Members Only | August 24, 2022 | Reading Time: 4 minutes

Who counts as white?

Why are folks in the Republican Party so quick to call their fellow Americans, and their opposing values and ideas, “anti-American?” 

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Last year, during the height of the “critical race theory” backlash, I occasionally saw justifications for banning CRT that included the claim that it was “anti-American.” I always found this curious. 

A recent letter by US Senator Marco Rubio for American Principles Project claims that “upscale liberals now push the Marxists’ anti-American, anti-family agenda at every level of society.”  

The letter’s major thrust is about building support for legislation to protect families. Yet there was this claim of anti-Americanness.

Being “white” has historically meant having access to legal and social privileges. White people had the legal right to vote, hold public office, own property and live “the American Dream.” In a post-civil rights America, everyone has gained the same legal rights. However, white Americans still enjoy social privileges that can be summed up this way: In most instances, their race does not work against them.

What’s going on here? 

Why are folks in the Republican Party so quick to call their fellow Americans, and their opposing values and ideas, “anti-American?”  

I think the answer lies in whiteness. 

White identity and whiteness
A team of sociologists using survey data from 2003 reported that “a full third of white Americans say that their white racial identity is very important, and about three-quarters agree with the proposition that their racial group has a culture that should be preserved.” 

More recent work published in 2019 by political scientist Ashley Jardina supports this data. In White Identity Politics, she suggests that 30 to 40 percent of white Americans possess a racial identity. Another 20 percent possess strong levels of group consciousness. 

While most white folks identify as white, whiteness describes something more complex, even if racial identity is the bedrock. 

Whiteness is a set of sociopolitical ideas and behaviors.

The late sociologist Ruth Frankenberg thought of whiteness as having three components. 

First, whiteness implies exclusion

Being “white” has historically meant having access to legal and social privileges. White people had the legal right to vote, hold public office, own property and live “the American Dream.” In a post-civil rights America, everyone has gained the same legal rights. However, white Americans still enjoy social privileges that can be summed up this way: In most instances, their race does not work against them. 

Second, whiteness is a worldview

White people tend to be less aware of their race than Black people and people of color are, even as they benefit from a deeply racialized culture. They aced the interview due to merit. The idea that they reminded the interviewer of a college friend never occurs to them.


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Third, whiteness is the norm to white people

This may be the most consequential feature of whiteness, as it explains the politics of exclusion in the US. It is also the line of separation between most white Americans and the unique brand of whiteness I see practiced currently in American conservatism.  

The whiteness of “real Americans”
According to those in conservative spaces, the story goes like this:

America is a unique “city on a hill” founded on Christian faith and Western principles. Husband-led nuclear families, given the freedom to farm and build businesses, spread out across this land and turned it into the greatest nation on earth. There have been some injustices along the way, but Americans have corrected those mistakes. The history of the United States is primarily one of economic, scientific and moral progress. You succeed based on what you and your family can do. Social support from the government is unnecessary, and “isms” like racism or sexism are so rare as to be unworthy of mentioning.

This is the story underpinning the cultural practices of “real Americans.” Unbelievers are consequently “anti-American.”  

And so it should be no surprise that considered critiques of America’s institutions – critiques like critical race theory (no quotes) or the 1619 Project – are seen by “real Americans” as being anti-American. 

How dare you question the city on a hill!  

It explains how Fox host Tucker Carson could say on his television show about the Democrats that “these people hate America.” The Democrats focus way too much on “isms,” and for Carlson, this means they hate this country. And this explains Rubio’s letter, the idea that loan forgiveness is anti-American, and so on. 

But there are a number of nonwhite conservatives. 

What explains them? 

Mimicking “real Americans”
Black people and people of color may not have European features, but they can adopt the standpoints of white Americans. They can “approximate” whiteness and attempt to gain some of its privileges. 

The language of the lieutenant governor of Virginia, Jamaica-born Winsome Sears, is virtually indistinguishable from the language of white conservatives. She is the first Black female lieutenant governor, but I have seen little that suggests that her background matters.   

Another example is Kenny Xu, writer and president of the organization Color Us United. Xu’s Twitter feed tends to reflect the cultural viewpoints of white Americans. Recently, he said: “I am not offended when someone asks me ‘where are you from?’ Why would you be? Do you hate people being interested in you that much?” 

Many Asian writers and intellectuals have worked hard to remind white Americans how insulting it is to ask someone where they are from as if they do not belong. Xu interprets these interactions from a white person’s standpoint and turns this problematic behavior into a virtuous one. White people are just interested in you, that’s all. 


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To be fair, I believe Sears and Xu have come at it honestly. Many Black people and people of color approximate whiteness because they have a personal connection to whites, a lack of connection to other people of color, have benefited from the same structures that were originally designed for whites or a combination of the three.

I disagree with Sears’ and Xu’s politics, but to all appearances, they seem to be outstanding people of high moral character. I am simply describing this collection of views as approximating a conservative brand of whiteness that is synonymous with Americanness. 

City on a hill?
The brand of whiteness I see growing in conservative spaces is exceptionally damaging because it is so exclusionary and antithetical to what America can and should be – a multiracial democracy.

It is a vision of a monoculture exemplified by heterosexual, Christian, white Americans, and those who approximate their whiteness. 

There is no room for queer folk. 

No room for single mothers or “abnormal” families. 

No room for non-Christians. 

No room for Black people or people of color.

Unless they suppress their racial identity. 

Maybe a crater
This isn’t fanciful theorizing. 

Laws have already been passed banning discussions of race and sexuality. Laws are being proposed to ban trans women from sports. MAGA politician Lauren Boebert says she is “tired” of the separation of (Christian) church and state. We’ve seen the repeal of Roe by the Supreme Court. The banning of affirmative action is coming. 

If this brand of whiteness comes to dominate, this country will no longer be a city on a hill but a crater filled with bigotry. 


Rod Graham is the Editorial Board's neighborhood sociologist. A professor at Virginia's Old Dominion University, he researches and teaches courses in the areas of cyber-crime and racial inequality. His work can be found at roderickgraham.com. Follow him @roderickgraham.

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