In a quiet office at a Washington think tank, a tract is composed on the biologically determined intellectual inferiority of blacks. Out on a Brooklyn street, as black demonstrators march through a segregated white enclave, the residents yell racist epithets. At an urban college campus in California, Latinos and Asians, whites and blacks, sit side-by-side in the overcrowded classroom, and in their own separate groups in the cafeteria. As they drive home to their segregated neighbourhoods, they pump the same high-volume hip-hop sounds through their car speakers. A few miles up the interstate, neo-Nazis train at a private ranch. A few miles the other way, an organizing drive is going on for unite, the newly consolidated needle trades union; a majority of the workers in the bargaining unit are Asians and Latinos, but there are some whites. Among the organizers, one of the most effective is a young white woman who speaks good Spanish.

This essay examines racial politics and culture in the United States as they shape the status of whites. Clearly, there are many varieties of ‘whiteness.’ I begin from the premise that it is no longer possible to assume a ‘normalized’ North American whiteness, whose invisibility and relatively monolithic character signify immunity from political or cultural challenge. An alternative perspective is demanded, one which begins from a recognition of white racial dualism. My discussion of this theme is an extension to whites of one of Du Bois’s ideas about racism: that the ‘colour line’ fractures not only society but the self, that it imposes a schizophrenia on the bearers of racialized identities, which forces them to see themselves simultaneously from within and without. Du Bois, of course, intended this analysis to explain problems of black politics and culture at the turn of the twentieth century; it was a time when few publicly questioned the normalization of whiteness. Here I want to extrapolate his idea to the white ‘politics of identity’ as the century ends.

The temporal context matters: only in the aftermath of the partial and ambiguous successes of the 1960s social movements could such an analysis make sense. Here I argue that, since the enactment of civil-rights reforms, contemporary racial discourse has been unable to function only as a logic of racial superiority and justified exclusion. The racial conflicts of the post-civil-rights period have fissured white supremacy and fractured the old racial ‘common sense’ of the us, although they have hardly destroyed it. An unprecedented period of racial anxiety and opportunity has resulted, in which competing racial projects struggle to reinterpret the meaning of race and to redefine racial identity. A crucial theme in these struggles has turned out to be the identity of whites, and the meaning of whiteness.

That white identity has been problematized in the years since 1960 is really not so surprising. The downfall of official racial segregation brought about significant gains for racially-defined minorities, yet the preservation of substantive racial inequality—in income, education, housing and other spheres—quickly demonstrated the limits of the civil-rights ‘revolution’. A little-noticed civil-rights era reform, the Immigration Act of 1965, led to a growing population of ‘other others’, mainly Latinos and Asians. The rapid growth of these groups over the past few decades has replaced the old black-white racial polarity with a multifaceted racial order in which whiteness is no longer the negation of non-whiteness, but merely another form of racial ‘difference’. Meanwhile white ethnicity has declined in significance, resulting in a ‘post-ethnic’ Euro-American identity whose bearers are far more open to political alliances with wasp elite—and generally Republican—groups than their parents would have been.

Other factors have worked to refigure whiteness. Shortly after the enactment of racial reform legislation in the 1960s, working-class incomes stagnated or declined in real terms as profits soared; this provoked growing resentments that were often articulated racially, in line with long-established us traditions of racially based class formation. Assaults on unions and plant closings were seen in terms of the transfer of jobs to largely non-white workers in the south, the south-west and the under-developed world. Democratic Party support for civil rights and affirmative action led many white workers to vote Republican. As one respondent told Stanley Greenberg, the ‘average American white guy’ gets a ‘raw deal’ from the government because, ‘blacks get advantages, Hispanics get advantages, Orientals get advantages. Everybody but the white male race gets advantages now.’footnote1 Attacks on the welfare state and renewed paroxysms about the supposed parasitism of the poor followed naturally from this perspective. Politicians of the Right trumpeted the charge that the taxes paid by ‘productive citizens’ who ‘play by the rules’ and ‘go to work each day’ were going to subsidize unproductive, indolent and promiscuous ‘welfare queens’ and ‘career criminals’ who ‘don’t want to work.’ The racial subtext of such statements hardly needs elaboration.