Could there be a benign 'European American' group? No

Scalise controversy raises a larger question

One of the more interesting questions about House Majority Whip Steve Scalise’s speech to a group of “white nationalists” 12 years ago is whether the name of the organization should have given him pause. (Interesting, but irrelevant if you believe he knew or should have known that the group was linked to ex-KKK leader David Duke.)

The group, which the Louisiana Republican apparently addressed before its convention officially began, was called the European American Unity and Rights Organization – or EURO.  On Twitter, a joker suggested that Scalise might have thought the group had something to do with the  European currency introduced in 2002. Pretty unlikely.

So what would the term “European American” suggest? The obvious interpretation is the correct one: It refers to Americans of European descent aka white people. But suppose such an organization had no animus against nonwhites and simply wanted to celebrate “white culture.” Would that be so wrong?

Last year students at Georgia State University started a White Student Union, which they insisted was not a racist organization.  Here’s the report from the Atlanta-Journal Constitution:

“Freshman Patrick Sharp said he started the club so that students of European and Euro-American descent can celebrate their shared history and culture and discuss issues that affect white people, such as immigration and affirmative action. …

 “ ‘If we are already minorities on campus and are soon to be minorities in this country why wouldn’t we have the right to advocate for ourselves and have a club just like every other minority?’ said Sharp, 18. Why is it when a white person says he is proud to be white he’s shunned as a racist?’ ”

In theory, it might be no more bizarre for white students to celebrate “white culture” than it is for black students to band together to celebrate “black culture.” White nationalists can argue that they’re simply lifting a page from the identity-politics playbook of other racial and ethnic groups.

Yet most people (I hope) would reject that symmetry. The problem is explaining why we accept some kinds of ethnic or racial self-consciousness and solidarity and reject others.

In its heyday the National Lampoon published a parody of the paeans to overlooked African Americans that newspapers publish during Black History Month. Except that its tribute was to the long-ignored contributions of whites to Western Civilization.  “Our White Heritage” not only “revealed” that white men were behind many important inventions and discoveries; it also set out to debunk racial stereotypes such as the idea that whites have “natural reason.”

Deconstructing satire is always risky, but one takeaway from the spoof was that it was absurd for anyone – black or white – to be uplifted by the achievements of people who looked like them. Yet only a moral idiot would perceive an equivalence between “Black History Month” and an imaginary “White History Month.” Affirmation and uplift are more important to a group that has been oppressed and discriminated against than they are to the dominant majority.

That said, it has proved surprisingly difficult to distinguish between benign and offensive exercises in racial and ethnic identity.  In the questionnaire it provides to nominees to the federal bench, the Senate Judiciary Committee notes that the American Bar Association says that it’s inappropriate for judges to belong to organizations that discriminate on the basis of race, sex or religion. Nominees are asked to list “all business clubs, social clubs or fraternal organizations to which you belong.”

This inquiry is rooted in a history of judges belonging to restricted country clubs. But when the Senate Judiciary Committee started questioning nominees about club memberships, some senators drew a distinction between those institutions and ethnic fraternal organizations such as the Polish Falcons.

Logically, I’m not sure that distinction is defensible. But the absence of non-Irishmen from an Irish fraternal organization doesn’t offend me the way the exclusion of blacks and Jews and Catholics from a country club does.  Never mind that the admissions committee at the WASPy country club could argue that it, too, was promoting ethnic pride and solidarity.

In some parallel universe without America’s history of white supremacy, an organization dedicated to the celebration of "European American culture" might be a benign exercise in ethnic affirmation. In our world, it ought to be a red – or white – flag.

Follow Michael McGough on Twitter @MichaelMcGough3

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