Identity Politics: Oppression in America

One reason for me picking the topic of identity politics is that I often hear many people in my social groups talking about identity politics being one of the most annoying aspects they find in politics. So, I figured if it’s grinding the gears of people who aren’t the most politically engaged it must be having some effect on the population as a whole and it is identity politics while maybe not the most divisive thing in American politics it is the most certainly creating some. Through this analysis, I will work to explain how both the Left and Right but predominately the Left got us to are modern separations over identity. Perhaps though before I continue, I should explain what I mean when I say identity politics. To summarize it is the idea that groups based on things like race, religion, sex, or something else push for greater rights, protections, or privileges. One of the main concerns that I have with identity politics is that if politics becomes focused on these narrow group interests, we may miss out on larger political movements.

One of the big things that obviously affects identity politics is identity and we are at an unprecedented moment in American history when it comes to are changing identities and groups. For the first time in American history, white Americans are being faced with the possibility of becoming a minority. While this is often seen in our multicultural cities may well celebrate the browning of America as a welcome step away from white supremacy, it’s not unfair to say that large numbers of American whites are more anxious about this potential switch, whether they admit it or not. Tellingly, a 2012 study showed that more than half of white Americans believe that “whites have replaced blacks as the primary victims of discrimination. 

Meanwhile, this coming demographic shift has done little to affect minority concerns about discrimination. A survey found that about 43% of black Americans do not believe America will ever make the changes necessary to give blacks equal rights. These fears about the future are not unfounded since the 2016 election hate crimes in the country increased by 20%. When a group feels threatened, they often retreat into tribalism. When groups feel mistreated and disrespected, they close ranks and become more insular, more defensive, more punitive, and more us-versus-them. Personally, I think that white Americans don’t really have much to worry about it might just be a natural reaction when someone is no longer part of the majority. In America today, every group feels this way to some extent. Whites, blacks, Latinos, Asians, men women, Christians, Jews, Muslims, straight people, gay people, liberals, and conservatives all feel their groups are being attacked, bullied, persecuted, and discriminated against. Though it should be said that one group’s claims to feeling threatened and voiceless are often met by derision from other groups because they feel it discounts their own feelings of persecution, but this is a common trait of political tribalism. This along with high levels of inequality is why we’re now seeing identity politics on both sides of the political spectrum. It leaves the United States in a situation we haven’t experienced yet in are nation's history. There are few today standing up for an America without identity politics, for an American identity that transcends and unites all the country’s many subgroups. One man who has looked into these types of solutions is Francis Fukuyama.

Fukuyama argues that Americans will be facing a binary choice when it comes to political identity in the future. Either Americans can come to embrace a broad creedal identity, or they can cling to narrow identities based on race, ethnicity, gender, or ideology. Fukuyama does a good job of explaining the fact that humans have a fundamental need to belong—a need that their collective identities, be they racial, ethnic, religious, regional, or national, often satisfy. These groups, which psychologists call social identities, have a number of psychological functions. These include, for example, the need for a sense of safety, which social identities can satisfy by reducing uncertainty and providing a set of norms that help people navigate everyday life. Some social identities may also offer rituals and customs to aid with loss, mourning, and other significant challenges that occur for people. Identities can even provide a sense of purpose and meaning and a basis for esteem and regard that is larger than people’s individual selves. Fukuyama makes the case that these benefits people receive from their current identities can be replaced with a national creedal identity. Though it is unknown whether a national identity like that could satisfy the benefits people got from there old identities. I think Fukuyama’s idea of national identity is very appealing but I’m pretty skeptical about something like that ever comes about.

Fifty years ago, the rhetoric of pro-civil rights Great Society liberals was, in its dominant voices, expressly group transcending, framed in the language of national unity and equal opportunity. In his most famous speech, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr proclaimed: “When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men – yes, black men as well as white men – would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. “King’s ideals and that of the American Left had captured the imagination and hearts of the public and led to real lasting change transcended group divides and called for an America in which skin or color had no bearing. Leading liberal philosophical movements of that time were similarly group blind. John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice called on people to imagine themselves in an original position, behind a veil of ignorance, in which they could decide on their society’s basic principles without regard to race, gender, religious affiliation, or wealth. (Rawls) At roughly the same time, the idea of universal human rights had begun to take hold around the globe, advancing the dignity of every individual as the foundation of a just international order. Though the Left was concerned with the oppression of minorities and the rights of disadvantaged groups, the dominant ideals in this period tended to be group blind, often cosmopolitan, with many calling for transcending not only ethnic, racial, and gender barriers but national boundaries as well. 

Likely in reaction to Reaganism, as well as a growing awareness that colorblindness or the idea of not seeing race was being used by conservatives to oppose policies intended to redress racial inequities, a new movement began to unfold on the left in the 1980s and 1990s – a movement emphasizing group consciousness, group identity, and group claims. Soon people on the left had become aware that color blindness was being used by conservatives to oppose policies intended to redress historical wrongs and persisting racial inequities. Many also began to notice that the leading liberal figure who had been claiming to support more diversity, whether in law, government, or academia, were mostly white men and that the neutral group-blind invisible hand of the market wasn’t doing much to correct long-standing imbalances. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the anti-capitalist economic ideals of the old Left began to take a backseat to a new way of understanding oppression. The politics of redistribution was replaced by a politics of recognition. As Oberlin professor Sonia Kruks writes, what makes identity politics a significant departure from earlier movements is its demand for recognition on the basis of the very grounds on which recognition has previously been denied: it is qua women, qua blacks, qua lesbians that groups demand recognition. The demand is not for inclusion within the fold of universal humankind, nor is it for respect in spite of’ one’s differences. Rather, what is demanded is respect for oneself as different.

In 2004 at the Democratic National Convention in Boston, Barack Obama famously declared, There’s not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America there’s the United States of America. Now more than a decade later, we are very far from this reality. The Left of today sees, blindness to group identity as the ultimate sin, because it masks the reality of group hierarchies and oppression in America. It is simply a fact that whites, and specifically white male Protestants, dominated America for most of its history and that this legacy still somewhat persists. The continued persistence of racial inequality in the wake of Barack Obama’s supposedly “post-racial” presidency has left many young progressives disillusioned with the narratives of racial progress that had been popular among liberals just a few years ago. After a grand jury had failed to indict a white cop who had been videotaped choking a black man to death, black writer Brit Bennett captured this growing mistrust in an essay entitled, I Don’t Know What to Do with Good White People. We all want to believe in progress, in history that marches forward in a neat line, in transcended differences and growing acceptance, in how good the good white people have become … I don’t think Darren Wilson or Daniel Pantaleo set out to kill black men. I’m sure the cops who arrested my father meant well. But what good are your good intentions if they kill us? 

For many on the Left, identity politics has long been seen as a means to confront rather than obscure the uglier aspects of American history and society. But in recent years, whether because of growing strength or growing frustration with the lack of progress, the Left has upped the ante. A shift in tone, rhetoric, and logic has moved identity politics away from inclusion which had always been the Left’s watchword – toward exclusion and division. As a result, many on the left have turned against universalist rhetoric, for example, All Lives Matter, viewing it as an attempt to erase the specificity of the experience and oppression of historically marginalized minorities. For much of the Left today identity politics and political correctness are inseparable, anyone who speaks in favor of group blindness is on the other side, indifferent to or even guilty of oppression. For some, especially on college campuses, anyone who doesn’t swallow the anti-oppression orthodoxy hook, line, and sinker – anyone who doesn’t acknowledge white supremacy in America – is a racist. Though personally, I’ve never experienced anything like this in my time at college I have seen numerous examples of it. Once identity politics gains momentum, it inevitably subdivides, giving rise to ever-proliferating group identities demanding recognition. Today, there is an ever-expanding vocabulary of identity on the left. Facebook now lists more than fifty gender designations from which users can choose, from genderqueer to intersex to pangender. Or take the acronym LGBTQ. Originally LGB, variants over the years have ranged from GLBT to LGBTI to LGBTQQIAAP as preferred terminology shifted and identity groups quarreled about who should be included and who comes first. Because of the rabid creation and demands of these different identities, the result can be a zero-sum competition over which group is seen as the least privileged, which has been fragmenting progressives and setting them against each other. 

Although inclusivity is presumably still the ultimate goal, the contemporary Left is pointedly exclusionary they do this by creating safe spaces for specific identity groups. For example, during a Black Lives Matter protest at the DNC held in Philadelphia in 2016, a protest leader announced that this is a black and brown resistance march, asking white allies to appropriately take their place in the back of this march. Personally, I find this type of exclusionary form of protest to be completely counterproductive by further highlighting the divisions. Another byproduct of this exclusionary form of identity politics is the idea of cultural appropriation. The against cultural appropriation comes from the belief that groups have exclusive rights to their own histories, symbols, and traditions. Thus, many on the left today would consider it an offensive act of privilege for, say, a straight white man to write a novel featuring a gay Latina as the main character. I find this to be practically hard to justify the idea that someone can’t wear a certain try of clothes or play a form of music that comes from a different culture or ethnicity. I would think people would rather spread their culture and traditions to whoever they can, but many seem to want and keep it to themselves. Despite the still-growing conversation on cultural appropriation many celebrities are finding already finding themselves in the hot seat for wearing the wrong thing. For example, Beyoncé was criticized for wearing what looked like a traditional Indian bridal outfit, Amy Schumer, in turn, was criticized for making a parody of Beyoncé’s Formation, a song about the black female experience. A student op-ed at Louisiana State University claimed that white women styling their eyebrows to look thicker like a lot of ethnic women was a prime example of cultural appropriation in this country. Though it is the case that this is not uniformly believed on the left it is a growing movement. In these last few paragraphs, I’ve tried to explain many of the problems that have stemmed from left-wing identity politics. I feel that the Left tends to favor the use of identity politics, but the Right is far from immune to creating divisions based on identity.

On the campaign trail, Donald Trump famously called for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States described illegal immigrants as rapists, and even referred to an Indiana-born federal judge as Mexican, accusing the judge of having an inherent conflict of interest rendering him unfit to preside over a suit against Trump. It’s hard to argue that Trump didn’t use identity politics to help win the White House. But this us versus them, anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant sentiments were bread and butter for most conservatives on the 2016 campaign trail. Senator Marco Rubio compared the war with Islam to America’s “war with Nazis”, and even moderate Republicans like Jeb Bush advocated for a religious test to allow Christian refugees to enter the country preferentially. We are also seeing on the right, particularly the alt-right political tribalism directed against minorities perceived as too successful. For example, Steve Bannon, Trump’s former White House chief strategist, has complained that America’s engineering schools are all full of people from South Asia and East Asia who have come here to take away jobs from American engineers. This brings us to the most concerning feature of today’s right-wing political tribalism. White identity politics that has mobilized around the idea of whites as an endangered, discriminated-against group. In part, this development carries forward a long tradition of white tribalism in America. But white identity politics has also gotten a tremendous recent boost from the Left, whose relentless berating, shaming, and bullying might have done more damage than good. Many Trump voters held the sentiment that maybe I’m just so sick of being called a bigot that my anger at the authoritarian left has pushed me to support this seriously flawed man. 

The Democratic party many argued, made the white working man feel like your problems aren’t real because you’re mansplaining and check your privilege. You know, if your life sucks, your problems are real. When blacks blame today’s whites for slavery or ask for reparations, many white Americans feel as though they are being attacked for the sins of other generations. In the same way, the Left’s exclusionary identity politics is ironic in light of the Left’s overall demands for inclusivity, so too is the emergence of white identity politics on the right. For decades, the Right has claimed to be a bastion of individualism, a place where those who rejected the divisive identity politics of the Left found a home. For this reason, conservatives typically paint the emergence of white identity as having been forced on them by the tactics of the Left. The case for many on the Right now who, feel as though they are under perpetual attack for the color of their skin, many on the right have become defiant of their whiteness, allowing it into their individual politics in ways they have not for generations”. At its core, the problem is simple but fundamental. While black Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanic Americans, Jewish Americans, and many others are allowed – indeed, encouraged – to feel solidarity and take pride in their racial or ethnic identity, white Americans have for the last several decades been told they must never, ever do so. People want to see their own tribe as exceptional, as something to be deeply proud of; that’s what the tribal instinct is all about. 

For decades now, nonwhites in the United States have been encouraged to indulge their tribal instincts in just this way, but, at least publicly, American whites have not. On the contrary, if anything, they have been told that their white identity is something no one should take pride in. But the tribal instinct is not so easy to suppress. As Vassar professor, Hua Hsu put it in an Atlantic essay called The End of White America? the result is a racial pride that dares not speak its name, and that defines itself through cultural cues instead. In combination with the profound demographic transformation now taking place in America, this suppressed urge on the part of many white Americans to feel solidarity and pride in their group identity, as others are allowed to do has created an especially fraught set of tribal dynamics in the United States today. Just after the 2016 election, many Never Trumpers felt a change of heart in the after-hearing stories of their college-age daughter constantly hearing talk of white privilege and racial identity, of separate dorms for separate races somewhere in heaven Martin Luther King Jr is hanging his head and crying. I hate identity politics, but when everything is about identity politics, is the left really surprised that in 2016 millions of white Americans voted as white?

As you can see from what I’ve presented so far America is being divided on the baes of identity politics on both the Left and Right. The question now is can anything really be done to help weaken these divisions and though I think that can be done I don’t think we will ever rid ourselves of identity politics. I think there is always going to be a natural sense of tribalism that we may never overcome. I think they way forward are to resist the urge zero-sum game for example if LQBT people get righter and opportunities that don’t mean that heterosexuals get fewer. The question is not whether identity politics should exist or not its in what form should it take in the future. Things like quick fixes and mandating quotas aren’t the best way to continue. Instead, maybe we should keep public records one diversity among companies and schools to help determine where real problems maybe. 

Though the actual changes that would need to happen to truly have an impact are much greater. Those are more of my personal options toward the potential solutions I would now like to present some other views in academia. T.Collins Logan gives a view I would consider radical but since as I’ve mentioned identity politics is so ingrained in our society at this point that it might take something large-scale to change it. Logan believes the most practical solution to identity politics is to abandon individualistic materialism as our dominant belief system. If people view themselves as uniquely different both individually and as part of a particular tribe, and they view themselves as having to maintain aggressive competition with everyone else in order to survive or thrive, the result will always be corrosion of social cohesion and amplification of disunity. On a fundamental level, the fracturing of civil society by identity politics is really a direct consequence of I/Me/Mine commercialistic corporatism - because differences in wealth, economic mobility, and economic opportunity have driven the oppression of marginalized groups that, consequently, came to rely on identity politics for internal cohesion and self-liberation. And so, when we grow beyond the moral immaturity of our addictions to capitalism and consumerism, our desire to cling to a distinct, oppressed identity will attenuate. We will begin to focus on what is most fruitful for all of society the greatest good, for the greatest number, for the greatest duration rather than scrabbling to secure on own little piece of the pie. Half-measures would be things like the unification of vision - in terms of collective goals - along with enhancing shared values, a collective narrative, and civic institutions that promote a more egalitarian political economy. In other words, mechanisms that enhance social equality in both civil rights and economic status. This has been the progressive agenda from the beginning, contrary to what folks like Charles Tips seem to believe. However, in the face of a juggernaut of capitalism and its inherent class divisions - divisions enhanced by the neoliberal propaganda that champions I/Me/Mine individualistic materialism such progressive, egalitarian ideals are constantly being beaten down in favor of folks expanding and securing their power. We can see that identity politics remains useful in uniting those who feel oppressed, but it has been destructive to a sense of unity, common purpose, and collective responsibility, and equality. 

Somewhat ironically, it is really the consequence of neoliberal, pro-capitalist rhetoric and activism that identity politics has been embraced by the poor and middle-class white folks with whom Trump’s vitriolic blather resonated. The bigger picture, however, is that nearly everyone is being oppressed by our current capitalist system - this reality is, after all, how the “identity” of the 99% could so easily gel during the Occupy Movement. But, as long as we all continue to invest in individualistic materialism, rather than evolving egalitarian collectivist perspectives and solutions, we will continue to feel isolated, frustrated, and alienated - both as identity tribes and as individuals. As I had said early, I find portions of Logan’s thinking to be convincing like when he talks about national unity but I’d say I’m somewhat skeptical on many of his claims because of an obvious left-wing bios in his work.

Personally, I found the writings of David Velez more convincing than that of Logan. Velez argues that media is one of the main factors driving divisions in society. In short, he believes Opinion news is identity news. Identity news is a danger with real-world consequences. Identity politics lost the Democrats in the 2016 Presidential election. As Professor Jonathan Haidt of the University of Virginia claims, Hillary Clinton targeted identity politics in her campaign and ignored the middle class which is why she lost. Opinion news on cable is by and large liberal and the majority of networks lost face on Election Day. By not representing the thoughts and concerns of the people the news networks face a loss of viewers and shut down now that they have been exposed as opinion pieces and not the conveyors of political facts. Why tune into political squabbling in high definition that amounts to a new source of stress in one’s life? Many individuals will now turn to tailored media outlets as opposed to mass market fake cable news. Look at the division and end of Fox News, the conservative brand alone. Harbingers such as Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity are split from the network and prime time respectively. Megan Kelly whose brand was divorced from the stations’ identity departs herself. Now a bench warmer, Tucker Carlson, who presided over the ill-fated and comically ended CNN’s Crossfire is the new face of Fox News. Can you see why this is a problem for an entire generation? You have journalists who are not reporting facts alone so that any individual can weigh and consider a matter for themself but instead an attempt to corral groups.

In conclusion America still, as, it has always had divisions by race and identity, but we still manage to work together. Even despite divisions now American progress continues on. Though we may need truly seen an end to identity politics I hope that we can continue to identify and unify under the title of Americans.  

07 July 2022
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