The United States is becoming a more diverse society. Within this statement lies a great deal of contested meaning and value. Some will read our changing demographics as a cause for fear and dread. Others will read it as a cause for celebration. But we all sense that what race or racial identity means is rapidly shifting. And we will all be impacted.
What will it mean to be white, Black, Latino/a, Asian, and Native American in the late twenty-first century? What exactly will the loss of a white majority bring? Because our identities are relational, it will at least suggest that no one and no one group will be able to dominate entirely. After years of apparent stability, white people may wake up in a neighborhood or country that feels unfamiliar and in which they are a “minority.” Then the question sneaks in: what does it mean to be American now?
Yet, we also know that the current power structure has shown itself to be able to adapt to changing circumstances without being disrupted. Demographic shifts do not necessarily result in a change to the current hierarchies of power.
Change and the Decline of the Enlightenment Project
We are also witnessing changes in the environment. Does this mean that we need to forge a new relationship with the natural world in order to support life as we know it? And we continue to worry about the economy. Some say that we need to make deep changes to it. But where would these changes be located? Do we transform the structure of the economy? If so, do we try to rein in the excesses of the individual, or alter the relationship of the elites and corporations to the economy? We could instead focus on the political level and its arrangement. Who should vote and how should it occur? How should money be allowed into campaigns and who should be able to lobby?
How is it that as the country grows more diverse, many conservative enclaves are becoming more white and homogeneous? And then there is the question of meaning and identity. Who is legitimately and fully part of our collective community? Who counts as a full member of out imagined community? Who is our brother or sister?
These questions signal that a descriptive account of our nation’s multi-varied changes may be too thin. Arriving at a deeper account of them requires us to undertake at least two tasks: address how profoundly these changes are interrelated; and discern the type and pace of change that can best improve our world and make our lives worth living. How we go about these tasks will have both immediate and long-term implications. Indeed, when we speak of progress we are talking about a certain kind of shifting that must also be balanced with some stability. But do we have the capacity to marshal these efforts?
We are experiencing the decline of the enlightenment project. The pillars of this project, based in Europe and the United States, gave us the separation and dominance of reason over other ways of knowing and placed humans in a position of dominance over nature. It reiterated sexist notions of men’s dominance over women and racist and colonial notions of Europeans’ dominance over non-European people. It promised a world of light without darkness, an orderly park instead of a defiant forest, a secular disenchanted world of logic, reason divorced from emotion, and a radically self-contained modern self. But these were promises that it could not keep. The very effort was fraught with fear and anxiety. And this anxiety was projected into a world that then needed to be controlled and dominated. This included the apparent “other”—women, people of color, the disabled, and of course, the earth itself.
Instead, we are living in a period of heightened anxiety. Most of us do not think of this anxiety as related to the enlightenment project but rather as a loss of security, self, and country. But these realities are all linked to the failed age of reason. Change is inevitable, but the particular nature of this change is still up for grabs.
We need to open up our imagination to the new possible. Should we think of this challenge in political, economic, or spiritual terms? The answer is yes to all three. We need to understand the interrelationship between these domains. We cannot and should not try to hermetically separate questions of structures, stuff, and being. Too often we assume political questions are something folks in our statehouses or Washington concern themselves with, economic ones are merely a function of markets that make and distribute stuff, and spiritual ones are simply personal or private questions, best dealt with at home.
The Problem with “Universal Identity”
As the world changes, we are seeing not just threats to our stuff, but also threats to who we are. This raises interesting challenges. Many argue against a focus on or concern for our identity based on an assumption that what has been called “identity politics” is too narrow and divisive. Those who make this argument imply that identity politics is something only marginalized groups are concerned with such as women, people of color, gays and lesbians, and the disabled, while the more “serious” folks are attending to important things like politics and the economy. Instead of a particular and narrow identity, the latter groups perceive themselves as brokers of universal issues and keepers of a universal identity. They employ a class analysis to talk about this illusory identity in relationship to the economy. Radicals, even more so, explicitly link this concern to questions of capital and Marxism. Liberals often make a similar move, framing their concerns in terms of socio-economic status. At the same time, our political system is reduced to siloed party concerns. For decades we have fought over economic versus identity politics as it pertains to race, the assumption being that class is more robust and legitimate, as well as less divisive.
Unfortunately this approach seldom works. During every election cycle we hear endless conversations about people voting against their own self-interests. A class approach has prevented working-class whites, Blacks, and Latinos from uniting and making common cause in their quest for becoming part of the middle class. Why do so many low-income, working-class whites vote with the Republican elites? Why do so many of them hate Obama when he attempts to fight for their economic interests? Many assume that it is because of the ignorance or false consciousness of working-class people, particularly whites. Many also assume that race and its meaning are arbitrary and hard to define and that most of the work that needs to be done around race can be done better through class or socioeconomic status. Similar arguments come up with other identity groups. These false assumptions about universal identity and its relationship to class urgently need to be unpacked and largely reformulated, if not rejected outright.
It is suggested that if we make a class assertion, our goal should be to “politicize” folks at a higher and deeper level and to create common ground for a greater inclusive and shared identity. In the United States, focusing on class identity does just the opposite. There is currently much greater consciousness and solidarity around whiteness that we can observe in the way we talk and experience the middle class. Note how seldom politicians and pundits talk about the working class or the elites. But many of the demands of identity groups are in fact about belonging to and having full membership within society, including, but not limited to, economic status. Why are the fights for job access by blacks and equal pay by women labeled identity issues and not political or economic ones? Class and identity in the United States have always been bound up with race and gender. As such, most demands from identity groups could be better understood as structural and related to both class and politics.
Identity is not private or given, but social and relational, constantly being made and remade. While white identity in America has been the unstated norm (cloaked in a costume of “individualism”), this is now being challenged by a number of realities including demographic changes, globalism, and science. Functionally, whiteness will be driven by a growing sense of fear and anxiety, which means that we will likely see more organizing around whiteness and increased attention to other forms of identity.
A more positive alternative to the stable and unitary identity that enlightenment would have us aspire toward might be to create the space for a new way of grounding identity in the reality that we are all multiple and fluid selves. Deep questions regarding who we are and our being are profoundly spiritual. Identity is neither singular nor static and it is definitely not homogenous. We are all located in social, political, and cultural structures that matter and that help determine which parts of our identity are more salient and more stable and which parts are not. The salient aspect of our identity is situational. We are not just economic beings or political beings. We are also spiritual beings.
Fluid Spiritual Politics
We inhabit a world and life that brings with it some disquiet. Things change and deteriorate. We change and then die. Our needs are grounded in having physical bodies that take on particular aspects. The constitution of our lives is partially determined by our community, environment, and context, but we are also able to participate both in our lives and in their meaning-making, though to a greater or lesser extent depending on our situatedness. The way we arrange our institutions and relationships can make this life journey more joyous or more difficult. We may be uncomfortable with the stubborn insight that we are animals and even more uncomfortable that we are spiritual animals. But we cannot ignore our need to feed, not only our bodies, but our minds/spirits as well. This nourishing can enhance the conditions for grace and/or surplus suffering. We will experience suffering, but the free gifts of grace will likely sustain our efforts to manage it.
How do we engage our wants and longings that are grounded in our being? How can we come to terms with the disquiet that life, consciousness, and separateness bring? Our being needs to belong without being absorbed. At our most basic level, we need relationships with each other and ourselves, as well as with the earth. We need to be seen to be needed and to be loved. But what is the right kind of relationship? The price of at-oneness cannot be too high! How do we support our dance of both connection and separation? How do we help call into being a world where belonging and love can flourish along with our anxiety and fear? While there may not be, and possibly should not be, a single set of answers to these questions, it is clear that how we arrange our identities in relation to political and economic institutions will matter. More fluid identities will require and support more fluid structures. None of us are just people; we speak certain languages, eat certain foods, and express and experience life through certain cultures. All of these aspects of our lives are changing as we caringly engage with each other and the earth. Rather than fearing change, we should welcome it into the lively and ongoing creation of our existing and emerging selves.