight the much broader and paradoxical ways in which white supremacy, white resentment in particular, has become fundamentally linked with a subject position of victimhood. Within the existing racial formation in the United States, aggrieved whiteness has become the public face of modern white supremacy—a contradictory identity through which white political and economic dominance is maintained through rolling back the limited racial progress of the civil rights movement under the auspices of meritocratic fairness.

The institutional/ideological dialectic of white supremacy that has evolved over time, what Omi and Winant refer to as racial formation, is ideologically composed of sets of ideas that are articulated together to give coherence to dominant racial ideas, practices, and political subjects.[10] The racial stereotypes, racialized public emotions, assumptions about the functioning of social structures and relations, and contemporary political mobilizations are articulated (and rearticulated) to provide ideological coherence for the existing racial formation, and identities for people living within it. Articulated through existing racial stereotypes that serve to halt a racial redistribution of wealth and power, post–civil rights attitudes of resentment, New Right racialized antistatism and neoliberal carcerality, and recent mainstream political movements overtly situated around white identity, aggrieved whiteness has emerged to become, arguably, the hegemonic racial project within contemporary U.S. racial formation. As an ideological pillar of modern white supremacy, the fact that aggrieved whiteness is not firmly rooted within fact or rational logic (i.e., economically, politically, and socially white Americans as a social group consistently benefit rather than suffer from racial inequality) does not differentiate it from previous socio-political white supremacist claims (i.e., the white man’s burden, eugenics, the culture of poverty). Therefore I will not go to great lengths to illustrate the degrees and extent of white privilege in the United States. My aim is to provide a rough sketch of the politics of aggrieved whiteness in contemporary U.S. politics and society and to begin an analysis of the two major intersecting social contexts through which this politics has emerged: the protection and reinforcement of an elevated white socio-political status amid neoliberal political economic change; and individualized, dehistoricized identity politics as a normative frame through which subjects are politically intelligible and pursue their interests on a neoliberal historical landscape.

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