Identity Politics is an Atom That Can't Be Split

Peter Amos recently wrote a piece for this site where he attempted to split the “identity politics” atom.  I think he’s a smart guy and a progressive, but I don’t think he realizes that the atom is one which cannot be split. Any conceptualization of “identity politics” by any party, using any identity, is an inherently regressive idea, undercutting progressive policy gains.  

Equity and equality are achieved when insignificant and irrelevant innate characteristics are finally seen as insignificant and irrelevant to someone’s personal achievements and merit.  Equity and equality are not achieved by ignoring or rewriting history, but confronting it, studying it, and overcoming it together, united as one country.  Inequity or inequality is not a minority issue--it is a national issue.  Peter cites Lyndon Johnson to make a point that “black poverty” and “white poverty” are inherently different causally.  I agree.  The history of this nation and the history of slavery, indentured servitude, and Jim Crow prove the point beyond argument.  Peter makes a further point that this differing causality means that the different poverties have different solutions, and that a more enlightened “identity politics” is useful in discerning these differing solution.  This is where Peter and I diverge.

Economics is not only colorblind, but blind to gender, sexual-orientation, and any other identity.  It is cold, objective numbers.  But the same solutions work, whether applied to historically oppressed minority groups, or the richest one percent.  The progressive nature of so-called conservatism is its colorblind belief in the universal good of open markets, low taxes, and hard work. It preaches that all should have equality of opportunity, but no more. It says that all should be equal to pursue the life and the happiness that is within their skill and ability to create for themselves. It was the ideology of the party which ended slavery and fought for safe workplaces in the industrial age, and fought against government overspending, overtaxing, and overreach. These are the media through which so-called conservatives see the attainment of racial justice and the equality of society. They aim to incentivize growth and success, not penalize it. They see the economy as an open, infinite sky, rather than a limited swimming pool with a set volume of water which must be equitably divided and administered by a strong-armed central authority.

Identity politics hold people in their lanes, and paternalistically tell people what they can and cannot think, what they can and cannot support, and what is good and bad for them. It says this is a “black issue” or a “white issue” and what one's proper stance should be. Conservatives understand racial history, but see an imminent attainable goal of moving past racism and racial inequities.  In the words of Chief Justice John Roberts, “the way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.”

This idea is inherently one based on meritocracy—that after compensating for someone’s innate inborn stature in society, progressive growth is based upon one’s ability. Someone should be given an equal opportunity and the same footing as all others in society, and be set free from government control to attain their own success on their own merits.

This is also the basis of Justice Clarence Thomas’s bitterness toward his racialized judicial nomination process and his alma mater. He has stated that one of the biggest pains and insults that he has felt is being appointed to the Supreme Court with a racial asterisk—whether he was intelligent enough or qualified enough upon his own merit to have attended Yale Law School, joined the federal bench, and the Supreme Court, or whether his race is the reason he was handed such positions. He sees the drawing of any racial lines (good or bad) based upon what he calls “the presumption”—the systematic belief that black people are inferior and in need of saving, or that blackness needs to be “compensated for” in order for blacks to achieve at the highest levels – to be an affront.

If identity politics or the “Great Society” were the solution, have we as a society seen marginalized communities improve relative to other communities in the past 50 years? If identity politics were the silver bullet, why do we still have racial segregation in my hometown? Why do predominantly black parts of town continually rank lowest in household income? Why do the schools struggle while schools in the other parts of town thrive? Why does the black mayoral candidate rightly argue that the black kids have to play basketball in unairconditioned gyms, while the gentrified parts of town get a new state-of-the-art park and a few hundred million for a new city hall? Where has all of the identity politics gotten us?

It hasn’t worked, and it prolongs racial (and economic) segregation, division, and racial anxiety and suspicion. On the one hand, non-minorities see minorities being granted a leg up. On the other, minorities fear the one-day loss of their leg up. However, a “leg up” or a “handout” only creates a universally untenable dependency on government--regardless of race.  This is why rural Appalachia has had a difficult time adapting to the 21st century, and why areas of the rural South are experiencing “brain-drain,” as the young and talented and educated leave the old and government-dependent and move to progressive cities to make their living.  When will we as a society move past racial divides (positive and negative) and into a society which limits individuals based only on what they can achieve? Only when we rid ourselves of identity politics, allow people (of all kinds) to think and innovate for themselves, allow them to create their own opportunity, and to remove government’s meddling in identity.