It’s tempting to write off critiques of identity politics the same way you would ironic tattoos or Taylor Swift as a “white-people thing,” but the term has become so hotly debated and so misunderstood that an increasing number of young people of color feel put off by it.
Recently, one Bernie Sanders supporter, provoked by an article I had written, wrote a kind and reflective email disagreeing with me. Describing himself as biracial, he confided that he found identity politics “dangerous” and “utterly pointless.” In his view, in order to be “ordinary Americans,” we had to let go of minority identities.
This feeling was echoed somewhat in a recent Atlantic article addressing a radical student movement at Reed College in Portland, Ore. In a confrontation between student protesters and a queer black freshman, the freshman told the group (who, frankly, sounded like assholes), “Identity politics is divisive.”
Just a line earlier, the freshman had said the protesters “had a beautiful opportunity to address police violence”—indicating that police brutality, an issue popularized through identity politics, was a priority to him.
Even Sanders, the progressive left’s most prominent and important figure, has pushed back on identity politics—though not quite in the way mainstream media describes it.
“It’s not good enough for someone to say, ‘I’m a woman! Vote for me!’” No, that’s not good enough,” Sanders said after Donald Trump’s election last year. Politico’s headline: “Sanders Slams Identity Politics as Democrats Figure Out Their Future”—even though voting for someone because of his or her gender or background isn’t actually what identity politics is.
For all the words spilled about the topic in the last two years, a growing number of Americans, including some so-called political experts, don’t seem to understand what identity politics is at all.
In part this is because many pundits have failed to define the term as it’s been applied historically and as it’s being understood now. Instead, we’ve been collectively arguing based on our assumptions of what it means and who it belongs to.
It’s worth redefining what identity politics means and what it has meant. It’s worth examining what it isn’t. And it’s high time to claim it.
Ange-Marie Hancock Alfaro, a professor of political science and chair of the gender-studies department at the University of Southern California, tells me that identity politics, in the scholarly sense, has to do with a politics of activism and engagement “that is focused on the fact that people of certain identities have specific experiences that marginalize them or prevent them from otherwise being treated equally in society.”
In this way, Hancock says, the fight for LGBTQ equality, the women’s rights movement and the civil rights movement were all, in some form, identity politics movements. It’s not a worldview, she adds, as much as it is a tool to exact very specific political and social gains.
What defines identity politics now is its focus on intersectionality, on multiple identities and how they inform the way Americans experience things like debt, employment, housing and policing. Advocates of identity politics would point out that intersectionality informs a class discussion, rather than detracts from it.
Nonetheless, it’s this specific iteration of identity politics that has drawn criticism not just from the right but from self-described liberals and progressives like Mark Lilla, whose book The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics argues that identity politics will break the Democratic Party.
Lilla and other (mostly white) liberals of his ilk, Hancock says, will disavow racism and sexism and look at them as “bad,” but also believe that tackling systemic oppression splinters and fractures progressive coalitions in ways that prevent them from getting the change they want.
As Lilla himself put it in a particularly excruciating NPR interview, “Imagine that you’re canvassing door-to-door somewhere in Missouri or Mississippi and you knock on someone’s door, and you say, ‘I’m here from the Democratic Party and I’d like to ask for your vote. But before I do, I have a series of tickets to give you.
“‘The first ticket is for your privilege. The second one is for being a racist. And the third one is for being homophobic. I hope to see you on Tuesday.’ Now, that is not going to attract or persuade anybody,” he continued.
It’s clear that Lilla’s “someone” is likely white and likely male; the subtext, that persuading this person to carry out a progressive agenda is the sole key to the Democratic Party’s future. In their arguments against identity politics (or what they think is identity politics), the Lillas of America center that narrative primarily around white feelings and insecurities—a move that, ironically, actually does more to narrow the progressive umbrella than expand it.
Mychal Denzel Smith expands upon this in his excellent rebuttal in the New Republic: “What Liberals Get Wrong About Identity Politics.” In it, Smith cites the Combahee River Collective, a collection of black feminist activists and scholars from the mid-1970s who championed the rights of women of color against “racial, sexual, heterosexual and class oppression.”
Their mission and their work, Smith points out, was never intended to exclusively affect women of color—though they operated out of their identities as black women to challenge system of power.
The founders of the Combahee River Collective wrote, “If black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression.” As Smith expands, the focus was always on coalition building and expanding the fight for equality on multiple fronts and with those holding intersecting interests:
“Any coalition worth forming has to take stock of those differences,” Smith writes, “or suffer an agenda that is insufficient to liberating all people.”
Part of the pushback against identity politics has been the emergence of the “alt-right”—Nazis and neo-Nazis, neo-Confederates, white nationalists and white supremacists. White nationalists, in particular, whose foundational belief is that white people are under attack in this country, both in terms of population and power, practice a fun-house-mirror version of identity politics. Because they operate from a place of assumed disenfranchisement, of assumed oppression, one could argue that those groups fit the definition of identity politics.
Either way, the liberal argument that all of identity politics needs to be abandoned simply because certain white people have violently co-opted it isn’t a compelling argument, according to professor Hancock. “All tools are co-optable,” she points out.
What identity politics has done and continues to do is add nuance and detail to our understanding of the nation’s challenges. A class approach simply isn’t complete without examining race and gender—how pay inequity is particularly egregious for women of color, for example, or how wealth is shrinking in black and Latinx communities.
What confounds many pundits on the left and right is the idea that what may be good for black women or Latinx middle-income families would actually end up being good for white people, too. Identity politics splinters conversations around class only if you’re fundamentally uninterested in making people who are not like you a priority.
“We have an entire toolbox, and identity politics is one important, but not the only, tool that we have in our toolbox for progressive change,” Hancock says, adding that she’s concerned about the “all or nothing” way that identity politics’ detractors frame the debate.
Hancock also points out that most Americans don’t really know that broad solutions that prioritize specific demographics exist, so it’s difficult to envision them. She cites Rep. James Clyburn’s (D-S.C.) 10-20-30 poverty plan as one such example.
Clyburn’s proposal would require Congress to direct 10 percent of rural-development initiatives to counties where 20 percent of the population has lived below the poverty line for 30 or more years. Clyburn’s proposal leads with identifying specific communities that could gain from such a plan: “Appalachian communities in Kentucky and North Carolina, Native American communities in South Dakota and Alaska, Latino communities in Arizona and New Mexico and African-American communities in Mississippi and South Carolina.”
The proposal doesn’t shy away from identity—it reckons with it and how it defines specific communities living in poverty. And it offers a solution that could be applied equitably across those different groups.
If progressives are still riding the high from Tuesday night’s victorious election results, we should also recognize that now is the time to embrace identity politics and what it could mean for a progressive future in 2018 and beyond.
There is a progressive future in which tackling racist and political gerrymandering is as much a priority as campaign-finance reform. There is a progressive future that recognizes the fact that predatory lending primarily targets black and brown people. There is a progressive future that recognizes that affordable college is useless for undocumented students if they don’t have Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals protection. There is a progressive future in which the shrinking of the black middle class is talked about loud and often in conversations about income inequality. There is a progressive future that values immigration reform because population growth is absolutely essential to a healthy economy.
Sanders did something incredibly important when he pushed Democrats left: He gave progressives the range and diversity of policy options that they deserve. Americans need someone willing to push single-payer health care; Americans need a substantial increase in the minimum wage on the table. We can also ask for more, and now—a year before the midterms and three years before the next presidential election—is the time to do so.
This week’s election results were heartening not just because of the wide Democratic wins but also for the sheer diversity of those wins (diversity that extends far beyond the elected officials’ backgrounds). A Black Lives Matter lawyer who sued the police is now South Philadelphia’s district attorney. Andrea Jenkins was elected a Minneapolis City councilwoman on Tuesday, becoming the first openly transgender black woman elected to public office in the United States. St. Paul, Minn.’s first black mayor campaigned on police reform, affordable prekindergarten education and expanding public transportation.
We can go even further to create a more just, more equitable society, and if we let it, identity politics can help take us there.