Why We Need “Identity Politics”

I’ve seen a number of pieces, from both the left and right, calling for the end of so called “identity politics” in the wake of Trump’s election. The Democratic Party’s focus on building a coalition based on groups such as people of color, women, religious minorities, and LGBT people, for example, was the key to the demise of the left and the rise of Trump, according to this argument. Instead of this, these critics tell us, we should focus on economic inequality first, and abandon the focus on minority or underprivileged groups. It is economic unease, the argument goes, that led most Trump voters to vote for Trump, and only through tackling this can the left hope to be competitive.

There are a number of things that bother me about this argument, and bother me deeply. First — I don’t think that we have to choose between concern for groups like those above-mentioned and concern about economic inequality. Bernie Sanders, for example, ran a campaign highly focused on economic concerns, without alienating people of color, religious minorities, and others. There were some, of course, who thought that he didn’t focus on these groups enough. This in part led to the rise of Hillary Clinton — we should not forget this! Had Bernie been able to convince more black voters in the south, he would almost certainly have been the Democratic nominee. But clearly, he still saw these groups as an important part of his focus. That is, Bernie did not abandon “identity politics” in order to focus on his economic message.

Second — “identity politics” may not seem essential to those in privileged groups, namely white people, but they are essential to those of us who are not in that group — those of us who are people of color, or religious or sexual minorities, or members of other underprivileged groups. Let me explain why. White privilege rarely wears a badge and a “whites only” sign printed in large block letters these days. White interest does not present itself as “white”, it presents itself as “colorblind”. The rhetoric of the right wing, including the extreme right wing, is not that they represent the interests of white people (some of the fringe “white nationalists” aside). Rather, it is that they represent the interests of the “real” American without concern for color, gender, etc. But who is this colorless, genderless “real American?” It is the white man. Think about all the movies you’ve seen, the foods you’ve eaten, even the politicians you see. When whiteness is involved, it is just a movie, just a hamburger, just a senator. When non-whiteness is involved, it’s a Chinese movie, or Arab tabouleh, or a black senator. Whiteness is normative in our culture. The colorless American is a white man. Thus, when any group takes itself to explicitly be the champion of colorblindness and the “real American” as opposed to any groups or “identity politics,” this is automatically a red flag for us people of color. It shows a desire to write us out of the picture. Insofar as I want to be a “real American,” I must deny my blackness, just as an immigrant from Mexico must deny her heritage. Because the “real American,” according to this ideology, does not speak Spanish (for example), the real American is the one who must be protected from that.

We need identity politics. Identity politics is in essence a political expression of our insistence on our unique identities that diverge from the “real American” archetype of the white male heterosexual Christian. Asking us to give up on this is in essence asking us to give up on the assertion of our existence and our importance, and to cave to the “colorblind” ideologies that would simply write us out of the political narrative altogether.

We can see that the “colorblind” rhetoric is clearly a call to whiteness, a call to the empowerment of the perceived “real” or “normal” American who is emphatically not us. Look at the people surrounding Donald Trump. Look at who he has selected as members of his cabinet. White (presumably straight) Christian men. The highest echelon of the federal government today begins to look like it did in the 1930s. This is the future that “colorblindness” promises us. Colorblindness is colorlessness. It should be clear why those of us who have benefitted from “identity politics” should want to resist this. And white male heterosexual Christians of good will should want to resist it too. Do we need to focus on economic inequality? Absolutely we do! But we need not jettison identity politics to do so. Maybe one day we will no longer need identity politics. I long for that day, and will work as hard as I can to realize it. But today is not that day. Today we need identity politics.