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. {{{subscriber|2.00}}}

The Working Men were urban artisans who simultaneously claimed a new identity and a full share of America’s democratic inheritance. Pioneering a class-based interpretation of America, the Working Men gained power by reflecting together on “our real condition.” Previous generations of workers had “surrender[ed] their rights to the non-productive and accumulating class,” declared one leader, but in the enlightened nineteenth centuryworkers could join “the progressive march of improvement” by insisting on the rights enshrined in the Declaration of Independence. They even rewrote the Declaration to inspire resistance to the “oppression and degradation of one class of society” by another.

Those who argue for common-ground organizing tend to name the early years of the Civil Rights Movement as their ideal. But early events such as the Montgomery bus boycott grew out of identity-based activism. Here, Rev. Ralph Abernathy hugs a member of his church on February 22, 1956, in front of the jail where he was taken for joining the boycott. Credit: Associated Press.

Working Men were theologically diverse enough to include Quakers, Universalists, Methodists, and freethinking admirers of Thomas Paine. Virtually all opposed state-sponsored religion, and they told a common story about church history: the “primitive” teaching of Jesus had been betrayed when Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. This reading of sacred history inspired opposition to concentrated power, whether that power was ecclesial, political, or economic.

While the Working Men were laying one enduring foundation for American radicalism, the organizers of the free African American community laid another. The two groups had much in common. They lived in the same cities—Philadelphia, New York, Boston, Baltimore—and worked in the same artisan trades. Both groups embraced the legacy of the American Revolution, took pride in their participation in that war, and treasured the freedoms it had brought them. Many Northern blacks, in particular, had been emancipated by state statutes passed after the revolution. And both groups feared that the work of the revolution was being undone by social elites determined to restore Old World hierarchies. Both were often at odds with the “benevolent empire” of voluntary societies created by the heirs of the religious establishment. Confronted with new challenges to their freedom, both groups built up power through identity encounters. Just as white laborers claimed a new identity as “Working Men,” their black counterparts found power and solidarity by calling themselves “African.”

The word “African,” which appeared in the names of the African Society and the African Methodist Episcopal Church, signaled the shared identity of all persons of African descent, whether newly emancipated, long free, or still claimed as slaves in the South. The point was clear when Philadelphia blacks gathered in 1817 to rebuke the newly organized American Colonization Society, which proposed to end slavery gradually by expatriating free African Americans to colonies in Africa. “We will never,” they resolved, “separate ourselves voluntarily from the slave population of this country; they are our brethren.” This vision of racial solidarity was new: throughout the eighteenth century, religious identities had been more prominent than racial ones, and free blacks in the South and the Caribbean sometimes held their own slaves. By 1817, Philadelphia blacks knew that racial prejudice undermined liberty even in the shadow of Independence Hall. Their generously inclusive response inaugurated a half-century of agitation against slavery and racism.

By calling themselves “African,” the Philadelphians were not renouncing their “American” identity. They pointed out that they had been in North America for as long as their white neighbors; that they were “the first successful cultivators of the wilds of America”; and that they had fought for freedom alongside white patriots. They bristled at the Colonization Society’s insinuation that they were a foreign element that could not be integrated. At the same time, they refused to accept any false dichotomy between racial solidarity and full participation in American society. Most of those who repudiated the Colonization Society had walked out of white churches that refused to treat them as fully human. Some were willing to contemplate black-led colonization schemes as a possible response to America’s betrayal of its revolutionary values. In their willingness to separate from institutions that had betrayed the American Revolution, they affirmed their identity as true American radicals.

The sense of identity cultivated in the 1820s has reappeared through history and among a wide range of identity groups, among them the women’s rights advocates who gathered at Seneca Falls and the industrial workers who built the Socialist Party and the Industrial Workers of the World. But it took on a particularly influential form, I believe, in the early years of the Civil Rights Movement—precisely in those years that critics of identity politics often lift up as the ideal of common-ground politics.

A few months after the African American citizens of Montgomery, Alabama, began boycotting a bus system that denied their human dignity, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. published an article in Liberation that explained the meaning of this action. The article, ghostwritten by Bayard Rustin, explained that over centuries of slavery and segregation, many African Americans had “lost faith in themselves,” believing “that perhaps they really were what they had been told they were—something less than men.” Many wondered if “we Negroes had the nerve” to fight segregation, it added. But the boycott did succeed: from the very first day, virtually no blacks rode the city’s buses, and they kept up their discipline for more than a year, until the authorities (prompted by the Supreme Court) accepted their demand for a fully integrated seating policy. Even before this result was achieved, King’s article concluded that “We Negroes have replaced self-pity with self-respect and self-depreciation with dignity…. Montgomery has broken the spell.”

These words expressed the founding revelation of the Sixties Left. Ordinary African Americans—maids and sharecroppers, schoolteachers and professors—had unleashed power by encountering one another in a new way. On dusty sidewalks they discovered the power to bring the white system to a standstill; gathered in their churches they found new energy in old hymns. Veteran activists were surprised by their neighbors’ new enthusiasm—had not Rosa Parks heard others “mumbling and grumbling” about the waste of time when she stood up to aggressive drivers previously? Suddenly the whole community was meeting violence with courage, as when King’s home was bombed and his neighbors defied the police to stand vigil until King personally assured them he was safe. Shared protest, wrote one activist, created “a new person in the Negro. The new spirit, the new feeling did something to blacks individually and collectively…. There was no turning back!”

Montgomery pushed the encounter of identity to the center of American radicalism. Over the next decade, one movement after another—student sit-ins, campus free speech, feminist consciousness-raising, Chicano farm worker organizing, gay and lesbian liberation—sought the power that had kept black Montgomerians on their feet through the chilly winter and hot summer of 1956. Earlier movements had begun with empowering encounters among African Americans or workers or women, but they had achieved national scope only after other encounters, crossing the boundaries of class or race, brought privileged allies into the struggle. Many activists, notably the founders of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), had come to believe that boundary-crossing encounters were the source of radical power. Once Montgomery had revealed the power of identity encounters, activists rethought their vision. Soon even persons of relative privilege were organizing around particular identities.

Montgomery is not always remembered as the birthplace of identity politics. White Americans especially recall the early Civil Rights Movement as a time of “black and white together,” epitomized by the famous photographs (taken in Selma in 1965, not Montgomery in 1956) that show equal numbers of blacks and whites, among them nuns and rabbis, marching for freedom. But white people scarcely figure in the experiences that led Montgomerians to declare that a new Negro was being born. For a handful of local white allies, the boycott was a time of transformative interracial encounter. But there just weren’t enough radical whites to encounter all the blacks drawn into the movement. For blacks in Montgomery, the significant meetings were with one another.

These meetings were not unlike the founding gatherings of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, or Margaret Fuller’s “Conversations” for women, or the encounters among wage workers during the strikes of 1934. Yet they evoked a different response. Earlier encounters of identity generated either terror or condescension from outsiders, a pattern that held true for white Southern responses to Montgomery. But perhaps because the Southern freedom struggle was the first encounter of identity to be televised, it stimulated a different response from more distant observers. These people saw a new form of power, and many reacted with wonder, admiration, or envy. Such responses enabled a rapid transition from protest to structural change, as Congress passed legislation banning formal segregation and disenfranchisement less than a decade after Montgomery. In contrast to the changes of the Civil War, the Progressive Era, and the New Deal, all of which were orchestrated by the privileged allies of slaves and workers, these changes were the direct work of the rising wave of newly empowered African Americans. While Abraham Lincoln gave credit for emancipation to Garrison, Lyndon Johnson honored Martin Luther King Jr. by declaring “we shall overcome!” in calling for a voting rights act. Visible success inspired emulation.

In addition to television, nonviolence was crucial to the positive response to Montgomery. Past identity encounters had evoked fear among privileged people who sensed that social institutions might be transformed in ways beyond their own power. Sometimes the encounters were accompanied by threats of violence, but the empowerment alone was frightening. King’s repeated profession of love for his adversaries mitigated that fear. But nonviolence was generally possible only for those who had already experienced some degree of empowerment, as activist Jo Ann Robinson discovered when she was arrested. After being pushed and harassed by a police officer, she realized that he was more frightened by her defiance than she was by his violence. Inundated by “sorrow and pity,” she prayed that he would find peace.

Seen from the perspective of practices of encounter, the contrast between Montgomery and CORE activism in the 1940s was sharper than that between Montgomery and late 1960s Black Power. In principle, King and his lieutenants embraced the integrationist goals and nonviolent strategies pioneered by CORE. But in practice, Montgomery was worlds away from CORE’s scripted actions undertaken by disciplined, racially balanced teams. The Northern acolytes of nonviolence saw Montgomery not as a culmination of their own efforts, but as a stunning new fact in radical history. “As I watched the people walk away,” Bayard Rustin mused during his first visit to Montgomery, “I had a feeling that no force on earth can stop this movement. It has all the elements to touch the hearts of men.” Eight years later, Dave Dellinger was still marveling at the way Southern blacks had rewritten the Gandhian script. “There is no doubt in my mind,” he wrote, “that the Negro nonviolent movement is sounder because its direct knowledge of Gandhi is so slight.”

The work of mutual empowerment pioneered in the Southern freedom struggle has been at the heart of radical activism for the past half-century. It is evident in energetic movements for Native American, Latino, Asian American, and African American rights; in womanist and mujerista movements that exist alongside white feminism; in gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer activism; and among self-consciously evangelical, Buddhist, and Jewish radicals. Much of this diversity did not flower until the 1970s. In the 1960s themselves, the circle of encounter was expanded first by the mostly Northern pioneers of the Black Power movement, the women who raised their own consciousness while working in the South, the Chicano farm workers organized by Cesar Chavez, and—most prominently—the army of radical students who saw themselves as the vanguard of a new American revolution.

During the 1970s, the feminist movement flowered as the most vital embodiment of identity politics in the United States. As some women entered the halls of power, others built new centers of radical strength, ranging from rape crisis centers and lesbian communes to women’s studies departments and the National Organization for Women. But this mobilization was rarely at the expense of other radical traditions. Feminists transformed and revitalized struggles for peace, economic justice, and racial liberation, challenging their brothers to share the leadership of these movements.

Much the same can be said of today’s movement for queer liberation. Anyone who spends time on college campuses knows that most young people today—whatever their personal sexual identities—have been inspired by the struggles of gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transgender persons to celebrate their full identities. The idea that love itself can be radical has an inherent appeal, and radicals would be foolish indeed not to tap into that source of power.

This is not to say that alliances among causes and identities will be easy or automatic. As a Harvard professor and pacifist, I have been deeply dismayed by my university’s decision to welcome the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) back to campus after a forty-two year hiatus. Needless to say, the original decision to terminate ROTC had nothing to do with discrimination against gays and lesbians in the military and everything to do with the Vietnam War. Yet, even as the United States is enmeshed in new imperialist adventures in the Muslim world, Harvard has welcomed ROTC back simply on the grounds that queers are now free to fight and die alongside straight people.

Nevertheless, I know many radicals who cried tears of joy when “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was repealed. And there can be no radical success without the power of that joy. We face a choice between death-dealing imperialism and the life-affirming energies of queer sex, between authentic identities born of struggle and false masks foisted on us by consumerism. It is time, quite simply, for radicals to refuse to choose between identity and common ground. Our identities are our power and our future.

(To return to the Winter 2012 Table of Contents, click here.)

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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