Identity Politics: What is it and why is it problematic?

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Barack Obama famously declared: “There’s not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America.” A decade and a half later, we are very far from Obama’s America.

Identity politics is a fairly modern philosophy because 50 years ago, leading liberal philosophical movements held a group blind approach and were universalist in character. John Rawls’s enormously influential A Theory of Justice, published in 1971, called on people to imagine themselves in an “original position”, behind a “veil of ignorance”, in which they could decide on their society’s basic principles without regard to “race, gender, religious affiliation, [or] wealth”. Thus, although the political left has always been concerned with the oppression of minorities and the rights of disadvantaged groups, the dominant ideals in this period tended to be group blind, often cosmopolitan. However, when the left tried to push forward policy intended to redress historical wrongs and inequalities, the right always responded by saying they were ‘colour-blind’ as a response. Empirically, it was clear to see the people in power were rich white men and even though America was supposed to be ‘colour-blind’, nothing was being done to correct historical wrongdoings that perpetuated inequality even to that day. This was how modern identity politics was born.
While the exact definition of identity politics is up for debate, the majority opinion is to refer to it as the tendency for people of a particular religion, race or social background to form exclusive political alliances, moving away from traditional broad-based party politics. The Combahee River Collective coined the term in 1977. A collective group of women saw identity politics as an analysis that introduced the opportunity for black women to be actively involved in politics, while simultaneously acting as a tool to authenticate black women’s personal experiences.

Identity politics is thought, predominantly by the left, to be needed to raise awareness for the issues minorities face. It is just a fact that whites, and specifically white male Protestants, dominated America for most of its history, often violently, and that this legacy persists. When a grand jury failed to indict a white cop who was videotaped choking a black man to death, black writer Brit Bennett captured a centuries-long mistrust in an essay entitled, “I Don’t Know What to Do with Good White People”. The colour-blind approach to democracy may work in a vacuum but does not work in a society where there is oppression towards certain groups precisely because of their identity. The idea that the oppressed can resist or escape their oppression by denying their own identities is a fiction. However, a philosophy that started with good intentions has, in today’s society, morphed into a dangerous concept that has the power to destroy democracy.

Identity politics looks at society through a postmodernist lens of power struggles amongst groups based on race, ethnicity or sex, but where the individual loses agency. It desegregates society into subnational “protected” groupings whose members receive benefits simply as a consequence of group membership and in whose name self-appointed leaders demand unequal treatment. Notably, one of the problems with identity politics is that subscription to particular ‘identities’ is based off arbitrary immutable characteristics. For example, a cisgender white man does not have the ‘identity’ of an African-American woman, even if he sympathises and cares about the lives of black women. The rhetoric of such nature is also evident, where people (especially on social media) are told: ‘You cannot speak about gay rights because you’re not queer’, or, ‘You cannot talk about black lives matter because you are white’. There has to be an ‘in-group’ and an ‘out-group’ and the ‘out-group’ has no right to culturally appropriate the ‘in-group’s’ traditions and values. Therefore, identity politics is inherently exclusionary, because being part of an identity necessitates criteria that most cannot fulfil.

Moreover, identity politics has crowded out other legitimate views that individuals on the left can hold. The left is always trying to ‘outleft’ themselves, causing a shift in tone, rhetoric and logic that has moved identity politics away from inclusion, which is what the left is about, towards exclusion and division. Despite group blindness being the predominant leftist view held 50 years ago, now if anyone speaks in favour of it, they are on the other side, indifferent to or even guilty of oppression. For some, especially on college campuses, anyone who does not sympathise with the strong anti-oppression, anyone who doesn’t acknowledge “white supremacy” in America, must be a racist. An example of this was when Bernie Sanders told supporters: “It’s not good enough for somebody to say, ‘Hey, I’m a Latina, vote for me’”. Quentin James, a leader of Hillary Clinton’s outreach efforts to people of colour, retorted that Sanders’s “comments regarding identity politics suggest he may be a white supremacist too”.
Another problem with identity politics is that it necessarily ensues a race to the bottom, where different ‘identities’ compete with each other to illustrate that they are most deserving of help. There must be a hierarchy of identities, in which some identities are deserving of more help than others. Therefore, when society is separated into many different subgroups, it is very difficult for different subgroups to co-ordinate and mobilise together because it is those same very subgroups that are competing against each other for the most benefits. It only deepens the divides that exist between different groups in society—black versus white, straight versus gay, Jew versus Arab, Sunni versus Shia, Protestant versus Catholic, and so on. Note how identity politics, therefore, fragments and divides minorities, which counterintuitively, gives them less of an ability to progress and redress inequality. This is because small subgroups will never present a significant political power to lobby a government into change, whereas if all ‘minorities’ banded together and pushed for change as a whole, they would have a significantly greater chance of forwarding policy that helps all of them. When the rhetoric used is such that African-Americans are significantly different from Latinos, despite both being oppressed and deserving of help, this gives both sub-groups less of an ability to create change for themselves.

In conclusion, despite identity politics starting off in order to solve a problem that plagued society for centuries, it has morphed into an ideology that has the power to destroy the very thing the left set out to solve.

One thought on “Identity Politics: What is it and why is it problematic?

  • the ‘left’ is often a form of ‘identity politics”–anarchists hate socialists and the reverse and both hate liberals who hate them. identity politics—blm, queer, etc are all brand names as is the left. i used to use these terms for myself but no more. now i’m stochastic.

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