FEATURENovember 24, 2016
This election cycle, “identity politics” has become one of the phrases that joined the political lexicon. Even though it’s now widely used, many people are still unsure of what “identity politics” means. Identity politics refers to the political interests of women, minorities, and other marginalized groups in American politics. These interests are far-ranging and include everything from fighting for equal pay for women to fighting against police brutality in minority communities.
Typically, “identity politics” has been used as a put-down by the alt-left. By now, almost everyone has heard the insult: “She was engaging in identity politics, and not focusing on the real issues.” But what are the “real issues” that identity politics “distract” us from? Generally, those who use identity politics as a deriding term want the left to focus on class instead of issues that pertain to the identities of marginalized people.
When the alt-left says “identity politics,” what they actually mean is “civil rights.” They want marginalized groups to stop fighting for civil rights because that would upset poor white people who might otherwise vote Democratic, if not for minorities and women pushing their issues. Unequivocally, this is a call for white supremacy. Telling minorities or other marginalized groups that their issues are “distractions,” and that they must be subservient to the issues of white men is a path that leads right back to 1950s America. It certainly isn’t a path that leads to equality or racial justice.
The Far Left Has Begun An All Out Assault On “Identity Politics”
The alt-left has begun an all-out assault on identity politics. It is an assault that started in earnest over a year ago, with Bernie Sanders’ candidacy. But it has since grown into a larger movement, with far-left blogs and even New York Times columnists calling for the Democrats to stop engaging in identity politics. Make no mistake, this is a purposeful push to shut out minority interests in the Democratic Party. It is a call for a kind of racial triangulation that many on the alt-left believe would appease whites.
Sanders has led the charge, going as far to lob the insult that “It is not good enough for someone to say, I’m a woman, vote for me.” Not only was that a massive insult to Secretary Clinton, who had dozens of pages of policy proposals and was the most qualified presidential candidate in modern U.S. history, it was also a call to arms for other white people who felt the same way. Sanders is leading a group of white people who feel that the interests of minorities and women have become too prominent in the Democratic Party, and that their interests should be deferential to class interests.
Asking Marginalized People To Renounce Their Identity Is White Supremacy
Let’s be completely honest here: Asking marginalized people to renounce their identity, or to make it secondary or tertiary to “class interests,” is white supremacy. White supremacy tells us that only the interests of white people are legitimate, and politics should be about maintaining structures that keep white people and their interests at the top. Asking marginalized people to be subservient and docile, especially in the face of a planned assault on their rights, is white supremacy. Telling marginalized people that it doesn’t matter if they get representatives who look like them (as long as they follow the class doctrine) is white supremacy.
Follow the “identity politics are bad” logic to its natural conclusion. What need is there for the Congressional Hispanic Caucus? For the Congressional Black Caucus? For women’s rights organizations? Aren’t those just “identity politics” that divide us and prevent us from focusing on class, which is the “real issue?” And when those institutions are gone, who will be fighting for the rights of marginalized people? Who will be fighting for reproductive rights, affirmative action, equal pay, ending police brutality, voting rights, and civil rights? Certainly not the alt-left, and definitely not the right. And that’s kind of the point. There’s a reason why Trump’s campaign manager, Kellyanne Conway, heaped praise on Bernie Sanders for his assault on identity politics.
When They Say Stop Doing “Identity Politics,” They Mean Stop Fighting For Civil Rights
Opposition to “identity politics” is opposition to civil rights. Period. The opposition to civil rights today is similar to the opposition to civil rights in the 1960s: There are political actors on both sides of the spectrum that want to make sure that the interests of white men of all classes are put first. There are plenty of famous civil rights leaders, such as Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Shirley Chisholm, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Ida B. Wells, who today might be called “identitarians,” because they focused on fighting for the rights of marginalized people instead of using class to recenter whiteness. Notice that they never call Donald Trump’s white ethno-nationalist movement “identity politics.” To those on the alt-left and the right, the politics of putting white people first, regardless of class, is simply “politics.” They reserve the “identity politics that must be stopped” bit for women, minorities, and other marginalized groups.
I think what they will find is that marginalized groups and their interests won’t go silently into the night. They will stand up to the alt-left, and they will stand up to Donald Trump. Diversity is something to be championed, not discarded.
This piece was originally published on Medium. It is republished here with permission.
Lead image: flickr/Very Quiet