perspectives on identity politics

One of the many debates that has intensified after the 2016 election concerns “identity politics.” Some liberals blame it for the Democrats’ loss. Mark Lilla writes, “If you are going to mention groups in America, you had better mention all of them. If you don’t, those left out will notice and feel excluded. Which, as the data show, was exactly what happened with the white working class and those with strong religious convictions.” Others, like German Lopez, reply that politics is always about identity, that racial and sexual oppression are inescapable issues requiring explicit attention, and that the alternative to progressive identity politics is simply white nationalist identity politics.

The syllabus of my current philosophy class–planned months ago–concludes with a unit about identity and justice that we are entering right now. It follows a set of readings from political philosophy that are all egalitarian–in their various ways–and against discrimination, but that don’t delve deeply into questions of identity. And most (not all) of those writers have been White men. Now we turn to:

Some arguments from these readings in favor of identity politics:

People from oppressed groups must speak for themselves, not be the subjects of research or help from advantaged groups. Meanwhile, more differences need to be recognized. In current terms, justice requires acknowledging the “intersectionality” of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, national origin, etc., and hearing directly from people at each intersection. These two themes come together in a sentence by Lorde: “It is a particular academic arrogance to assume any discussion of feminist theory without examining our many differences, and without a significant input from poor women, Black and Third World women, and lesbians.”

People from oppressed groups need their “own strong solidarity,” built in somewhat separate spaces that are free from domination, so that they can “respond as a cohesive group” (Biko). Note that Biko uses “the black man” as a category that explicitly encompasses Zulus, Xhosas, Vendas, and South Africans of Indian origin, and implicitly includes black women. The logic of identity politics would suggest that he acknowledge more differences.

It’s not the job of oppressed peoples to educate their oppressors. “This is an old and primary tool of all oppressors to keep the oppressed occupied with the master’s concerns.” For instance, to say that women of color must educate white women “is a diversion and a tragic repetition of racist patriarchal thought” (Lorde). White women must educate themselves. This point seems somewhat in tension with Biko’s argument that “no group, however benevolent, can ever hand power to the vanquished on a plate. … No amount of moral lecturing will persuade the white man to ‘correct’ the situation.” Biko implies that oppressors will never educate themselves about oppression. But the two authors may agree that White people can and will change in the interests of their own liberation.

Oppressed peoples demonstrate better values than their oppressors. Biko celebrates traditional African religion (in the singular–presuming a unity across ethnic/national lines), in contrast to the “irresponsible people from Coca-cola and hamburger cultural background” who dominate South Africa. Identity politics of this type is not a form of cultural relativism but rather a call for better values.

Oppression is internal, psychological, implicit, and internalized by the oppressed. It’s not mainly about explicit power and rights. Therefore, changing explicit power and rights won’t solve matters. Biko depicts Black Consciousness as “the realisation by blacks that the most potent weapon in the hands of the oppressor is the mind of the oppressed.”

Identity politics is a path to deep transformation and revolutionary change for all. It is not a matter of “diversity, equity, and inclusion,” to use the current terminology popular in corporations and universities–i.e., accommodating or serving more people more fairly. Lorde might call that approach “the grossest reformism.” True identity politics is about liberation from current institutional arrangements. It is creative and innovative, “seek[ing] new ways of being” (Lorde).

What critics of identity politics hear as resentful complaints is often actually the sound of human beings flourishing. “Far from being constituted solely by their oppression and exclusion, group identities may be cherished as a source of strength and purpose [that] sustains us in struggle and makes political action possible” (Bickford.

Identity claims challenge supposedly universalist understandings of justice and the common good, since those were always “particular, biased, and selfish” (Bickford).

Oppressed peoples must devote attention to their own communities rather than mainly studying and seeking to change the dominant group. “Let us talk more about ourselves and our struggles and less about whites” (Biko). One reason is that there is simply much to learn and celebrate when one begins to look more closely at the marginalized group, its history and values.

Some arguments from these readings against identity politics:

Emphasizing differences divides people politically and prevents the construction of large coalitions. For that reason, it is simply a losing political strategy (unless, like Biko, one happens to live in a country where one oppressed group constitutes the majority). Further, no one will join a coalition for change as a result of being told that he or she is an oppressor. Being reminded of one’s privilege usually reinforces a desire to protect it. A winning strategy is to offer explicit benefits to all members of a large majority. That is the main argument of both Gitlin (1993) and Lilla (2016); and cf. Bayard Rustin, “From Protest to Politics: Future of the Civil Rights Movement,” Commentary (February, 1965).

The left is the heir to a tradition of explicitly universalistic values, whether those are liberal, Marxist, or Christian-inflected (e.g., in the Civil Rights Movement). “Universal human emancipation” (Gitlin) is the core of all authentically revolutionary and reformist politics. Its enemy is the kind of conservatism that prizes traditions, indigenous values, and social differences. Identity politics is a version of that kind of conservatism. Yes, progressive movements must address injustices related to sexuality, gender and color–not merely economics–but always in the explicit pursuit of a common good.

Identity politics has become apolitical because its practitioners are disconnected from elections, parties, unions, and reform movements and focus more on “symbolic representation” in places like universities and Hollywood (Gitlin). Also, they tend to depict “the oppressed [as] innocent selves defined by the wrongs done to them” and therefore demand protection from the government or institutions like universities and companies. That stance overlooks their own potential power and encourages them to ask others to manage and administer fairness, understood as a set of rules and regulations. Instead, they should be building power (Bickford, summarizing a view that she doesn’t hold).

Identity politics treats a short list of socially constructed labels as fixed, and thereby (ironically) reinforces the power of these labels. Identity is a “term thick with meanings” whose definition is rarely clarified (Bickford). It’s very unlikely that any particular identity is stable, uniform, or exclusive. Yet one sees in works like Biko’s a tendency to treat a given identity as essential. (However, as Bickford notes, wrestling with this problem has been a central focus for feminism for half a century now.)

I’d add some thoughts of my own:

First, we must consider the ways that identities, interests, and opinions can diverge. A person may have the identity of a woman, an objective interest in equal pay for equal work, and the opinion that this would make a just policy. These three things may be related in various ways, but they are also separable. Likewise, groups can be defined by identities, interests, or positions on issues.

Interests are valid and important. In fact, whose interests are served in a policy domain like health care can determine who lives and who dies. Nevertheless, we recognize that interests will conflict, that they require negotiation and compromise, and that, even in a reasonably just society, everyone’s interests will sometimes be outweighed.

In contrast, to assert an identity is to imply a right to be recognized and treated accordingly. After all, you can’t change your identity, yet you have a place in the society. No one should ask you to compromise your identity, only the interests that you assert. Finally, you are supposed to take other people’s interests and identities in mind as you critically reflect on your opinions. Most people should probably adopt opinions that are less predictably related to their identities and interests.

Interests, identities, and opinions are all “constructed” and malleable, but we are supposed to be maximally open to revising our opinions, yet protected against having to change our identities. The hard part is deciding whether a given claim is an expression of identity, interest, and/or opinion. The lines are very unclear, even to the person who makes a claim.

To make matters even more complicated, an identity can be something mostly embraced or mostly imposed. And it can be a name for a group that gives you strength or for a group to which your fate is tied, or both (Bickford, p. 120).

Second, practitioners of identity politics can miss the chance to be citizens in a particular sense. In this fascinating dialogue between Black Lives Matter leader Julius Jones and Hillary Clinton, Jones echoes Lorde’s argument that African Americans shouldn’t have to tell White people how to change. Complaining that the oppressed haven’t proposed specific solutions–as Clinton does–is “blaming the victim.”

The difference that is salient in Jones’ mind (understandably) is race: he is Black and Clinton is White; and she is asking him to solve the problems that White people have caused. But I think Clinton has a different difference in mind when she asks Jones to state his policy demands. She sees him as a citizen, and herself as a would-be leader. Citizens petition government for the redress of grievances–it even says so in the First Amendment.

To be sure, Jones is both a Black man and a citizen, so both perspectives are valid. But a danger inherent in identity politics is the suppression of one’s identity as a citizen. It is both a responsibility and a power of every citizen to advocate solutions to problems that others have created. As Biko argues, creators of injustice are unlikely to invent solutions themselves. It’s a political act to say what must be done.

Third, “intersectionality” can take forms that are hyper-individualistic. If many different factors constitute one’s identity–not just a short list like race, gender, and class, but also occupation, denomination, country of origin, region, linguistic dialect, birth order, party identification, age, generation, body type, and more–then each person has the grounds to assert a unique intersectionality. Perhaps nobody’s array of characteristics is actually unique in a nation of 323 million people, but within a given small group, everyone can claim her own niche.

In a culture that is generally individualistic, this potential is both attractive and a pitfall. As the concept of identity broadens beyond characteristics that have been used for brutal oppression, intersectionality offers an excuse to focus on everyone’s uniqueness at the expense of political solidarity and the distribution of basic rights. However, it’s hard to limit the characteristics that constitute identity when a huge range of factors do cause implicit bias. For instance, the same methods that demonstrate the pervasiveness of racial bias also show that we’re biased by partisanship, body type, age, etc. So why stop with race–or anywhere else? (This isn’t a rhetorical question. I’m inclined to think that we should stop with race, gender, and sexual orientation, and treat other differences as ones of opinion and interest, not of identity. But I would owe a defense of that view.)

Finally, we may need to think about new constructed identities. When historically marginalized people achieve hard-won and deeply valuable recognition, the traditionally dominant group is often left with an identity crisis. To take a foreign example: as Scots, Welsh people, Irish people, British West Indians, British Asians, and others assert–appropriately–their separate identities within Great Britain, Englishness is left to mean being a person whose ancestors lived in England. Since that group was exclusively White and traditionally dominant, it’s hard to celebrate one’s Englishness without being racist and xenophobic.

My point is not that we should sympathize with older White men who are struggling with their identities for the first time. Rather, we are all at risk unless they find identities that they can celebrate inclusively. A common response is to retell our national narrative so that everyone can feel inspired. This seems to me Barack Obama’s strategy and one of his great gifts as a national leader. But nations are awfully large and abstract. A different possibility that intrigues me is a city or metro area, because many people already feel loyal to their own cities, which are internally diverse. In the US, states with smaller populations may have the same value for rural people. So maybe we can reinforce identities as New Yorkers or Montanans, not to the exclusion of other identities, but as the basis of broader political coalitions.

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University’s Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.

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