One of the big issues in our political discourse is around what are called “identity politics”. To be short and blunt, the way we collectively discuss it is a total fucking trainwreck.
I’ve talked about this issue before in the recent past, but just to quickly recap it, a big point of friction in the Democratic Party primaries between opponents Fmr. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s campaign and Senator Bernie Sanders’ campaign was of the latter’s focus on economic issues and the former’s focus on issues related to race and gender. After Clinton’s loss in the general election, there were several pundits, whose political views range as widely as conservative, liberal, and Marxist, who criticized her campaign’s failure to understand how much of an issue economic disenfranchisement really was for such a large part of the populace, vociferously criticizing its focus around so-called identity politics.
I’ve discussed at length my own major issues in how Hillary Clinton’s campaign discussed issues related to identity, and how it was the most major manifestation in how superficial our broader discourse around it really is. However, the critics suggesting to abandon identity politics in general and focus on economics are just as hopelessly tone-deaf as the Clinton campaign/Democratic Party.
One of the biggest recurring questions in the wake of Clinton’s electoral defeat was “how did the Democrats lose so much of the white working class, especially when so many more of them voted for Barack Obama in past elections?”. That’s a good question to ask, but what absolutely drove me crazy is that nobody seems to inquire at all about working class people of color. True, voters of color went for Clinton over Trump in massive numbers, but those numbers are only among the pitifully small percentage of those populations that actually voted. It’s a problem that nobody ever bothered to ask why so many working class people of color didn’t vote. The only response Democrats seem to have towards non-voters, especially after 2000, is to disparage them as lazy, stupid, and in this past election, sexist, racist, or exhibiting their white privilege (how do all these political experts fail to understand that insulting people you want something from is a shit strategy?).
For critics on the left that criticize identity politics, their whole framing of it is all wrong. Thea Riofrancos and Daniel Denvir have discussed how this divisive debate on the left is oversimplified to the detriment of all sides. Leftist economic wonks, particularly Marxists and socialists, would do themselves some good to get a better understanding of how racial issues intertwine with economic issues if they hope to gain more support from people of color. Another example of this disconnect was highlighted by Johns Hopkins University professor Lester Spence, whose book Knocking the Hustle: Against the Neoliberal Turn in Black Politics criticized David Harvey’s seminal work A Brief History of Neoliberalism for its lack of analysis in regards to race in its critique of neoliberal economics. Spence argues that the people subjugated in a society structured in white supremacy (he focuses on black people) are impacted even more by the effects of neoliberalism than white people. Yet another example, historian Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz discusses economics as they relate to Native Americans currently and historically in her books. Any other critiques of identity politics on the left that aren’t grounded in an understanding of Marxist or socialist theory would do better to start reading up on Marxism and socialism.
Conservative critics of identity politics dismiss the concept of it off-hand as completely frivolous. A distressing number of liberals adopt this critique in this exact same way too. They’re all full of shit, especially the conservative critics. Right-wing politics are just as wedded to identity as much as left-wing politics. The only difference is that right-wing politics focuses on the identities of the dominant class; white, male, heterosexual, economically elite, and Christian.
In her seminal work The Second Sex, the thesis of Simone de Beauvoir’s argument of how women are oppressed is that our society has been structured with men as the norm and women as the deviation to the norm. This analysis can be extended to other identities as well; whiteness is structured as the norm and all other races are a deviation, heterosexuality is structured as the norm and LGBT+ is a deviation (see the term “gay agenda”), Christianity is the norm and other religions are the deviation. These identities as the norm have been so entrenched in our collective consciousness that we don’t even recognize or discuss them as identities.
The point of this blog has been to analyze portrayals related to identity in cartoons, which is only a small manifestation of how it plays out in society. The two Disney films Tangled and Frozen were named that instead of Rapunzel and The Ice Queen because they thought the less gender-neutral names would not appeal to boys. Disney films with more masculine titles like Aladdin, The Lion King, Tarzan, or Hercules are never assumed to be a turn off to girls in their audience. There’s a long history of female characters having more passive roles in comparison to active male characters and existing in relation to those male characters. Media starring white protagonists are viewed as universal while media with protagonists of color are viewed as “niche” or “political”. Media where the main character is supposed to serve as the audience surrogate are almost always white men or white boys.
Gong back to how conservatives adhere to identity politics, another reason that their identity politics aren’t recognized as identity politics is because they have a long history of discussing it using euphemisms. As Republican strategist Lee Atwater explained in a 1981 interview:
You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968, you can’t say “nigger” — that hurts you. Backfires. So you say stuff like forced busing, states’ rights and all that stuff. You’re getting so abstract now [that] you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is [that] blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it. I’m not saying that. But I’m saying that if it is getting that abstract, and that coded, that we are doing away with the racial problem one way or the other. You follow me — because obviously sitting around saying, “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”
As a result, policies that target black people for incarceration are called “tough on crime” or “law and order”. Those black people being targeted are called “thugs” or “criminals” instead of “niggers”. Latino immigrants are dehumanized through terms like “illegal aliens” instead of more direct slurs like “spic” or “wetback”. Arabs and Muslims are dehumanized by the terms like “terrorist”. Meddling and violent regime change in other countries is re-framed as “spreading democracy”. Persecution of LGBT+ in society is re-framed as “religious liberty”. This terminology is the legacy of the “Southern strategy” first adopted by Richard Nixon in order to win over white voters anxious about the demands for racial equality from activist groups, particularly Democratic voters disillusioned by Lyndon Johnson’s passage of the the Civil Rights Act. This was decades before the term “political correctness” entered our political lexicon.
Long before the 1950s and 1960s, presidents Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson spoke out against what they called “hyphenated Americans” as a way of pandering to xenophobic attitudes towards European immigrants (who were not considered “white” in the late 19th/early 20th century). That same Woodrow Wilson screened Birth of a Nation at the White House when it premiered. The characterization of the inhabitants of foreign countries as “backwards” and “savage” in 19th and 20th century literature from the likes of Rudyard Kipling or Ian Fleming were used to justify Western imperialism throughout Africa, Asia, and South America.
Hell, dominant identity politics goes all the way back to Christopher Columbus and Hernan Cortes. Those damn sure weren’t other European Catholics they were conquering, raping, and pillaging in the Americas.
Folks on the left better get a better grasp of what identity politics actually is and how to discuss and advocate for it in a much more productive way because the right sure knows their way around it (no matter how much they deny it). Dismissing it outright or perverting it to take marginalized groups for granted are not the ways to go if you are truly invested in dismantling structural oppression.