In Defense of Identity Politics

Obama pays a surprise visit to the Boys and Girls Club of Cleveland in 2012. “Obama won in great part because he prevailed overwhelmingly among … oppressed groups who rejected the Republican Party’s plutocratic (and often sexist, racist, and homophobic) vision,” Blum writes. Credit: White House/Pete Souza.

Conservative and liberal critics have taken strong issue with identity politics, especially in the past few decades. Many of these critics downplay the ongoing violence of racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and ableism that continue to provoke identity-based organizing in the present day. I would like to offer some reflections on why identity politics movements strengthen rather than weaken the Left and why we all need to support identity-based organizing if we are to address the ongoing, dismal realities of racial exclusion and overt and institutional discrimination against historically oppressed populations.

Conservative critics often use “multiculturalism” as a synonym for “identity politics” in their line of attack. These conservative critics have maintained that a multicultural vision, especially in higher education, has led to an extreme fragmentation in society. They claim that programs and emphases on particular racial, ethnic, and sexual orientation groups can balkanize America and threaten Western culture and civilization.

Among the better-known critics have been the late Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington (author of The Clash of Civilizations), right-wing ideologist Dinesh D’Souza (author of Illiberal Education and various other diatribes), and reactionary commentator Pat Buchanan (author of Suicide of a Superpower). The National Association of Scholars, a conservative academic organization, has likewise assaulted the recent academic focus on ethnic and women’s studies programs and curricula, as well as on more general themes of race, gender, and class.

These conservative responses are sometimes sincere, but more often, they serve as verbal and rhetorical cover for their usual objectives: to preserve wealthy white privilege and power and to repress any dissenting voices that would challenge their domination. Many conservatives are well aware that contemporary groups representing minority racial and ethnic groups, gay and lesbian interests, and women present severe challenges to their power, especially when they are united in common political objectives. Their assault on multiculturalism and identity politics should be understood more in political than intellectual terms.

Liberal Critiques of Identity Politics

Even traditional liberal voices, however, have been critical of modern identity politics. The late Arthur Schlesinger Jr., a former Harvard University historian, advisor to President John F. Kennedy, and a key member of the U.S. liberal establishment, offered a critique in his 1991 book, The Disuniting of America. Positioning himself as well situated because of his long-established liberal record and reputation to object to the new politics of identity, Schlesinger defended an older American idea of a “melting pot” or “American Creed.” He viewed identity politics as a phenomenon that would tear America apart rather than enable people of all backgrounds to assimilate into a uniquely American whole.

Like many other liberals, Schlesinger overstated the value (and even the existence) of the American melting pot, which historically excluded millions of its residents, especially those of color. The fragmentation he decried had long been a dominant, if under-recognized, reality in the United States. The racial and ethnic pride developments of the mid and late twentieth century, in fact, finally brought some substance to the otherwise empty rhetoric of American pluralism. The irony is that modern and contemporary identity politics alone can bridge the gap between historic American ideals and the realities of discrimination against historically oppressed populations.

I have often encountered this liberal resistance to identity politics in my numerous public presentations, often on African American cultural and political topics. Even among audiences inclined to favor civil rights and progressive antidiscrimination measures, some people have expressed concern and anxiety about even such terms as “African American.” Not infrequently, I have been questioned about why it is necessary to use such terminology instead of “just plain Americans.” As patiently as possible, I try to explain that “just plain Americans” may be well meaning, but it is ultimately an exclusionary category that has historically omitted many people who have only recently proclaimed pride in their identity, using language as well as other modes of expression to force the majority society to acknowledge their basic humanity. The deeper reality is that appeals to a grand American unity only exacerbate racial, class, gender, and sexual barriers and make genuine political change even more difficult to accomplish.

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