Identity politics is a political approach and analysis based on people prioritizing the concerns most relevant to their particular racial, religious, ethnic, sexual, social, cultural or other identity, and forming exclusive political alliances with others of this group, instead of engaging in more traditional, broad-based party politics. Those who prioritize their particular type of identity politics may promote their group's interests without regard for the interests of larger, more diverse political groups that are based in shared theory.
In academic usage, the term identity politics has been used to refer to a wide range of political activities and theoretical analysis rooted in experiences of injustice shared by different social groups. In this usage, identity politics typically aims to reclaim greater self-determination and political freedom for marginalized groups through understanding each interest group's distinctive nature and challenging externally imposed characterizations, instead of organizing solely around belief systems or party affiliations. Identity is used "as a tool to frame political claims, promote political ideologies, or stimulate and orient social and political action, usually in a larger context of inequality or injustice and with the aim of asserting group distinctiveness and belonging and gaining power and recognition."
The term identity politics has been in use in various forms since the 1960s or 1970s, but has been applied with, at times, radically different meanings by different populations. It has gained currency with the emergence of social movements such as the feminist movement, the civil rights movement in the U.S., the LGBTQ movement, as well as nationalist and postcolonial movements.
Examples include identity politics based on age, religion, social class, profession, culture, language, disability, education, race or ethnicity, language, sex, gender identity, occupation, sexual orientation, urban or 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 by and actively suffering under systemic social inequities to articulate their suffering and felt oppression in terms of their own experience by processes of consciousness-raising and collective action. 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 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 with 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 the group MOVE, 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.
Debates and criticism
Nature of the movement
The term identity politics has been applied and misapplied 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. Rather than seeing civil society as already fractured along lines of power and powerlessness (according to race, ethnicity, sexuality, etc), Schlesinger suggests that basing politics on group marginalization is itself what fractures the civil polity, and that identity politics 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.
Similarly Brendan O'Neill has suggested that identity politics causes (rather than simply recognizing and acting on) political schisms along lines of social identity. Thus, he contrasts 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 these and other ways, a political perspective oriented to one's own well being can be recast as causing the divisions that it insists upon making visible.
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." See Queer heterosexuality.
Some supporters of identity politics take stances based on 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
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, similar to the history of divide and rule strategies. Chris Hedges has criticized identity politics as one of the factors making up a form of "corporate capitalism" that only masquerades as a political platform, and which he believes "will never halt the rising social inequality, unchecked militarism, evisceration of civil liberties and omnipotence of the organs of security and surveillance." 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 criticized nationalisms and the principle of national self-determination adopted in many countries 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) obscures class inequality is widespread in the United States and other Western nations. This framing ignores how class-based politics are identity politics themselves, according to Jeff Sparrow.
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. But she critiques it because "it frequently conflates or ignores intragroup differences." Crenshaw argues that for black women, at least two aspects of their identity are the subject of oppression: their race and their sex. Thus, although identity politics are useful, we must be aware of the role intersectionality. 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 Mapping the Margins, Crenshaw illustrates her point using the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill controversy. Anita Hill accused US Supreme Court Justice nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment; Thomas would be the second African American judge on the Supreme Court. Crenshaw argues that Hill was then deemed anti-black in the movement against racism, and although 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 "scattered improperly"; 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".
Racial and ethnocultural
Ethnic and racial identity politics are commonly referenced in popular culture, and are increasingly analyzed in media and social commentary as an interconnected part of politics and society. Both a majority and minority group phenomenon, racial identity politics can develop as a reaction to the historical legacy of race-based oppression of a people, as well as a general group identity issue:
Racial identity politics utilizes racial consciousness - or the group's collective memory and experiences - as the essential framework for interpreting the actions and interests of all other social groups.
Carol M. Swain has argued that non-white ethnic pride and an "emphasis on racial identity politics" is fomenting the rise of white nationalism. Anthropologist Michael Messner has suggested that the Million Man March was an example of racial identity politics in the United States.
Arab identity politics
Arab identity politics concerns the identity-based politics derived from the racial or ethnocultural consciousness of Arab people. In the regionalism of the Middle East, it has particular meaning in relation to the national and cultural identities of non-Arab countries, such as Turkey and Iran. In their 2010 Being Arab: Arabism and the Politics of Recognition, academics Christopher Wise and Paul James challenged the view that, in the post-Afghanistan and Iraq invasion era, Arab identity-driven politics were ending. Refuting the view that had "drawn many analysts to conclude that the era of Arab identity politics has passed", Wise and James examined its development as a viable alternative to Islamic fundamentalism in the Arab world.
According to Marc Lynch, the post-Arab Spring era has seen increasing Arab identity politics, which is "marked by state-state rivalries as well as state-society conflicts". Lynch believes this is creating a new Arab Cold War, no longer characterized by Sunni-Shia sectarian divides but by a reemergent Arab identity in the region. Najla Said has explored her lifelong experience with Arab identity politics in her book Looking for Palestine.
Māori identity politics
Due to somewhat competing tribe-based versus pan-Māori concepts, there is both an internal and external utilization of Māori identity politics in New Zealand. Projected outwards, Māori identity politics has been a disrupting force in the politics of New Zealand and post-colonial conceptions of nationhood. Its development has also been explored as causing parellel ethnic identity developments in non-Māori popuations. Academic Alison Jones, in her co-written Tuai: A Traveller in Two Worlds, suggests that a form of Māori identity politics, directly oppositional to Pākehā (white New Zealanders), has helped provide a "basis for internal collaboration and a politics of strength".
A 2009, Ministry of Social Development journal identified Māori identity politics, and societal reactions to it, as the most prominent factor behind significant changes in self-identification from the 2006 New Zealand census.
White identity politics
White identity politics concerns the manifestation of the ethnocultural identity of white people in various national political settings, such as the United States or Australia.
In 1998, political scientists Jeffrey Kaplan and Leonard Weinberg predicted that, by the late 20th-century, a "Euro-American radical right" would promote a trans-national white identity politics, which would envoke populist grievance narratives and encourage hostility against non-white peoples and multiculturalism. In the US, mainstream news has identified Donald Trump's presidency as a signal of increasing and widespread utilization of white identity politics within the Republican Party and political landscape. Political journalists, such as Michael Scherer and David Smith have reported on its development since the mid-2010s.
Ron Brownstein believes thet President Trump uses "White Identity Politics" to bolster his base and that this will ultimately limit his ability to reach out to non-White American voters for the 2020 election. A four-year Reuters and Ipsos analysis concurred that "Trump’s brand of white identity politics may be less effective in the 2020 election campaign." Alternatively, examining the same poll, David Smith has written that "Trump’s embrace of white identity politics may work to his advantage" in 2020. During the Democratic primaries, presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg publicly warned that the president and his administration were using white identity politics, which he said was the most divisive form of identity politics. Columnist Reihan Salam writes that he is not convinced that Trump uses "white identity politics" given the fact that he still has significant support from liberal and moderate Republicans – who are more favorable toward immigration and the legalization of undocumented immigrants – but believes that it could become a bigger issue as whites become a minority and assert their rights like other minority groups. Salam also states that an increase in "white identity" politics is far from certain given the very high rates of intermarriage and the historical example of the once Anglo-Protestant cultural majority embracing a more inclusive white cultural majority which included Jews, Italians, Poles, Arabs, and Irish.
Columnist Ross Douthat has argued that it has been important to US politics, since the Richard Nixon-era of the Republican Party, and historian Nell Irvin Painter has analyzed Eric Kaufmann's thesis that the phenomenon is caused by immigration-derived racial diversity, which reduces the white majority, and an "anti-majority adversary culture". Writing in Vox, political commentator Ezra Klein believes that demographic change has fueled the emergence of white identity politics.
- Adversarial process
- Affirmative action
- Blue-collar worker
- White-collar worker
- Client politics
- Conflict theory
- Conviction politics
- Culture 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
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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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- John O'Connell (31 October 2019). "The Literary Influences of Superstar Musician David Bowie". Newsweek.
As the husband of a Muslim woman from Somalia, Bowie couldn't help but be highly attuned to racial identity politics.
- Tessa Berenson (6 November 2018). "How President Trump Put Race at the Center of the Midterms". TIME.
Some Republicans worry that Trump’s focus on racial identity politics so close to the election is undercutting their message to swing voters on subjects like the economy and health care.
- James Kirchick (19 August 2019). "Opponents on the left pouring gasoline on Donald Trump's fires". The Sydney Morning Herald.
Trump’s game isn’t difficult to discern. He is practicing the same resentment-based, racial-identity politics that has fuelled his political rise since the earlier part of this decade, when he began expressing doubts that the first black American president was actually born in the United States.
- Tamar Mayor (2012). Gender Ironies of Nationalism: Sexing the Nation. Routledge. p. 331. ISBN 978-0415162555.
For example, where a legacy of oppression based on race exists, an identity politics of race can be formed in opposition to that form of oppression, and can help to provide an occasion for racial pride and resistance to that oppression.
- James Jennings (1994). "Building Coalitions". Blacks, Latinos, and Asians in Urban America: Status and Prospects for Politics and Activism. Praeger Publishing. p. 35. ISBN 978-0275949341.
- Carol M. Swain (2004). "Preface". The New White Nationalism in America: Its Challenge to Integration. Cambridge University Press. p. xvi. ISBN 978-0521545587.
The continued emphasis on racial identity politics and the fostering of an ethnic group pride on the part of nonwhite minority groups.
- Michael A. Messner (1997). "Racial and sexual identity politics". Politics of Masculinities: Men in Movements. SAGE Publications. p. 79-80. ISBN 978-0803955776.
- Arshin Adib-Moghaddam (2010). "The myth of "National Identity": Psycho-nationalism in Iran and the Arab world". Middle East Review (IDE-JETRO) (Volume 7 ed.). Japan External Trade Organization: Institute of Developing Economies. ISBN 978-0980415810.
Iranian and Arab identity politics thwarted, perverted, and dismembered communitarian thinking for long periods in the twentieth century and the same applies to other forms of psycho-nationalism in Turkey
- Elizabeth Monier (2014). "The Arabness of Middle East regionalism: the Arab Spring and competition for discursive hegemony between Egypt, Iran and Turkey". Contemporary Politics (Volume 20, No. 4 ed.). Taylor & Francis. p. 421-434.
To explore the role played by Arab identity politics in regionalism with regard to the status of non-Arab states, this article presents a study of the competing hegemonic regional discourses employed by Turkey, Iran and Egypt
- Christopher Wise; Paul James (2010). Being Arab: Arabism and the Politics of Recognition. Arena Publications. ISBN 978-0980415810.
- Lynch, Mark (2019). The Arab Uprisings Explained: New Contentious Politics in the Middle East. Columbia University Press. p. 119. ISBN 978-0231158855.
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The tensions created by the intersection of tribe as identity, versus tribe as organisation, are central to Maori identity politics.
- Tatiana Tökölyová (2005). "Transnationalism in the Pacific Region as a Concept of State Identity". Journal of Nationalism, Memory & Language Politics (Volume 11, Edition 1 ed.). University of International and Public Relations Prague: Walter de Gruyter. p. 67.
Maori identity politics have disrupted the colonially-inspired constructions of the New Zealand nation and state from a base of indigeneity.
- Hal B. Levine (1997). Constructing collective identity: a comparative analysis of New Zealand Jews, Maori, and urban Papua New Guineans. Peter Lang (publisher). p. 11. ISBN 978-3631319444.
The material on biculturalism particularly shows how ethnicity interdigitates with identity politics for Maori and stimulates parallel developments among non-Maori New Zealanders.
- Te Kawehau Hoskins; Alison Jones, eds. (2005). Critical Conversations in Kaupapa Maori. Huia Publishers. ISBN 978-1775503286.
As Jones and Jenkins (2008) point out, an oppositional Māori identity politics has been the 'basis for internal collaboration and a politics of strength' (p.475).
- Tahu Kukutai; Robert Didham (2009). "Social Policy Journal of New Zealand" (In Search of Ethnic New Zealanders: National Naming in the 2006 Census ed.). Ministry of Social Development (New Zealand).
Māori identity politics and Treaty settlements, as well as their reactions – the latter included challenges to historical settlements and so-called “race-based” funding.Cite journal requires
- Jeffrey Kaplan; Leonard Weinberg (1998). The Emergence of a Euro-American Radical Right. Rutgers University Press. p. 18. ISBN 978-0813525648.
- Claire Galofaro; Bill Barrow (6 August 2019). "Trump's America: Where politics dictate definition of racism". Associated Press.
Bremner’s show carries just one current of the heated national debate on race that has been fanned by Trump’s unrepentant use of white identity politics
- David Smith (8 December 2019). "After Kamala: activists fear Democratic primary whitewash". The Guardian.
Donald Trump’s Republican party has leaned into white identity politics.
- Michael Scherer (16 July 2019). "White identity politics drives Trump, and the Republican Party under him". The Washington Post.
Trump’s combustible formula of white identity politics already has reshaped the Republican Party, sidelining, silencing or converting nearly anyone who dares to challenge the racial insensitivity of his utterances.
- Ron Brownstein (15 August 2019). "The Limits of Trump's White Identity Politics". The Atlantic.
- Chris Kahn (19 August 2019). "For Trump, appeals to white fears about race may be a tougher sell in 2020: Reuters/Ipsos poll". Reuters.
- David Smith (8 December 2019). "'It's a political civil war': Trump's racist tirades set tone for 2020". The Guardian.
Intentionally or not, Trump’s embrace of white identity politics may work to his advantage next year... A Reuters/Ipsos poll showed his net approval among Republicans rose by five points to 72%.
- Maureen Groppe (13 May 2019). "Pete Buttigieg says Donald Trump's white 'identity politics' contributing to a 'crisis of belonging'". USA Today.
- Salam, Reihan (25 September 2015). "Reihan Salam: Is 'white nationalism' rising?". Dallas Morning News.
- Ross Douthat (10 September 2019). "Can the Right Escape Racism?". The New York Times.
- Nell Irvin Painter (1 November 2019). "What Is White America? The Identity Politics of the Majority". Foreign Affairs.
- Ezra Klein (16 July 2019). "Trump vs. "the Squad"". Vox Media.
The other views American politics through the lens of demographic change and the white identity politics it triggers.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Identity politics.|
- Initiative on Religion in International Affairs at Harvard
- "Identity politics", Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 16 July 2002
- Joan Mandel. "How Political Is the Personal?: Identity Politics, Feminism and Social Change", University of Maryland, Baltimore County
- "A Marxist Critiques Identity Politics". Seattle Weekly. 25 April 2017.
- "Identity Politics Can Only Get Us So Far". Jacobin. 3 August 2017.
- "Why identity politics benefits the right more than the left". The Guardian. 14 July 2018.