We’ve heard the term “Identity Politics” tossed around by politicians and members of the media for years. But the term really became commonplace during the runup to the 2008 election of Barack Obama as President and its use expanded during his 8 years in office. And it still lives with us in everyday conversations.
What is “Identity Politics?”
Identity politics are political positions based on the interests and perspectives of social groups with which people identify. Identity politics includes the ways in which people’s politics are shaped by aspects of their identity through loosely correlated social organizations. Examples include social organizations based on age, religion, social class or caste, culture, dialect, disability, education, ethnicity, language, nationality, sex, gender identity, generation, occupation, profession, race, political party affiliation, sexual orientation, settlement, urban and rural habitation, and veteran status.
The term “identity politics” has been in use in various forms since the 1960s or 1970s, but has been applied with, at times, radically different meanings by different populations.
One aim of identity politics has been for those feeling oppressed to voice their felt oppression in terms of their own experience by a process of consciousness-raising. One of the older written examples of it can be found in the April 1977 statement of the black feminist group, Combahee River Collective, which was subsequently reprinted in a number of anthologies, and Barbara Smith and the Combahee River Collective have been credited with coining the term. For example, in their terminal statement, they said:
[A]s children we realized that we were different from boys and that we were treated different—for example, when we were told in the same breath to be quiet both for the sake of being ‘ladylike’ and to make us less objectionable in the eyes of white people. In the process of consciousness-raising, actually life-sharing, we began to recognize the commonality of our experiences and, from the sharing and growing consciousness, to build a politics that will change our lives and inevitably end our oppression….We realize that the only people who care enough about us to work consistently for our liberation are us. Our politics evolve from a healthy love for ourselves, our sisters and our community which allows us to continue our struggle and work. This focusing upon our own oppression is embodied in the concept of identity politics. We believe that the most profound and potentially most radical politics come directly out of our own identity, as opposed to working to end somebody else’s oppression.— Zillah R. Eisenstein (1978), The Combahee River Collective Statement
Some groups have combined identity politics and Marxist social class analysis and class consciousness — the most notable example being the Black Panther Party — but this is not necessarily characteristic of the form. Another example is MOVE, members of which mixed black nationalism with anarcho-primitivism (a radical form of green politics based on the idea that civilization is an instrument of oppression, advocating the return to a hunter-gatherer society). Identity politics can be left wing or right wing, with examples of the latter being Ulster Loyalism, Islamism and Christian Identity movements.
During the 1980s, the politics of identity became very prominent and it was linked to a new wave of social movement activism.
The mid-2010s have seen a marked rise in identity politics, including white identity politics in the United States. This phenomenon is attributed to increased demographic diversity and the prospect of whites becoming a minority in America. Such shifts have driven many to affiliate with conservative causes including those not related to diversity. This includes the presidential election of Donald Trump, who won the support of prominent white supremacists such as David Duke and Richard B. Spencer (which Trump disavowed.)
Identity Politics Defined: BY LEFTISTS!
Charles W. Mills
Whose Identity Politics?
The causes of Donald Trump’s stunning electoral victory will be debated for years: FBI director James Comey’s October 28 letter about Clinton’s e-mails, her “basket of deplorables” comment, the Democratic campaign’s neglect of the Rust Belt states, and so on. But the pernicious and enduring role of identity politics was crucial.
I refer, of course, to the white racial identity politics that have shaped the United States from its birth.
Needless to say, this is neither the standard narrative nor the usual framing. For the orthodox white left, now claiming a cheerless we-told-you-so vindication, identity politics is their politics—particularistic, pandering to special interests, balkanizing; ours, of course, are supposedly very different—universalist, general-interest, unifying. Not “recognition,” but redistribution; not “identity” but material inequality; not “race,” but class.
Walter Benn Michaels
A Universe of Exploitation
The defensible heart of identity politics is its commitment to opposing forms of discrimination like racism, sexism, and homophobia. I share that commitment. But opposing discrimination today has no more to do with a left politics than do equally powerful ethical commitments against, say, violence or dishonesty. Why? Because the core of a left politics is its critique of and resistance to capitalism—its commitment to decommodifying education, health care, and housing, and creating a more economically equal society. Neither hostility to discrimination nor the accompanying enthusiasm for diversity makes the slightest contribution to accomplishing any of those goals. Just the opposite, in fact. They function instead to provide inequality with a meritocratic justification: If everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed, there’s no injustice when some people fail.
Expanding the Circle
The call for the left to abandon its appeals to not-white-men violates the very premises of the American project. The Declaration of Independence describes a world in which “all men are created equal,” where “they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness,” and that “to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Even the slaveholders’ Constitution prefaced its enterprise with the purpose of “secur[ing] the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” At the hearings for her confirmation to the Supreme Court in 1993, Ruth Bader Ginsburg stated it precisely. The American project started with white men’s freedom and equality and has been, for more than two centuries, all about expanding the circle to include more and more people in that blessed plot. It has almost always been the left that forces such expansions.