An immigrant’s American Dream
Jason D Hill on identity politics, multiculturalism and why he’s not a victim of white oppression.
Jason D Hill, a professor of philosophy at De Paul University, has long been a staunch critic of identity politics. Or better still, he has long been a staunch critic of those theories and worldviews that reduce individuals to a set of ethnic or racial characteristics, limit them to their cultural backgrounds, or tie them down to their ancestral roots. It is a critical, philosophical impulse evident in all his works published thus far, from Becoming a Cosmopolitan (2000) and Beyond Blood Identities (2009) to Civil Disobedience and the Politics of Identity (2013).
And little wonder. For Hill himself is a testament to the freedom to become, to go beyond one’s background and cultural milieu. The 20-year-old Jamaican who arrived in the United States in 1985, ‘armed with $120, big dreams for my life, and the love of my family’, as he put it in a piece for Commentary magazine earlier this year, never allowed himself to be constrained by the accidents of birth. He was determined to become what he had always striven to be; a public intellectual. That he was able to do so, Hill argues, was due to the rights and liberties enshrined in the US, the country of his adoption.
Today, however, both Hill’s work and his example run counter to a climate in which identity is celebrated, roots are fetishised and victimhood is embraced. Which is why Hill’s latest book, We Have Overcome: An Immigrant’s Letter to the American People, to be published in early Spring next year, is so necessary. Part memoir, part call to intellectual arms, it is above all a defence of the American Dream and a riposte to those keen to celebrate minorities’ identities, while painting them as the victims of white privilege. Here’s what Hill had to say about it:
spiked review: So, what was the prompt for writing We Have Overcome?
Jason D Hill: It was partially a response to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, a book in which he denigrated the American Dream as a white Americans’ mythology, a dream predicated on white supremacy, built on the backs of black people – a dream created by white people to exploit black people. And I thought ‘that’s false’. America is not a white-supremacist country anymore for the simple reason that we don’t have an official ideology that promotes the superiority of the white race. Moreover, destroying the idea of the American Dream is also to inhibit the aspirations of immigrants, like myself, who came to America to make something of their lives. And that is very dangerous.
review: So you haven’t experienced the racism that Coates claims characterises American life for black people?
Hill: I have lived here for 32 years – I came here from Jamaica when I was 20 years old. I’m mixed race, but I’m perceived as being black in America. And, like any person of colour who has lived in America, I’ve experienced my fair share of racism. But I don’t see America as a nation of extreme bigotry. I think it’s an extraordinarily self-reflective nation. It’s always correcting its errors. It’s a highly reformed society that is always trying to move forward. I certainly don’t see it as a society that is bent on oppression and injustice.
In my three decades here, I see an America that has improved its race relations remarkably. It boggles the mind to think of the changes America has undergone. I lived in the deep South when I first came here, and when I see the improvement in race relations today, I’m amazed.
Moreover, while I have experienced racism, I’m not a victim. I don’t believe in the cult of victimology that so many seem to harp on about. You encounter racism, you deal with it, address it and move on. So to then adopt the identity of a victim is quite dangerous because it cripples your agency, your capacity to utilise resources at your disposal to deal with it.
review: You mention ‘the cult victimology’ – how widespread is it? And do you think that too many now almost want to be labelled victims, in this case, the black victims of white prejudice?
Hill: This is one of the things I wanted to emphasise: that we, as immigrants, have overcome. But we live in an era in which what I call the alt-left is promoting a message of victimology, not just among black people, but among new immigrants, too. It’s a message that tells immigrants and black people that they are incontrovertibly oppressed by whites, that there’s a new form of oppression since Donald Trump became president. There has been an eruption of something since Trump’s election, but it’s not resurgent racism; it has been an eruption of moral hysteria and hyperbole on the part of a far left that wants to paint racial minorities as helplessly under the yoke of white oppression.
And I just think that’s not true. This is a country in which there are infrastructures in place that allow blacks to matriculate and navigate their way through American society, and to achieve extraordinary things. We have gone beyond the pale of a certain kind of racism in the US, in which blacks don’t just still achieve and take advantage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Rather, if you’re a white male, and you have PhD, you’re probably not going to get an academic job. You’re probably going to be passed over in favour of a person who is black. There are certain ways in which institutions in the US bend over backwards if you are a person of colour to employ you, to look out for you.
And I think people on the far left – I’m a conservative liberal, a conservative Democrat – have taken their agenda too far.
review: Coates talks about black people never having been able to liberate themselves – which is historically untrue, if you think of the slave revolt in what was to become Haiti. What do you make of this argument that it is up to some external agent to liberate and help black people on their behalf?
Hill: One of the things that Coates leaves out of his narrative is black wealth, the black middle class. In the US, black people have created enormous, thriving communities, even during segregation and the Jim Crow era. Certain pathologies which we see occurring in the black community today – a disproportionate number of crimes committed by black men, 70 per cent of children born out wedlock to black single mothers – were not happening then. That is, they were not happening when blacks really were discriminated against.
I think the idea that blacks are helpless is quite dangerous, because it leaves in the minds of mainstream society this idea that blacks are wards of the state, that they’ve never been able to utilise their creative agency to lift themselves out of oppressive situations – situations that have been manufactured primarily, not by private citizens, but by the state. The state has been the biggest enemy of blacks in America, not private citizens. This is something that has been conveniently left out of Coates’ story. He can’t admit the extent to which there have been thriving black, middle-class communities, including immigrant communities that have come here and worked and achieved. Think of the garment industry. It was integrated by the Jamaicans, in particular, Jamaican women, who, arriving in the 1920s and seeing a sign in New York that said ‘blacks need not apply’, simply walked in en masse, thinking hubristically that this sign did not apply to them. And they applied for these jobs in droves. And these Jamaican women in the 1920s integrated the garment industry.
Indeed, there were thriving black communities in Harlem in the 1920s – self-sustaining communities – that are completely left out of Coates’ story. This is something that has angered a lot of conservative blacks who have pointed to strong black communities at the height of Jim Crow, and strong schools before integration – and I’m a big advocate of integration – in the south and in the north, in which black people were thriving and flourishing in very dire, politically and socially unjust circumstances. These are all stories that Coates has left out of his narrative. It’s a narrative that denies black people a sort of dignity, a creative agency that they are deserving of.
review: It’s strange. As you suggest, in terms of civil rights, and so on, society has never been more egalitarian, and yet it seems that different identity-based groups are more aggrieved than ever. Why do you think there is what looks like a paradox? Why do you think the politicisation of identity is so intense now?
Hill: I do think there are couple of legitimate reasons why identity politics is in the ascendancy. I do think there are people who legitimately feel left out of the ambit of economic growth.
One of the reasons why I think Trump was so popular is that there are a lot of people who have never felt included in this notion of American greatness. A lot of people did feel disenfranchised, marginalised, voiceless. They never felt that they were heard. And with the advent of social media, Bernie Sanders, the rise of progressivism and so on, there are more avenues for hitherto excluded voices to be heard. I don’t think that these people didn’t exist before, it’s just they have more vehicles, more opportunities to express their concerns, to express their feelings of dispossession, of being left out of the American Dream. They feel that they are not part of the value-making or the political decision-making that is taking place.
I think that to the extent that the left wants to regain its moral and political stature, it can’t just react cavalierly to the right. It’s got to develop a soul, an agenda, a spirit, a true philosophy that can be responsive to the concerns of these hitherto voiceless people. It can’t just indulge in finger pointing and the demonisation of the right. Because the right has been able to articulate, in a populist grassroots way, the aspirations and the concerns of these disenfranchised people. And I think there’s something very bourgeois and elitist and condescending about the extent to which the left – aside from the progressive and the very, very far left – has failed to address some of these central concerns of working-class and poor people. The Democrats have become the moneyed party of the affluent and wealthy.
There are two separate trajectories to identity politics, however. One at the grassroots level, and one in the academy. And what’s happening in academia with regards to identity politics is completely nefarious.
review: So why do you think the academic trajectory of identity politics – which, after all, does feed into the mainstream discussion, not least because so many are graduates today – is so nefarious?
Hill: It goes back to the rise of postmodernism in the 1960s, the assault on reason, on individualism, on the Western tradition. And the rise of the multicultural left, which, in a sense, started out as a noble form of advocacy. It initially was about granting equal citizenship rights, equal liberties to marginalised groups, and there was a noble egalitarian principle to this. But I think, over time, that impulse collapsed. Multiculturalism began focusing on advocating the racial, ethnic distinctness of each group. It became the lobbyist of those groups to the state, with the state acting as the preserver of racial, ethnic distinctness. Indeed, it became the role of the state to usher in the aspirations and goals of distinct groups of people, rather than to ensure the equality and the liberty of individuals as individuals.
I think the multicultural left started to elevate and warp the meaning of toleration, turning it into relativism. It suspended judgements about certain cultures as if they were all equal. It also treated individual cultures as if they were indivisible wholes, and assumed some kind of essentialism. And it began turning a blind eye towards the infractions of certain groups by simultaneously demonising Western civilisation as nothing but the imperialistic, hegemonic creation of white males who were bent on imposing their old racist structures of logic and discourse on marginalised groups. And this is where I think it started – with the multiculturalist left and the assault on the canon, on truth; the idea that there were no objective ways to adjudicate between truth claims, that each discipline, whether it’s queer studies or Chicano studies, had its own distinct canon of works, with its own truths. So multiculturalism ushered in what I would call its own epistemologies, its own notion of truth, its own criteria for adjudicating between truth claims and so on. Gone was the Western notion that there is an objective reality out there and objective criteria for adjudicating between truth claims, or that we judge ideas and not groups as such.
And I think this is manifesting itself on campus today with the assault on free speech. Because we’re not really judging people’s ideas; we’re judging people as groups. We’re saying that if you’re a white heterosexual male, or if you are an able-bodied non-raciated person, or a conservative writer, we’re going to disparage you the individual and not even bother to look at the ideas.
This is where we went wrong with identity politics. It started with the postmodern assault on reason, and the assault on the Western canon and truth. Then multiculturalism slipped from a noble advocacy into a form of racial and ethnic preservationism. Distinctness and indiscriminate toleration have been elevated to the level of cults, withholding from us the ability to judge the actions and behaviour of certain groups.
The multicultural left sees identity groups as monolithic, as indivisible wholes, rather than seeing the malleability, the fluidity, the overlapping ways in which cultures emerge and contest with one another. Indeed, multiculturalism fails to see the way in which cultures are compounds of one another. So on the one hand the proponent of multiculturalism is trying to fight the essentialism that pertains to Western civilisation, while inventing a new essentialism that pertains to groups.
review: You argue that multiculturalism and identity politics reduce individuals to a set of group characteristics. It’s one of the most potent things about your critique. I wondered if you could say a bit more about the reductivism of identity politics, the way it reduces people to, say, their ancestry, to a set of reified characteristics, and how this inhibits the development of their autonomy?
Hill: It does rest on an anti-assimilationist logic, which I would argue rests on a logic of contagion. So I think that embedded in the multiculturalist viewpoint, there is this essentialist strain, which says that you are a reified racial or ethnic identity, that you are a member of a monolithic group, and that you come with an identity that is irreducibly traceable back to your ancestry. The multicultural left doesn’t say this explicitly, but it’s the logical terminus of its argument, a polygenism that says that you come with an unalterable racial or ethnic essence that is traceable back to your origins. And your interaction with your fellow human beings, the way you’re socialised with your compatriots, can in no way alter that foundational structure, that paradigm from which you emerge. That is empirically false. We know that people are a compound of many different subcultures and groups. We know that when people assimilate, they don’t necessarily give up their language and heritage. Rather, and this is a reciprocal process, they take on the characteristics, the principles, the mores of their host countries. And more importantly, they take on the characteristics, the qualities, of their neighbours. This makes them compound individuals, and it also culturally inauthenticates them – makes them, say, less Caribbean and so on. And the multiculturalists have a hard time dealing with that because they want to see people as completely pure, distinct members of a group. They want to point to someone who has navigated himself through a society, through a culture, and say you must adhere to the racial, ethnic script that says this is who you are. You can’t deviate from it or you’ll lose your authenticity and your autonomy as a racial subject. You must adhere to it. It’s both a lie and a very crippling way of seeing human beings in the world.
It is a form of what I call cultural apartheid. It is untenable and wrong, and it prevents the cosmopolitan moment from emerging among human beings, where we are free to hand over part of our socialisation to our fellow human beings and become other than what we started out as. The multiculturalist valorises groups, and prioritises the past over the future. But we are future beings – beings that are projected into the future with our fellow human beings. And the radical multiculturalist can’t bear this because it points at least to a radical modification of your roots. And to distance ourselves from our roots is precisely what the radical multiculturalist doesn’t want, because they are monists – ethnic and racial monists.
Such cultural apartheid is very dangerous because it means people hold in abeyance the rich interactions they can have with their fellow human beings. They’re afraid that to get too close to another human being, to have their stories, their lifestyles impacted on by another human being, would really call into question the distinct national, racial, ethnic identity that they think is an unalterable, constitutive part of their identity.
review: That’s fascinating, because at points in your writing, you seem to be espousing what reads like a heroic individualism, someone conjuring themselves up using nothing but their own internal resources. But you’re also very focused on how we develop ourselves through our engagement and interaction with others…
Hill: I do adhere to the notion of a heroic individualism in the sense that I think we are individuals, we have to craft a vision of our lives for ourselves, and we must have a vision for our lives that we want to affect and execute in the world. But I’m an intersubjectivist, too. I reject the atomistic view of liberalism, which I think is a straw man anyway. I don’t think any liberal I’ve ever met thinks of the liberal individual as someone on a desert island forging themselves in isolation. We develop in tandem, with strangers, with our fellow citizens, with friends, with loved ones. So yes, I’m an intersubjectivist. I think this venturesome journey has to be done with other people. Sometimes it’s done with people with whom we share values, and sometimes it’s done with people with whom we have little in common. But on the journey, we make the script up as we go along. And I think that’s the cosmopolitan moment. And as we go along, you are forced to create a common language, a vocabulary, that helps you on the journey.
In my advocacy work, when I go off to Mexico or Peru to work with disenfranchised children and orphans, I find that I have very little in common with many of the people I meet. I might not even like some of them personally. But I’ve committed to a goal, and through working with strangers, a cosmopolitan moment emerges. We’re culturally different, nationally different. But in the moment you commit to a cause, in the moment you’re working with a stranger, the immediacy of those moments forces you to develop a script, a new moral language, that you couldn’t have imagined before. It’s not something you could have imagined before the relational journey, or imposed upon each other.
So even if you’re a rugged individualist – which I take myself to be – that individualism still has to be pursued in concert with your associates, with your compatriots. The ruggedness of the individualism comes from the fact that the responsibility for your life is your own. You may have pursued the journey with others, but the responsibility for it lies in your own hands. You can’t pass that responsibility on to any other person. I would never ever think of saying that my life is someone else’s responsibility. The choices I make are uniquely my own.
review: Does this relate to your idea of ‘moral insurrectionism’?
Hill: Moral insurrectionism, as I defined it (in terms of when not to get along with others), is that you become a rebel, someone who through an act of civil disobedience decides that he or she is going to abide by the dictates of his or her conscience. This is where being an individualist comes in. There’s a fine line between maintaining civic harmony and trust, and utilising your moral conscience in a way that upsets that harmony and trust, in order to bring a form of higher social justice into the world, whether that’s marriage equality or fighting some form of state-sanctioned oppression.
In my case, in an academic world dominated by the multicultural left, it might mean speaking out against what is taken to be received wisdom. It has to be done in a particular way – judiciously, politely. I’m for things being done in a forceful, aggressive manner, but still adhering to the protocols of civic respect. I don’t agree with demonising people, eviscerating people of their dignity. You can ferociously attack people’s ideas, but attacking people personally is counterproductive and goes against my personal belief in the cosmopolitan ethos. So unless someone has committed some sort of egregious wrong, is really quite evil, you have to give people the benefit of the doubt when you’re exercising your moral insurrectionism – you have to believe that they are persuadable, that they’re open to reason, even though they themselves might be enemies of reason. So you proceed respectfully, by appealing to the best that is in them.
review: You mention challenging received wisdom in the academy. Do you think the academy is becoming increasingly intellectually conformist?
Hill: I do, and I see this in the movement towards shutting down free speech. The irony is lost on the left that. in the 1960s, they and liberals were in the vanguard of the Free Speech Movement. And today, we see it is the student left and the administrators who are assaulting free speech. A kind of ideological conformity is being imposed on the academy. Anything that is offensive, anything that offends left-wing sensibilities, is shut down. It means that disputatious ideas are deprived of their place in the tribunal of human ideas.
The other thing that upsets me is the mainstreaming of a certain kind of gender politics. I teach a course on social-contract theory every year, in which there are parts on Hobbes and Locke, and so on. And I tell my students when they ask ‘well where are the female writers?’ that there is something called social-contract theory and you can’t fudge the history: it was a theory, developed in Western Europe in the early modern period by white men. European men created the theory of the social contract. Yet there is a movement calling for a fairer representation of women in the canon, which seems to want to challenge and revise history.
But you can’t fudge history. You have to teach it as objectively and dispassionately as possible. What you can do is say that there are certain feminist critiques of the canon. But you can’t mandate the structure, or force professors to teach Judith Butler, and so on.
I find that to be the case as someone who is an outlier at the university, who’s been reading libertarian writers for 30 years. Once, when I was teaching the history of Western political thought from the 13th century on, one of my students said that they were being taught white-supremacist thinkers. And I said, ‘we’re teaching Locke, who was heavily influential on the Founding Fathers. You’re the legatee of a great tradition, and you’re telling your professor you’re not going to read any of it. Don’t you realise the temerity and audacity it takes to say that to me. Who gave you the critical vocabulary, the right to say that? You couldn’t say that in Saudi Arabia or Iran. Think where the freedom to make such an utterance came from!’
And if you bring more conservative thinkers into the academy, this is met with such vitriol, such hostility, that I think, going back to John Stuart Mill, people on the far left have started to assume their own infallibility. They think that what they perceive as social injustices do not need to be demonstrated. They’re taken as given. And that we don’t need a debate about how social injustices are interpreted. They’re just asserted as if they’re axioms. Any viewpoint today that diverges from left-wing orthodoxy is presented as bigotry, which I think is very, very dangerous.
Jason D Hill is professor of philosophy at De Paul University. His latest book is We Have Overcome: An Immigrant’s Letter to the American People, which will be published by Bombardier Books in Spring 2018. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)
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