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Terrance Heath

Identity Pluralism, Pt. 2

Filed By Terrance Heath | January 28, 2008 3:11 PM | comments

Filed in: Media, Politics, Politics
Tags: Barack Obama, election 2008, election campaigns, gender, Hillary Rodham Clinton, idenitity politics, race

When I started writing this series, I knew that some time would pass between posts and that—given the nature of the blogosphere—what I'm writing about here might not be news anymore and that people would have moved on. Especially after the South Carolina primary, I thought perhaps the "identity issue" discussion would be, if not over, then at least muted for the duration of primary season.

Boy, was I wrong. If nothing else, Obama's South Carolina win has ratcheted up the discussion of identity in politics across the spectrum, and raised new questions and frustrations all around. But what's most surprising is the candidate's own wish to keep race out of the equation, when he can't keep religion out of the equation (which is, after all, another aspect of identity).

That's because, as previously pointed out, identity politics are an inescapable part of American politics and, as Chris pointed out in a follow-up to his first post-Iowa post, we're all children of identity politics.

But in doing so, he also points out something, that usually gets overlooked.

The way the people come to terms with who they are is inextricably intertwined with how they view the world around them. Assuming that one doesn't come from an identity based position has long been the assumption of culturally dominant identity groups. Who we are, how we came to be that person, and how we live now unavoidably impact how we view any set of political issues (impacts, but does not necessarily determine, I should note). We are all impacted by identity politics.

We're not just all impacted by identity politics, but we all practice identity politics. It's just called something different, depending on who's doing it. (For example, some of us are usually accused of "playing identity politics"—or "playingthe race card"—which serves to trivialize or diminish serious concerns.)

Chris says he doesn't see it ending—the practice of identity politics, I guess—any time soon, but the reality is that it started in this country the moment the first Europeans on the continent encountered the Native Americans who were already here, and it got a boost when the first Africans set foot on these shores. And that's because one identity, that of the dominant cultural group, was already established. It had to be established, in order for the dominant culture group to justify and maintain its power.

As such, though, it becomes invisible or gets a new name that places it outside the ghetto of "identity politics." One example is when a particular group—gays, women, African Americans or other ethnic groups, etc.—in, say, a political coalition are asked to set aside their "single issue" concerns in order to support an agenda that serves "the greater good." Those specific "single issue" concerns fall outside of "the greater good," in part because they are not concerns specific to the dominant group, and don't concern issues that impact the dominant group or that the dominant group perceives as having an impact on their lives. Thus, for them, those concerns are much lower priorities, that can be addressed "later," as some undefined point in the future, after the agenda for the "greater good" is fully achieved.

(It's exactly what happened in the recent debate over a trans-inclusive ENDA.)

The difference is that when the dominant group essentially asks minority groups to re-prioritize their concerns, they are essentially asking them to re-prioritize their identities by adopting and prioritizing the concerns of the dominant group over the specific concerns related to their "other" identity (or their identity as "other," depending on how you look at it.) The dominant group basically says, "identify more with us, for your own good, yet it's not called identity politics.

For example, it's not "identity politics" when E.J. Dionne reminds Democrats that white working class voters are a demographic they can't afford to forget.

This is a good time to put in a word for the white working class.

...[T]here will be inexorable pressure on both candidates to use identity politics for their own purposes. Gender solidarity was important to Clinton's campaign-saving victory in New Hampshire, and it could help her again. African American support will be valuable to Obama, especially in the Democrats' South Carolina primary on Jan. 26.

But the long term is another matter. To build a majority this fall and make history, both candidates would need a lot of help from a group with its own reasons to be discontented: the white working class.

"Working class" seems an antique term, but the people it describes still exist, more now in the service industries than in manufacturing. Demographers often use education levels as a surrogate for class position, and the past three decades have not been kind to Americans who are not college graduates.

Somehow Dionne isn't engaging in "identity politics" in his advice to Democrats, even though Prometheus points out the concerns of black voters aren't drastically different from those Dionne ascribes to white working class voters.

There's real (as in, they actually feel it, not that there's a substantial reality to it) concern among the white working class about how their personal interests will fare as compared to other in-groups. So let me talk to them for a minute.

First of all, you guys are right to worry about threats to your well-being. But so are we. Where you're wrong is thinking Black and Latino interests run counter to yours. Look at that definition Mr. Dionne used. You think it would include any Black folks?

But somehow addressing the concerns of white working class voters, and thus getting Democrats elected, is outside the realm of identity politics and—because it's somehow integral to getting Democrats elected—is the bedrock of the "common good." After all, the subprime debacle is hitting African American communities hard, causing the biggest loss of African American wealth in history, and creating a reality in which the blacks are increasingly split in to rich and poor, and the black middle class is becoming so fragile that many may not pass on their middle class status to their children.)

Even CNN's Roland Martin, who's a little confused about the origins of Christmas, gets in on the act of advising Democrats of the importance of white voters. And CNN caused a furor when it posted an article suggesting that African American women would face a tough choice among the Democratic candidates. Perhaps because of the dual suggestion that "identity politics" is inherent in our political system, and that black women would have to prioritize one identity over the other.

(On the other hand, according to some, black women made the difference between the winner and losers in South Carolina. So far, not much has been said about how gay voters may have more influence than ever before in this primary season.)

Meanwhile, nobody gets upset when someone asks "Who will the white guys vote for?" And it's still not called "identity politics.

In some cases, it's called "strategy." In his next post, laying out a pluralist strategy for Democrats and progressives, Chris lays out some interesting steps towards that strategy, which also pose some significant challenges to ever getting there.

Crossposted from the Republic of T.


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Interesting articles T. I don't think we'll ever see the end of identity politics. There'll always be the black candidate, the woman candidate, the Mormon candidate, the rich white man candidate, etc. We process things better when we break them down into categories we can relate (or not relate) to. I'm not saying its right - it just is.

Loved the ENDA example. Its unfortunate that we sacrifice the big fight for the greater good.

There hasn't been anything said about the gay vote (but I loved seeing the first ever Presidential debate on logo - even if only the Dems showed up).

Great article and so much I could comment on, but I'll stop.

FYI - Love the Republic of T. It's in my faves.

I'm thinking one of the main reasons ID politics doesn't get applied to queer people is because we're a pretty hard group to poll... no, wait, they haven't stopped trying to explain the Hispanic vote even though they're pretty hard to poll....

Because it's an identity that overlaps with lots of others... no, gender does as well....

Because everyone just assumes that we're going to vote Democrat... but that doesn't explain why no one's talking about it in the primaries....

Well, Alex, we're the black women of minority groups. We have multiple loyalties. There's our race, our gender, our sexuality, our gender identity, etc... It's why our community especially lacks some of the cohesion you see amongst other minority groups.

hmm not since Howard Dean blew it have I heard anything about "Who will get the white guy vote for." Maybe I missed that with everyone busy calling each other names.

there are many different issues that a GLBT individual will use when deciding to vote for or endorse a candidate. if the candidates are neutral or basically equal on GLBT issues, these are the issues that tip the scales. the fact remains, we also like to endorse the winner. we want to be associated with their victory. those who openly and strongly support equality for our community are often unpopular in mainstream america - they are considered too radical. the sad reality is that these individuals are driven by a higher moral standard and ethic than all the others combined, and yet they are left by the wayside. for instance, no real effort was made to back dennis kucinich, and he was an outspoken advocate for our community. perhaps we should just hold back our votes, unless we openly receive some form of commitment.

martin luther king once said " in the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends."