Multiculturalism has failed. Scott Olson/Getty Images

January 2, 2024   7 mins

It’s a dreary day in a provincial English town. A tracksuit-wearing teenage boy affecting an exaggerated version of the “Jafaican”, which has replaced Cockney as the capital’s working-class dialect, asks a similarly dressed individual: “What nationality is the best to date?” His interviewee shuffles, then replies: “I like my white girls, innit.”

One TikTok account doth not a trend make. But, really: no one is ready for race relations Gen Z style. Wince-making discussion of the relative sexual merits of “Chinese tings” and “Punjabi tings” is, in truth, the least politically virulent version of an emerging race-first mindset, already discernible in far more aggressive forms across the youth on both Left and Right.

The bipartisan rise in the salience of race reflects the changing priorities of an empire whose attitude to ethnic politics has always been ambivalent: the United States. And the demographic at the bleeding edge of the new racism is Gen Z, the group born 1997-2012.

In 2024, more of Gen Z will be eligible to vote than not, as several of the Anglosphere’s major democracies contest general elections, including the imperial centre in Washington. Much will depend on who secures the top seat at the heart of the world’s only hegemon. But whoever wins the US presidential election, the youngest voting bloc will be at the forefront of driving ethnic in-group politics to dominance, supplanting the now-faltering ideology of race neutrality.

Even leaving aside the history of slavery, modern America’s foreign policy has tacitly accorded an important role to race — especially in the weaponisation of ethnic fractures as a means of undermining geopolitical rivals. From Woodrow Wilson to (roughly) the Civil Rights Act, 20th-century America called for, and supported, global “national self-determination” — which, in practice, meant the formation of states along the lines defined by a self-identifying (and usually implicitly ethnic) in-group.

This policy had the convenient side-effect of providing an ideological justification for dismantling the European empires that were then America’s chief geopolitical rivals. But under the Pax Americana that supplanted imperial competition, these freshly-decolonised ethno-states were then to be stabilised under an America-led infrastructure of international rules and institutions. Bodies such as the UN sought to minimise, or ideally avoid, conflict between nation-states in favour of the relative peace that is a precondition for global trade. In effect, then, a kind of diet ethno-nationalism, in which states were initially delineated along approximate ethnic lines, then encouraged not to compete along these fractures but instead to commingle in the solvent global community of commerce. This system, again as a happy side-effect, has also tended to enrich America.

For some decades now, this arrangement served as the ideological framework for the European ruling class. This is unsurprising: perhaps the most essential trait for survival in any upper bourgeoisie is an exquisite sensitivity to where sovereignty lies. And perhaps especially for Britain, as Aris Roussinos recently argued, this has for some time lain not in European capital cities or electorates, but ultimately in New York and Washington, plus its ideological correlates in Hollywood and the Ivy League.

Perhaps the most distinctive popular trope of the imperial vision in the latter half of the 20th century was that of American  children in national costume, holding hands around the world. This was the aspirational version of “multiculturalism” that I grew up with: one in which a plurality of peoples is envisaged as coexisting happily, while embracing and enjoying one another’s differences.

Until recently, the injunction emanating from these imperial hubs was that America-aligned states should join Hands Around The World. But over time, this ideal has begun gradually to invert itself, via the justification it offers for the mass movement of people. After all, if we’re all alike, why shouldn’t people move in search of a better life? The existence of modern America is inextricable from this impulse.

In line with this, the post-Cold War era has seen one European elite after another gradually retrofit their own countries with a version of modern America’s “nation of immigrants” origin story. In the Wasp-dominated America of the 20th century, this vision was at least somewhat believable, and powered a great many commendable political aspirations. And as the periphery will always tend to lag the centre, even in the Britain of the Eighties and Nineties, Hands Around The World still seemed plausible.

But as first America, then Europe, has set out to practise what America preached, the resulting diversification has shrunk the proportion of Western populations that believe in Western-style egalitarian universalism. And in the wake of this, it’s growing ever clearer that, wherever the culture that espouses race-neutrality loses its numerical super-majority, that ideology will begin giving ground to ethnic or religious in-group preference.

For it is increasingly clear that minority ethnic groups tend not, on the whole, to dissolve their political consciousness entirely into the larger body politic. Rather, as has been evident in the United States, expat groups tend to retain an interest in the politics of their countries of origin. There’s nothing intrinsically wrong or surprising about this. But inevitably it introduces new potential fault-lines in the national conversation. So as America has diversified, one side-effect has been opening space for a broader spectrum of ethnic in-group lobbies within the corridors of power, all while undermining the Wasp doctrine of universalism.

Thus, ironically, policies rooted in the belief that all human peoples are equally capable of harmonious coexistence has helped to impel the West’s transformation into a real-life multicultural society, which is to say one increasingly governed by the politics of ethnic in-group preference. As this has accelerated, so too the American empire has begun to pivot institutionally from official colour-blindness to its inverse. And today, as evident in recent disputes over antisemitism and race-first ideologies in Ivy League universities, this worldview is so mainstream that one January 2024 Hollywood release is big-budget fantasy about African-American magicians tasked with keeping the dangerous, violent white majority quiescent, by making them feel comfortable.

At the geopolitical level, too, the shift from universalist race neutrality to race-consciousness is echoed in the fracturing of America’s large-scale universalist project: the “rules-based international order”. Since Iraq and Afghanistan took the shine off this order qua moral project, it has become markedly more contested, not least in recent outbreaks of territorial war and ethnic cleansing even at the edges of Europe. But where the new American domestic racism has elite support on the Left, the retrenchment of American internationalism finds its advocates on the new American Right. There, figures including J.D. Vance argue that the US should wind down internationalist commitments such as the war in Ukraine, and refocus on ending illegal migration via the southern border. More broadly, those jockeying to shape a putative future Republican foreign policy lean toward international restraint rather than internationalism, including arguing for an end to US defence spending in Europe.

None of this is to say that America is finished as imperial hegemon. On the contrary: the scale of its influence is evident in the seamless transition America’s satrapies have made in turn to re-align with the new American race-first ideology. This has been eagerly adopted in the peripheries’ increasingly multicultural populations, with the vehemence and volume of Left-wing pro-Palestinian support in the UK since 7 October being a case in point.

UnHerd reporting from one such march showed an emerging coalition of racially and religiously inflected minority in-group identities, that skews very young and often frames Jews in virulently racist terms as the outgroup. There is considerable overlap with a broader, youth-inflected Left-wing politics of race: one young interviewee told UnHerd (also in a Jafaican accent) that the last protest he attended was during the 2020 BLM disturbances.

Mirroring this coming to racial consciousness of a young and multicultural cross-section of Britain’s Left, race discourse is also re-emerging on the youthful Right. But this isn’t the stereotypical British racism of centrist demonology, coded white working-class and headed by demotic figures such as English Defence League founder Tommy Robinson. Britain’s emerging racist Right is more likely to be young, middle-class, and anonymous, reflecting their lives as students, or as recent graduates employed in sectors where only Left-wing forms of racism are socially acceptable.

The central material grievance for this group is the tension between mass immigration and the lifestyles, earning capacities, and home-owning aspirations of young graduates. In line with this more knowledge-class demographic, they produce well-researched newsletters, and display knowledge-economy communication skills such as a polemical use of statistics comparatively lacking among the Tommy Robinson set. And their converging economic and ethnic disaffection is discernible in the young commentators who point to the preponderance of foreign-headed occupants in inner London social housing, or the memes that frame every Western “social contract” as an extractive one, that tax-farms young professionals and redistributes their earnings to foreigners.

More provocatively still, the race-conscious Gen Z Left and Right now evince a shared belief that ethnic in-group advocacy is a central dimension of mainstream politics. But where on the Left this is granted mainstream form in support for policies such as reparations, or top-down imposition of racial equity, the Right extends this to the one demographic for which this remains taboo: white Europeans. From the perspective of a young Gen Z graduate educated to foreground race, working in a multicultural environment where his own demographic does not predominate, and regularly confronted with evidence of routine discrimination against people like him, it is perhaps difficult to see why doing so should be off-limits.

And so race-based advocacy for Europeans is re-emerging. The recent announcement by Bradford University of a scholarship for white working-class males indicates the direction of travel, while a rising number of public-facing Gen Z exemplars gesture at related ethnic talking-points already commonplace on the more explicitly race-first anonymous Right. These include the fresh-faced anti-immigration activist Jack Anderton, and the 21-year-old student Felix Gilroy, who made waves when he explained to far-Left activist Owen Jones outside the 2023 Tory conference why he believed that Enoch Powell’s much-maligned “Rivers of Blood” speech was prophetic.

Does this mean that every Gen Z is a rabid racist? No. One swallow does not make a summer; there are plenty of young men and women still indifferent to or disgusted by the new race politics. But the influence of America is overwhelming, whether geopolitically or via the media, and the message from the hegemon is now that race must be front and centre. It’s also a good rule of thumb that politics will tilt toward whichever group cares the most, and as things stand, the race-conscious Gen Zs across both Left and Right exhibit an ideological vigour that leads me to suspect they will be influential.

It may come, then, via the Left-wing attack on equality under the law. It may come via the Right-wing attack on liberal internationalism, egalitarianism, and human rights. It may be a mix of the two — but it’s coming. Having grown up amid the 20th-century intra-ethnic ceasefire, reporting this gives me no pleasure. But my prediction for 2024 is that as we see Gen Z maturing to political agency, its radicals will bring the politics of ethnic in-group advocacy definitively back, to unpredictable but potentially seismic effect. Older generations may pine for Hands Around the World, and the long 20th-century peace. But we must all brace ourselves for the coming to political consciousness of a generation that no longer believes peace is in their interests.

Mary Harrington is a contributing editor at UnHerd.