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In Defense of “Identity Politics”


The nomination of Judge Sotomayor for Justice on the Supreme Court has simply sent some conservatives into a tizzy, searching for anything that might derail her historic quest to be the first Latina to occupy a seat on this august body. One of the allegations that has surfaced is that she is a proponent of "identity politics," the appeal to solidarity within a racial, ethnic or issue constituency to advance the interest/agenda of a particular group. Conservatives have widely disparaged such efforts as separatist, divisive and corrosive of the idea of assimilating into the American culture. Critics point to Judge Sotomayor’s statement that a "wise Latina" might bring a better perspective on some issues than a White man and description of herself as an "affirmative action baby" as evidence that she is a captive of identity politics. In a recent column in the New York Times, conservative columnist David Brooks, who actually had some favorable things to say about Judge Sotomayor, suggested that she attended Princeton University when "the whole race, class and gender academic-industrial complex seemed fresh, exciting and just." He goes on to say that "there is no way she was going to get out of that unscarred."  Brooks obviously subscribes to the notion that identity politics is damaging to the American way.

In my view conservatives who espouse this view are either naïve, ignorant of American history or posturing for political advantage (it could be all of the above).  Identity politics is not contrary to the American way; it is the American way! With few exceptions the initial wave of intruders who sailed to these shores and dispossessed the indigenous people were White Anglo-Saxon Protestants (WASP). It is this body of Euro-ethnics along with their Scandinavian and Germanic kith and kin who established the foundations for the American culture and "identity." WASPS also captured the vital levers of power and privilege in the emerging new nation.

America was largely a WASP nation until the great migrations which occurred in response to the industrial revolution after the Civil War. Now mixed in with the Anglo-Germanic and Scandinavian people arriving on these shores were the Catholic (including Irish) and darker skinned Euro-ethnics from Southern and Eastern Europe, Italians, Greeks, Poles and other Slavic immigrants. All of these non-WASP Euro-ethnics were treated as foreigners and viewed as a threat to "American culture."  They were also locked out of the centers of economic and political power. As marginalized groups, non-WASP ethnics were compelled to look inward, to use their ethnic identity, culture and religion as sources of strength in a hostile land. Their solidarity served as the foundation for internal socio-economic development and entry into the electoral political arena. 

As the major political parties competed for power in local, state and national elections, organized blocs of self identified new immigrants who were once reviled and marginalized became more attractive as potential allies to achieve electoral victories. Indeed, some marginalized ethnic groups, most notably the Irish, became so adept at welding power that they became the dominant force in some of the most powerful political machines in this country, e.g., Boss Tweed in Boston,  the Daley machine in Chicago and the O’Connell Machine in Albany. Marginalized groups used "identity politics" to break down the walls of social, economic and political exclusion.

For decades in most of the urban centers in the country, with the exception of the South, political parties used "ticket balancing" to make certain that every ethnic identity group was represented on their slates of candidates to improve prospects for electoral success/victory. Over time other constituent groups like labor began to flex their muscles and therefore had to be considered as part of the electoral political equation. It is this mix of ethnic groups and issue-related interest groups that the venerable Political Scientist V.O. Keys discusses in his classic work, Politics, Parties and Pressure Groups. Identity politics is as "American as apple pie."

If White, non-WASP Euro-ethnics were forced to utilize identity politics to achieve more just and equitable treatment in their new homeland, it has been imperative that people of African descent and other people of color do likewise. Deep-seated racism/White supremacy in America has been a formidable barrier to access to first class citizenship, equity and parity for Blacks and people of color. While it may have been difficult to distinguish between various Euro-ethnic groups because of their "whiteness," there was no hiding place for Blacks and people of color. Indeed, antagonism toward people of color has often been a source of unity among Whites despite their inter-ethnic rivalries. Consequently, racial/ethnic/cultural solidarity has been an essential element in the struggle to eradicate discrimination, segregation and exclusion from economic and political power for people of color in this country. Like their White counterparts, people of color have been compelled to utilize identity politics to demand respect, dignity, equal opportunity and democratic rights.

Based on their historical experiences as marginalized, however, Blacks and people of color are expanding the definition of the "American way" to be a more inclusive, multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, multi-religious, "empathetic," just and humane society. In this quest, they are joined by other "identity" groups like proponents of women’s rights and lesbian and gay advocates. This is the real problem conservatives have with identity politics. They fear the possibility that a "Rainbow Coalition" of identity groups will pose a fundamental threat to "our cherished American way of life." And, they have every right to be fearful because "wise" representatives of Rainbow identity groups are likely to see and wish for a far different world then White men and women who are apostles of a restrictive and homogenized American identity and way of life.   

Dr. Ron Daniels is President of the Institute of the Black World 21st Century and Distinguished Lecturer at York College City University of New York. He is the host of Night Talk, Wednesday evenings on WBAI 99.5 FM, Pacifica New York. His articles and essays also appear on the IBW website www.ibw21.org and www.northstarnews.com . He can be reached via email at [email protected].

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