As the Democratic Party seeks to rebuild itself after losing an election to the political equivalent of Archie Bunker with a reality show, discussion has risen regarding the concept of "identity politics." To some within Democratic circles, identity politics are everything that’s wrong with the party and needs to be immediately jettisoned, becoming obsolete in the way of the flip phone.
To others, however, identity politics are not only important for the party, but also the country. In an age where white nationalists march openly on college campuses and protesters are mauled and killed with cars, the Democratic Party cannot afford to not include identity politics as a core feature. Yet while identity politics have become the topic of much debate in the past year, too often those who discuss it, don’t truly understand what identity politics are.
To most critics of identity politics, it's the rabid fixation on one’s identity above all else. University of Columbia professor Mark Lilla, just ten days after the 2016 election, penned a critique of identity politics in an op-ed for the New York Times, asserting that it’s what cost Hillary Clinton the election. He called it “disastrous as a foundation for Democratic politics in our ideological age.”
Lilla’s objection to identity politics is that it forces people to develop a selfish approach to politics, asserting that identity politics at the University level has “produced a generation of liberals and progressives narcissistically unaware of conditions outside their self-defined groups.” The problem with these critiques is that people are not critiquing identity politics, but rather their own falsely construed notion of what identity politics are to them.
Coined in the 1970s by a group of black feminist scholars, “identity politics,” in its original sense, was nothing like what critics such as Lilla describe. The original purpose of identity politics was to fight for the liberation of black women against their oppression.
The group believed that the liberation of black women in society would demand the liberation of all oppressed groups, working from the bottom up to end systemic oppression. They believed that they, as black women, were best suited to fight against their own oppression, not as an accessory to someone else’s. From there, they sought to form coalitions with other groups, fighting for liberation, with an emphasis on one’s own identity and their own struggle. In a statement released in 1977, the Combahee River Collective Statement, the group explains exactly what they mean by “identity politics.”
The group writes, “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.”
What folks like Lilla push back against is a perversion of identity politics, not the essence of identity politics. Weaponized identity politics, as it is sometimes called, is what happens when someone insists that one is racist if they do not support “black candidate x” or that someone is sexist if they do not support “female candidate y.” This is the notion that we need to elect black folks, women, Hispanics etc., based on their identity above all else. Often we see the phrase “elect women” or “elect people of color.” This is a problematic way to proceed, and would no sooner lead to a President Kirsten Gillibrand or President Cory Booker than it would a President Nikki Haley or President Tim Scott.
However, that’s not what identity politics are. Identity politics is the recognition of the systemic oppression of minority communities, and people within those communities fighting against their own oppression, to later form coalitions and dismantle the structural oppression resulting in liberation for everyone. How someone like Lilla, a professor at Columbia, misses the mark so hugely on this is perplexing to say in the least.
What critics of identity politics do is take the part that states that everyone has different experiences based on their identity, and then they stop after that. They call it “pandering to minorities” rather than to “all Americans.” The reality is that identity politics, while initially focused on one’s own identity, are meant to then form broader coalitions to fight oppression together, which is where intersectionality comes into play. The entire point is to dismantle systemic oppression. It does not lead to the selfish and unaware generation of progressives who have no idea how other people live that Lilla warns about. It actually does the opposite.
When the president of the U.S. says that neo-Nazis are “fine people” and calls African countries “shitholes,” it should be abundantly clear why identity politics are crucial in achieving liberation from oppression.
Max Van Dyke is a senior from Saint Paul, Minnesota studying religion and communications.