“Identity Politics” is a Really Good Way to Address Poverty

Assuming that the electoral college dooms us all on December 19th by confirming Donald Trump as President, who at last count had 2 million fewer votes than Hillary Clinton, there is going to be a long and bitter existential debate on the left. The current mode du jour is that liberal “identity politics” is what tanked the Electoral College count. While I don’t deny the merit of that specific argument, it would be remiss of me to not call out one glaring issue with dropping identity politics from the discourse of leftist politics: Identity politics are a great way to address poverty.

If our ultimate path to winning an election is winning the economy, and if we have a moral obligation to ensure no one goes hungry or homeless, how poverty is addressed must be at the center of the political conversation. In 2015, four out of the ten countries with the highest quality of living also placed in the top ten in terms of gender equality. One of the countries with a top ten gender equality score — Rwanda — is one of Africa’s fastest growing economies and has one of the highest quality of living in the continent. No sh*t. Women are more than half the population of most countries, so of course empowering women to live safe, productive lives benefits everyone in the country. But in order to get to that point, something has to be done to address the root causes of the problem. In Rwanda’s case, the “solution” was tragic — the country went through a genocide in which a massive portion of the male population was killed, so women were a large part of the reconstruction effort. Fortunately those attitudes of gender inclusion have largely prevailed, and women make up more than half of the Rwandan Parliament.

Other than genocide, how can we address the cultural barriers that prevent women, ethnic, racial, gender expression or other minorities from achieving economic prosperity, thereby lifting everyone in the country? Identity politics, plain and simple. If we as a society are scared to address the myriad of cultural factors that affect segments of our population, how can we expect to propose real solutions? Bringing jobs to the rust belt isn’t enough if women, black people and Hispanics in the area are prevented from the same employment opportunities as white men. Identity politics allows us a lens into what is working where and for whom, and that lens is critical to advancing economic well being of the overall population of any country.

Identity politics also provides another valuable lens to economic health, one that Bernie Sanders has been shouting about for 40 years — income inequality. The overwhelming majority of economic growth in the past decade has gone to the top 1%, and the majority of that wealth has gone to white men. The ten wealthiest people in the country are all white men. With the exception of Warren Buffet and (arguably) the Koch brothers, all of them made their money in tech. The tech industry has boomed in the past decade, with venture capital (VC) funding doing the heavy lifting in early funding of companies like Uber and AirBNB. The breakdown of VC funding through the identity politics lens is telling: statistically speaking, black female-led tech companies raise 0% of all VC funding, despite a 300%+ increase in the number of black female-led companies since the 90s. Look at the numbers and try to make the argument that identity isn’t hugely relevant to addressing economic growth in America. I dare you.

I will be the first to admit that we on the left cannot have it both ways. There are undoubtedly problems that disproportionately affect the white majority. If we want to continue to use identity politics as a way forward, we can’t be afraid to address issues facing specifically the white community, especially if the current the demographic shift means they will go from the majority to the plurality in the next generation.

Moving beyond the merits of identity politics in economic well being is the issue of messaging. Messaging on “white issues” obviously must be handled respectfully for both white and non-white people, as there is rarely a single community in America in which white people do worse than PoCs, and given that America was largely built on the backs of black slaves. Despite the possibly explosive implications, we need to recognize that though “white culture” in America is loose and charged construct, it does have implications that need to be addressed.

The most common argument against identity politics I hear from the right is that they are “divisive” and “exclusionary.” Divisive to whom? To white people, mostly. Until this point, the left has not done a great job of articulating the majority of any population doesn’t need to be specifically addressed like the minority. For decades, if not centuries, minority needs barely made it to mainstream politics or media. Solutions were built for the majority and minorities were left to figure out how to make it work in their own lives. Arguably for the first time in American history, the needs of people outside the majority are featured. But in that amazing phenomenon, much of the majority felt like they were left out. Seeing that the new right is the alt-right is white supremacy, I’m going to take a wild stab and say it’s thus up to the left to figure out how to properly message “majority inclusion”. Again, I argue the solution is not to drop identity politics, no matter how tempting.

I could probably write a dissertation on this topic, but I’ll leave my last point as something I have long been arguing — America needs to get better at embracing nuance. It is shameful that large swaths of our population find a cultural penchant to being uneducated and/or poorly informed and/or incapable of understanding details. America has been responsible for some of the greatest achievements in nearly every academic, professional and technological domain. We should not relish in not knowing things. We should collectively embrace that most things require some understanding of math, history, education, and overall context. We should collectively embrace that is our moral obligation to remain aware of who we are, where we are and how our actions affect others. It is the assault on intelligence that is our problem, not using identity politics to better understand our world.

We have a long way to go and, with Donald Trump in The White House, a lot of damage control to do. If and when we get a second to stop and breathe, I hope the political left continues to embrace higher thought, adopts better messaging and with that, one of the best tools we have in bettering America — identity politics.