Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

Racial Identity Politics: A Warning From Sarajevo

Historian of the Yugoslav civil war to US Left: 'You are creating a momentum whose consequences you cannot foresee'
Screen Shot 2022-11-04 at 12.37.52 PM

Have you seen this ad running in Georgia?


The ad is shocking, though the factual claims it makes are, you know, true. It is ludicrous that the Left is scandalized by this. As I have been saying in this space for the past decade, the people on the Left pushing racial consciousness and racial identity for non-white people, and making the unchosen condition of being white into something wicked, are inevitably calling up white racial consciousness. I don't think there is anything wrong with that ad, in the sense that I believe it is correct to say that we as a society should not discriminate against white people. I believe racial discrimination is almost always immoral, and leaving aside morality, it's incredibly foolish to do this in a country like the United States, which is highly diverse, and which has a direct interest in tamping down racial tension. Yet I am nonetheless troubled that the US has degenerated to a point where an ad pointing out invidious discrimination against white people and calling it wrong has made an appearance. It should not be in the case that in post-1960s America, it should be necessary, or controversial, to point out that racial discrimination is wrong. But here we are.

For some reason, the Left believes that all white people will simply sit back and accept without protest this abuse and dhimmitization, as if the entire white population of the US were the same cringey people they see on campus, or in the boardroom. White racial consciousness is taboo for a good historical reason, but anyone with a lick of common sense has to see that you cannot keep attacking white people as morally bad because of the color of their skin, and punish them in public and private life because they are white, without inviting pushback. Once the pushback starts -- and this Georgia ad is a warning shot -- there is no telling where and how it will end. In the past, I've accused the Left of calling up the "demons" of white supremacy by its racialist activism, which involves a total rejection of the Martin Luther King standard of judging people not by the color of their skin, but the content of their character.

I don't see any way to keep a racially diverse country like the US together and thriving outside of the King standard. But this -- this great gift that King gave to this country -- is exactly what the Left is throwing into the trash! Again, I cannot for the life of me understand why the people on the Left don't see this, and aren't talking about it. Where do they think it's going to end? As we saw in 2020, the Left has even made it impossible for others on the Left to talk frankly about the risks of this strategy, without facing cancellation. If this is your strategy, then you should not be surprised when your opponent produces ads like the one above. Nor should you be surprised if you eventually get get much worse, as white people -- especially de-Christianized white people -- are no longer intimidated by the post-1960s taboo. Once we have lost that common standard, it might be impossible to get back. A Hungarian friend was telling me just this week that life here is socially coarse, because forty years of Communism destroyed habits like common decency and politeness, which had been demonized as "bourgeois." Rebuilding civil society and the kinds of habits needed to run a peaceable and just civil society is going to be the work of generations here.

So, the Civil Rights movement, whose claims were fully consonant with classical liberalism and the American founding, gave us a real opportunity to break free of the legacy of racism, and to build a more just and peaceable America. Not utopia -- that's not possible -- but a country where it was more possible for people of many races to live together in peace. But now? I see in the Left's cultural politics -- which have become the cultural politics of the entire American Regime, public and private -- the seeds of a potential American Yugoslavia.

I'm not the only one wondering this. Recently someone pointed me to Prof. Marko Attila Hoare, who teaches history and political science in Sarajevo. (Follow him on Twitter here.) I was told that Prof. Hoare, a scholar of the violent dissolution of Yugoslavia in the 1990s, is concerned about what's happening in woke America. I reached out to Prof. Hoare and asked him for an interview. That exchange is below. Note well Dr. Hoare's warning to the American Left about pursuing racial identity politics: "You are creating a momentum whose consequences you cannot foresee."


That's Dr. Hoare. Here is a transcript of our conversation:

ROD DREHER: What does America look like to you today, from your perspective in Sarajevo? Are we in danger of turning ourselves into another Yugoslavia from the 1990s?

MARKO ATTILA HOARE: First of all, to avoid overstating the parallel: the US is unlike Yugoslavia insofar as, although it is ethnically diverse, it is a nation-state of a single, American nation. Whereas Yugoslavia was a multinational federation whose member-states represented different nations (Serb, Croat, Macedonian, etc.). And the institutions, rule of law and traditions of pluralism are much stronger in the US. So things are unlikely to reach such an extreme in the US as they did in Yugoslavia.

That said, there is a parallel and it is one Americans should be very concerned about.

The old Yugoslavia under one-party Communist rule was a state with an ethnically diverse population, which the regime could keep united, up to a point, through a set of common values and national narrative, rooted in the common struggle against the Nazis and other foreign occupiers in World War II and relatively successful, prosperous statehood in the present. The national narrative of Tito's Yugoslavia was one that most Yugoslavs could identify with to a greater or lesser extent.

Yugoslavia was destroyed when radical Serb nationalists - led by Slobodan Milosevic's hardline Communist regime in Serbia - mobilised an ideological assault against it that emphasised ethnic differences, undermined the common Yugoslav narrative and played upon historical grievances. So, instead of emphasising the shared Yugoslav community and history of fighting foreign enemies together, Serb nationalists emphasised the Serbs' historical experience of oppression at the hands of Croat, Bosnian Muslim and Albanian fascists in World War II and, before that, at the hands of Muslim Ottoman occupiers. The result of this Serb-extremist mobilisation was to drive a wedge between the different ethnonational groups in Yugoslavia, destroying any sense of common patriotism and identity among both Serbs and non-Serbs (Croats, Bosnian Muslims, Albanians, Slovenes etc.). Ultimately, this resulted in the destruction of the common Yugoslav and Bosnian homelands and a genocide in which Milosevic and the Serb nationalists systematically destroyed Catholic churches, mosques and other buildings and parts of the heritage that they considered alien in the areas of Bosnia they occupied, erasing traces of the hated Ottoman imperial past to reforge the land according to their extremist vision of purity.

Woke activists and members of the elite in the US today are launching a similarly divisive assault on the ties that bind Americans. The US is a successful multi-ethnic nation-state: whatever its past treatment of black Americans, Native Americans or other non-whites, today members of minorities can rise to the very top: Barack Obama, Clarence Thomas, Sonia Sotomayor, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, Richard Cavazos, etc. This involves the US's own national narrative resting on the Declaration of Independence, Constitution, defeat of the Confederacy, victory in World War II and ultimately incorporating Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement; the idea that people should be judged by the content of their character not the colour of their skin. Woke or identitarian ideology seeks to destroy this unifying narrative and common American identity, emphasising instead supposedly inherent, immutable racial identities and the divisions between 'good' blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans etc. and 'evil' whites. They seek to replace the positive narrative with one that reduces American history to the history of colonialism, slavery, white supremacy and imperialism. They reject Thanksgiving which most Americans celebrate. They engage in acts of systematically vandalising statues and other historical monuments - even of figures like Thomas Jefferson and Ulysses Grant - as ritual acts of expunging the hated national past in favour of their own extremist vision of purity.

Woke ideology - identity politics - represents a reaction against racial integration and in favour of maintained racial differences, much as Milosevic's Serb nationalists reacted against the integration of Serbs with Croats and Bosnian Muslims (Bosniaks). Though we should note one difference that actually strengthens the comparison: Milosevic’s Serb nationalists were mostly Serbs and were abusing their own national history. Whereas woke or identitarian liberals and leftists are largely white Americans who have appropriated the name of the struggle for black and other minority rights.

I don't think woke politics will actually result in organised genocide in the US along Yugoslav lines. But all patriotic Americans should be very worried about the consequences of destroying the national narrative and racial integration in the name of 'progressive' (actually regressive) identity politics.

RD: Milosevic knew very well what he was trying to do, but my impression is that the American establishment truly believes that this heightened racial consciousness is going to have a positive effect on the country -- that it will lead us to a more just society. As someone who lived through the 1990s wars in the former Yugoslavia, if you could sit down with US political, cultural, and corporate leaders, what would you say to them to dissuade them from taking this path?

MAH: It's true that there is no figure equivalent to a Milosevic in the US elite. However, first of all, Milosevic himself probably wasn't already planning war and the break-up of Yugoslavia when he took control of Serbia in 1987; in the short term, he paradoxically thought that by mobilising a purely Serb-sectarian nationalist movement directed against other Yugoslavs, he would strengthen both Yugoslavia and his own Communist regime. This movement created a momentum that he couldn't control and took him to places he hadn't initially intended to be.

Secondly, this sectarian-nationalist movement wasn't just about Milosevic; it was a genuine mass movement, a 'Serbian Spring' that appeared to many of its participants progressive and emancipatory, led largely by Serbian liberals and leftists, while it was directed not only against non-Serbs but against those Serbs considered 'traitors' or 'reactionaries' for not being part of it. Milosevic was created by this nationalist 'reawakening'; he didn't simply conjure it out of nothing.

So, I would say to members of the US elite who embrace identity politics and demonise the US as inseparable from white supremacy, colonialism etc.: you are creating a momentum whose consequences you cannot foresee. You are undermining the ties that bind Americans: their common national identity, common belief in their country, common national narrative. You are instead heightening the racial identities that divide them; the very racial differences that past white supremacists promoted. You are reducing American history to the parts that divide Americans, reopening or keeping open historical wounds. Not only is this a priori divisive, but you are also creating a potentially dangerous backlash.

The point is not that Americans should not learn about the past oppression of black Americans or Native Americans - of course they should. But there is a big difference between teaching this history on the one hand, and on the other reducing the American experience and American nationhood to this past oppression and using it to bludgeon and shame political opponents and ordinary Americans today. Yugoslavs under Tito learned all about the Ustasha (Croat fascist) genocide of Serbs in WWII and the Ottoman oppression of Serbs, and that was well and good. But it was something different when Serb nationalists began saying that, in the present day, ‘all Croats are Ustashas’ and Bosnian Muslims are ‘Turks’.

In the end, the deliberate, systematic promotion of division in the US will hurt black and other minority Americans as it prevents their integration and resurrects the very white-sectarian identity that historically oppressed them. Keep telling white Americans that ‘you are white, you are racist and you are bad, irrespective of what you actually believe or do, simply because of the colour of your skin’ and you may find some of them embracing that white identity you are forcing upon them. And the climate you are creating around these issues is absolutely intolerant of any dissent to your hegemonic woke narrative. Think hard before you attack the US's delicate multi-ethnic fabric with a divisive, intolerant and extreme ideology.

RD: I am hearing from certain white conservatives real fear that the stage is being set by American elites for racial violence against white people. Most white conservatives I know are Christians who believe in the teachings of Martin Luther King, and who want to defend a social order that does not discriminate against people on the basis of race. And yet, I hear in our conversations since 2020 a rising fear that this social order doesn't really exist anymore, that it has been torn down by the Left in power, and that Christian conservatives who believe in it are fools. What would you have to say to American conservatives (Christian and otherwise) who are tempted to adopt racial/tribal politics as a matter of self-protection?

MAH: I would unequivocally oppose any attempt to adopt white -- or any other -- racial or tribal politics in response to woke politics. To do so would be to fall into the woke activists' trap; to become the enemy-and-partner they want and to facilitate the division of Americans along racial lines that they are promoting.

Identity politics need to be opposed by Americans as Americans; in a resistance that unites patriots regardless of race, ethnicity or creed and, ideally, liberals as well as conservatives. I would like to think that Dr Martin Luther King, who spoke so eloquently about the need to judge people by the content of their character not the color of their skin, would be part of this resistance were he alive today. Black and other minority Americans are threatened as much as whites, if not more so, by the woke attempt at re-segregating Americans according to race. The US is a nation of many ethnicities, colors and creeds; give up on that and you have given up on America.

UPDATE: A reader writes:

I think Dr. Hoare did a nice job of explaining things, but I want to throw in a few more cents about why the Yugoslav Wars isn’t a good parallel for our current moment.

Hoare emphasizes Yugoslavia was a multinational federation comprised of distinct nation-states. He overstates it when he calls the U.S. a singular nation-state (it, too, is a federation, just not consisting smaller nation-states), but that’s just it: in the U.S., the situation is, shall we say, intersectional?

No single identity reigns supreme at all times, it’s just that the most convenient or easily-exploited one takes center stage when the moment is right. We’ve seen that being Black or non-White doesn’t save you from the Left’s wrath if you’re not a Democrat and don’t hold far-left views. Sure, Blacks get a pass for a lot of things as long as they don’t cross certain red lines, but the Left has trouble deciding what identities are sacrosanct and what aren’t. In Yugoslavia, it was your ethnicity – blood – and religion – your God. No two things have proven better at establishing nationhood than blood and God.

In the U.S., people occupy so many different identities at once, not only would they have an impossible time choosing which identity to choose, the distinct belligerent sides necessary for civil war would never develop in the first place. Which side would an LGBTQ female who’s very socially liberal also a libertarian who believes strongly in the 2A choose? Would inner-city Blacks who hate White people really make common cause with White leftists who are behind the dispensing of such racial vitriol against… Whites? I could go on and on, but most people with strong group identities are actually a minority in this country. Even I, a non-White right-wing radical, might have problems picking sides. My point is that our diversity has had the effect of nearly atomizing us completely, making it easier to control us, but it’s also had the benefit of making it difficult for any serious critical mass to form with respect to nationalist movements that could increase the risk of internal conflict.

With one exception. Did you see this tweet?

I think it’s fair to say that the one hard divide that exists in this country is political. Politics is actually kind of a weak form of nationalism because it’s derived, to quote Samuel Huntington. A person can change their politics, but they cannot change their ethnicity. Concurrently, that explains why ethnicity has proven such a potent form of nationalism. Even religion is, comparatively, a weaker form of nationalism, but since, as Huntington explained, one cannot be both Christian and Muslim the way you can be ethnically Mexican, but nationally American. Religion may be derived also, but it’s a narrow form of nationalism, which is why it’s proven just as potent in determining nationhood as ethnicity.

It’s hard to believe political party identification could become an ethnic identification, but again, it only underscores the fact that political differences are the one hard fault line in the U.S. Everything else is secondary. If a civil conflict ever breaks out in this country, it will erupt along partisan lines, not racial.

One last thing – I believe Dr. Hoare was over the target when he said:

In the end, the deliberate, systematic promotion of division in the US will hurt black and other minority Americans as it prevents their integration…

But I’m a bit skeptical about this:

…resurrects the very white-sectarian identity that historically oppressed them.

Racial consciousness is key here and the two most racially-conscious groups in the U.S. are Blacks and Hispanics. Whites aren’t even close and, as a whole, are kind of a demoralized group. However, Whites are still the majority and Hispanics, despite their racial consciousness, are beginning to track alongside Whites politically. Blacks, meanwhile, are heavily race-conscious and possess a distinct cultural and political identity. White and Hispanic votes are split among the two parties, but Blacks swear by the Democrats, no matter how bad the results.

The point here is that if the Woke Left continues to indulge in racial identitarianism, as the Dr. suggested, it’s the Blacks who are going to suffer most by virtue of further self-isolation and segregation from the rest of society and acting on their hostility towards other races with violence. Through racial consciousness and a well-defined political identity, they are the one racial group in the U.S. that has effectively balkanized itself. Why would they further integrate themselves into American society if they think there’s no place in it for them to begin with? The Left already has Blacks in their back pocket and don’t really care about creating a better life for them because, if they did, they just might become like Hispanics or other non-Whites and become more… wait for it… diverse politically. Which would then undermine the entire Woke Left project to a lethal degree.

If it doesn’t get worse for Blacks, it certainly won’t be getting any better. Should we ever get to see the day when this Woke Left, “soft” totalitarian regime get tossed onto the ash heap of history, a future right-wing regime may not extend a closed fist towards balkanized Blacks, but they most certainly won’t be extending an olive branch, either. Lastly, a less White America won’t do much good for Blacks, or racial harmony, either. If the recent LA City Council scandal was any indication, race relations are most certainly going to suffer in a majority-Hispanic America, as they do in much of Latin America.