“Identity Politics” Takes a Hit

After the election, many on the Black Left are once again grappling with the “race vs. class” debate.

Salim Muwakkil January 2, 2017

Are Black voters too ready to fall for cynical appeals to identity? (ASISEEIT/Getty Images)

The term iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics,” like a teth­er ball, is get­ting smacked around by play­ers on all sides. Although the term has shift­ing con­no­ta­tions, it gen­er­al­ly refers to a height­ened focus on the polit­i­cal inter­ests of mar­gin­al­ized groups like women, racial minori­ties and LGBT folks.

No question, we need to build a broad, inclusive movement of people opposed to the manifold threats Trump poses.

Bernie Sanders smacked it from the left dur­ing a con­tro­ver­sial post-elec­tion speech in Boston, when he said in response to a Latina’s ques­tion, One of the strug­gles that you’re going to be see­ing in the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Par­ty is whether we go beyond iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics.” New York Times colum­nist David Brooks joined the Wash­ing­ton Post’s George Will in slam­ming it from the right. These mar­quee post-mortems see iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics as the Democ­rats’ cur­rent bête noire. Some even blame it for Hillary Clinton’s loss, in line with a pop­u­lar nar­ra­tive that polit­i­cal cor­rect­ness” is a major irri­tant to the white work­ing class.

Many on the Left crit­i­cize Clin­ton for down­play­ing eco­nom­ics in favor of anti-racism and anti-sex­ism. They believe she saw a road to pow­er through a new Amer­i­can major­i­ty of Blacks, Lati­nos, women, youth and labor, and tried to appeal to dif­fer­ent seg­ments through tar­get­ed mar­ket­ing rather than an over­ar­ch­ing theme of sys­temic change — which could have brought in the white work­ing class. Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois pro­fes­sor and social­ist Wal­ter Benn Michaels has been urg­ing a shift in focus from iden­ti­ty to inequal­i­ty for more than a decade. He told the Chica­go Read­er in a post-elec­tion inter­view, In the cur­rent prac­ti­cal moment, half the peo­ple the [Clin­ton cam­paign] accused of being racist are peo­ple who should be vot­ing for the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Party.”

Oth­er crit­ics see such argu­ments as part of a back­lash. When the alt-left says iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics,’ what they actu­al­ly mean is civ­il rights,” writes blog­ger Mar­cus H. John­son on Alter­Net. They want mar­gin­al­ized groups to stop fight­ing for civ­il rights because that would upset poor white peo­ple who might oth­er­wise vote Democratic.”

For many Black activists, it’s absurd to ques­tion the pri­ma­cy of race in Amer­i­ca. Africans were abduct­ed and enslaved; the strug­gle to address that mon­u­men­tal injus­tice has pro­pelled Black activism ever since.

Despite that clear ori­gin, a debate about the func­tion of iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics is also tak­ing place with­in the Black Left, although the term is shad­ed with a dif­fer­ent nuance. The pri­ma­ry argu­ment is that skin col­or is used by venal politi­cians as a kind of Tro­jan Horse to attract African-Amer­i­can sup­port for poli­cies inim­i­cal to their interests.

Much of this dis­cus­sion was prompt­ed by the Demo­c­ra­t­ic pri­ma­ry. Sanders’ focus on eco­nom­ic inequal­i­ty rather than anti-racism failed to attract sig­nif­i­cant Black sup­port — always best mobi­lized by direct racial appeals. Clin­ton owes her pop­u­lar­i­ty in the Black com­mu­ni­ty in large part to her husband’s cul­tur­al ges­tures and her expres­sions of con­cern for issues impor­tant to African Americans.

In Black Agen­da Report, an online jour­nal noto­ri­ous­ly hos­tile to this type of iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics, Solomon Comis­siong argues, Far too many black folks will vote for their worst ene­my, if he or she looks like them. That’s why iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics, which mas­quer­ades as a black pow­er strat­e­gy, winds up dis­em­pow­er­ing African Amer­i­cans every election.”

These are impor­tant issues to pon­der as the Black com­mu­ni­ty attempts to come to grips with the loom­ing Trump admin­is­tra­tion. No ques­tion, we need to build a broad, inclu­sive move­ment of peo­ple opposed to the man­i­fold threats Trump pos­es. Move­ments have thrived best in Amer­i­can his­to­ry when they’ve been cou­pled with the strug­gle for racial equi­ty — from the abo­li­tion­ist move­ment of ante­bel­lum Amer­i­ca, to the pop­ulist move­ment of the 1890s, to the coun­ter­cul­ture move­ment of the 1960s-70s. Racial jus­tice move­ments have ener­gized the lib­er­a­tion strug­gles of oth­er groups oppressed by white suprema­cist cap­i­tal­ism — includ­ing white work­ers. This is like­ly because inter­ra­cial uni­ty sub­verts the divide-and-con­quer tac­tics deployed to stunt pro­gres­sive challenges.

One major threat to this uni­ty is the iden­ti­tar­i­an core of Don­ald Trump’s sup­port base. The pres­i­dent-elect rep­re­sents a return to white­ness” for some. This explains his appeal to the white nation­al­ists of the alt-right,” who bemoan the lack of white racial esteem. This nation’s slav­ery-taint­ed his­to­ry presents us with an asym­met­ri­cal real­i­ty: All iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics are not the same. 

Sal­im Muwakkil is a senior edi­tor of In These Times, where he has worked since 1983. He is the host of The Sal­im Muwakkil show on WVON, Chicago’s his­toric black radio sta­tion, and he wrote the text for the book HAROLD: Pho­tographs from the Harold Wash­ing­ton Years.
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