The Failure of Identity Politics

Lena Dunham
Lena Dunham, star of the HBO series, “Girls,” shows off her support for Hillary Clinton with a dress emblazoned with the Democratic presidential candidate’s first name.

I maintain, as I have previously argued on this site, that one of the greatest obstacles to developing a mass, diverse working-class movement to fight not only the Trump regime, but also the system that spawned it in the first place, remains the scourge of identity politics.

This political orientation, along with its associated practices of “privilege-checking,” and “calling out,” has rendered the left atomized, devoid of a concrete political vision, and largely incapable of joining together in solidarity. Indeed, even that word, “solidarity,” is quite threatening to practitioners of identity and privilege-politics, who regard it as a sort of “whitewashing” of real inequities in race, gender, and sexual orientation.

The absence of a clearly articulated class-oriented approach to social justice, combined with a generally low-level of class-struggle (recent resistance to Trump’s election, notwithstanding), has allowed the nebulous, postmodernist dictates of identity politics to fill the void. As a result, in places like Portland, Maine the framework of identity politics has become the default orientation of left-wing groups.

According to liberal identitarians all white people are inherently—and perhaps, irredeemably—racist, simply by nature of being white. And no amount of education, enlightenment, commitment to social justice, or personal growth can alter a “privileged” white person’s racist, prejudiced views. Thus, identity politics casts White People or even just “whiteness” as the enemy of the oppressed, rather than the structural racism intentionally perpetuated by the wealthy elite.

As the great abolitionist, Frederick Douglass observed of the twisted genius of the capitalist ruling class in pitting white workers against black workers, “The slaveholders, by encouraging the enmity of the poor, laboring white man against the blacks, succeeded in making the said white man almost as much of a slave as the black himself.”

“Both,” Douglass adds, “are plundered by the same plunderer.”

Proponents of identity politics, likewise, insist Donald Trump was elected president based purely on racism—and nothing more. They point to exit-poll data suggesting a majority of white voters—including a majority of white women—voted for Trump.

But this data is misleading. A majority of white Americans did not vote for Trump. A majority of the whites who voted did. This is a crucial distinction. Nearly 50 percent of eligible voters stayed home on Election Day or were barred from voting.

And, while racism no doubt played some role in Trump’s election, many of the working-class whites who voted for him did so out of legitimate economic grievances. As Jacobin’s Adaner Usmani puts it, “All Klansmen are Trump supporters, but all Trump supporters are not Klansmen.” It is crucial those of us on the left understand this if we are to have any hope of winning some of those working-class Trump supporters–many of whom voted for Barack Obama, at least once–to our side.

This is in no way meant to diminish the very real and insidious role of racism, sexism, xenophobia, and ableism in Trump’s electoral victory. It is merely to acknowledge that his ascension is more complicated to explain—his supporters’ motivations more complex and often contradictory—than the easy scapegoat of “racism” suggests.

Furthermore, it was the slave-owning Founding Fathers’ Electoral College which handed Trump the presidency—not the voters. If we lived in an actual democracy, where candidates were elected based on the popular vote (or, for that matter, if we had more than two candidates to choose from), then Hillary Clinton would currently be sitting in the White House.

But proponents of identity politics conveniently overlook all of these nuances, preferring a simplistic (and decidedly cynical) understanding of society and human nature as governed by nothing more than fear, hatred, and naked self-interest.

As such, Maine activist and blogger, Shay Stewart-Bouley, claims in a recent post on her “Black Girl in Maine” blog that a “fear of the declining value of whiteness is what brought us Trump.”

Stewart-Bouley goes on to admonish her white readers that people of color do not need their “white guilt” in anti-racist activism, only to then proceed to remind them that “racism is largely a white problem.” Sure seems like a guilt-trip to me.

But rather than explaining how white leftists can be better “allies” in the fight against racism, Stewart-Bouley echoes the familiar identitarian doctrine that black and white activists conduct their work in separate circles. This, she explains, is so white people can “have a space [of their own] to work out the kinks on their journey without harming me and other POC [People of Color].”

This insistence of separate spaces for black and white activists flows from the identitarian concept that it is “not the job” of oppressed people to educate others. White progressives, in other words, must “do the work” of educating themselves.

“Seriously, I am not Oprah or Mammy,” Stewart-Bouley writes, “and for my own well-being, I want people to know what they don’t know and work on it without being expected to have their hand held by me while they do it.”

As someone who has worked (albeit, briefly) in education, I can assure you: Dismissively telling students to “go educate yourselves,” with no additional guidance or direction from the teacher, is a surefire way to ensure the majority of them do not take the class seriously, spend the semester slacking off, and ultimately fail the course. And, when it comes to eradicating racism, and building a viable, multi-racial, multi-gender, multi-ethnic working-class movement, failure, as they say, is not an option.

Telling people to “educate yourself” or just “Google it” in response to legitimate questions about unfamiliar phrases, jargon, or histories, merely reproduces “neoliberal atomization,” as one of my comrades in the International Socialist Organization (ISO) phrased it in a recent internal document. That is, “sit by yourself in front of a computer and figure it out alone.” And this is to say nothing of the generally contemptuous tone of telling people, “It’s not my job to educate you!”

Part of being a revolutionary means being willing to educate, discuss and patiently debate with others—even those who may not be as radical as you are. Reading, studying, and debating collectively are indispensable components to building a sense of solidarity, and coalescing around a unified, cohesive political orientation.

Contrary to the dictates of identity politics, just because an individual does not personally experience a particular form of oppression does not mean he or she has no interest in fighting to end that oppression. Indeed, the system of capitalism—a system that is inherently exploitative— oppresses all workers to some degree. The ruling class has its proverbial thumb on all workers—though it presses down with greater force on some particularly oppressed workers (African Americans, women, LGBTQ folks, people with disabilities), than others.

But all workers have an interest in cutting off the bourgeois thumb (if not, indeed, the entire hand it is a part of) and dismantling the system that keeps us all down.

As socialist author, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor writes in her 2016 book, From Black Lives Matter, to Black Liberation:

Solidarity is standing in unity with people even if you have not personally experienced their particular oppression[.] The reality is that as long as capitalism exists, material and ideological pressures push white workers to be racist and all workers to hold each other in general suspicion. But there are moments of struggle when the mutual interests of workers are laid bare, and when the suspicion is finally turned in the other direction—at the plutocrats who live well while the rest of us suffer.

While the inclusion of more people of color, women, and gays in the corporate and political arena is certainly a welcome trend, the folly of multiculturalism is in viewing this diversity alone as a form of progress. The fact is, one can be gay, black, female, or trans and still be part of the bourgeoisie. Take figures like Caitlyn Jenner, Clarence Thomas, Oprah Winfrey, or warmonger “feminist,” Anne-Marie Slaughter, for example.

As left-wing professor Adolph Reed, Jr. writes in a stinging rebuke of liberal identity politics:

[A] society in which 1% of the population controlled 90% of the resources could be just, provided that roughly 12% of the 1% were black, 12% were Latino, 50% were women and whatever the appropriate proportions were LGBT people. It would be tough to imagine a normative ideal that expresses more unambiguously the social position of people who consider themselves candidates for inclusion, or at least significant staff positions in service to, the ruling class.

None of this is to suggest that class is “more important” than race or other aspects of identity. Rather, as Karl Marx observed, class and race are inextricably intertwined.

“In the United States of America, every independent movement of the workers was paralyzed as long as slavery disfigured a part of the Republic,” Marx wrote in Volume One of Capital. “Labor cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the black it is branded.”

The left must rekindle the old labor slogan, “An injury to one is an injury to all.” Only through solidarity—through a shared sense of class-struggle among workers of all genders, gender-identities, races, and sexual orientations—can we hope to fight the right, rebuild the left, and win nothing less than the self-emancipation of the working class.

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If you like this essay feel free to share it widely (Facebook, Twitter, all that stuff…). Adam Marletta can be reached at adamd.marletta@gmail.com.

Thanks for reading!

 

The Fire This Time

James Baldwin

The Academy Award-nominated documentary, I Am Not Your Negro, is the latest addition in a resurgence of interest in the prophetic work of James Baldwin.

Author, Chris Hedges, in a recent column for Truthdig, calls Raoul Peck’s Academy Award-nominated film, I Am Not Your Negro “one of the finest documentaries I have ever seen.”

“I would have stayed in the theater in New York to see the film again if the next showing had not been sold out,” writes Hedges.

Portland theater-goers interested in the documentary film are experiencing a similar problem. The film’s recently concluded run at the Portland Museum of Art proved so popular, additional showings were added for April. (All of the film’s March 12 screenings sold out.)

Readers who want to see I Am Not Your Negro should definitely get tickets while they can. The film is, as the Washington Post’s Ann Hornaday writes, “a brilliant piece of filmic writing, one that bursts with fierce urgency…”

Though based on the notes, words, interviews, and writings of author and essayist, James Baldwin, Peck’s film is no mere biopic.

Instead, Peck has attempted something far more daring. I Am Not Your Negro envisions Baldwin’s final, uncompleted work. The unfinished book—to be titled, Remember This House—was to be a comprehensive, personal account of Baldwin’s close relationship with the three key figures of the Civil Rights movement: Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Baldwin died in 1987, having completed only 30 pages of the manuscript.

Using a combination of Baldwin’s own voice—supplied through audio recordings, television interviews, and archival footage—and that of actor, Samuel L. Jackson, reading from Baldwin’s manuscript, Peck eschews the traditional “talking heads” format and allows his prophetic subject to tell the story of black America in his own words.

“The story of the Negro in America is the story of America–or, more precisely, it is the story of Americans,” Baldwin writes in his essay, “Many Thousands Gone,” collected in the 1955 compilation, Notes of a Native Son. “It is not a pretty story: the story of a people is never very pretty.”

But the film’s chilling coup de grace is achieved through its juxtaposition of contemporary images and video of recent victims of police violence including, Freddie Gray, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, and Sandra Bland. Clips from the mass protests in Baltimore and Ferguson, Missouri highlight the sickening reality that, in the 30 years since Baldwin’s death, precious little has fundamentally changed for black Americans.

James Baldwin’s work is undergoing something of a resurgence of interest of late and it is not difficult to see why.

In the wake of the increase in police killings of unarmed black men and women, greater scrutiny of the issue of mass incarceration prompted by Michelle Alexander’s best-selling, The New Jim Crow, the rise of a young, impassioned anti-racist movement in the guise of Black Lives Matter, and the election of an overt racist to the White House, leftists are seeking guidance and wisdom in Baldwin’s poetic prose.

Indeed, Baldwin is equal perhaps only to George Orwell in his prophetic vision, his command of the English language, and his unwavering commitment to telling inconvenient truths.

Baldwin’s novels, Go Tell It on the Mountain (1953) and Giovanni’s Room (1956), along with his searing essays, The Fire Next Time (1963), Notes of a Native Son (1955), and Nobody Knows My Name (1961) exposed, in prose that is both lyrical and uncompromising, the dark cancer of racism.

“If we were white, if we were Irish, if we were Jewish, if we were Poles … our heroes would be your heroes, too,” says Baldwin.

Nat Turner would be a hero instead of a threat. Malcolm X might still be alive… But when the Israelis pick up guns, or the Poles, or the Irish, or any white man in the world says “Give me liberty or give me death,” the entire white world applauds. But when a black man says exactly the same thing, word for word, he is judged a criminal, and treated like one, and everything possible is done to make an example of this bad nigger so there won’t be any more like him.

Baldwin’s novels also grappled with issues of homosexuality decades before the emergence of the gay rights movement. (Baldwin was gay, a fact often overshadowed by his identification with the Civil Rights movement.)

In every instance, Baldwin went out of his way to defy expectations and literary trends. He did not want to follow in the footsteps of other African American writers, like Richard Wright, whose work he was quite critical of. And Baldwin refused to be pigeonholed as a writer of what he termed “protest novels.”

Baldwin brought this uncompromising stance into his activism, as well. Though Baldwin clearly adhered to liberal-left politics, he was reluctant to identify with any official political cause, party or movement.

(“Many Thousands Gone” is critical of Marxism, dismissing the notion that the Negro and “the Worker” share any economic, social, or political aims. This unfortunate view—one firmly rooted in liberal identity politics—is echoed today by Baldwin disciple, Ta-Nehisi Coates.)

As a result, Baldwin—not unlike, again, Orwell–positioned himself more as a reporter or witness of the Civil Rights movement, rather than an active participant in it.

The film opens with Baldwin’s 1957 return to America after living abroad in France for nearly a decade. Baldwin wearily confesses that he never really missed America, nor the stereotypical staples of American culture like hot-dogs, baseball, and New York City. Seeing the images of 15-year-old, Dorothy Counts, as she is heckled and harassed by white students in a newly desegregated high school in Charlotte, North Carolina, prompted Baldwin to return to the States.

“I could simply no longer sit around Paris discussing the Algerian and the black American problem,” says Baldwin. “Everybody was paying their dues, and it was time I went home and paid mine.”

“If you have not read Baldwin you probably do not fully understand America,” Hedges writes in his piece. “Especially now.”

To understand America is to acknowledge the uncomfortable, horrifying truth so many of us are afraid to admit: This nation was founded on mass genocide and slavery. It is to concede the painful truth that America fought a bloody civil war, not to defend so-called “states’ rights,” as so many of us are taught in school, but to maintain the institution of slavery.

And it is to understand, as Karl Marx did, that both the institution of slavery and the pervasive disease of racism that continues to plague America some 150 years after slavery was abolished, are integral components of capitalism. Capitalists cynically employ racial animosity–alongside the equally deplorable oppression of sexism, xenophobia, homophobia, and ableism–to sow fear and distrust among members of the working class.

The goal is to keep workers so busy fighting among themselves they fail to unite against their mutual oppressor: the bourgeoisie.

As the great abolitionist, Frederick Douglass put it, the ruling class in pitting white workers against black workers, “divided both to conquer each.”

The solution, then, is not to agonize over our individual “privilege,” or to reduce the role of white anti-racists to that of mere “allies.” Rather, we must develop a multi-racial, multi-gender, multi-ethnic mass movement that can fight for nothing less than the self-emancipation of the working class.

As the closing credits began–punctuated by Kendrick Lamar’s excoriating, “The Blacker the Berry”–I felt simultaneously galvanized by Baldwin’s words, but discouraged that some 30 years after his death, white Americans have largely failed to heed his prophetic words.

“The question you got to ask yourself … the white population of this country’s got to ask itself,” Baldwin says on an archival clip from an interview on Boston Public Television, “is why it was necessary to have a nigger in the first place. Because I’m not a nigger. I’m a man.”

“But if you think I’m a nigger, it means you need it, and you have got to find out why. And the future of the country depends on that.”

Editor’s note: Red Flag does not support or endorse any WordPress-sponsored advertisements that may appear on readers’ screens. This is another reason why workers, including writers, need to own the means of production–or in this case, the Internet.

If you like this essay feel free to share it widely (Facebook, Twitter, all that stuff…). Thanks for reading!