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Who’s Afraid of the “Big Bad” Identity Politics?

By Christian Coleman

In the crowd

Let’s play the word association game. Come now. It’ll be fun!

Peanut : Butter.

Instagram : Celebrity.

Identity politics : Divisive.

Wait. Let’s back up. Divisive? That word has been coming up lately when presidential candidates make identity politics a talking point in public discourse. At an LGBT gala in Las Vegas, Indiana mayor Pete Buttigieg, the first openly gay candidate, said identity politics have created a “crisis of belonging,” leading us to get “divided and carved up.” Vermont senator Bernie Sanders has criticized identity politics for focusing only on the endgame of diversity—another word with contentious associations and dubious meanings depending on who’s defining it—and neglecting the needs of working people. And attorney and philanthropist Andrew Yang took to Twitter and said “it’s kind of a stupid way to try to win elections.”

First off, what do they mean by identity politics? Some clarification is in order. Let’s turn to Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility to shed some light on the subject: “The term identity politics refers to the focus on the barriers specific groups face in their struggle for equality.” Why would Buttigieg, Sanders, Yang, and others be averse to speaking about those barriers?

In Buttigieg’s case, it’s because of precedent. He has seen how it has been used before to unite people for an opposing cause. At the same LGBT gala, he argued that Donald Trump and his party won the White House by exploiting “the most divisive form of such politics, which is white identity politics.” He is right, here, but Trump and his ilk are not the first or the last to do so. In fact, sociologist Crystal Fleming points out in How to Be Less Stupid About Race how white identity politics has ensured that white Americans benefitted from the spoils of settler colonialism:

“[T]he nation’s first affirmative action programs and government handouts were conceived by white Americans for white Americans. From using racially justified mass murder, land theft, and labor exploitation to enacting racist citizenship laws, people socially defined as “white” have built generations of wealth and political power by playing the race card and founding an entire nation on white identity politics. To take just one example, the 1862 Homestead Act gleefully gave away millions of acres of stolen land almost exclusively to whites. And, quiet as it’s kept, white people continue to be the number-one beneficiaries of affirmative action today.”

This is how white supremacy remains firmly rooted in a legal, political, and cultural system rigged to disempower anyone outside of the social definition of white. The point Buttigieg misses with his statement is that the white supremacist system on which the United States is founded makes no room for others to have the same rights and livelihood. In order to get a seat at the table, disenfranchised communities have had to make a stance, as women, as African Americans, as LGBTQ people, as disabled people, to demand equality and to be treated as fellow human beings. That’s how any progress has been made on the civil rights front. Case in point, DiAngelo brings up the example of women’s suffrage in White Fragility:

“Take women’s suffrage. If being a woman denies you the right to vote, you ipso facto cannot grant it to yourself. And you certainly cannot vote for your right to vote. If men control all the mechanisms that exclude women from voting as well as the mechanisms that can reverse that exclusion, women must call on men for justice. You could not have had a conversation about women’s right to vote and men’s need to grant it without naming women and men. Not naming the groups that face barriers only serves those who already have access; the assumption is that the access enjoyed by the controlling group is universal.”

Now, after decades of civil rights history that have afforded us civil and voting rights written into law, it’s easy to think we should move beyond identity politics. We should focus on “the things that bring us together and not the things that are going to make us seem like we’re living different lives” as Yang insists, right? What greater unifying force to focus on than our “postracial” boon—the election of a Black president. By electing Barack Obama twice, we were supposed to have arrived. However, in her book A More Beautiful and Terrible History, historian Jeanne Theoharis states that this sort of thinking not only obscures the truth of the matter but also clouds our understanding of civil rights history.

“No better proof of the country’s progress was the election and presidency of Barack Obama . . . . Many trumpeted Obama’s victory as the culmination of the civil rights movement and a testament to a “postracial America”—an America that had largely moved past its history of racism. Even those who did not share such a rosy view of American progress were awed by the immensity of seeing the election of a Black man to the presidency of the United States. Given the momentous nature of his victory, referencing the history of the [civil rights] movement became more central to the presidency of Barack Obama than that of any of his predecessors—and the president himself, his supporters, and many commentators regularly appealed to its legacy . . . The election of President Obama made many of his supporters feel like we had overcome. It had delivered us. And therein lay the danger—rather than a rung on a steep ladder, the election became the zenith, the top of that climb, where all who wished could take credit for the triumph.”

Not only take credit for the triumph, but also regard the civil rights movement as something that has happened and is over and done with. This is history that is still in the making, a history that proves how white supremacy affects various communities differently. It would be folly to ignore the reality of how differently many of us live, especially under white supremacy. 

About that deliverance Theoharis wrote of: we received a broad slap in the face after finding out that the election of Obama didn’t deliver us at all. And that slap knocked us on our backside during the 2016 presidential election.

A call to eschew identity politics is an ahistorical approach to envision means of achieving equality for everyone. It assumes we’ve moved past the barriers and conflicts of race, gender, sexual orientation, ability, class, and other identity markers, which we clearly have not. Sanders’ mission to mobilize us “to change society and create an economy and a government that work for all people,” requires more than just narrowing in on class; it requires an intersectional lens that critiques white supremacy’s impacts on all the communities it oppresses. And that means, yes, giving voice to the identities within those communities. Diversity be damned. Because as DiAngelo put it, “Naming who has access and who doesn’t guides our efforts in challenging injustice.” Take note, presidential candidates.

That said, ready for another round of the word association game?

 

About the Author

Christian Coleman is the associate digital marketing manager and blog editor at Beacon Press. Before joining Beacon, he worked in writing, copy editing, and marketing positions at Sustainable Silicon Valley and Trikone. He graduated from Boston College and the Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers’ Workshop. Follow him on Twitter at @coleman_II.

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