No, Professor — This Is Not ‘The End of Identity Liberalism’

Columbia professor Mark Lilla’s op-ed in the Sunday New York Times (The End of Identity Liberalism), is an eye-opening look at the liberal academic in its natural habitat. In search of a fresh take on the 2016 presidential election, Lilla’s navel-gazing heaps blame where it doesn’t belong and ignores that, thanks to a voting bloc made up of minorities and marginalized people, Hillary Clinton continues to pad her lead in the popular vote. The piece clearly reveals the blind spot between the ivy-covered tower and street-level advocacy for marginalized persons.

Lilla looks at the outcome of the election, sees the “wrong” outcome, and so draws the wrong conclusions. This is not surprising — but it is lazy. He’s a heterosexual white male, well-educated, a professor at Columbia, and the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship. His viewpoint couldn’t be more privileged. From my somewhat lower vantage point (still privileged by being a white, heterosexual male), the takeaways look much different.

In blaming ‘identity liberalism,’ Lilla essentially asks progressives to ignore that Clinton is winning the popular vote, as of this writing, by nearly 2 million ballots. He asks us to turn a blind eye to successful voter suppression efforts in areas like Wisconsin and North Carolina. He asks us to turn a deaf ear to clear interference in an American election by outside interests — most likely, Russia — and instead turn inward to take the blame for Trump’s rise upon ourselves. That’s a slice of guilt pie no progressive deserves.

His 1,000-word screed ignores the concept of intersectionality, possibly the most important part of identity politics. The Oxford Dictionary defines intersectionality as the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, regarded as creating overlapping and interdependent systems of discrimination or disadvantage. It is this concept that keeps identity politics from fragmenting into what Lilla thinks it means. People actually interested in the concept look for common ground. Intersectionality is what connects the black woman to the Latinx male to the Asian queer person to the white cisgender heterosexual male.

Should we also ignore that marginalized people voted overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton? Should we ignore that white people largely voted for Donald Trump in order to protect their privilege? Lilla’s piece inadvertently offers a reflection on society as a whole. We are reluctant to examine our privilege. It can be a painful and embarrassing process, and no one likes to feel emotional pain. We avoid it whenever possible. Lilla’s academic privilege allows him the luxury to blame voters of color, LGBTQIAP+ persons and other marginalized folks for the rise of Trump — rather than the racism, sexism and ego that allowed white voters to select the most unqualified candidate in history to fill the White House for the next four years.

Lilla essentially argues that marginalized people assimilate to the whiteness-based ‘Make America Great Again’ call of Trump and his supporters. He asks that marginalized people jettison their identities in order to be subsumed by a 1950s-era ideal (and one that never actually existed in reality). We must not celebrate our differences, he argues, but come together as citizens. Unify. With all due respect, Mr. Lilla — that sounds like something that comes out the wrong end of the horse. Some thinkers advocate Occam’s Razor for their process. Mr. Lilla seems to prefer a Rube Goldberg machine.

Perhaps progressives in academe have forgotten what identity politics is all about: human rights. It’s fine to bemoan the state and direction of progressive-ism from the hallowed halls of higher learning. But down here — where the regular people live — this is what identity liberalism looks like: Women of all races want the right to walk down the street without fear of being harassed or molested; they seek to control their own bodies and make their own reproductive health decisions. People of color — black men, in particular — want to live through a routine traffic stop; they ask law enforcement to begin policing black neighborhoods the same way they police white neighborhoods. Muslims and Sikhs would like to practice their religion without persecution, without physical danger to themselves or their loved ones. People with disabilities seek access to the same buildings and public areas available to everyone else. LGBTQ+ folks fight for the right to go about their lives, to love the people they wish to love, to present themselves as their appropriate gender, and to not live in constant fear.

This is not too much to ask, Mr. Lilla. These are human and civil rights, and those hard-won rights are endangered by the election of a man who has empowered and given renewed voice to white supremacy. The people who voted for Trump are to blame, not the people concerned with protecting the rights of marginalized people and seeking equality for all citizens. That is the society we aspire to be. It is not the fault of the marginalized that an overwhelmingly white, male-centered society wages war against those rights.

At its core, we are talking about American citizens here who still do not have the same rights as white, cisgender, heterosexual American citizens. The playing field is unequal, and that is not the fault of identity liberalism. It is the fault of people in power who do not want to share that power. No one else should share that blame.

If progressive academics would like to find blame for the rise of Trump, they should ask the right questions of the right people: Go to middle America, or the American South, and ask conservatives there why they believe it’s offensive to grant rights and freedoms to American citizens who don’t look or act like them. Listen to the answers, as I have. I live in the American South, and I understand the fear and unease of conservatives. I know it well — possibly better than I know my own voice. And while I agree that much work can be done from the progressive side, a great deal more work — hard work, at that — will be required from American conservatives. But we must continue to look for the bonds of intersectionality, the small but meaningful ways in which our experiences overlap, so that the United States may one day overcome the dark four years ahead.