An essential problem here is the inadequacy of white identity. Everyone loves to talk about blackness, a fascinating thing. But bring up whiteness and fewer people want to talk about it. Whiteness is on a toggle switch between “bland nothingness” and “racist hatred.”Painter is far from the only American who finds a white identity “inadequate;” many of my peers seem to think it means only suburban blandness and an unpleasant history of imperialism and genocide. Not much to love or be proud of.
Which creates a problem for many Americans. Tribalism is a big part of our evolutionary inheritance; most of us are born with a strong tendency to divide us from them, and to assign all bad things to them and the good ones to us. The need to identify as something runs deep, and for many people "American" is just too big, vague, and diverse a category to fit the bill. "Whiteness" is a lame attempt to square this circle, assigning all the good things about America to "real Americans" and the bad things to alien others; but since this is an obvious lie, it has failed to find favor among most of the people.
A tribal identity supplied a huge amount of psychological and sociological support: heroes to emulate, values to practice, a language to speak, food to eat, ideas about marriage and child-rearing, enemies to fight. Especially in times of conflict tribalism could become all encompassing. To some extent this was always an illusion, since tribes interacted with other tribes and were always bringing in new ideas from outside. But to have such an identity is obviously a powerful thing for many and maybe most humans.
By contrast we moderns live in a porous, rapidly changing world, made constantly aware of how much about our lives is new or borrowed. To create an "us" that encompasses all that we value means stretching the boundaries to a huge scale -- to Western Civilization, say, or even to humanity. Such identities appeal to some, but for many they are too big and vague to carry the visceral power of belonging to a tribe. Plus the replacement of myth by history and political science, and the diversity of our worlds, bombards us with messages about the sins of our own people. Anyone who pays attention knows too much about our heroes to idolize them, too much about our ancestors' crimes to believe that our side is always good.
Because modernity clashes so strongly with those tribal modules in our brains, we are, I think, doomed to conflict about identities. There will always be people sickened by cosmopolitan relativism, and some of them will adopt fundamentalist ideas about truth -- whatever disrupts my own story is a lie -- and join identity cults that give them the strong support they need. Since these people live in the big world with the rest of us, they will always be confronted by people with different ideals and different identities, so flash points like the conflict over the Confederate battle flag are inevitable.
I identify as an intellectual in the western tradition; as a lover of democracy; as a man; as a parent; as an American; as a skeptic; as a curious, thoughtful person; as a modernist in love with science and possibility; as a lover of art and beauty, especially in traditional forms; as an environmentalist; as a citizen of the earth. For me this sort of composite identity works quite well, but I recognize that for many others it does not. It seems to me, though, that given what the modern world is, we would all be better off if we could adapt our psyches to our own world, rather than trying to recreate the intense tribalism of ancient days.