The Racist Logic Of Progressive Identity Politics
I heard a story recently from a close associate of mine that would have shocked me to the core had we lived in any other cultural moment than this.
A friend of hers at an elite university in New England was kicked out of her housing co-op for having the wrong skin color. And most frightening of all: nobody really cared.
The co-op was steadily transforming into a people of color only college house, in a demand for group solidarity in response to the rampant racism so readily found on a far-left liberal arts college campus like their own. The victim of this blatantly racist offense was forced out of her house in a peer pressure campaign to achieve racial uniformity, presumably to protect the other girls from the seemingly ever-present scourge of white supremacy. Although this person was of South American descent, she was technically “white passing”, meaning she looked white and therefore enjoyed all of the delicate fruits of a life charmed with white privilege — despite her diverse ethnic background.
This is the logic of identity politics. Your group identity, whether in terms of race, gender, sexuality, or otherwise, is supreme — and the moral power of said group is derived from the level of historical oppression it has seemingly experienced. In other words, your individual experience is a fizzling background noise amid the greater cause of absolute equality. You are merely a puppet on the string of history, moved by broader forces outside of your control. In essence, you are either a victim or a victimizer in some grand historical chess match — and you will invariably be judged according to the supposed merits of your group identity, rather than the content of your character.
Now, someone might object to my overview of the situation and justify booting this person from her domicile (bearing in mind these people were her alleged friends and it hurts to be excommunicated) by asserting that ‘we can’t be racist against white people because white people are in power’, or that ‘blacks cannot be racist because they are an oppressed group’. In fact, a similar justification of this gross offense was made by the victim herself, rationalizing what happened in the context of this all-encompassing oppressed/oppressor narrative. It never seemed to cross her mind how this could be portrayed as a shameless incident of explicit racism, because the perpetrators (elite level college students) were essentially deemed “victims” in this twisted worldview — claiming a protected status by virtue of their racial identity alone.
In the midst of our steadily polarizing culture war, it seems we often forget that “racism” is an actual thing — independent of historical context and power play. Racism encompasses any form of “Prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior”, according to the dictionary. That is not to say historical context or intercultural power dynamics are irrelevant, and perhaps an argument could be made that these forces more deeply impact how we feel about race than actual skin color itself. Personally, I wouldn’t make that argument, being how this line of reasoning would compress the complex momentum of history into an immutable characteristic like our race in a reductively totalizing fashion — a form of racial determinism predicated on the idea that “the past is never past”, or some other civil rights era cliche.
The most obvious criticism of this way of thinking is that it’s thoroughly dated. We don’t happen to live in the 1950s, and there are no longer any state-sanctioned barriers for minorities in this country. There is indeed some racism in the system, but by all historical measures the system itself cannot honestly be construed as being fundamentally racist at its core. If the idea is that blacks lack cultural or political power, such a theory is considerably laughable after having a black president voted in for two terms. It’s also worth noting that 60% of blacks without college degrees don’t believe their situation has anything to do with racism, according to both a Pew and Gallup poll. One of the biggest leaps in public opinion over the past 60 years is the general acceptance of interracial marriage. In the early 1900s, lynchings occurred at a rate of 3 times per week. Now, the average is just about zero per year. This is not to say racism is non-existent in America, but it should go without saying (though, unfortunately it does not) that white racism ceases to be a credible institution of power in this country — and that has remained the case for quite some time. Point being, the progressive assumption that a person’s racial identity is an essential indicator of the quality of their experience, that racism is still alive and well, is very much up for debate in the year of our lord 2018. Personally, I believe health and wealth play more of a role in engendering well-being than race or gender in and of themselves, but I digress.
A more insidious manifestation of this strain of identity politics, the sort that would justify throwing someone out of their own house for having the wrong skin color, is that it seems to obscure the fundamental definition of racism altogether. As Coleman Hughes noted in his article The High Price Of Stale Grievances, “It won’t suffice to repeat the platitude that ‘black people can’t be racist’, as if redefining a word changes the ethical status of the thing the words signifies.” Racism is an actual thing, carrying an explicitly anti-human ethos, and on an ethical level you either believe it is wrong or you don’t. It really boils down whether or not we think racism is justifiable in certain scenarios, situational justifications which the perpetrators of the previously mentioned offense would evidently be more than happy to entertain. This line of reasoning would suggest that racism is acceptable if the perpetrator of the act is theoretically oppressed and the victim is theoretically an oppressor, even if these delineations have virtually nothing to do with the personal history of the individuals involved.
This makes me think of a something James Baldwin, someone who has mistakenly been associated with identity politics, once noted in his masterpiece The Fire Next Time. “During a recent Muslim rally, George Lincoln Rockwell, the chief of the American Nazi Party, made a point of contributing about 20 dollars to the cause, and he and Malcolm X decided that, racially speaking, they were in complete agreement. The glorification of one race and the consequent debasement of another — or others — always has been and will be a recipe for murder. If one is permitted to treat any group of people with special disfavor because of their race or the color of their skin, there is no limit to what one will force them to endure.” He sailed this point home still further, “Color is not a human or personal reality, it is a political reality.” As to say, our racial identity will never constitute our essential Self — and the incessant politicization of race always seems to gloss over the deeper human reality beneath the skin.
Another writer, Thomas Chatterton Williams, echoes this sentiment in a piece for The New York Times in criticism of Ta-Nehisi Coates — a popular author who referred to whiteness as a “glowing amulet” full of “eldritch energies” in an article for the Atlantic. “I have spent the past six months pouring over the literature of European and American white nationalism, in the process interviewing noxious identitarians like the Alt-Right founder Richard Spencer. The most shocking of Mr. Coates wording here is the extent to which it mirrors the ideas of race — specifically the specialness of whiteness — that white supremacist thinkers cherish.”
“This summer, I spent an hour on the phone with Richard Spencer. It was an exchange that left me feeling physically sickened. Toward the end of the interview, he said one thing that I still think about often. He referred to the all-encompassing sense of white power so many liberals now also attribute to whiteness as a profound opportunity. “This is the photographic negative of a white supremacist,” he told me gleefully. “This is why I’m actually very confident, because maybe those leftists will be the easiest ones to flip.”
Identity Politics, which could readily be defined as an undying emphasis on group identity (race, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, and so on) in the context of a victim/victimizer quasi-marxist cultural narrative, reflects the very racial essentialism that it claims to be transcending. This is the central conflict of interest embedded in modern identity politics — it mirrors the same thing it was originally intended to fight against. It is ultimately a form of well-intended racism, in so many words. Of course, this is not to say that progressive identity politics are morally equivalent to white racism, because history does in fact matter. Though, to put it quite plainly, this ideology fails in bolstering the quintessential value it proclaims to represent: The ability for people to be free of their racial identity. This dangerous level of hypocrisy is very much unneeded in an already troubled world such as ours.
So, she was treated like an inferior because of her skin color. That is what happened. At the very least, this ought to have been seen as patently unproductive. The problem is, it wasn’t. It was completely written off, as a form of cosmic justice for the alleged sins of our ancestors — or merely the original sin of whiteness itself. For all they knew, this person could’ve have experienced a great deal more suffering than anyone else in that house — but individual experience is far off in the distance when operating under the rationale of racial identity politics. I would call this logical fallacy “the selective racism bias”, where racist acts are justifiable, explainable, and acceptable — in the context of broad systemic issues that we have virtually no palpable connection to and that we can practically do nothing about. This was not an isolated incident either, and the fact that it was so easily overlooked is indicative of a deeper cultural dilemma. Identity Politics is the new religion, attempting to fill the meaning shaped hole in our collective heart.
I personally believe that progressive identity politics emanate out from a cultural obsession with innocence — a mass psychological need to validate our sense of moral authority. In my personal view, the American racial nightmare will not end until we let go of this obsession, choosing to earn our innocence through individual initiative rather than moral posturing.
On a final note, it is necessary to recognize that the group does not suffer, that individual experience is supreme (even in the context of the group), and that the essence of the civil rights movement was to empower individuals by challenging groupthink dynamics — not the other way around.