Who’s Afraid of Identity Politics?


Critics often blame identity-based organizing for the weakness of the Left, overlooking how it breathes life into social movements. Identity-based slogans—such as this one from a May 1, 2011, protest in Washington, D.C.—can pulse with power. Credit: Bill Hunter (shoreshotphotography.com).

The election of Barack Obama in 2008 marked the culmination of a twenty-year backlash against “identity politics.” Students and union members, environmentalists and anti-imperialists, and people of all races and sexualities came together to elect a young, biracial politician who studiously avoided the slogans of the late Sixties. It appeared, briefly, that liberals and leftists had taken to heart Todd Gitlin’s warning that identity politics had caused the Left to “cede the very language of universality that is its birthright.” Yet the Obama presidency, like the identity politics that preceded it, has so far proved incapable of resisting resurgent conservatism, whether in the form of corporate domination, fundamentalist intolerance, or the temptations of empire. The time has come for a new look at identity politics—and a new effort to integrate its power and passion with common-ground activism.

My own appreciation for identity politics stems partly from the frustrations of the past three years and partly from my exploration of the two-hundred-year history of religious radicalism in the United States. This may seem paradoxical, for religious activists have been among the most vocal critics of identity politics. Many of them see sharply delineated identities as a betrayal of Christian and Gandhian notions of “beloved community.” Yet a closer look reveals that identity politics unleashes spiritual power. When previously marginalized and exploited individuals come together and claim new identities, they gain a power not unlike that generated by the “born again” experience or other forms of religious conversion. Even the slogans of identity movements—“Workers of the world unite,” “Black is beautiful!” “Out and proud”—pulse with power. Such power has fueled all the most successful change movements in U.S. history. For all these reasons, the Left simply cannot do without identity.

In making a revived case for identity politics, I am not proposing that we turn back the clock to 1969. There was much beauty and much tragedy in that historical moment, and I sympathize with much of what Gitlin and others have had to say about it. The vanguardism that led specific groups to argue that their own liberation was the key to everyone else’s was understandable in its context, but not to be emulated today. The macho cult of revolutionary violence destroyed many lives and did little to dislodge institutional violence and oppression. But identity politics did not begin in 1969.

I came to my study of religious movements for social change as a devoted disciple of abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison—like me, a middle-class, married white guy—who embodied a multi-issue, common-ground politics of opposition to slavery, racism, sexism, and war. I never lost faith in Garrison, but as I dug deeper into the story it became clear that neither Garrison nor the American radical tradition as a whole would have been possible without identity politics.

The flowering of radical politics in the 1830s and 1840s, in particular, was made possible by two small, identity-based groups that came together in American cities in the 1820s. Separately, though often in adjoining neighborhoods, “Working Men” and African Americans discovered their own power by coming together, sharing stories, and claiming a new identity. Many of these early encounters took place in religious congregations, though those who experienced them quickly brought their spiritual energies into the broader public sphere. ...

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From Prophetic Encounters by Dan McKanan. Copyright © 2011 by Daniel Patrick McKanan. Reprinted by permission of Beacon Press, Boston. McKanan is Emerson Senior Lecturer at the Harvard Divinity School and the author of The Catholic Worker After Dorothy: Practicing the Works of Mercy in a New Generation and other books.

Source Citation

McKanan, Dan. 2012. Who's Afraid of Identity Politics? Tikkun 27(1): 11.

tags: Activism, Politics & Society, Spiritual Politics   
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