Overcoming Identity Politics Paralysis

If we're going to criticize identity politics, it must be from a perspective that is itself antiracist and feminist, one that is seeking the most useful way of thinking—and acting—to oppose racism and sexism.

Transcribed from the 23 June 2018 episode of This is Hell! Radio (Chicago) and printed with permission. Edited for space and readability. Listen to the whole interview:

Since we’ve lost an anchor in mass movements and we’ve lost the idea that politics should be driven from below rather than just being a conversation between different leaders of elite mainstream parties, we’ve come to rely on very reductive understandings of our identities.

Chuck Mertz: Identity politics are not what they used to be. They’ve been co-opted and controlled by politics that are the exact opposite of what the originators of identity politics believed. Here to explain: Asad Haider, author of Mistaken Identity: Race and Class in the Age of Trump.

Welcome to This is Hell!, Asad.

Asad Haider: Hi, thanks for having me.

CM: You write, “In 1977, the term identity politics in its contemporary form was introduced into political discourse by the Combahee River Collective (CRC), a group of black lesbian militants including the founding members Barbara Smith, Beverly Smith, and Demita Frazier, who wrote the influential collective text ‘A Black Feminist Statement.’ They did not believe politics should be reduced to the specific identities of the individuals engaged in it.

“As Barbara Smith has recently reflected: ‘What we are saying is that we have a right as people who are not just female, who are not solely black, who are not just lesbians, who are not just working class or workers—that we are people who embody all of these identities and we have a right to build and define political theory and practice based on that reality. That’s what we meant by identity politics. We didn’t mean that if you’re not the same as us, you are nothing. We were not saying that we didn’t care about anybody who wasn’t exactly like us.’”

To what degree were identity politics meant to be inclusive, and to what degree are today’s identity politics, in your opinion, exclusive?

AH: It’s hard to get any clearer than Barbara Smith was there in that interview. But what she’s pointing to is the fact that her organization, in the beginning, was founded by people who had participated in a number of coalitions and left organizations—and they came out of that with the understanding that a particular kind of reductive understanding of identity had severely limited the emancipatory potential of those movements: a feminist movement which conceives of all women as being white; a black liberation movement which conceived of all black people as being men; and of course the classical example is a labor movement which conceives of all workers as being white men. These were very limiting kinds of identities. These reductive identities prevented these movements from achieving the goals of emancipation that they had set out for themselves.

The idea of identity politics, as they had originally conceived of it, was that their specific identity, as black women, was the one that was excluded from these hegemonic identities. By asserting their right to organize autonomously, to have their own agency, they were breaking that structure of exclusion, and they were bringing out the possibility of undermining all the existing structures of oppression, which is why they say in that statement, “If black women become free, then everyone becomes free.” That means undermining the very structure that lies at the core of everyone’s oppression.

CM: You quote Demita Frazier recalling the emphasis the Combahee organization placed on coalition: “I never believed that Combahee or other black feminist groups I’ve participated in should focus only on issues of concern for us as black women, or that as lesbian bisexual women we should only focus on lesbian issues. It’s really important to note that Combahee was instrumental in founding a local battered women’s shelter. We worked in coalition with community activists, women and men, lesbians and straight folks. We were very active in the reproductive rights movement even though most of us were lesbians. We found ourselves involved in coalition with the labor movement because we believed in the importance of supporting other groups even if the individuals in that group weren’t all feminists. We understood that coalition-building was crucial to our own survival.”

Why do we have this sense, then, that identity politics today is exclusive, working within a vacuum outside of any politics other than those that affect or are about their identity first and foremost?

AH: There are a number of reasons. One is simply the fact that social movements have been fragmented and largely defeated since the late seventies in most of the advanced capitalist world. That has to do with the restructuring of capitalism that came with neoliberalism; it has to do with what Stuart Hall called the “authoritarian populism” of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. We don’t have a base of mass movement that trains people in the practice of coalition.

One thing to note is that coalitions show you that identities are not fixed things, and you can’t reduce people to their identities and you can’t reduce politics to anybody’s identity. Kimberlé Crenshaw, who is well-known for introducing the term intersectionality, points out in one of her articles elaborating on the term that even what we consider to be a unitary identity group is in itself already a coalition, because it’s already composed of all kinds of people who are defined and determined by a multiplicity of traits, even if you’ve just defined them according to one trait.

Right now, since we’ve lost an anchor in mass movements and we’ve lost the idea that politics should be driven from below rather than just being a conversation between different leaders of elite mainstream political parties, we’ve come to rely on very reductive understandings of our identities. That’s become the way that we gain access to our politics: by asserting our particular identities and claiming to be injured on the basis of our identities, we can demand protection or recognition from the state. That’s what our politics has been reduced to when we lose that connection to mass movements.

CM: How much, then, do identity politics limit our identities?

AH: The reductive understanding of identity that is very prevalent now, which reduces politics to just an expression of who you are (and who you are can be determined in many different ways), even if you have an intersectional understanding of who you are—the idea that identity somehow determines the way that you think politically, or the way that you act politically, is a highly misleading way of understanding politics. We know that many people who come from marginalized identities can be absorbed into the existing power structure, and can engage in the kind of post-political practice and the kind of policymaking that’s highly destructive to the communities they are either coming out of or claiming to represent.

There are many examples of this, and we just had eight years of an example with Barack Obama. Why is it that the Black Lives Matter movement had to arrive under the regime of the first black president? That’s an indication that the identity of an individual politician doesn’t lead to structural political change, even if this was a major turning point. But the fact that it came to be seen as a substitute for mass movements is why Black Lives Matter had to happen; something had to happen from below to actually challenge the persistence of racism that so many people assumed was adequately challenged by the election of a black politician.

If we understand race just as an attribute of a person, something that we can see based on the color of skin or other physical characteristics, we’re reproducing the racist discourse that was invented to rationalize racial oppression. We’re reproducing the pseudoscience that European colonists were using to justify their domination of the non-Western world. One of the things that we really need to do to oppose racism is break out of this racial ideology.

CM: How much, then, is Black Lives Matter reclaiming the Combahee River Collective’s original meaning of identity politics as a collectivist response to the problems of capitalism that we have today?

AH: Black Lives Matter was a movement with many different tendencies, and it has gone through a particular kind of evolution, and has faced the challenges that social movements face in the United States. There was, in a strong sense, a return to the kind of mass-based coalitional practice of the Combahee River Collective. I don’t know what direction that’s taking now or what direction it will take in the future. Just as before in the black freedom movement, there are many different tendencies, and some led in a coalitional, emancipatory, mass-organizing direction, while others led in a leadership direction that often rationalized itself with ideologies of racial unity or reductive, essentialist understandings of identity. And those exist now, too. In any social movement, we see contradictions and antagonisms, and it’s important to recognize those.

CM: You write, “For the Combahee River Collective, feminist political practice meant, for example, walking picket lines during strikes in the building trades. But the history that followed seemed to turn the whole thing upside-down.” Then you quote historian Salar Mohandesi, explaining “what began as a promise to push beyond some of socialism’s limitations to build a richer, more diverse and inclusive socialist politics ended up exploited by those with politics diametrically opposed to those the CRC.”

What were the politics of those who co-opted the CRC and the CRC’s call for a more inclusive socialist politics, and turned it into a more exclusive identity politics? Who co-opted those identity politics?

AH: The history, through the eighties and nineties, of the use of the words identity politics is a really complicated one which is going to take another book to explain. But the term saw a real mainstream resurgence with the 2016 primaries, and I make a historical jump in order to show the instability of the term. That is: it was initially introduced as an emancipatory, radical term, but recently, in a lot of the discourse around the Hillary Clinton campaign and the opposition to the Bernie Sanders campaign, the term was used as a way to specifically undermine any challenge to the hegemonic ideas of the mainstream of the Democratic Party. In this context, it became totally uprooted from its origins.

We could identify two different ways that people meant the term. One would be that it’s anything that has to do with race or gender, and is either seen as in opposition to class or as something that has to be added to class. The other is what we’ve already been discussing, the idea that your politics emerge from the foundation of your identity. Every time the term was used in the mainstream media, in thinkpieces and so on, it seemed to take on a different meaning—sometimes different meanings within the same article! But neither of these meanings was resonant, obviously, with the specific meaning that the Comahee River Collective had in mind.

Since it’s become a floating term, now, it can used in a weaponized way to attack political adversaries. The fact that Clinton represented a continuation of a neoliberal and militarist legacy of not just the Obama years but also the preceding Bush years and the Bill Clinton years before that—that became suppressed. That was hidden underneath the discourse of identity politics and the equation of identity politics with some kind of civil rights agenda. So the 2016 primaries were the turning point in many respects, when a politics that had to do with opposing racism and sexism became separated from, and even opposed to, a politics that was about overcoming economic inequality. That’s not how it was conceived before.

CM: How much does identity politics fail to address institutionalized racism?

AH: First of all there’s the factor of individualization, how identity politics has become a kind of politics which revolves around individuals, and is understood to be an expression of the right of an individual according to their particular identity. Second, there is a sense in which understanding race in identity terms reproduces the kind of ideological categories that are created by racism. What we have to understand is that race is socially constructed, and it’s constructed by racism. It’s a central part of American history. It comes out of the complicated transformations in migrant forced labor all the way back in the seventeenth century Virginia, the formation of racial slavery, then the changing categories of indentured servitude, and so on.

That’s the history that categories of race come out of. If we understand race just as an attribute of a person, something that we can see based on the color of skin or other physical characteristics, we’re reproducing the racist discourse that was invented to rationalize racial oppression. We’re reproducing the pseudoscience that European colonists were using to justify their domination of the non-Western world. One of the things that we really need to do to oppose racism is break out of this racial ideology and understand how race is historically socially constructed.

CM: Is the way identity politics are applied today and were applied during the Hillary Clinton campaign a way that class issues can be erased, and critiques of neoliberal globalized capitalism dismissed?

AH: Yes, whereas the way the Combahee River Collective talked about identity politics was a specific intervention into a specific situation that they encountered in mass movements and political practice. Identity, as a general category to explain race and gender, is not adequate. These are really specific social relations with really specific histories, and we have to look at them in their specificity and not subsume them into some general thing called identity, and then have a list of race, gender, and class as though these are all different parallel or intersecting lines. That doesn’t adequately understand how any of them operate or how they are articulated together into one society, how they’re connected into one social structure.

That way of reifying these categories, of turning them into empty abstractions—that’s how this opposition gets created between race and gender on the one hand and class on the other, or turns class into an identity in itself. None of these things should be understood that way. What we have to do is look at the society as it exists, and look at the relations that constitute it, and look at the way that they come together and form social structure, and we’ll find that these things are never in isolation. There is never racism in isolation from economic exploitation and inequality. There is never racism standing opposite from particular patriarchal understandings of the family.

These things are part of one historical process and one social structure, so by turning them into empty abstractions, it then becomes possible to pit them against class. But that doesn’t explain any of these things and it doesn’t help us to tackle any of these problems.

The fact that there is black leadership doesn’t change the way that the lives of black people at a mass level are still fundamentally affected by the structures of racism, and doesn’t change the fact that without a challenge to the authoritarianism of this society, to the militarization of this society, and to the extreme economic polarization of this society, it will be impossible for people to achieve any kind of social change.

CM: You write, “Organizations like the NAACP, led by the elites of the black community, tried to distance themselves from the revolutionary possibilities of the struggle, shifting funding and resources away from economic issues and toward the battle against Southern legal segregation. As time went on, this became a significant limit on the scope of mass mobilization.”

To what degree is that shift away from economic issues effectively the end of the civil rights movement in that started in the 1950s and had major successes in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965? Did that shift away from economic issues end the mass movement as well as the more collective and cross-cultural state of identity politics?

AH: After ’65, everyone in the civil rights movement was thinking, “We have to shift to economic issues now, because we’ve achieved these formal, legal victories against segregation, but segregation and racism continue to exist because of the economic structures of society, because of the de facto segregation of the cities, because of the leadership structures, because of the sheer fact of poverty.” That’s what Martin Luther King was totally preoccupied with in his last three years.

That’s also what started to become apparent with the emergence of the urban rebellions, the riots in the inner cities of the North and the rise of organizations like the Black Panthers and others that were taking up the slogans of Black Power. But at that point, the politics becomes complicated; having a movement against economic exploitation when these victories have been achieved at the formal, legal level was a complicated prospect. They had spent over a decade building a movement against segregation in the South and all of the sudden they needed a new strategy, and a new language. That’s what King was working on, often butting heads with his associates in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Meanwhile the other organizations, the Black Power organizations, were facing extreme state repression, as well as some of the limits of trying to take up a strategy of violent revolution that had worked in China and Cuba and applying it to the very different context of the United States.

What came out of that was that black nationalism became an ambiguous political force. On the one hand, it’s working to create institutions that are not just trying to integrate into the white society but to provide a parallel structure for black people who have been excluded. For a certain period, that is something that unites the more elite members of the black community with the mass of the black community. But slowly, as a kind of integration of society takes place, especially at the elite level, as black mayors are elected, as black businessmen begin to rise, these interests are no longer in alignment. What we find in the seventies is that as neoliberal restructuring is happening, many black politicians are the ones imposing austerity on their own constituencies. The idea of racial unity that came out of black nationalism is not, in this context, an obstacle to seeing that antagonism.

This is something that many participants in the black nationalist movement recognize. For example, Amiri Baraka faced a situation specifically in Newark that caused him to make the conversion from black nationalism to cultural nationalism, specifically to Marxism, in the early seventies.

CM: You write, “In an analysis of the murder of Freddie Gray and the ensuing uprising in Baltimore, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor argues in her book From Black Lives Matter to Black Liberation that we have broken in a fundamental way from the context that produced the classical vocabulary of antiracist struggle.”

Then you quote her writing: “There have always been class differences among African-Americans, but this is the first time those class differences have been expressed in the form of a minority of blacks wielding significant political power and authority over the majority of black lives. This raises critical questions about the role of the black elite in the continuing freedom struggle and about what side they are on. This is not an overstatement. When a black mayor governing a largely black city aids in the mobilization of a military unit led by a black woman to suppress a black rebellion, we are in a new period of the black freedom struggle.”

How much does the reaction by the city of Baltimore to the shooting of Freddie Gray reveal the failings of today’s identity politics?

AH: What it reveals is that there has not been an adequate challenge to the structures of governance and economic structures that are keeping these racist practices in place. The fact that there is black leadership, as we’ve been discussing, doesn’t change the way that the lives of black people at a mass level are still fundamentally affected by the structures of racism, and doesn’t change the fact that without a challenge to the authoritarianism of this society, to the militarization of this society, and to the extreme economic polarization of this society, it will be impossible for people to achieve any kind of social change.

That’s something that we can debate all day, back and forth, about identity politics, about race and gender and so on, but the thing is: any social movement that’s ultimately going to have to confront the state is going to have to confront the way that our society is structured: so that a minority can rule and keep things the way they are. If you want to challenge the status quo, you have to challenge that.

To turn that into some kind of opposition between race and class is fundamentally disabling and self-defeating. If you want to have an antiracism movement, it has to involve a class struggle against the people, whatever their identity, who are part of the ruling structures and are preventing social change from happening.

CM: You quote the author and black liberation activist James Boggs, husband of the late great Grace Lee Boggs, reflecting in 1993, shortly before his death: “Before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, we may have had the money, but we couldn’t go into most hotels or buy a home outside of the ghetto. Today the only reason why we can’t go to a hotel or buy a decent home is because we don’t have the money. But we are still focused on the question of race, and it is paralyzing us.”

What were or are the questions of race paralyzing the black liberation movement?

If we actually want to overcome racism, we have to deal with the fact that a huge proportion of this society is constantly reproducing white supremacy, even sometimes on a subconscious level, and they need to be re-educated into opposing racism. They also need to be recruited into an anticapitalist program. And that’s ultimately going to have to be the same thing.

AH: It’s precisely the way that this has turned into an opposition. It’s not as though Boggs was saying that now it’s just about economics, or that now the situation of black people in Detroit is the same as that of poor white people. He’s pointing out that racism is now expressed through economic inequality in the way that before it was expressed through laws and formal exclusion. Now that exclusion is taking the form of economic inequality (and there is racial disparity in wealth in this country; that’s fundamentally the case), that has to be centrally targeted by any social movement that wants to change the way that this country works.

A labor movement, a socialist movement that is worthy of the name is going to take that racial disparity into account and is going to put it front and center. But also, a movement against racism that wants to target that racial disparity has to understand that if it’s economically expressed, that also requires a movement that is operating at the level of class. They cannot be separated. That’s the paralyzing way of talking about race: when it’s turned into something that’s separate from class and separate from economic structures.

CM: You write, “By coding demands that come from marginal or subordinate groups as identity politics, the white male identity is enshrined with the status of the neutral, general, and universal. We know that this is false. In fact, there is a white identity politics, a white nationalism, and as we shall see, whiteness is the prototypical form of racial ideology itself. Antiracist struggles like those of the Combahee River Collective reveal the false universality of the hegemonic identity.”

To what extent do today’s identity politics, even unintentionally, reinforce white supremacy?

AH: It’s extremely illuminating to understand whiteness as one of the primary forms of race, because that shows us exactly how constructed these categories are, how they simply the the expression of some individual’s characteristics. Different groups that in Europe were part of racial hierarchies—like the English and the Irish, or Germans and Poles—migrated to the United States and over a long process all became integrated into one entity called the “white race.” That’s what Theodore Allen called the “invention of the white race.”

That shows exactly how delusional the white supremacists and the alt-right are today when they talk about this category of whiteness. They are talking about a fictive construction: one that is real in the sense that it has real social effects, but has no basis in human physiology or even culture.

Often there’s a tendency to simply take what the right says and invert it, but this just accepts the basic category. To respond to what the alt-right is saying by accepting the category of white people and whiteness as though it’s a real thing ends up reinforcing the ideological structure that they are using to put forth a highly misleading rationalization for a very dangerous political agenda. We have to be able to question the racial ideology, the empty abstraction of race, and that applies to whiteness first and foremost.

CM: You write about how identity politics leads to a victimhood, and “reduces us to that victimized belonging.” Yet we see claims of being discriminated against, and victimhood, on the far right. According to a poll done last year by NPR, a majority of white Americans feel they are discriminated against.

Do whites on the far right who claim victimhood also face the possibility of being defined by victimhood and reduced to that victimized belonging? And if so, what does that mean for the white race?

AH: When I criticize a political discourse that’s based on victimhood, it is not the conservative grandfatherly thing, like, “Don’t see yourself as a victim,” or “Stop whining.” No, this is from a very different perspective. If we understand ourselves politically as victims, that means that our politics is reduced to asking for protection from the state. But if we understand ourselves fundamentally as political agents who are capable of engaging in resistance, that’s a very different kind of politics. That’s the kind of politics that can actually lead to emancipation, to changing society. Claiming victimhood and asking for protection will not change the existing structure of society.

Of course, when the alt-right and various kinds of white supremacists claim the status of victimhood, they are being cynical. In that poll you cited, we can presume that a lot of those people are unable to conceive of a way to think about politics outside of asking the state for protection, asking the state for some kind of redress of their grievances. Yes, there are poor and also middle class white people who have found that their standard of living has declined; they’ve become more precarious. They’re going to reach for the claim that they are victims, and they are going to have a distorted understanding that they’re the victims of immigrants—or black people or gay people or transgender people or whatever other group happens to be targeted in the media that they’re getting these ideas from—instead of understanding that what’s actually happened is an objective political and historical process in which the ruling elites have changed their conditions of life.

The alt-right is using victimhood cynically. They should be destroyed. With more mainstream people who are confused, they need to be re-educated and they need to understand that antiracism is in their interest. That’s something that a lot of today’s identity politics won’t accept, because it’s fundamentally lodged in a moralizing discourse. The vast majority of white people, whether they voted for Trump or not, need to be re-educated. It may feel satisfying just to condemn them. But if we actually want to overcome racism, we have to deal with the fact that a huge proportion of this society is constantly reproducing white supremacy, even sometimes on a subconscious level, and they need to be re-educated into opposing racism. They also need to be recruited into an anticapitalist program. And that’s ultimately going to have to be the same thing.

CM: Is it possible to be a critic of identity politics and not support racism or sexism? Past guests on our show who have been critical of identity politics have been labeled as racist or sexist or accused of not realizing how much racism and sexism are still prevalent today. Can you be a critic of identity politics and not be racist or sexist?

AH: It depends on how you understand the term. Some people ask me why I framed my argument as a critique of identity politics instead of as reclaiming its radical potential. It’s a particular strategic and critical decision that I made, because the term has become so unstable that we can’t just reassert its origins. I do want to bring attention to its origins to show people that a different kind of politics is possible, and that the people who put forth this term made a very valuable revolutionary contribution to American politics.

The way that it’s used now is not anchored in that original usage, and there’s something that’s happening now that we have to criticize. If we’re going to criticize it, this is fundamental: it must be done from a perspective that is antiracist and feminist, and it must be done from the perspective of asking what the most useful way of thinking—and of acting—is, to oppose racism and sexism. Is identity politics, in the way that it currently exists and the way people use the term, actually useful for those goals?

In terms of its current usage, it is not. That’s why I choose to criticize it. If someone criticizes it because they think, on some abstract level, that class matters more than race or that we have to prioritize sameness over difference or something like that, then there’s a strong likelihood that the critique will be racist and sexist. But if the critique starts from the perspective that we need an adequate language for opposing racism and sexism and asking if this is an adequate language, that can be a constructive and valuable critique, which I hope I have been able to approximate.

CM: Thank you so much for being on This is Hell! this week, Asad.

AH: Thanks for having me.

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