The Origins of Identity Politics

Donald Trump and his cronies have ignited the most massive and broad-based resistance and democracy movement in my lifetime, maybe in American history. What’s the place of identity politics (for want of a better catch phrase) in that resistance movement? What are its strengths and limitations? I’ll let others discuss its downsides. I want to make a case for identity politics as a positive and healing force and as a creator of new visions of what democracy could look like. To do it, I’ll contrast it with earlier political thinking.

The Federal programs after World War II exemplify the older way of thinking about identity; they greatly expanded the middle class and rolled back many racial barriers but they had their limitations. As that war ended, with some 11 million vets returning, corporate leaders and the Roosevelt administration feared a resurgence of prewar radicalism should the veterans return without any programs for reintegration into civil society. The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, better known as the GI Bill, was the Roosevelt Administration’s answer to this problem. It provided housing, jobs and the education. Its successful execution radically changed the class and racial structure of America—in a good but limited way.

Thanks to the GI bill the U.S. became a middle-class society in terms of education, home-owning and income for the first time in its history. The Veteran’s Administration offered G.I.s home mortgages without down payments, preferential hiring, and free college education including living expenses. These programs stimulated a huge growth in colleges and community colleges, created a mass home owning middle-class, and produced a generation of workers educated to take on the new jobs of America’s booming postwar economy. Non-veterans also benefitted from low-interest mortgages, and the Federal Housing Administration (FHA) underwrote suburbanization and massive homebuilding by merchant builders. As Roosevelt said, “a rising tide lifts all boats”— but not all were lifted.

The race story is where things become ugly. Rather than ending racism and segregation against African Americans, established institutional practices re-enshrined kept it at the heart of American life. Although benefits were officially open to all veterans, African Americans were denied access to most of them. The US Employment Service, responsible for finding good jobs for vets and giving them preferential hiring, was openly discriminatory and restricted Black GIs to menial jobs. Black colleges were soon filled with African American GIs, but still denied entry to most white colleges. Most damaging, they faced racial covenants as homebuyers—a policy advocated and enforced by the FHA.

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 1/2:20-22


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