Everything You Know About Identity Politics is Wrong

Why this story is significant: Many conservatives and liberals don’t understand what identity politics is really about. In a recent article, Stacey Abrams argues that it’s really about taking “the identities that dominant groups have used to oppress them and convert them into tools of democratic justice.” Understanding this often misunderstood political agenda in this light can help reunite an ancient multiracial coalition and overturn centuries of oppression and injustice.

Stacey Abrams’s examination of the role of identity politics is required reading for everyone interested in 21st-century American ideology, especially if you’re a white person considering running for office or working for someone who is. She reminds what conservatives and many white people think identity politics stands for is based on right-wing disinformation or honest misinformation. 

Redefining What’s Acceptable and Possible

She introduces her article with a simple, yet controversial, assertion: “Electoral politics have long been a lagging indicator of social change.” This statement reflects the experiences of generations women, African Americans, and other groups who’ve had to fight for political and social justice. But, it also serves as a rebuke to Democrats (not to mention Republicans) who continue to assert that liberal politics has outpaced what “normal” Americans see as acceptable and necessary.

We’ve heard time and time again, usually from white men, that the Left needs to temper their ambitions in order to appeal to a great mass of centrist voters in Middle America. These voices tell us that our fixation on political correctness, social justice, and identity politics is alienating to the much coveted “white working-class” voters, and that we need to (1) package our platform in a way rural Iowans and Minnesotans can stomach, and (2) compromise our beliefs to meet the harsh realities of electoral politics.

Abrams asserts that the only thing liberalism has outpaced is how “political parties and candidates respond to such activism.” If identity politics appears to be alienating the coveted “white working class,” this has more to do with the media, conservative ideologues, and white people’s unwillingness to view identity politics as  anything but divisive, and less to do with what identity politics actually demands—“to take the identities that dominant groups have used to oppress them and convert them into tools of democratic justice.” Identity politics isn’t about taking away white people’s rights, privileges, and property; it’s an invitation for them to cast aside the chains of their own oppression.

Consider the issue of police violence and Dr. King’s oft repeated quote “Injustice here is a threat to justice everywhere.” We usually think of police violence as an issue that only impacts African Americans. While it’s true that black people suffer disproportionately more abuse at the hands of police officers more than other race, a long-standing law enforcement tradition that legitimizes police violence against minorities affects everyone regardless of race. This is especially true when combined with the tradition of gun ownership bequeathed to us by slavery and settler colonialism. Identity politics demands policies that account for these inequities (past and present), seeks to illustrated how these inequities negatively impact all of us, and invites everyone to join the cause of justice. This is a far cry from the divisive politics of race, gender, and -isms foisted upon us by anxious conservatives.

Rejecting Conservative Disinformation

Abrams also examines the well-read 2018 article by Francis Fukuyama entitled “Against Identity Politics.” Also published in Foreign Affairs, Fukuyama’s article repeats the popular misunderstanding of identity politics as little more than grievance politics for an ever-growing roster of marginalized people at the expense of white, primarily male, people. In a statement that can only really be characterized as concern trolling, Fukuyama concludes that identity politics achieves little beyond hopelessly fragmenting Americans “into segments based on ever-narrower identities, threatening the possibility of deliberations and collective action as a whole.” To counter this, he argues that Democrats need to “win back some of the white working-class voters . . . who have defected to the Republican Party in recent elections.”

Countering not only Fukuyama, but many Democrats as well, Abrams rightly points out that what some see as “fracturing” is “in reality the result of marginalized groups finally overcoming centuries-long efforts to erase them from the American polity—activism that will strengthen democratic rule, not threaten it.” This is the crux of her article: activism and identity politics strengthens democratic rule because it’s inclusive rather than exclusive. If you’re white, male, cisgendered, or the like and you believe otherwise, I’d challenge you to dissect why—what are you afraid of losing? What are you afraid of accounting for? Your privilege? Your standing in the Democratic party? Your electability? Your reputation as a pragmatic political thinker? Your prestige and influence in a political environment that increasingly asks you to give some of that up?

There’s nothing wrong with worrying that you’ll lose something when people other than you gain influence. It’s natural. But if you’re asked to account for your privilege and to give up more in the name of justice, and you refuse out of self-interest and self-preservation, don’t ask your marginalized people to carry your water.

Consider the case of Rob Northam. The Democratic governor of Virginia came under fire after the discovery of a racist image on his medical school yearbook page. The photo was taken in 1984, and it depicts two white men—one dressed in Klan robes, another in blackface, and both relaxed and holding beers as if they were at a party. Northam initially owned up to the photo and apologized for the picture. Despite his regret, there were many voices within the Democratic party calling on him to resign.

Soon thereafter, Northam embarked on a campaign of self-preservation. Faced with demands that he offer more than apologies, demands that he account for his actions and privilege in more than words, Northam denied he was in the photograph. In the past, this strategy may have saved him. But it’s 2019, and this isn’t your grandfather’s Democratic party. There is a movement underway on the Left that demands more from the behavior and political morality of our politicians. If Northam would have continued to own up to his place in Virginia’s troubled racial history, if he would have used his position and power to initiate a conversation about the legacy of that history on the present, there a chance he could have survived this thing. Maybe he would have still been forced out of office, but at least he’d have struck a blow for freedom in doing so.

Identity politics demands that we all account for our privilege. By recognizing out place in the artificial hierarchies imposed upon us by conservative tradition, we can (in the words of Stacy Abrams) “convert them into tools of democratic justice.” There is a place for all of us in this movement, but white people need recognize that they may not be the ones to lead it. And that’s okay. It’s a worthy sacrifice, and you still have an important role to play.

Building Coalitions

Another important argument Abrams makes is that we can’t rely on class politics to carry us to victory. Time and time throughout history, “members of dominant groups [abandoned] class solidarity after concluding that opportunity is a zero-sum game.” She points out that conflict between black and white laborers stretch back to the the beginning of U.S. history, when African slaves and European indentured servants turned their rage against each other. What she doesn’t mention is the fact that slaves and indentured servants were once united in their pursuit of equality and justice, but the planter elite (terrified of being overthrown by a multiracial lower-class uprising after Bacon’s Rebellion) mobilized the power of racial privilege to shatter the alliance apart.

Identity politics seeks to piece together this ancient coalition. People who tell you identity politics is divisive and/or useless are, whether they know it or not, continuing the work of the plater elite. Building coalitions with people unlike you can be uncomfortable, even unpleasant, because both sides are asked to give up something for the common good. For minorities, it’s often something as simple as the comfort that comes from surrendering to the status quo. Even worse, it can mean vilification and assassination. For white people, sacrifice most often comes in the form of remaining silent, listening, and understanding when someone say “We need more people to run for office” they aren’t talking about you.

Like I said, there’s still an important role you can play in the fight for justice. Those roles have traditionally been filled by black women, queer activists, and other marginalized yet determined groups—awareness building, door-knocking, administration, childcare, etc. Identity politics recognizes that these are vital contributions to a healthy, sustainable, and just revolution. But it also recognizes that the success of the whole may be better served if individuals who have traditionally benefited from their race, gender, and sexuality used their privilege to elevate and amplify marginalized voices.


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