In Defense of Identity Politics
Suzanna Danuta Walters
Identity politics is … what we used to call civil rights.
—Samantha Bee, Full Frontal
Many women (and men) spent the post-election weeks in an altered state, where the world seemed torn asunder and all that was solid melted into air. But as the various postmortems poured in, one dominant frame emerged: Democratic electoral failure was the result of a myopic focus on “identity politics” by a liberal elite woefully beholden to the politically correct trifecta of race, gender, and sexuality, ignoring the supposed centrality of class and the failing fortunes of the poor white working man. This is wrong-headed and dangerous.
Finding traction among a curious mix of Democratic party leaders, left-wing pundits, and right-wing ideologues, the story goes something like this: Hillary Clinton lost because the party didn’t pay significant attention to the pain and dislocation of the white working class and focused too much on identity politics, ceding the economic revitalization argument to the populist rhetoric of Donald Trump. In the conservative or neoliberal version of this view, offered by folks such as Mark Lilla, Democrats had a “fixation on diversity” and instead of focusing on the anger of rural white men, spent the campaign “calling out explicitly to African-American, Latino, L.G.B.T. and women voters at every stop.” The left-wing version isn’t much different, treating racism and misogyny as symptoms of a “larger” problem, not as problems in and of themselves. Echoing the 1990s mantra “It’s the economy, stupid,” they argue that racism and sexism were unfortunate side effects of the real illness of economic vulnerability and insecurity. Writing in The Nation, D.D. Guttenplan acknowledges that Clinton’s campaign might have been “genuinely inspiring to millions of women” but dismisses arguments about gender or racial hatred as just so much elitist “petulance” that ignores the (economic) populist surge at the heart of Trump’s victory. Harold Meyerson claims, in The American Prospect, that Trump voters legitimately “felt left behind and displaced” by the “establishment economic policy.” Over at Politico, Rob Hoffman excoriates the “smugness” of the Left, claiming that the “PC” liberal elite waged “a war against right-wing ethics,” pushing Trump to certain victory. And socialist standard-bearer and presidential wannabe Bernie Sanders repudiates Trump’s racism and sexism yet somehow imagines this can be forgiven or perhaps forgotten, for as long as “Trump has the guts to stand up to those corporations he will,” claims Bernie, “have an ally with me.” In a Boston speech following the election, Sanders argued that we need to “go beyond identity politics” and then doubled down and schooled a Latina activist by insisting that “it is not good enough for somebody to say, ‘hey, I’m a Latina, vote for me.’” Which, it turns out, no one has ever done.Why were Trump’s racism and sexism deal breakers for some (say, people of color, Jews, gays and lesbians) and not others?Click To Tweet
So presumably Trump’s positions on race and gender are, well, trumped, by his rhetoric of populism and anti-corporatism? One is reminded of that old and scary adage, “Say what you want about Mussolini, at least the trains ran on time.” These arguments put their authors in a confusing position. Trump’s misogyny, xenophobia, and racism were on vivid display throughout the campaign, and he has surrounded himself with white supremacists and others committed to making lives more difficult for women, gays, people of color, Muslims, and immigrants. This was not hidden from public view: from his tape-recorded comments bragging about sexual assault, to his derogation of Mexicans as rapists and criminals. How, then, does one make the claim—as Bernie Sanders recently did—that Trump voters are not themselves racist or sexist? Surely, most of those voters would deny that designation, as would their right- and left-wing defenders. And it is undoubtedly the case that many if not most of those voters might live in ways that don’t appear to be virulently racist or sexist. Yet if you knowingly vote for an unrepentant racist and sexist, what does that say about you? If you lie down with dogs, you do indeed get fleas. If violence against women and KKK endorsement are not electoral deal breakers, then how does one evaluate the political values and ethics of those voters? And are we to believe that Hillary’s “unlikability” and media-driven “scandals” somehow pushed voters to endorse a spectacularly uninformed and dishonest huckster without sexism playing a part, when “trump that bitch” and “lock her up” (and much worse) were the everyday refrains of the candidate and his supporters alike?
In this scenario, Trump voters can only be understood—paternalistically—as dupes, victims of false consciousness, and therefore not responsible for their actions. We need now, apparently, to win them back because their votes weren’t an actual endorsement of misogyny or mass deportations. Here, the white middle and working class (and the working class is somehow always all white) are the real victims of Trump’s perfidy and false promises, not the Muslims who will be denied entry, the immigrants who will be deported, the gays who will be bashed, the women who will lose reproductive autonomy, the people of color who will lose health care, jobs, and a place at the table.
And how to explain the fact that over 80 percent of black voters (men and women) supported Clinton? Are they mysteriously less susceptible to the siren call of populism, even as their socioeconomic status is likely more vulnerable than that of their white counterparts? Perhaps black voters are simply smarter, refusing to fall for false promises of economic uplift from a billionaire businessman who has filled his cabinet with the very purveyors of trickle-down globalization on steroids? Why were Trump’s racism and sexism deal breakers for some (say, people of color, Jews, gays and lesbians) and not others?
And what of the statistic concerning the white women’s vote (53 percent for Trump) that is trotted out to bolster the claim that Trump’s gender animus wasn’t animating here? To be sure, it’s not that women aren’t culpable. The 53 percent of white women who voted for Trump need to be reckoned with, and the power of racial alliances to undercut both self-interest (congratulations white women: you’ve elected a man who denigrates you!) and female solidarity is potent and real. The 62 percent of white working-class women who voted for Trump (or the long history of women in the Klan) illustrates just this: how class plays a key and amplifying role in gender and race dynamics. But this is not news to feminist theorists studying the intersections of race, class, and gender. Clinton’s overwhelming support among African American and Latina women (and there was very little difference here along class lines) tells us a great deal about the power of both race and gender as determining and meaningful, as does the gender disparity in the popular vote and the astounding numbers of women who organized and turned out for post-inaugural demonstrations around the country.
The idea that Hillary Clinton lost because she paid too much attention to “identity” (by which we mean blacks, gays, women) is, as Rebecca Traister notes, “unconscionable…directed at the very people who just put the most work and energy into defeating Trumpism, coming from those who will be made least vulnerable by Trump’s ascension.” The attack on identity politics implies that Clinton should have been paying attention to others who matter more, whose needs are somehow more generalizable, more “in common.” I’m reminded of the ads many years ago for Brokeback Mountain, which insisted that it was not a gay love story but rather a universal one, or the reviews for The Kids Are All Right, which gushed over the “not really gay” marital storyline. As Linda Alcoff pointed out many years ago, “many still pine for the lost discourse of generic universality, for the days when differences could be disregarded.” After all these years, universality and the common good are still the (unmarked) province of straight white men.
Identity politics defined (the short version)
So what, exactly, is “identity politics?” Sociologist Nancy Whittier defines it as “organizing around the specific experience or perspective of a given group and … organizing that has identity visibility as a goal.” Although “‘identity politics’ can draw on intellectual precursors from Mary Wollstonecraft to Frantz Fanon, writing that actually uses this specific phrase with all its contemporary baggage,” as Cressida Heyes notes, “is limited almost exclusively to the last thirty years.” Identity politics in its contemporary manifestation, then, largely references organizing emerging from the new social movements of the postwar period. These newer constellations are offered up in contradistinction to both classic party-based politics and traditional Left politics, which posited only two substantive identities (workers vs. owners or, in today’s parlance, the 99 percent vs. the 1 percent).
Of course, as Adam Gopnik points out in The New Yorker, there have always been identity politics. Targeting constituencies defined by particular ethnic or religious markers—called variously “pressure groups” or “interest groups”—used to be the unacknowledged business of politics. Is “identity politics” simply the new name for an old process? Well, yes and no. Surely, there are commonalities between the appeal to the Boston Irish or the Chicago Poles in big-city politics or the farmer in the countryside and today’s appeals to African Americans, gays, women. But a few things are different. First, these new “identities” have expanded beyond the white and male parameters of most earlier pressure groups. When we say “women’s rights are human rights,” we implode the assumption of an unmarked maleness that cannot be named. Further, today’s identity politics—drawing from the collective self-making of both civil rights organizing and feminist consciousness-raising—insists on its own definitions and mores. As distinct from interest groups as objects to be targeted, the social movements formed in and through identity politics do not signify a cordoned-off minority to be addressed. Rather, they assert a fundamental challenge to both white male hegemony and the relentless process of marking and unmarking that has allowed “identity” to be only located in those who have been actively denied citizenship and subjectivity. Contemporary identity politics—in its most robust manifestations—offers up a critique of what constitutes “mainstream,” what “issues” get attached to what bodies, and the hierarchies that result from that attachment. So while identity politics may have resonance going back to older histories of interest groups and constituencies, when we invoke identity politics in the contemporary world, we are really talking about women, queers, religious minorities, and racial minorities. At the same time, we are referencing issues that are seen as having particular resonance or importance for those groups: reproductive rights, police violence, trans access and rights, etc. Indeed, one ploy of the Right (and the Left to some extent) is to frame these issues as secondary or “cultural” or diversionary.
Of course, it goes without saying that the critique of identity politics is dependent upon seeing “identity” as only the province of the disenfranchised and marginal. I can’t help but concur with Kwame Anthony Appiah when he complains that he’s “never quite sure what people mean when they talk about ‘identity politics.’ Usually, though, they bring it up to complain about someone else. One’s own political preoccupations are just, well, politics. Identity politics is what other people do.” Just as “race” was understood as a story of blackness until critical race theory and whiteness studies opened up that story, “identity politics” is understood as performed by those whose identities are not white, male, heterosexual. As Hadley Freeman ruefully reminds us, the vast majority of the “identity politics sceptics are white men, whose articles are filled with quotes from other white men,” an inescapable fact that should at least give us pause.“Identity politics” is understood as performed by those whose identities are not white, male, heterosexual.Click To Tweet
For these critics, identity politics are issues “we” (women, blacks, queers, etc.) spend too much time on, issues that ostensibly push away that white male voter (who doesn’t have an “identity” presumably). Under the cover of this so-called concern, critics can attack abortion rights, gay rights, civil rights. As long as these rights are the property of certain identities, they can be denied as distractions by many on the Left and as narrow “special rights” by most conservatives. Some, like Jim Sleeper, see merit in earlier iterations of identity politics but claim it has gone off the rails and become “bureaucratized into color-codings of public life and pedagogy that license too much of our citizenship along race-group lines.” So “color-coding” is the thing that people of color do, just like making it all about gender is something that women do. While these critiques assail identity politics as a source of fragmentation, there remains a different presumption that each identity category is itself internally homogeneous, that likes think/feel/act alike. But neither supposition is necessary or inevitable. As Whittier notes, “Identity politics has, from its beginning, grappled with the question of differences within each identity group.” For her, and for many feminist theorists, identity politics has always been tied up with intersectionality and debates around the value of collectivity. So both the charge of fragmentation and lockstep identity party-lines are parodies that miss the theoretical richness of intersectional feminism and its manifestation in complex and successful political coalitions.
For the Right, of course, this is all about creating an easy target by framing leftists as whiners and narrow ideologues intent on enforcing an orthodoxy. The revolt of angry white men is thus more easily championed as a revolt against “the censorious and scolding progressive impulse,” as National Review writer David French puts it. Indeed, in a recent “Room for Debate” in the New York Times, the putative subject of “Is Criticism of Identity Politics Racist or Long Overdue?” devolves quickly to discussions of the evils of politically correct politicians, blacks, and universities. Over at the Hoover Institute, a report claims that the election was the nail in the coffin of identity politics and the “diversity industry” that supports it. The heady conflation of diversity with identity politics with political correctness produces a handy new hero: the forgotten white working class, led to the trough by one Donald J. Trump, who promises to liberate white Christians from the stranglehold of multiculturalism. In this version, black activists in particular are blamed for the rise of alt-right racism. It’s their fault, the story goes, for focusing on race (here understood as skin color) to the point of obsession. Or, alternately, women’s “vagina politics” brought on a backlash of angry men righteously asserting their manly prerogatives. The blurring and merging of identity politics with political correctness with censorious groupthink is a sleight of hand or rope-a-dope designed to confuse and simplify and put us off the scent. Michele Goldberg, writing in Slate, notes correctly that most critics are “objecting not to the absurd excesses of political correctness, but to race and gender politics themselves.” It shouldn’t take much intellectual effort, however, to pull back the curtain and reveal the self-righteous white male subject stomping his little-boy feet. As feminist historian Joan Scott argued years ago, the war on “political correctness” is really an attack on multiculturalism and a robust politics of inclusion.
The view from the left
If the Right has constructed identity politics as the politically correct whining of liberal elites and undeserving minorities, the Left has been equally excoriating. Even in a piece fairly sensible on such matters, the debate is framed thus: “Should the left—or liberals, not at all the same thing—pursue identity politics or put them aside for common measures, and did a pursuit of identity politics help lead to the results of November 8th?” So the common good or commonality is counterposed to identity politics. As Appiah and many others have noted, one reasonable worry about identity politics is that in the endless iteration of hyphenated subject positions, a sense of common purpose becomes hard to find. But make no mistake about it, ideas about common purpose are not empty of race and gender meanings. If common or universal is (still) unmarked white masculinity, then identity politics becomes for the Left the enemy of working-class politics, traditional liberal party politics, and even some vague notion of the people or the common good.
I cannot begin to do justice to the long history of the Left critique of identity politics here, but a few points are in order. Identity politics took a hit from the Left perhaps even before the Right found in it the bogeyman (hello, snowflakes!) to frame various culture wars. Old left stalwarts such as Todd Gitlin in The Twilight of Common Dreams—his nineties-era whine about how the the Left is losing the culture wars because of pesky feminists, gays, blacks, etc.—opines that “Not everyone is male, white, hearing, heterosexual. Very well. But what is a Left if it is not, plausibly at least, the voice of a whole people? … If there is no people, but only peoples, there is no Left.” Says who? Can the recognition of experiential and structural difference and multiplicity not itself be a site of unified and collective resistance? Has it not? See, for example, every recent major demonstration and successful political campaign.
Meanwhile, the postmodern Left—in the form of poststructuralist (and queer) antiessentialism, denounces identity politics as the detritus of Enlightenment ideologies of the discrete and unified subject, miring us (or rather, miring women, gays, blacks…it’s their identity politics under the gun, of course) in a self-defeating discourse that invokes the very categories (“woman,” “black,” “gay”) that were produced in and through power. In some versions of this academic work, identity politics is positioned as the older, essentialized mode of sameness that has been supplanted by the fluidity of either po-mo hybridity or mobile and coalitional intersectionality. In other readings, paradoxically, intersectionality is itself seen as dependent upon narrow and policed boundaries of identity, so that—here—intersectionality shores up rather than deconstructs the limits of identity politics. The head does indeed spin.A *women’s* march rallied the masses. Deal with it.Click To Tweet
If identity is the main villain in poststructuralist critiques of subjectivity, agency, and individualism, the responses to those critiques have been equally sharp, claiming that identity need not be seen as some fixed, primordial, essential given but rather a location, an accomplishment, that shifts and is not so neatly bordered as might be imagined. Of course, theories of intersectionality have helped this project along, not only by pushing back against the narrow understanding of identity but by proposing identities—plural—always in contestation and never singular or clearly bounded. I won’t rehash the old debates here, but it is curious that after all these years, identity politics as the “obvious” sign of old-fashioned and regressive essentialist politics remains a dominant trope in left-wing intellectual circles. It is a trope surprisingly impervious to substantiation or, I’ll just say it, reality. Let’s be clear: most social change and political activism happens in and through identity politics—whether it is the righteous rage of Black Lives Matter, the fight for Indian autonomy and water rights at Standing Rock, the immigrant rights movement, or indeed the recent Women’s March in DC and around the world. The last is a good example of the wrongheadedness of positing “acting as women” as a project that inevitably, inherently is exclusionary or restrictive. A cursory look at the platform of the Women’s March reveals a remarkably broad-based progressive agenda, gained through a robust and difficult coalitional process led by multicultural feminists. But the pink pussy hats (mocked by many as silly, essentialist, and narrow, revealing our collective inability to understand … metaphor?) and the very fact of the identifying moniker “women” brought down the wrath not only of the Right but a good portion of the Left as well. And yet, the truth is this: feminist organizing (and, yes, by women in the name of women) made this happen, brought millions together around the world in a collective roar of resistance to (among other things) patriarchal power, racism and xenophobia, homophobia, economic inequality. A women’s march rallied the masses. Deal with it.
Identity politics bites back
One’s embodied, experienced, and structural location in the world matters. This is what we might call a sociology of the obvious, yet it has always been an important corrective to the Enlightenment fantasy of a view from nowhere that was always a view from a dude. It is this dude’s view that now circulates as the “real politics” of the white working class as opposed to the “identity politics” of everyone else. Whether from lefty poststructuralists or right-wing ideologues the truth is that, as Marcus H. Johnson points out, “Asking marginalized people to renounce their identity, or to make it secondary or tertiary to ‘class interests,’ is white supremacy.” And, I might add, male supremacy as well. As someone who came of academic age in an era of identity politics as reviled dross, it is hard to fully embrace this politics that dare not speak its name. It has been so parodied by the Right, and so bemoaned or tepidly supported by the Left, that a full-on hug seems almost perverse. Even sympathetic writers continue to see an opposition between identity politics and everything else. As German Lopez writes in Vox, “For Democrats, the issue now is finding a way to balance identity politics with other issues,” in order to “find a way to speak to the white working class.” That way is typically understood as “economic populism”—supposedly broader, deeper, more all-encompassing than the pesky issues that those “identities” care about. In much of the discourse, the use of the phrase “identity politics” becomes a way to talk about discrete “issues” that are somehow not generalizable, somehow more of an “issue” (a social issue, a cultural issue) than, say, “the economy,” or “terror,” or even “immigration.” Identity politics are therefore seen as necessarily narrower than other issues, which are presumably not expressive of or impactful on identities. The anti-Trump contingent, then, needs to “put their singular identities aside” to focus on “collective” issues that are supposedly untethered to particular social identities and therefore somehow generically appealing.One’s ... structural location in the world matters. This is what we might call a sociology of the obviousClick To Tweet
In some more benign criticisms, identity politics had its moment, but we are now—or should be—in a post–identity politics era. I’m as suspicious of “post” anything as the next woman … with a pair of eyes and a brain. We are no more post-identity than we are postracial or postfeminist. These “posts” have too often been trotted out to obscure continuing vectors of discrimination. What I wish we were, on the other hand, was post this tedious debate about what constitutes the ground of political activism, a debate that makes assumptions about both identity and the common good that are rooted in old-Left pieties.
The more erudite and academic take on this tale is that the battle over identity politics is really a battle between a politics of recognition and a politics of redistribution, another false binary that belies the lived experience of social subjects who generally want both. Ask any feminist: we want to be seen in our human fullness but, you know, we also want equal pay and we could do without male violence. As Appiah notes, “When blacks and women in the United States campaigned for the vote, they did so very often as blacks and as women. But they weren’t asking for recognition of their identity; they were asking, precisely, for the vote. Participation of this sort may presuppose a minimal sense of recognition, but it entails a good deal more.” Identity politics of course speaks to experience, but it also speaks to real and meaningful forms of social and political exclusion and discrimination. We often forget that, as if these identity politics movements emerged from the angsty head of a (take your pick) lesbian, African American, Latina. The salience of the identity is made at least partly meaningful by the acts (individual, state sanctioned, historical) of exclusion. This could be a somewhat different riff on Simone de Beauvoir: woman is made, not born, in the performative sense—true enough. But she is also made in and through the many and variegated vectors of animus, stereotype, exclusion, diminution. Of course, exclusions are not the only engine of identity politics, but they might in fact be originary. We are no more “post” identity politics than we are post the institutional and intimate forms of exclusion, denigration, and violence that makes some vulnerable and others less so.
Identity politics therefore demands a robust ideology of inclusion and integration: to be respected/seen/etc. as that identity, not in spite of it. As Elin Diamond argues, “A politics based on identity requires acts of affiliation and the labour of consciousness-raising to understand and enact them. Identity…is not a birthright, but rather a set of meanings and positions that are achieved and, by implication, may shift over time.” Ironically, social movements built explicitly around social identities have in fact been at the vanguard of what we used to call coalitional politics, uniting disparate constituencies around common goals and visions of a more just future. Or, as the Combahee River Collective put it, “the most profound and politically most radical politics come directly out of our own identity.” Let me put it another way: Identity politics is where intersectionality lives. It is where coalition politics thrive. Perhaps political theorist Courtney Jung is right when she notes that “All politics is identity politics.”
That bad calls are made in the name of identity is no news to anyone. The question is whether those bad calls (whether hypervigilance over microaggressions or, more egregiously, policing of gender borders) are endemic to this thing called identity politics or merely endemic to all politics. God knows plenty of bad calls—and more—came out of and continue to come out of those forms of politics we deem not identity politics. What critical legal race theorist Sumi Cho said years ago still holds true: “Instead of an unflinching commitment to intellectual activism, theoretically informed political resistance, and guiding ideals and principles of social justice, I sense instead a demobilizing fear of ‘essentialism’ and a fetishization of the array of post-isms placed before us like a theoretical smorgasbord at a feast prepared by elite intellectuals whose political commitments lie who-knows-where.” Don’t get me wrong; it’s not that a fear of identity politics promulgating a sort of essentialism doesn’t have some merit. Too often, social movements acting in the name of women, or blacks, or Jews, or gays have spoken as if those categories were self-evident and discrete, products of some timeless and bounded truth of identity. But the critiques of that essentialism have actually—surprise!—taken hold. Whether through good old-fashioned sociological social constructionism, theories of performativity, or queer fluidity and anti-binarism, essentialist identity politics are largely in the past or at least marginalized in outposts of cultural separatism. Today, identity politics live in the wake of the postmodern critique of identity. In other words, this is not your mama’s identity politics (although it’s not a bad idea to avoid blaming mama for everything). In her astoundingly prescient article, Cho is concerned that “the notion of ‘post-identity politics’ as either a descriptor or normative ethic… ignores the historicity of the term ‘identity politics.’” This dehistoricized notion of “post” identity politics, she rightly notes, has “been popularized by some members of the white Left and seized upon by the white Right.” These strange chickens have now come home to roost.
So critics on the Right, Left, and the supposedly apolitical center have been quick to blame identity politics for the election of Donald Trump. But this is a straw woman, a phantom, and a dangerous deflection. Donald Trump has proudly, loudly, unashamedly confessed to sexual assault. There are avowed white supremacists in power at the highest positions of the executive branch. There are immigrants being rounded up at their homes, their workplaces, their children’s schools, and the oncology ward. There are mosques on fire and Jewish cemeteries in rubble. If we are to judge from the welter of laws springing up nationwide, the greatest threat to our national security is that transgender people have been using the bathroom. The problem—no surprise here—isn’t in the actions and desires of the marginalized and demonized but rather in the continued ascension of the familiar suspects of male and white supremacists endlessly reasserting both their interests and their universality.
Instead of arguing that racial and gender antagonisms are the uncomfortable rash and we need to treat the underlying infection of economic inequity, election postmortems should offer an intersectional analysis that insists on the irreducible intermingling of race, class, gender, sexuality, and religion as they play out in our electoral landscape. Racism and sexism are no mere benign symptoms on the collective body politic. They are, when combined with the inflammatory agent of economic angst, the tumors. The only way to save the body politic is to recognize that identity politics are part of the solution, not the problem.
Suzanna Danuta Walters is editor in chief of Signs: Journal of Women of Culture and Society and director of the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program and professor of sociology at Northeastern University. Her work centers on questions of gender, sexuality, politics, and popular culture. Her most recent book, The Tolerance Trap: How God, Genes, and Good Intentions Are Sabotaging Gay Equality (New York: New York University Press, 2014), explores how notions of tolerance limit the possibilities for real liberation and deep social belonging. She is also the author of All the Rage: The Story of Gay Visibility in America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001); Material Girls: Making Sense of Feminist Cultural Theory (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995); and Lives Together/Worlds Apart: Mothers and Daughters in Popular Culture (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992). In addition, Walters has published numerous articles and book chapters on feminist theory, queer theory and LGBT studies, and popular culture in addition to blog posts, op-eds, and articles for the popular press. In 2004, while at Indiana University, Walters founded the first PhD program in gender studies in the nation, and she has held positions at Georgetown University and Colorado College.