Daily Archives: November 16, 2005

In praise of "identity politics"?

The brouhaha over the racially charged attacks on black Republican pol Michael Steele for not being “authentically” black has led John Cole and Jeff Goldstein to criticize “identity politics” (a term, nearly always used as a pejorative, denoting political demands, political committments and political activism based on group identity such as race, gender, sexual orientation, disability, etc.) In response to John’s comment that “this brand of politics will lead to nothing but rancor and should end now,” Ampersand (Barry) comments at Alas, a Blog:

Yes, because what good has identity politics done so far? I mean, aside from ending Jim Crow, bringing voting rights to minorities and to women, creating a nationwide network of rape crisis and battered women’s resources, removing laws against sodomy, vastly increasing Deaf rights, changing homosexuality from a sickness to an orientation, making much of society more accessible to the disabled, wage equality laws, giving married women the right to own property, and a thousand other changes that have helped the disabled, the non-white, the queer and the female, when has identity politics ever done anyone any good?

John’s right – putting every social improvement this country has made in the last century aside, identity politics leads to nothing but rancor.

I think Barry rather oddly and sweepingly conflates social and political equality movements with “identity politics.” The leaders of the civil rights movement did not say, “We should be allowed access to public facilities, the voting booth, jobs, and housing because we’re black”; they said, “We should be allowed equal access to public facilities, the voting booth, jobs, and housing because we’re human beings and American citizens.” The feminists who won equal property and employment rights for women did not ask for special gender-based privileges; rather, they challenged gender-based restrictions on their rights. The same goes for gays who challenged anti-gay bigotry and discriminatory laws. A demand for simple equality is the opposite of identity politics.

Identity politics, on the other hand, has given us far more questionable phenomena. In the area of race, it has given us things like demands for an “Afrocentric curriculum,” the resegregation of blacks on college campuses via black dorms and minorities-only freshman orientation sessions, the lionization of a wife-beater and murderer as an African-American hero and an alleged victim of white persecution, and sundry other things including Louis Farrakhan and Al Sharpton. In the area of gender, it has given us “scholarship” that repackages old sexist stereotypes (e.g., women are less logical than men) into “women’s ways of knowing” and activism that demands female privilege rather than equality in such areas as child custody. (For an excellent account of the destructive influence of identity politics on women’s studies, read Professing Feminism: Education and Indoctrination in Women’s Studies by Daphne Patai and Noretta Koertge.)

Since Barry specifically mentions battered women’s resources, I will add that while feminists have certainly done a lot of good in bringing public attention to domestic violence, identity politics, in my view, has been the fatal flaw of the battered women’s movement. Because of identity politics, many domestic violence activists have downplayed the plight of battered gays and lesbians (which doesn’t fit into the feminist paradigm of oppressed women abused by patriarchal males) and have reacted with active hostility to any attempts to bring up the issue of female violence toward men, or to recognize the role of mutual violence in domestic abuse situations.

Since Barry also mention “Deaf rights,” let’s not forget the militant “Deaf Pride” movement which opposes efforts to find a cure for deafness as well as existing remedies such as cochlear implants, on the grounds that deafness is not a disability but a “different” cultural identity to be respected and cherished. (My 2002 column on the subject can be found here.) There are deaf parents who, in the name of such cultural “pride,” have denied their congenitally deaf children implants that would enable them to hear. It’s hard to think of a more grotesque excrescence of identity politics than that.

Also, let’s not forget what brand of “identity politics” Jeff Goldstein and John Cole were discussing: the use of racist slurs by blacks against other blacks whose political views don’t conform to presumed group ideology. What good, exactly, has this kind of identity politics ever done?

Update: Excellent post on the subject at Heretical Ideas, differentiating between “identity politics” and “equality politics.”


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