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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“Centering” is Tokenism

Solidarity, Not Centering

Though well-intentioned, the practice of “centering” oppressed voices in left circles threatens to become an end in and of itself.

Anyone involved in activism during the last five-eight years is likely familiar with the practice of “centering” marginalized voices at rallies, protests, and demonstrations. This practice entails placing the voices of oppressed people—African Americans, Muslims, women, immigrants, LGBT people—front-and-center during speeches or pre-march rallies. The practice is sometimes referred to as “Passing the mic.”

In theory, “centering” is a well-intentioned concept designed to give space to oppressed individuals who often are denied a platform to speak publicly or whose voices are generally ignored.

But, alas, the “road to hell…” as they say…

The problem with “centering” is its complete disregard for the actual content of the speakers’ speeches. Protest organizers often assemble their multi-ethnic/multi-racial/gender-“non-conforming” panel of speakers with little to no concern for what, exactly, they are going to say at the event, or how a panelist’s views may differ from those of the host organization.

As a result, you wind up with black speakers who encourage participants to divest their money from corporate banks like TD, Bank of America and the like, and participate solely in “black banking,” or only patronize businesses owned and operated by African Americans.

Again, this is an understandable and well-meaning idea. But as a socialist I have to ask: How does shopping exclusively at “black businesses” in any way threaten or undermine the system of capitalism?

Answer: It does not.

Indeed, this strategy strikes me as all too similar to the naïve liberal belief that shopping exclusively at “small businesses,” or “buying local,” can create a more egalitarian world. While I certainly prefer shopping at a locally-owned coffee shop rather than at Starbucks any day of the week, the small businesses in my neighborhood are no less motivated by profit than a giant corporate chain is. Likewise, the baristas at the local coffee shop are no less exploited as workers than those at Starbucks.

(Voters in Portland, Maine defeated a referendum in 2015, put forward by the Portland Green Party, to raise the city’s minimum wage to $15 an hour. Most of the opposition came not from chain stores or corporate retailers, but from the city’s myriad “small” businesses and restaurants.)

But, as a white male, I am prohibited from offering this counter-argument to the “black business” strategy. That is because the practice of “centering,” in its effort to raise the voices of marginalized people, often excludes those of white, straight men, entirely. Protest organizers tend to be quite explicit about this. Your role at these demonstrations if you are white, male, straight or all of the above, is basically to sit down, shut-up, and defer entirely to people of color, women, LGBT folks, etc.

Other times, the speakers assembled will not express any coherent political philosophies or strategies at all. They will just rant.

The need to rant about racism, homophobia, sexism and “The System” at large, is no doubt an entirely natural, human desire—especially for those who must endure such pernicious forms of oppression on a daily basis. We all need to rant at some point. It is, I suppose, a necessary form of catharsis.

But merely ranting about the system will not change it. In order to do that, we need carefully thought out political theories, philosophies, strategies, and views. And we should debate those views among each other in a comradely fashion. Selecting speakers based on their gender, gender-identity, race or sexual orientation, rather than their political views, denies leftists this opportunity. As a result, leftists are less knowledgeable about how, precisely, to go about creating a world devoid of sexism, racism, ableism, and capitalist exploitation.

Finally, if the goal of centering is to provide a platform for those routinely denied one, why are poor or homeless people (of any race, ethnicity, gender, etc.) rarely among the speakers featured? Poverty is, after all, a form of oppression.

Socialists are often accused of “class reductionism,” or focusing exclusively on class while ignoring or downplaying the significance of other forms of oppression. This was the chief complaint among liberal women and people of color about Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign. Yet, these accusations of sexism and racism were—particularly in the case of the former—cynically stoked by the Hillary Clinton campaign, in order to discredit Sanders and his platform of democratic socialism.

Leaving aside the fact that socialists have historically been at the forefront of struggles against sexism, racism, homophobia and the like, identitarian liberals are rarely accused of class reductionism’s inverse: identity politics. The point is, just as oppression based on identity cannot—and should not—be ignored, neither can class.

As Sanders said in a widely mischaracterized speech during a post-election book tour last November, “It goes without saying that as we fight to end all forms of discrimination, as we fight to bring more and more women into the political process, Latinos, African Americans, Native Americans—all of that is enormously important, and count me in as somebody who wants to see that happen.”

“But,” Sanders went on:

“… It’s not enough to say, ‘I’m a woman! Vote for me!’ No, that’s not good enough. What we need is a woman who has the guts to stand up to Wall Street, to the insurance companies, to the drug companies, to the fossil fuel industry.”

These limitations beg the question: At what point does centering become little more than a politics of representation at best—or a cynical form of tokenism, at worst?

This is not to suggest there is no value in sitting back and listening more—especially for those of us (white men, mostly) who, admittedly, tend to do most of the talking. And marginalized people should tell their own stories, and lead their own movements. But centering—like all forms of identity politics—threatens to become an end in and of itself.

It is time for the left to move beyond the practice of centering and toward an orientation of solidarity. Our orientation should be the old labor slogan, “An injury to one is an injury to all.”

This is not to suggest we abandon the practice of centering, altogether. I do believe it has some value.

But if we are serious about ending racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia—and, ultimately, the capitalist system that perpetuates such forms of oppression in the first place—then we need to, in the words of the rap group, The Coup, “pick a bigger weapon.” And that weapon, in my opinion, is socialism.

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