The Evolution of Identity Politics

Tikkun: How did identity politics become a central part of liberation struggles?

The modern emergence of “identity politics” occurs within the liberation movements that arose in the wake of the 1960’s Civil Rights campaigns. Huge victories against segregation had been realized, shifting the country from a de jure white supremacist nation (practices that are legally recognized by official laws) to de facto white supremacy (generally known to exist, even if not legally authorized). This was a significant victory. Historic in its accomplishments. However, civil rights leaders and activists understood there was still much work to do. While segregation by law was defeated, underlying racial disparities in health, education, housing, employment and social access still existed, and if left unchecked, these gaps would prevent blacks from achieving full opportunity in America. Even if everyone now had the legal right to unsegregated jobs, public transportation, housing and education, deep underlying systems of discrimination would continue to create disparities based on a person’s race. This is evident today in terms of mass incarceration, infant mortality and graduation rates. Underlying systems of bias create unequal outcomes even though there is equality under the law. The 1960s Civil Rights movement’s decision to address these systemic barriers to equality were met by a significant and sometimes violent backlash. Even in liberal centers as Chicago, Detroit, Boston and New York City, the demand for full equality was met with increased criticism by white northern and elected leaders arrogantly accusing the civil rights movement of being off course. Some government agencies like the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) had already been undermining the civil rights movement but now, leaders and activists found themselves under political attack from former liberal allies.

Ultimately after the assassination of The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, and in the face of white America’s refusal to address institutional forms of racism, the movement began to descend from its peak of influence. This was a serious loss. The Civil Rights movement had a powerful impact. It had a noble goal grounded in a moral imperative about who we are as a nation and who we wanted to be as a people. It was very profound in its visionary idea: by lifting African Americans up in this society, by lifting them past discrimination, all of us in this society would benefit. It wasn’t simply about making the lives of Blacks better, it was about redeeming the soul of America. This was probably one of the most revolutionary concepts to ever emerge in the United States.

Tikkun: How did this set the stage for the emergence of identity politics?

Where a void exists, it will be filled. By the 1970’s, the rise of new liberation movements in the U.S. began to fill space once occupied by MLK Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Organizations like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) turned away from an unresponsive mainstream and focused on building Black political strength, economic self-sufficiency and cultural influence as new agents of change. Known as the black power movement, some like the Black Panther Party and US Organization utilized the rhetoric of armed revolution. In the face of the rejection of broader opportunities for blacks and unchecked rampant police violence in the North, these new leaders rejected what they saw as hypocritical calls for incremental change and utilized a more militant stance to get the attention of policymakers and the public. The rhetoric provided an opportunity for law enforcement agencies to aggressively increase their violent crackdown on liberation movements. Many elected officials turned a blind eye as law enforcement at the federal, state and local levels violated civil liberties that resulted sometimes in murder. By the mid-70s, the government’s use of an FBI led counter intelligence program aimed at disrupting and manipulating social and political movements including the Black Power movement, coupled with the internal tendencies of some Black Power organizations towards authoritarianism, toleration of misogyny and self-isolation led to the demise of Black Power. As the 70’s came to a close, there was little left. So many leaders had been killed, jailed, burned out or driven into exile. A chill descended not only over Black America but also over communities of color and anti-racist whites who had adopted similar tactics. What was left of civil rights and Black Power, primarily turned its attention to the courts and shifted its priorities from the expansion of rights to securing those that had already been won. The mass movement for civil rights in modern America had for all sense and purposes, come to an end. It is within this context, identity politics, as it is commonly referred to, began to take form.

The text above was just an excerpt. The web versions of our print articles are now hosted by Duke University Press, Tikkun’s publisher. Click here to read an HTML version of the article or to download the PDF version.

Tikkun 2018 Volume 33, Number 1/2:23-28

Eric K. Ward is currently the executive director of Western States Center. Western States Center's mission is to connect and build the power of community organizations to challenge and transform individuals, organizations and systems to achieve racial, gender and economic justice. Eric is a long time civil rights strategist who spent 1990 - 2010 working with communities across the United States to counter social movements seeking to use bigotry and hate violence to undermine democratic society. Before joining Western States Center, Eric was the Program Officer overseeing racial justice and civil rights for the Ford Foundation. He was interviewed at our Tikkun office in Berkeley during a brief visit he made to the SF Bay Area.
 
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