Identity Politics is the Scapegoat for America’s Troubles
Identity Politics: The Scapegoat
Are you sick and tired of scanning your Facebook news feed or Twitter page and being bombarded with posts and tweets about how divided America is today? I know I am. Writers on the topic seem to have declared the culprit: identity politics. Americans, they say, have become obsessed with what separates us instead of what unites us. I disagree. I believe Americans are actually trying to find their way to solidarity, and still believing that our diversity is our greatest strength. However, identity politics is the scapegoat for this uncomfortable and painful reality we find ourselves.
Identity politics is the excuse, the symptom, the scab covering a deep and dark wound that has never healed. I also think identity politics, which is not new by the way, is actually a necessary path to America becoming all that we’ve been taught it could be – a more perfect union where all people experience the same liberties and justice.
What is Identity Politics?
Since identity politics is being blamed for putting what is arguably the most powerful country in the world on its heels, we should understand what it is and how it began. Identity politics is defined as, “a tendency for people of a particular religion, race, social background, etc., to form exclusive political alliances moving away from traditional broad-based party politics.”
Exactly. You’re right!
Identity politics is a phrase used to describe a sociological phenomenon that has been around since the beginning of time. For the United States, identity politics shaped the founding of our two-party political system. I’m not really sure what “traditional broad-based party politics” is anymore. Identity politics was at the center of the Civil War, America’s war against itself. It was what drove Martin Luther King, Jr. to galvanize a people (black and white) to march and demand that America live its constitutional ideals. And, it propelled the women’s suffrage movement. It is also true that identity politics ushered in and reignited the Ku Klux Klan.
Today, identity politics is demonstrated in the Alt-Right movement, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the LGBTQ struggle for equal rights. Again, I know what you may be thinking. Are we really still denying people equal rights based on who they love? In 2017? Really? Well, yes. And, inequities in education, employment, pay, judicial and law enforcement experiences still abound across groups.
Now that I’ve given the visualizations of identity politics, you can perhaps agree with me that identity politics is not the boogey man some have made it out to be. And, though it has led to extreme discomfort and downright tragedy at times (e.g., Charlottesville most recently), identity politics has also been a driving force for positive change. Just as it led to innocent lives being lynched, it also led to ending slavery and giving women the right to vote. The question is how can we make identity politics work for us today? How can identity politics serve to elevate us past the hurt and divisions? There are three ways we can turn what some believe is our great divide and make it our bridge to greater unity and harmony.
We are Not the Melting Pot
The first way to turn identity politics into a core strength instead of an insidious sore is to rid ourselves of a false and long-held depiction. America is not the great melting pot. The analogy of the melting pot assumes that we put all of our differences into one enormous pot (I can envision it), let the contents simmer until they are barely recognizable and then behold; we all come out indistinguishable and tasty. Nope. It’s never happened and it never will. Instead, the beauty of America is that we are a country of immigrants (well, mostly) with different backgrounds, cultures, religious beliefs, and even native languages. All of those differences and more remain and we bring what we have to bear together because we are joined by our hearts and love for this country.
Therefore, let’s stop with the melting pot illustration. Let us not ignore or deny our differences. Instead, let us make sure that even with our differences, we recognize one another as Americans, fully entitled to equity and equality under the law and in practice.
Open Eyes, Ears and Hearts – And Let’s Talk
Second, let us not close our eyes, ears and hearts to fellow Americans who are asking us to empathize with their pain and oppression. We cannot tell someone they are not in pain. We do not get to tell a group of people who peacefully protest to stop because it’s the wrong way. How is it that we feel a need to project our privileged identities (race, class, religion, etc.) onto the oppressed or those speaking up for the rights of the oppressed?
Fear is a Source of Disagreement
Most disagreements are born out of fear; fear of losing something of value; fear of being rendered invisible and therefore, irrelevant; and fear of mistreatment. Now, let me be clear. I am not condoning hate and violence in the name of identity politics. Extremists who commit domestic terrorism are not covered under this at all. What I’m talking about is fellow Americans who seek full benefits afforded to them by the constitution. As we have seen from examples I mentioned earlier, identity politics enacted with noble intent actually made our country great – the first time.
I am saying, let us look at the motive behind why some groups band together. Are they asking for equity and equality – a right they should have as Americans? Are they asking to be treated with dignity and respect? Is their plea for a diverse and inclusive America? And, when they march or kneel or boycott, are they crying out from a position of love and peace and a belief that America is still the land of the free and the place where dreams can come true if you just work hard enough?
Seek First to Understand
Instead of congregating within our own tribes or like-minded people, take the leap and initiate a conversation with someone who has a different perspective. Find someone who is willing to engage in productive dialogue. Do not attempt to antagonize or persuade the other person you’re right and they are wrong. Just listen. As the late Stephen Covey principled, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” In fact, if you’re really going there, be open to the possibility that you may change your perspective. Allowing yourself to admit there may be another way to think about something can create infinite possibilities for reconciliation and change. My friend, the widely known author and consultant on matters of community building and civic engagement, Peter Block, states that change happens in small groups when people decide to have real conversations.
“Awareness is the greatest agent for change.” ~Eckhart Tolle
Vote Your Conscience Not Your Party
Finally, the third way we can abate this chorus that identity politics is the reason for all that ails America is to vote our conscience, not party. The two are actually not synonyms. We have reduced our greatness to red and blue states. How simplistic and undeserving that is for a country that is the living example of the great diverse and democratic experiment. If there is any culprit, it is our fascination with and belief that one party can reflect all that we hold dear. What a healthy tailspin we could turn American politics if we reject the notion of blind party loyalty.
What if we educate ourselves and vote our conscience on issues that matter to us? You might be thinking one or two things. One, don’t Americans already vote their conscience? And two, isn’t it naïve to think Americans will not be boxed in by a two-party system? After all, Democrats and Republicans are the supreme demarcations of identity politics. Well, I believe small steps can lead to big change. The legislators work for us, right?
I do not mean to insult, but studies have shown that not all Americans vote as knowledgeable and informed citizens. This is the nicest way I can say we are ignorant to a lot of things when we cast our votes. Americans are consumers accustomed to being marketed to and the advertisements that sound the best are sometimes the key determinant of our voting choices. That’s dangerous now that we know about the Russian-backed fake news. I sound a harsh and probably a tad bit unfair. Some Americans, especially in recent months, are very involved and more informed than ever before. We have to do our homework.
As for the two-party system, I agree. It is far-fetched that we will overthrow that monument to American democracy anytime soon. I had this funny vision of every American registering as independents – just a thought. Anyway, my point is that we do not have to be so predictable. And, we do not have to be blind loyalists. I think we can make our politicians work for our votes and truly represent our concerns.
Honor Differences and Celebrate What Binds Us Together
So, my fellow Americans and social activists, let us change where we are directing blame for this hard, yet necessary part of our American journey. Identity politics is not all bad. In fact, it has helped us triumph many battles in our history. Identity politics has been with us from the beginning and we still managed to become a great country. Let us recognize identity politics as that thing that can propel us to honor our differences and celebrate what binds us together. Identity politics is a catalyst for deeper conversations and change. It can help us empathize with the pain and oppression of another, even though it’s not our own. And, identity politics if leveraged appropriately, can appeal to us to be more thoughtful when we vote as informed citizens, not as a red or blue American.
I just have to add, this post was as much for me as for you. It has been my way to deal with my own shortcomings in this area and make a genuine effort to judge less, listen more and act appropriately. I hope you get something out of it as well.
When we know better, we do better.
© 2017 Tonya Harris Cornileus, Ph.D.
All Rights Reserved.