Identity politics are political positions based on the interests and perspectives of social groups with which people identify. Identity politics includes the ways in which people's politics are shaped by aspects of their identity through loosely correlated social organizations. Examples include social organizations based on age, religion, social class or caste, culture, dialect, disability, education, ethnicity, language, nationality, sex, gender identity, generation, occupation, profession, race, political party affiliation, sexual orientation, settlement, urban and rural habitation, and veteran status.
The term identity politics has been used in political discourse since at least the 1970s. One aim of identity politics has been for those feeling oppressed to articulate their felt oppression in terms of their own experience by a process of consciousness-raising. One of the older written examples of it can be found in the April 1977 statement of the black feminist group, Combahee River Collective, which was subsequently reprinted in a number of anthologies, and Barbara Smith and the Combahee River Collective have been credited with coining the term. For example, in their terminal statement, they said:
[A]s children we realized that we were different from boys and that we were treated different—for example, when we were told in the same breath to be quiet both for the sake of being 'ladylike' and to make us less objectionable in the eyes of white people. In the process of consciousness-raising, actually life-sharing, we began to recognize the commonality of our experiences and, from the sharing and growing consciousness, to build a politics that will change our lives and inevitably end our oppression....We realize that the only people who care enough about us to work consistently for our liberation are us. Our politics evolve from a healthy love for ourselves, our sisters and our community which allows us to continue our struggle and work. This focusing upon our own oppression is embodied in the concept of identity politics. We believe that the most profound and potentially most radical politics come directly out of our own identity, as opposed to working to end somebody else's oppression.— Zillah R. Eisenstein (1978), The Combahee River Collective Statement,
Identity politics, as a mode of categorizing, are closely connected to the ascription that some social groups are oppressed (such as women, ethnic minorities, and sexual minorities); that is, the claim that individuals belonging to those groups are, by virtue of their identity, more vulnerable to forms of oppression such as cultural imperialism, violence, exploitation of labour, marginalization, or powerlessness. Therefore, these lines of social difference can be seen as ways to gain empowerment or avenues through which to work towards a more equal society.
Some groups have combined identity politics and Marxist social class analysis and class consciousness — the most notable example being the Black Panther Party — but this is not necessarily characteristic of the form. Another example is MOVE, members of which mixed black nationalism with anarcho-primitivism (a radical form of green politics based on the idea that civilization is an instrument of oppression, advocating the return to a hunter gatherer society). Identity politics can be left wing or right wing, with examples of the latter being Ulster Loyalism, Islamism and Christian Identity movements.
The mid-2010s have seen a marked rise of identity politics, including white identity politics in the United States. This phenomenon is attributed to increased demographic diversity and the prospect of whites becoming a minority in America. Such shifts have driven many to affiliate with conservative causes including those not related to diversity. This includes the presidential election of Donald Trump, who won the support of prominent white supremacists such as David Duke and Richard B. Spencer (which Trump disavowed.)
Debates and criticism
Nature of the movement
The term identity politics has been applied retroactively to varying movements that long predate its coinage. Historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. discussed identity politics extensively in his 1991 book The Disuniting of America. Schlesinger, a strong supporter of liberal conceptions of civil rights, argues that a liberal democracy requires a common basis for culture and society to function. In his view, basing politics on group marginalization fractures the civil polity, and therefore works against creating real opportunities for ending marginalization. Schlesinger believes that "movements for civil rights should aim toward full acceptance and integration of marginalized groups into the mainstream culture, rather than...perpetuating that marginalization through affirmations of difference".
Brendan O'Neill has contrasted the politics of gay liberation and identity politics by saying "... [Peter] Tatchell also had, back in the day, ... a commitment to the politics of liberation, which encouraged gays to come out and live and engage. Now, we have the politics of identity, which invites people to stay in, to look inward, to obsess over the body and the self, to surround themselves with a moral forcefield to protect their worldview—which has nothing to do with the world—from any questioning."
In the 1950s and 1960s, left-wing intellectuals who were both inspired and informed by a powerful labour movement wrote hundreds of books and articles on working-class issues. Such work would help shape the views of politicians at the very top of the Labour Party. Today, progressive intellectuals are far more interested in issues of identity. ... Of course, the struggles for the emancipation of women, gays, and ethnic minorities are exceptionally important causes. New Labour has co-opted them, passing genuinely progressive legislation on gay equality and women's rights, for example. But it is an agenda that has happily co-existed with the sidelining of the working class in politics, allowing New Labour to protect its radical flank while pressing ahead with Thatcherite policies.— Owen Jones, Chavs: The Demonization of the Working Class
The gay liberation movement of the late 1960s through the mid-1980s urged lesbians and gay men to engage in radical direct action, and to counter societal shame with gay pride. In the feminist spirit of the personal being political, the most basic form of activism was an emphasis on coming out to family, friends and colleagues, and living life as an openly lesbian or gay person. While the 1970s were the peak of "gay liberation" in New York City and other urban areas in the United States, "gay liberation" was the term still used instead of "gay pride" in more oppressive areas into the mid-1980s, with some organizations opting for the more inclusive, "lesbian and gay liberation". While women and transgender activists had lobbied for more inclusive names from the beginning of the movement, the initialism LGBT, or "Queer" as a counterculture shorthand for LGBT, did not gain much acceptance as an umbrella term until much later in the 1980s, and in some areas not until the '90s or even '00s. During this period in the United States, identity politics were largely seen in these communities in the definitions espoused by writers such as self-identified, "black, dyke, feminist, poet, mother" Audre Lorde's view, that lived experience matters, defines us, and is the only thing that grants authority to speak; that, "If I didn't define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people's fantasies for me and eaten alive."
By the 2000s, in some areas of postmodern queer studies, notably those around gender, the idea of "identity politics" began to shift away from that of naming and claiming lived experience, and authority arising from lived experience, to one emphasizing choice and performance. Some who draw on the work of authors like Judith Butler, stress the importance of not assuming an already existing identity, but of remaking and unmaking identities through "performance". Writers in the field of Queer theory have at times taken this to the extent as to now argue that "queer", despite generations of specific use, no longer needs to refer to any specific sexual orientation at all; that it is now only about disrupting the mainstream, with author David M. Halperin arguing that straight people may now also self-identify as "queer," which some believe, is a form of cultural appropriation which robs gays and lesbians of their identity and makes invisible and irrelevant the actual, lived experience that causes them to be marginalized in the first place. "It desexualizes identity, when the issue is precisely about a sexual identity."
There are also supporters of identity politics who have developed their stances on the basis of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak's work (namely, "Can the Subaltern Speak?") and have described some forms of identity politics as strategic essentialism, a form which has sought to work with hegemonic discourses to reform the understanding of "universal" goals.
Critiques of identity politics
Some critics argue that groups based on a particular shared identity (e.g. race, or gender identity) can divert energy and attention from more fundamental issues. Sociologist Charles Derber asserts that the American left is "largely an identity-politics party" and that it "offers no broad critique of the political economy of capitalism. It focuses on reforms for blacks and women and so forth. But it doesn’t offer a contextual analysis within capitalism." Both he and David North of the Socialist Equality Party posit that these fragmented and isolated identity movements which permeate the left have allowed for a far-right resurgence. Critiques of identity politics have also been expressed on other grounds by writers such as Eric Hobsbawm, Todd Gitlin, Michael Tomasky, Richard Rorty, Sean Wilentz, Robert W. McChesney, and Jim Sleeper. Hobsbawm, in particular, has criticized nationalisms, and the principle of national self-determination adopted internationally after World War I, since national governments are often merely an expression of a ruling class or power, and their proliferation was a source of the wars of the 20th century. Hence, Hobsbawm argues that identity politics, such as queer nationalism, Islamism, Cornish nationalism or Ulster Loyalism are just other versions of bourgeois nationalism. The view that identity politics rooted in challenging racism, sexism, and the like actually obscures class inequality is widespread in the United States and many other Western nations; however, this framing ignores how class-based politics are identity politics themselves.
In her journal article Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics and Violence against Women of Color, Kimberle Crenshaw treats identity politics as a process that brings people together based on a shared aspect of their identity. Crenshaw applauds identity politics for bringing African Americans (and other non-white people), gays and lesbians, and other oppressed groups together in community and progress. However, Crenshaw also points out that frequently groups come together based on a shared political identity but then fail to examine differences among themselves within their own group: "The problem with identity politics is not that it fails to transcend differences, as some critics charge, but rather the opposite—that it frequently conflates or ignores intragroup differences." Crenshaw argues that when society thinks "black", they think black male, and when society thinks feminism, they think white woman. When considering black women, at least two aspects of their identity are the subject of oppression: their race and their sex. Crenshaw proposes instead that identity politics are useful but that we must be aware of intersectionality and the role it plays in identity politics. Nira Yuval-Davis supports Crenshaw's critiques in Intersectionality and Feminist Politics and explains that "Identities are individual and collective narratives that answer the question 'who am/are I/we?"
In her journal article Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics and Violence against Women of Color, Crenshaw provides the example of the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill controversy to expand on her point. Anita Hill came forward and accused Supreme Court Justice Nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment; Clarence Thomas would be the second African American to serve on the Supreme Court. Crenshaw argues that when Anita Hill came forward she was deemed anti-black in the movement against racism, and though she came forward on the feminist issue of sexual harassment, she was excluded because when considering feminism, it is the narrative of white middle-class women that prevails. Crenshaw concludes that acknowledging intersecting categories when groups unite on the basis of identity politics is better than ignoring categories altogether.
A Le Monde/IFOP poll in January 2011 conducted in France and Germany found that a majority felt Muslims are "not integrated properly"; an analyst for IFOP said the results indicated something "beyond linking immigration with security or immigration with unemployment, to linking Islam with a threat to identity".
- Adversarial process
- Client politics
- Conflict theory
- Conviction politics
- Cultural war
- Diaspora politics
- Divide and rule
- Ethnic interest group
- False consciousness
- Group polarization
- Group rights
- Identity (social science)
- Interest group liberalism
- Marx's theory of alienation
- Minority influence
- New social movements
- Opposition to immigration
- Political consciousness
- Political correctness
- Queer theory
- Social conflict theory
- Standpoint theory
- Toxic masculinity
- Voting bloc
- Wiarda, Howard J. (8 April 2016) [1st pub. Ashgate:2014]. Political Culture, Political Science, and Identity Politics: An Uneasy Alliance. Abingdon: Routledge. ISBN 978-1-317-07885-2. OCLC 982044314. Retrieved 21 February 2018.
There are disputes regarding the origins of the term 'identity politics' .... Almost all authors, even while disagreeing over who was the first to use the term, agree that its original usage goes back to the 1970s and even the 1960s.
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