July 6, 2023 MEMRI Daily Brief No. 497

Like It Or Not, Identity Matters – But Which Ones?

July 6, 2023 | By Amb. Alberto M. Fernandez*
Sudan | MEMRI Daily Brief No. 497

The videos are bloodcurdling. This used to be their land and now we have replaced them. The videos are accompanied by reports of the killing and expulsions of thousands. The videos are from Sudan, from Darfur to be precise. "Dar Masalit (land of the Masalit) is now for the Arabs."[1]The media content is from Darfur Arab tribesmen identified with or allied with the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), currently fighting a brutal war against the Sudanese Army or SAF.[2] SAF itself is no stranger to ethnic conflict going back decades and seems to have returned to targeted killings of people from the "wrong" ethnic or tribal background in recent weeks.

But if you were an outsider looking at them, there is not a huge difference between the Masalit and other "African" tribes and their "Arab" adversaries. Both are generally Black, both are usually Muslims, both even tend to speak Arabic. In Sudan and in Darfur, it is all too often tribal or ethnic identity that triumphs, tied to a tribal consciousness connected to a sense of place and connection to people and past generations. Such consciousness has often been manipulated by state power or political actors.

If the "wrong" identity could lead to loss of life in Sudan, in America it could have led to the loss of opportunity. Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that discrimination – "affirmative action" – on the basis of race in university admissions was unconstitutional. The case, against Harvard University, was by students of Asian origin, and recent polling has confirmed that a majority of the American people – including Republicans, Democrats and independents – are opposed to race-based affirmative action in university admissions.[3]

The fact that the high court and the American people were in accord about this issue did not stop a wave of rage against the ruling from left-wing and racial activists, joined by the Biden administration which said that "we cannot let this decision be the last word." Only a few weeks earlier, the Biden White House had displayed the "Progress Pride" flag (the traditional Gay Pride flag but with added strips to represent the Trans community as well as "minority or marginalized communities") in a place of honor between the national flag.[4]

While some favored identities (sexual and racial ones) in America seem to have gained official support at the highest level, others have not. Obviously, the Asians suing Harvard were not one of the favored. And in the still-majority-white United States, "white" seems to have become a frequently used (at least by elites) pejorative – "white privilege," "white fragility" – and even "whiteness" itself is a negative term, according to the federally funded National Museum of African American History and Culture.[5] Identity matters in the United States, but some identities matter more than others.

Perhaps it is not surprising that the last decade has seen a major decline in the percentage of Americans being proud of being Americans, according to Gallup in 2022.[6] The biggest declines come from those who identify as Democrats or independents, but declines were seen in every category.

And while Sudanese were being killed on the basis of identity, and Americans were either favored or discriminated against on the basis of identity, in France people were rioting on the basis of identity. The police shooting of a young juvenile delinquent of Algerian origin has triggered the worst wave of violence and looting seen in France since 2005.

The identities at play in France were complex. Most of the rioters, arsonists and looters arrested, two-thirds of them, were of migrant (Arab or African) origin. But in addition to ethnic, racial and religious elements, there were gang culture and anti-system strands. France's leading far-left party encouraged the street rage, and migrants were joined by black-garbed Antifa/anarchist groups as well, who had their own targets, such as a Catholic bookstore.[7] Most French polled wanted to see the Army deployed on the street to quell the violence.[8]

In addition to videos of looting and nihilistic destruction, of brandishing automatic weapons, there are others of French youth of migrant origin expressing their loathing of France, openly stating that their loyalty is to Algeria or Morocco and that they are only in France for the EU passport and for social welfare payments. These are youth who have been conditioned by the system – national education, courts, politics, migration and social policies – to embrace their grievance-laden ethnic identities at the expense of a national one.

In the small Loire town of Montargis (population 14,300), hundreds of hooded "protestors" outnumbered a local police force of 35 men. Eighty stores were torched and looted, almost a quarter of the picturesque downtown. One local noted, "It is surreal. It looks like the city was bombed."[9] Elsewhere, libraries and mayor's offices were burned, in addition to the looting of hundreds of stores.

Seen from a distance, the rhetoric is startling. While some, especially on the left, seek to portray the violence as civil rights protests by Frenchmen who feel marginalized by society, the discourse in Arabic language media has tied the violence to payback for France's supposed sins against the Third World, against Algeria or Africa or the Arabs. If that is true, then the demonstrators are not actually French at all, they are imported fifth columnists or invaders, seeking to exact revenge against France (for how do you take revenge on yourself?) for misdeeds perpetuated "back home," even though those rioting are born in France and are French citizens. This is next-level alienation.

These snapshots all happened at the same time, in June 2023, in Sudan, the United States, and France. If the events in Sudan represents an old type of atavistic violence, the tension in America and France is rooted in more recent challenges – the question of identities in Western nation states in a post-modern world. Although America is a country with high immigration rates (Hispanics, not Blacks, are the largest "minority" now), much of the tension is rooted in that old binary narrative – white oppressors versus Black oppressed – even though the plaintiffs at Harvard were Asians.

That binary narrative of Black versus white seems set to be shattered as American society becomes even more diverse and the newer minorities seek a greater share of the diversity sweepstakes. Increasingly, the "oppressed" will fight it out amongst themselves, as recently happened when immigrant and Muslim families faced off against LGBT activists and their Antifa allies in California and Maryland.[10] It is hard to see how the old "center" can hold in an increasingly racialized and fissiparous national narrative. State power seems to be harnessed towards more division rather than unity and harmony.

Sudan's terrible ethnic violence seems "old fashioned" in its naked brutality. In America and France, two other factors come into play. The exaltation of some – racial, ethnic or sexual – identities is coupled with the suppression of others. For some ("whites" usually, although these categories are not at all set in stone), their destiny in the eyes of ruling elites is to be transformed into deracinated ciphers with vacated identities – homo economicus – mere consumers and subjects defined by their malleability and blankness. There is no guarantee that the disfavored groups will willingly go into the abyss. Rather they will create and embrace their own narratives and grievances, real or fabricated.

Meanwhile, various select groups are to be permanently coddled, favored by state action, seemingly permanently favored while still permanently aggrieved. Such a Manichean scenario seems a recipe for permanent instability, with blatant social engineering through state action, with the result being that some identities, including the national one, are to be disfavored while others are to be simultaneously exalted. This is an interesting spin on the powers of modernity, seeking to erase some identities – for example, "dechristianizing" society while guarding against "Islamophobia" – while preserving others like precious treasures in amber. A national identity is deconstructed and vilified while other, rival identities rise.

So, citizens are to be simultaneously rooted in some identities and rootless in others. Some might see this as reasonable, overdue even, state action in the service of tolerance and diversity, others might see it as a type of madness.  

*Alberto M. Fernandez is Vice President of MEMRI.


[1], June 14, 2023.

[2], June 30, 2023.

[3], June 29, 2023.

[4], June 20, 2023.


[6], June 29, 2022.

[7], July 4, 2023.

[8], July 3, 2023.

[9], July 4, 2023.

[10], June 29, 2023.

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