Along with a small group of academics, pundits, and journalists during the waning months of the Obama administration, I participated in a roundtable discussion convened by The New Republic. We were asked to assess the president’s legacy as he was leaving the public stage. This obviously preliminary exercise, carried out in the wake of Donald Trump’s election, covered a lot of ground — including considering whether Trump’s victory was itself a part of Obama’s legacy. It seemed clear to some of us that a critical number of whites chafed at having lived, for the first time in our history, under a black president of the United States. Obama’s ascent symbolized changing expectations about racial dominance and subordination in the country, and while many thought that was a good thing, others were beside themselves.
This observation was in line with the most interesting, though not totally surprising, part of the conversation: our brief discussion of “identity politics,” and their supposedly malign effect on culture, society, and politics in general. The focus on the concerns of those often designated as “special” interests — black people, ethnic minorities, women, and the LBGTQ communities — was divisive and, actually, repulsive to others (read white people) who did not fit into those categories. The argument, developed more fully in other venues, was that the modern Democratic Party, born during the days of FDR as a coalition of discrete groups who often had different needs but managed to unite on key progressive issues, would die unless these current-day splinter groups shut up and stopped agitating for their specific agendas.
What struck me then, and strikes me now, about this discussion, is the extent to which it proceeds as if identity politics were something new under the sun, and as if the intentions and actions of those who see themselves as part of an identity must always be negative. Many whites, from the days of slavery, through the time of legal disabilities placed on free blacks, women, and Native Americans, and through Jim Crow, have practiced a form of identity politics, even as they saw themselves as Americans who supposedly had no other identity. Whiteness was the norm, not an interest.
At the same time, however, the exodus from the Democratic coalition began when southern whites abandoned the party in the wake of successful efforts to insure civil rights for blacks, which they believed posed a threat to whites. They didn’t have to leave the party (and many whites did not), but their particular view of the demands of their identity — namely, white supremacy — compelled them.
On the other hand, many blacks, who have always had a sense of identity and have been treated as if they did, have been very willing to join with others to work toward mutual goals. They have remained loyal to the Democratic Party, and progressive politics, even as other groups have come forward to press their claims. This shows that one can have a sense of identity as a basis for political involvement that does not demand that one group should have supremacy over others — either racial, ideological, or numeric — or that others should keep their aspirations to themselves.
Identity politics are not inherently dangerous. It is what groups wish to do with that identity that counts.