Let’s Talk About Identity Politics

identity politics, Combahee River Collective, Civil Rights Movement, black feminists, progressives

I was arguing about identity politics a few days ago because it became clear that many people, including lefties, are averse to the topic. I argued my point, but I don’t feel that I convinced anyone to take a deeper look into what Identity politics is.

A couple of days later, I also saw a video made by the much-maligned “Factual Feminist,” Christine Hoff Sommers:

I felt that the video’s arguments were so off-base that I responded to Hoff-Sommers’ tweet with a thread of my own (via my personal Twitter account).

The arguments surrounding identity politics bother me because they are fallacious. I feel that identity politics movement arose with good intentions and that there is a place for it, but others don’t want to see it that way. Hence, why I’m making this post. Not everyone who comes across this post wants to look at identity politics from a different angle, but I will make my case anyway.

Identity politics is a subject that I’m still trying to grapple with. The first time I heard of it was in 2016 and I leaned toward the negative view of it.

Why was I wrong about identity politics? I was wrong because, for one thing, I failed to do my own research about the topic. (I am still learning to withhold judgment for a lot of things until I can do my own research because often, people who make certain claims have an agenda. That’s true of this topic.)

What did I find? There’s too much to parse right now, but let’s begin with some basic information.


What Is Identity Politics About?

Sometime last year, I finished a post in which I defined specific political terms. (I would like to expand the list and make a real political dictionary out of it.) I also made a series of tweets in which I talked about identity politics in depth.

Here’s what you should know:

The term “identity politics” was created in the mid-1970s by a group of black feminist scholars and activists. This group of women, which included Audre Lorde (a poet), Chirlane McCray (a future First Lady of New York City), and Barbara Smith (a renowned scholar and activist), formed the Combahee River Collective.1

Why the Collective Was Formed

The women of the Combahee River Collective wanted to fill a void left by other movements of their day (which included the Civil Rights Movement and feminism) because those movements often ignored the needs and voices of black women.

Black feminist politics also have an obvious connection to movements for Black liberation, particularly those of the 1960s and I970s. Many of us were active in those movements (Civil Rights, Black nationalism, the Black Panthers), and all of our lives Were greatly affected and changed by their ideologies, their goals, and the tactics used to achieve their goals. It was our experience and disillusionment within these liberation movements, as well as experience on the periphery of the white male left, that led to the need to develop a politics that was anti-racist, unlike those of white women, and anti-sexist, unlike those of Black and white men.

From a black woman’s perspective, there was an immediate overlap with race- and gender-based oppression.

Black women’s extremely negative relationship to the American political system (a system of white male rule) has always been determined by our membership in two oppressed racial and sexual castes. As Angela Davis points out in “Reflections on the Black Woman’s Role in the Community of Slaves,” Black women have always embodied, if only in their physical manifestation, an adversary stance to white male rule and have actively resisted its inroads upon them and their communities in both dramatic and subtle ways.

What the Collective Wanted to Do

The Combahee River Collective was not formed just discuss the issues unique to black women but prescribe actionable steps to remedy those problems. At the same time, the women were more than open to working with other progressive groups where their issues and concerns overlapped.

The most general statement of our politics at the present time would be that we are actively committed to struggling against racial, sexual, heterosexual, and class oppression, and see as our particular task the development of integrated analysis and practice based upon the fact that the major systems of oppression are interlocking. The synthesis of these oppressions creates the conditions of our lives. As Black women we see Black feminism as the logical political movement to combat the manifold and simultaneous oppressions that all women of color face.

In the strictest use of the term, “identity politics” only applied to this movement. As Mychal Denzel Smith wrote for New Republic:

The original intent of identity politics was articulating black women’s struggle at the nexus of race, gender, sexual, and class oppressions, and then forming strategies for dismantling each of these, both in black feminist spaces and in coalition with other groups.

Where the Women Wanted to Focus Their Politics

At the heart of the statement, there were criticisms of “heterosexism” (a bias against homosexuals) and the greater criticism of capitalism. As Smith noted in his article, the collective statement had a socialistic message in it:

Our development must also be tied to the contemporary economic and political position of Black people. The post World War II generation of Black youth was the first to be able to minimally partake of certain educational and employment options, previously closed completely to Black people. Although our economic position is still at the very bottom of the American capitalistic economy, a handful of us have been able to gain certain tools as a result of tokenism in education and employment which potentially enable us to more effectively fight our oppression.

A combined anti-racist and anti-sexist position drew us together initially, and as we developed politically we addressed ourselves to heterosexism and economic oppression under capitalism.

We realize that the liberation of all oppressed peoples necessitates the destruction of the political-economic systems of capitalism and imperialism as well as patriarchy. We are socialists because we believe that work must be organized for the collective benefit of those who do the work and create the products, and not for the profit of the bosses … We need to articulate the real class situation of persons who are not merely raceless, sexless workers, but for whom racial and sexual oppression are significant determinants in their working/economic lives. Although we are in essential agreement with Marx’s theory as it applied to the very specific economic relationships he analyzed, we know that his analysis must be extended further in order for us to understand our specific economic situation as Black women.

The Statement’s Definition of Identity Politics

Above all else, Our politics initially sprang from the shared belief that Black women are inherently valuable, that our liberation is a necessity not as an adjunct to somebody else’s may because of our need as human persons for autonomy. This may seem so obvious as to sound simplistic, but it is apparent that no other ostensibly progressive movement has ever considered our specific oppression as a priority or worked seriously for the ending of that oppression. Merely naming the pejorative stereotypes attributed to Black women (e.g. mammy, matriarch, Sapphire, whore, bulldagger), let alone cataloguing the cruel, often murderous, treatment we receive, Indicates how little value has been placed upon our lives during four centuries of bondage in the Western hemisphere. 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. In the case of Black women this is a particularly repugnant, dangerous, threatening, and therefore revolutionary concept because it is obvious from looking at all the political movements that have preceded us that anyone is more worthy of liberation than ourselves. We reject pedestals, queenhood, and walking ten paces behind. To be recognized as human, levelly human, is enough.

This sounds clear to me, but the term has been co-opted and twisted to mean other things.


What Isn’t Identity Politics About?

Identity politics isn’t (or wasn’t meant to be) a tactic for people to use in political fights. As I first understood it, identity politics was when someone used race and gender in order to guilt people and to “win” arguments. That’s how most people see it, but I was wrong and any who still sees it that way is wrong.

Identity politics isn’t just talking about race. As I said above, the Combahee River Collective meant to create actionable steps to help black women and other people in need of special advocacy. However, in order for identity politics to work, we must talk about race, in order to know what hampers certain communities and to come up with appropriate remedies.

Identity politics isn’t a means to help minorities at the expense of white people. It might hurt a wealthy person’s bottom line, because the collective was socialist in nature and it homed in on how black women and workers were harmed by capitalism.

Identity politics isn’t just about focusing on our differences. While, yes, it involves activists examining differences among certain demographics, there is a greater focus on how people in those demographics are hurt socially and economically. Economics is really the main part of the discussion when you get down to it, but activists need to examine how bad the disparities are.

Identity politics isn’t a means for political parties to make inroads with voters of certain demographics. Sure, advocacy groups are open to working with politicians because that is main avenue for getting certain reforms put in place, but the movements should belong to the people. Unfortunately for many movements, politicians and political parties like to co-opt movements and take them over for their own benefit.

That last part leads me to the next question.


Why Is There Such a Negative View of Identity Politics?

There is such a negative view of identity politics because there is a gross misunderstanding of what it was created to do. And this mistrust was fomented by a few factors.

1. Mistrust and Fear

Primarily, there is a level of mistrust and fear surrounding identity politics. Often, when marginalized groups speak up, there is a backlash because those who hold more people don’t want to lose that power.

In the United States, the power rests with the capitalists. In particular, the power rests with a small group of wealthy white folks in various industries.

These oligarchs like to gin up poor white folks who buy into white supremacy. Even though white Americans make up 70% of the U.S. population, many are driven by a fear of losing their status as the country’s majority racial group.

Even if poor whites might have more in common with poor black folks, race has long served as a wedge issue and has undermined many movements, including the labor movement. The group who coined the term “identity politics” consisted of black women, so they belonged to at least two marginalized groups, one doubly marginalized group, and they advocated for gay women. It would hold that a movement driven by black women would be undermined by fear.

2. The Lack of Exposure Pre-2016

Another reason why identity politics is mistrusted is that the term was quickly obscured then quickly diluted when more people became aware of it. Most people didn’t know about the Combahee River Collective, let alone the fact that the women in the group coined the term “identity politics.” Most still don’t know, but when most of us hear the term, it is often in the context of the 2016 United States presidential election.

3. SocLibs

Many people don’t like the term “social justice warrior” (“OMG, WHY DO PEOPLE HATE SOCIAL JUSTICE WARRIORS? ISN’T BEING A WARRIOR FOR SOCIAL JUSTICE A GOOD THING?!!), so I will just use a term I came up with to describe a certain set of troublesome people: “soclibs” (pronounced SŌSH-libz).2

Soclibs are troublesome because they give a bad name to identity politics. Soclibs have taken the general concepts of defending people from certain marginalized groups and used it to advance their own social status. Instead of taking a discussion about race and turning it into a set of actionable steps, they have reduced the discussion to a focus on identity and they bully those they disagree with. Thus, soclibs have weaponized identity.

As a result, soclibs pigeonhole real activists and effectively take away their voice. This is not what identity politics was supposed to be about. It was quite the opposite.

4. Grifters

Grifters include many soclibs, but in this case, they don’t just use identity to up their social status. They use it to make money.

More often, corporations are doing guilty of this, but they often take revolutionary economic language and use it to their benefit. Look at what happened with this commercial.

While many people might get the gist of the message from the book Nineteen Eighty-Four, it is subverted by the nature of advertising. The same is true whenever a company takes any revolutionary jargon and uses it to sell products. This process dilutes the discussion and any movement touched by it because it commodifies talking points and desensitizes people to it.

5. The Democratic Party’s Abuse of Its Base

This might be hard to digest but, the meaning of identity politics was twisted in large part because of the Democratic Party. Not only did the party kind of embrace soclibs and commodify revolutionary slogans, but it has undermined numerous movements since the 1960s.

As I said above, political parties like to co-opt movements and take them over for their own benefit. In the United States, this is true of the Democrats and the Civil Rights Movement. The Democrats and liberal media establishment supported the Civil Rights Movement to a point, but they turned on Martin Luther King and others when those activists pushed for more economic reforms to help the poor and took stances against the Vietnam War.

From there, the party quickly moved to undermine the New Deal and move their politics away from the very groups that helped it electorally. In the 1980s, there was a push to move the party away from reaching out to minorities and focus more on Southern whites. While the party still pays lip service to communities of color (during every presidential cycle), it now does this hand-wringing over trying to reach Republican voters in the working class and in suburbs. The party abused its base even further by turning on the Occupy Wall Street movement and offering no concrete policy objectives to support the Black Lives Matter movement.

This has worked to undermine identity politics because it shelves the concerns of marginalized groups and focuses only on identity for political expediency.

6. The Black Bourgeoisie

Oligarchs and Democrats are also helped by the black bourgeoisie to undermine identity politics. Rich black folks may have their own degree of power, but they are still subservient to richer white folks and the rest of the power establishment. Chris Hedges and Glen Ford explained this late last year:

As The Lefty in Your Closet explained, black people and white people tend to be more individualistic, so the black bourgeoisie’s focus is on keeping the amount of power, money, and influence that they have. In order to do this, they are willing to keep other people of color down and undermine their interests.

If a rich black person takes a cynical view of identity politics, that’s because they have become selfish and fearful of losing their own status. As the main goal of the Combahee River Collective was to get rid of all forms of oppression, that would run into conflict with any form of oligarchy.

7. Progressives’ Trusting, Gun-Shy Nature

Yet another reason for the mistrust of identity politics is that lefties tend to be obsessed with fairness, even in a political climate full of bad-faith actors. I know that in the West (particularly in the United States), a lot of our institutions skew to the right and thus our discussions are often framed from a right-leaning perspective. That alone has infected an open discussion about race and class.

Progressives are left-leaning, but fractured, largely because of the work of the U.S. government and other powerful countries to discredit lefties and leftist movements. As such, we are acutely aware of the criticism and strive to be fair in our arguments and our actions. The catch is we tend to overcorrect whenever criticism is lodged, even from opponents on the right whom we despise the most.3 We need to stop doing that because many of these criticisms are made in bad faith.

This pertains to the discussion about identity politics because the people who hate it the most tend to be white, they tend to be conservative (or play one on TV and The Internets), and they often benefit personally from driving the conversation a certain way — if not derail it. One example is Dave Rubin. Even though he (as a gay man) is from a marginalized group himself, he is being paid to act like a right-winger and thus dismiss many of the arguments on the left, including identity politics.

While many on the left can see through people like Rubin, they still fall for the arguments from conservatives regarding identity politics. In the end, we start using terms like “working class” to refer to white people and even buy into the idea of white guilt, which only derails any and all discussions about race and fighting racism.


Why Am I in Favor of Identity Politics?

I am in favor of identity politics for two main reasons. First, I understand that the term was coined to encapsulate a noble cause; I just needed to do the research. Secondly, I believe that certain groups need advocates because we don’t have a panacea for all social ills.

I also believe that the meaning of the term identity politics could naturally grow to encapsulate many other well-meaning movements. For example, the Black Lives Matter movement (which I support) is a form of identity politics. In fact, it was started by three black women who wanted to expand the movement to advocate for gay and trans black people.

The fact of the matter is, many people think in terms of race and skin color. We cannot immediately drop all discussion of race because it has long been institutionalized.

  • Race is listed on many birth certificates.
  • We are asked to indicate our ethnicity in various forms.
  • There is a racist component to anti-immigrant sentiments.
  • Race-based discrimination is still a thing and people will continue to use it as a go-to to keep their money, power, and status.

Not talking about race doesn’t mean that it will go away. In order to solve a problem (which racism is), you must first recognize that there is a problem and work on solutions. Identity politics was meant to lead to those type of solutions.

I know that progressives understand this. They also tend to support movements like Black Lives Matter, but they will then turn around and dismiss identity politics.4 They are focusing on the “identity” part of identity politics and ignoring that “politics” is part of the term.


Conclusion

Sometimes, we need to work with smaller groups to solve their problems because those groups face more social hardships than others. It isn’t wrong to say this, but some people will have you believe that this is divisive. Those people are lying, if not misinformed.

The women of the Combahee River Collective were just trying to work within the framework they were given, especially because the end-goal was to uplift all communities. However, some people will have you believe that they were the ones who were being divisive. That’s like blaming a victim for their assault. Stop it.


Footnotes

1. The Combahee River Collective was named to honor the site in South Carolina where Harriet Tubman formed a strategy to free over 750 slaves.

2. Soclib is short for “social liberal.” The type of person I’m describing tends to identify as socially liberal, but when asked about their economic views, may default to the consensus (which is economically conservative). These views conflict with each other, but soclibs don’t care. They’d rather people focus on their social views.

3. I’m not saying that progressives hate all conservatives, but I’m getting there. Western-style conservativism is a joke, especially when label-humping conservatives enter the fray. By label-humping, I mean that people are married to the label of conservative, even when their social and economic views suggest that they might lean more to the left they thought. It is this type of (empty) tribalism that has poisoned many political discussions.

4. Recently, Nancy Pelosi did a town-hall with Joy Ann Reid. During the event, Pelosi was asked by an audience member if she supported Black Lives Matter. Instead of simply saying, “Yes,” Pelosi only offered a jumbled word salad and talked about past abuses. Slay, queen!

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