What Is Identity Politics?
Every now and then a word or phrase enters the stream of the public sphere and immediately loses all sense of meaning. It ceases to describe and becomes instead a rhetorical weapon with which hacks and gossips lance their opponents.
Identity politics has devolved into such a form. It is a phrase on the lips of every first, second, and third rate columnist and blogger. It is being used as a cudgel to beat and berate all those who are seen as losers in the last election.
There is no longer any general consensus on what identity politics actually means. Depending on whom you read identity politics is a liberal or conservative problem, an instance of political correctness gone mad or a new norm that both parties are adjusting to, the cause of Hillary Clinton’s loss or an idea around which Donald Trump’s base coalesced.
As originally understood, identity politics refers to the tendency of traditionally marginalized groups—blacks, Latinos, Asians, LGBTQ, Muslims, etc.—to consider their perspectives, preferences, and attitudes as distinct and in need of recognition by society at large.
Now, there are those of us, some of whom come from such communities, who have always viewed this idea with some suspicion; for it is impossible to prove that any two individuals think alike in every way. Nevertheless, the aspiration of wanting to protect minority groups from abuse and to ensure their legitimate grievances are addressed is sound.
Much of the current confusion about identity politics stems, I think, from confusing the expansion of black, gay, Asian, etc. voices in the public sphere with constant discussion of minority issues. The former is a view of the world from a particular experience of it; the latter is a mere abstraction—a generalization of what politicians have been told matters most in each minority group.
You are likely to hear and read a great deal about identity politics in the coming months. I urge caution in accepting as true any of what talking heads say on the topic.
Here are a couple of examples of what I mean.
Discourse in which it is claimed that speaking to the issues of historically oppressed groups alienates the white-working class is disingenuous. Any fair-minded viewer of politicians knows that most politicians, at the local, state, and federal levels, rarely mention racial and ethnic groups by name. They tend to speak in broad terms, using words such as “tolerance”, “diversity”, “equality”, and “fairness” to signal their intent. Indeed, the only politician who used racially-charged language in the recent election is the man who won the presidency.
Anyone who goes on about identity politics being exclusive rather than inclusive, as being a politics of division rather than addition, as being an attempt to obtain special rights for certain people rather than enforcing current rights for everyone doesn’t know what they’re talking about. They speak nonsense and aren’t worth listening to.
Most racial minorities would rather pursue the good life; they would rather make money, get married, raise children, and enjoy the peace and calm of civilized society. They would not feel the need to organize and agitate unless they felt directly threatened. Identity politics is not about special pleading; it is about mitigating the worst effects of structural racism, sexism, etc.
As a man of intelligence and insight, you should not allow yourself to be taken in by lies. No matter your political views, it is always best to base your opinions on fact rather than illusion.
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About Christopher Reid Chris was born in Washington, D.C. and lives in Britain. He works as a blogger, essayist, and novelist. His first book, Tea with Maureen, has just been published.