I now want to turn attention to the phenomenon of ‘White Crisis’. However, I should first clarify how I am using the term whiteness which goes beyond its association with epidermal considerations. In this connection, I draw upon the sociological exploration of whiteness due to Garner (2007, 2010a, 2010b) – specifically, (1) his processual understanding of whiteness as a phenomenon existing in dynamic relational-tension to other racialized identities, (2) the function of whiteness as a tacit invisible background standard, and (3) the socio-political manifestation of whiteness as a persistent, yet contested, globally-systemic structure, viz. white supremacy, a position he derives from Mills (1997).
While concerns about the future of whiteness have been engaged by some decolonial commentators against the backdrop of a purported shift to a ‘post-racial’ reality (Alcoff 2015) (Sayyid 2010, 2017), anxieties about the future (or otherwise) of whiteness are arguably traceable to the late 19th and early 20th century phenomenon of ‘White Crisis’ explored by Füredi (1998) and Bonnett (2000, 2005, 2008), the latter who refers to a decline of overt discourses of whiteness – more specifically, white supremacism – and the concomitant rise of a discourse about ‘the West’.
Examples of such periodically manifesting ‘White Crisis’ discourse include Lothrop Stoddard’s alarmist The Rising Tide of Colour: The Threat Against White World Supremacy (1920), Ronald Segal’s more ambivalent The Race War (1966), and in the contemporary ‘post-racial’ era, Douglas Murray’s The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam (2017). Commenting on the emergence of ‘White Crisis’ literature in late 19th – early 20th century Britain, Bonnett (2003) maintains that ‘the period when “the white race” was represented as undergoing a grave crisis was … also the period when white supremacism was most fully and boldly incorporated within public discourse [emphasis added].’ Crucially, according to Bonnett, ‘this relationship is unsurprising, for the one is the flip-side of the other.’ (p.322) I am inclined to think that this ambivalent ‘glass half-full, glass half-empty’ approach to thinking about whiteness is usefully extended to reading Blade Runner, viz. as both critique of whiteness and its affirmation.
It should be noted that the aforementioned literature appears at a time when proclamations of ‘white racial supremacy’ are being articulated in public by various commentators belonging to the dominant Euro-American powers of the1920s and 1930s; Stoddard’s Rising Tide is one of the better known. Less than fifty years on, whiteness (under the signifier ‘the West’) is once again ostensibly facing a crisis as a result of the Civil Rights movement in the US and the increasing linkage of this struggle to global anti-colonial struggles. Formal independence from European colonial powers is achieved in the late 1960s, and the Civil Rights struggle achieves certain limited victories; however, structures of colonial domination persist in the ‘operating logics’ of the newly independent post-colonial states, with decolonization as a project arguably being aborted under the transition from a liberal to a neo-liberal world order in the 1980s onwards. As neo-liberalism morphs into neo-conservativism, the ‘apocalyptic’ project of a ‘war on terror’ surfaces (Gray 2007) and the historically-sedimented figure of the Muslim ‘other’ as threat/enemy re-emerges (Ali 2017). Yet concurrent with and at least partly due to this centring of the specifically Muslim ‘other’ as enemy and the need to mobilize for war against it, ‘breathing room’ is provided in South America, South Asia and latterly South Africa for the gestation and development of a decolonial project – that is, re-engagement with the unfinished project of decolonization (to be contrasted with Habermas’ unfinished project of modernity). During the 2000s, the ‘decolonial option’ begins to be embraced by some members of ‘minority’ non-white groups located in the West, this tendency escalating in the ‘post-racial’ era under Obama’s presidency, with increasing contestation of whiteness and Eurocentrism in the academy, activist mobilizations against anti-blackness and white supremacy in movements such as Black Lives Matter, and various contemporary anti-racist responses to the rise of the Far/Alt-Right in the US and Europe against the backdrop of the continued rise of Islamophobia.
In this connection, I want to suggest that the recent election of Donald Trump as president of the United States, the Brexit phenomenon in the UK, and the continued rise of Far/Alt-Right politics in the US and Europe can – and should – be seen as one response to the re-emergence – or rather ‘re-iteration’ – of the phenomenon of ‘White Crisis’, almost fifty years on from the anti-racist struggles of the 1960s, and almost a century on from when ‘White Crisis’ was first being discussed in the West (specifically, Britain and America). Crucially, Bonnett (2008) maintains that ‘whiteness and the West … are both projects with an in-built tendency to crisis. From the early years of the last century … through the mid-century … and into the present day … we have been told that the West is doomed’ (p.25).
In concluding, I want to return, like the ocean tide, to what motivated this piece, viz. a consideration of sea walls and rising tides. Joining the dots on the basis of what has been stated above, I suggest that Blade Runner 2049’s long scene at the sea wall – the Sepulveda Sea Wall, built to hold back the rising sea levels – should be understood as a metaphor for contemporary concerns associated with the latest manifestation of ‘White Crisis’ – concerns about ‘rising tides of colour’ as peripheralized non-white/non-European/non-Western people once again attempt to migrate into the core of the modern/racial world system as refugees, asylum seekers and for a variety of other reasons. Insofar as the modern/colonial system was forged in violence against the periphery, and has been maintained, expanded and refined on the basis of same, such migration needs to be understood, at least partly, in terms of ‘blowback’, of return from the periphery to the core.
An ebb and a flow, like the rising tide against the sea wall.
Alcoff, L.M. (2015) The Future of Whiteness. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Ali, S.M. (2017) Islam between Inclusion and Exclusion: A (Decolonial) Frame Problem. In: The Future Information Society: Social and Technological Problems. Edited by Wolfgang Hofkirchner and Mark Burgin. Singapore, World Scientific, pp.287-305.
Bonnett, A. (2008) Whiteness and the West. In: New Geographies of Race and Racism. Edited by C. Dwyer and C. Bressey. Aldershot: Ashgate, pp.17-28.
Bonnett, A. (2005) From the Crises of Whiteness to Western Supremacism. ACRAWSA (Australian Critical Race and Whiteness Studies Association) 1: 8-20.
Bonnett, A. (2000) Whiteness in Crisis. History Today 50(12): 38-40.
Füredi, F. (1998) The Silent War: Imperialism and the Changing Perception of Race. London: Pluto Press.
Gray, J. (2007) Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia. London: Penguin.
Garner, S. (2010a) Racisms: an Introduction. London: SAGE.
Garner, S. (2010b) White Identities: A Critical Sociological Approach. London: Pluto Press.
Garner, S. (2007) Whiteness: an Introduction. London: Routledge.
Mills, C.W. (1997) The Racial Contract. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Sayyid, S. (2017) Post-Racial Paradoxes: Rethinking European Racism and Anti-Racism. Patterns of Prejudice 51(1): 9–25.
Sayyid, S. (2010) Do Post-Racials Dream of White Sheep? TOLERANCE Project Working Paper, Centre for Ethnicity and Racism Study: Leeds University, pp.1-14.