In a recent essay in the New York Times, Columbia professor and historian Mark Lilla issued a warning to liberals left stunned by President-elect Donald Trump’s victory: Knock it off with the “identity politics” or be doomed to repeat this failure.
“American liberalism,” he wrote, “has slipped into a kind of moral panic about racial, gender, and sexual identity that has distorted liberalism’s message and prevented it from becoming a unifying force capable of governing.”
This admonition has been welcomed, and echoed, by pundits and public figures left and right.
“Make identity politics the main operational model in a country that is two-thirds white and 50 percent or so male, and what do you expect?” asked the National Review. Sen. Bernie Sanders warned that the Democratic Party’s future rests on whether it can “go beyond identity politics” and says he is “deeply humiliated” by the party’s failure to attract more people with his white, working-class background.
No one seems to have a satisfying definition of what “identity politics” means, exactly, but the message is clear: Liberals have been paying too much attention to race and gender and sexual orientation — or not enough attention to the right variants of those — and sensible Americans are rightly saying “no thanks.”
The critique is aimed at the astonishingly broad, often fractious, ever-shifting coalition of voices that has been pushing Americans to rethink essentially everything about the way we treat each other. That coalition has been at it in full force for the past few years, on every available platform, from street protests and campus walkouts to tweetstorms and first-person essays; from investigative reports to Hollywood boycotts to a new crop of identity-focused podcasts helmed by prominent writers and thinkers of color.
What Lilla and others keen on pulling the plug on conversations about multiculturalism and diversity don’t realize is that by doing so, they play right into the hands of the newly emboldened neo-Nazis who helped put Trump in office and are now delighting over several of his post-election staff and Cabinet picks. Shutting down these conversations — or redirecting them to the concerns of white, straight, mostly male Americans — is precisely what those groups want badly to see happen.
Richard Spencer, the head of the white supremacist National Policy Institute, made it clear in a recent speech at the Ronald Reagan building in Washington, D.C., that the so-called alt-right won’t be satisfied by a ban on Muslims or the deportation of millions of immigrants in the U.S. illegally. They want to go back to a time when no one questioned why all the Academy Award winners were white or wondered whether the black man shot by the police officer deserved it; back to a time when even if someone questioned those things, who would listen?
Listen to Spencer boasting to a crowd of about 200 people, most of them white men, some of whom responded with Nazi salutes:
“Within the very blood in our veins as children of the sun lies the potential for greatness. That is the great struggle we are called to. We are not meant to live in shame and weakness and disgrace. We were not meant to beg for moral validation from some of the most despicable creatures to ever populate the planet. We were meant to overcome. Overcome all of it.”
Neo-Nazis and white supremacists like the ones brazenly applauding that night (“Hail Trump! Hail our people!”) long to once again feel safe parading their supposed superiority around without anyone talking back loudly enough to matter. Others worry about being bumped from the head of the line, where, to their ears, terms like “inclusion” and “anti-racism” are code for “white genocide.” They all see the emerging Trump administration as a potential partner in creating the country they want to live in, one that preserves their version of white culture.
“I think we can be the ones out in front, thinking about those things [Trump] hasn’t quite grasped yet” and pushing for new policies “that have a realistic chance of being implemented,” NPI’s Spencer told the New York Times.
Others point out that with the right guy in charge, you don’t need to change the laws to change society.
“A change in tone would be as dramatic as a change in policy because a president and his cabinet have tremendous influence that goes well beyond policy,” Jared Taylor, an editor of the self-described “race realism” website American Renaissance, wrote last year. For instance, when it comes to immigration, “white, high-IQ, English-speaking people obviously assimilate best, and someone in a Trump administration might actually say so,” Taylor wrote. “A Trump presidency could completely change … what it means to be an American.”
Indeed, rewriting our ideas of what it means to be an American has been the point of all this “identity” politicking all along, and there are signs it’s working, albeit slowly, unevenly and imperfectly. For one thing, white supremacists are clearly paying attention. I also take heart in the way words like “institutional racism” and “implicit bias” have become commonplace everywhere from the campaign trail to the Wall Street Journal.
Comedians like Hari Kondabalu and Baratunde Thurston and writers like Lindy West and Roxane Gay have made their names by talking about race, gender and identity. Major media outlets like NPR, the Associated Press and the New York Times have created newsroom verticals dedicated to the identity beat. The heads of major companies from Marriott to MasterCard have committed to making their staffs and products look more like America. Vanity Fair called 2016 “the year Disney started to take diversity seriously,” and several of the most anticipated sci-fi and superhero films — typically blindingly white genres — feature people of color in the lead roles.
This progress — this painfully imperfect and unfinished collection of scraps we shine up and call progress — is what a portion of Trump’s base wants to undo. Whether or not Lilla and company realize it, they’re helping that cause by telling the rest of us to knock off our “fixation” with “identity politics,” as though our laser focus has been a fad, not a survival tactic.
That’s why it’s never been more important to continue talking — and arguing, and complaining, and venting — about identity in America. To continue interrogating whiteness as a construct, even as we discuss the economic woes of many white Americans. To continue asking why so many of our superheroes are white and male, even as we push to better understand the defeat and humiliation felt by many flesh-and-blood white men in our country. To continue surfacing the science that proves this stuff matters: that the faces we see (or don’t see) on TV can change our brains; that housing segregation makes some of us scared of each other; that being seen as “other” can hurt your grades, your income, your friendships, even the way you feel about yourself.
We must continue insisting that “identity politics” are simply politics; that a truly civil society requires empathy from all, not self-abnegation of the few; that while it’s easy to write off as frivolous and indulgent that which doesn’t affect you, doing so doesn’t make you a good citizen. Because a logical next step in that direction is writing off entire groups of people whose concerns seem silly to you, or don’t make sense to you, or offend you. The neo-Nazis and white supremacists among us are already hard at work trying to make that happen.
Let’s not make their jobs any easier.