I begin with recognizing that I write this from a perspective of privilege. The intent of this essay explores alternative options of empowering our most disenfranchised. Opportunities that I believe will allow us to be better organized and more effective in our shared struggle.

Identity politics have become central to the politics of both liberal and conservatives here in the United States, and the nation is worse off for it. That’s because identity politics are tribalism under another name, ultimately serving to divide us. In bringing expanded structure to our movement, progressives should reject identity politics in favor of a more unifying effort to build a majority focused on systemic reform.

Given the sensitive nature of this topic, I want to spell out clearly what this argument is not about. Rejecting identity politics is not a denial of the struggle of black and brown people throughout the United States. It does not deny the clear evidence [1] of racially biased policing in the United States and the disproportionate incarceration [2] rates it produces. Rejecting identity politics is not an escape from the reality of America’s racist past and present.

History and Identity

Throughout American history, we see several different approaches to identity politics that fell short of achieving their intended outcomes. We’ll focus on three documented attempts to elevate disenfranchised black communities and explore their successes and shortcomings. Each effort is a lesson that we move forward from as we imagine new options.

Grouping with people who share our interests and way of life is a defining part of the human experience. Connecting with others around shared interests ignores class, we’re bonding over mutual positivity. We’re social creatures because of evolutionary conditioning. It’s how we survived. Recognizing ourselves for who we are is primary to thinking beyond identity politics.

In his book Up from Slavery, Booker T Washington expressed his disbelief that fighting for social equity would bring results. He believed that society would embrace any person or race contributing to economic prosperity. His approach to identity politics was expressed through his founding of Tuskegee University. There he educated newly freed slaves on mastering trades and seeking employment. His efforts were widely recognized, and his life was one of service.

But Booker T Washington’s vision relied on the generosity of those in control of our economic institutions. Instead, newly freed slaves met new forms of institutionalized racism through the Black Codes [2a]. The deck has been stacked ever since.

Attempting to “play the game” is not a viable option for progressives focused on systemic reform. The best possible outcome is that a small group of people becomes very wealthy; it offers no way for the majority to break away. It also ignores the arrangements of society central to structural disadvantage.

Separatism [3] was another form of identity politics that slightly favored in the past. The idea was that black communities would form a nation to reclaim the culture and experience stolen from them. Louis Farrakhan promoted this plan through the Nation of Islam but was unable to generate enough support to make it real.

The problem with separatism is that it’s a retreat. It’s a self-imposed exile that ignores existing alliances. The result would be a stagnation of the culture and people in the long term. Separatism offers no hope for overcoming the injustice in society and offers no viable options for addressing systemic inequality today.

After the abolishment of slavery, the United States experienced our Reconstruction Era [4]. We established the Freedmen’s Bureau [5] to provide food, shelter, build schools, and give medical and legal assistance to former slaves in the South after the Civil war. The reconstructionist approach to identity politics is that race and class are not separate issues.

Unfortunately, the bureau accomplished little due to underfunding and political opposition from wealthy elites. The philosophy that supported these efforts was that race and class are not separate, and our struggle against racial injustice needs to correspond with economic reconstruction. It was the last genuine attempt to create a political alternative tying the two together.

Today the United States’ philosophy is that race and class are separate. We deal with race first, class second. Affirmative action illustrates this well. It’s also an example of a good intention failing to meet its fullest potential.

Affirmative action’s goal in the U.S. has been to empower agency within poor black communities. It focuses on expanding access to the educational, employment, housing, and opportunity resources that they have been denied for so long. The policy has contributed to progress in society but has not succeeded in empowering our most disenfranchised.

The majority of the benefits went to students whose parents were already in a professional working class, people who could afford to go to college. The biggest benefactor being white women [6]. Affirmative action left behind a majority of the poor black people it was intended to serve, pushing them further into cycles of radical insecurity.

Hindsight shows us these redistributive efforts focusing on identity help some, but do not address the primary generators of inequity in our social structures. This argument isn’t a call to end or diminish affirmative action in any way. It’s a challenge to progressives everywhere to recognize that the same communities benefited by this identity policies would be better served by efforts to address structure.

Affirmative action had another unintended consequence in breaking apart a working-class majority by offending the white working class. By dividing the poor working class into separate regimes of opportunity, we have split what should be a progressive majority.

I recognize that America’s white working class has done much to damage its reputation in recent years, souring many perspectives. But they are not unjustified in feeling like victims of the scheming of elites. It’s necessary to recognize that both communities of color and whites are hurt by economic policies favoring the wealthy. Rapid shifts in energy efficiencies have upended entire communities, only to be preyed upon by unscrupulous drug manufacturers.

This isn’t an attempt to justify bad behavior. Recognizing its existence requires us to understand that identity politics amplifies this tension. Progressives won’t be successful in building a national base without new approaches that aren’t weighed down by the frustrations of the past.

Over the last 70 years, liberals have relied on identity politics as a substitute for developing projects to address the root of injustice for our poor working-class majority. This strategy strengthened conservatives, resulting in decades of policies that generate capital gains for the wealthy and intangible moral victories for those without. As Americans, we don’t give class enough weight. Instead, we rely on race, religion, and community to shape our beliefs about ourselves.

Exploring our identities

We can summarize our exploration of ourselves in two questions: Who are we? Who can we become? All of our identities are given shape by a history that has long preceded us. We exist within unending moments of now, all of them influenced by the past.

Progressives should recognize that central to our movement is the understanding that humanity’s strength is the ability to transcend, to be more than we are. Our thoughts, language and actions are evolving and growing over time to continue creation in seemingly infinite directions. There is more to each of us than any of the social, cultural, and political systems surrounding us. Every single one of us is just a different extension of the same universe.

Identity politics create divisions that ignore class in their solutions but operate within a competitive structure. Identity politics forces us to fight for the interests of the identities we embody, all shaped by a past that we had no voice in crafting. We cannot meaningfully transform the future without letting go of the social constructs of the past.

Whatever shape your identity occupies now is only a beginning. Today is the start of who you are, not the destination. Progressives seek to build a society that learns from our collective experiences but is not restricted by them.

Image Source: The Duran

Identity Politics and the Progressive

The political disadvantages of identity politics are apparent. An example that highlights the weaknesses created by identity politics is caucus groups. Legislative caucuses are subgroups within a party. Comprised of people typically sharing some common descriptive traits, they meet to organize member actions, policies, and endorse candidates aligned with their values.

Caucuses are a form of voluntary separation. Each separate caucus acts as a small fiefdom, competing with others within the party for access to limited resources to advance the objectives of the group. Struggles for position and power of the identity overshadow the more significant movement of institutional innovation and ignores our primary commonalities. The same structures that generate inequities imposed on the Latino caucus are oppressing members of the Black caucus. Progressives cannot lose sight of that.

As the progressive movement begins to develop a deeper organizational infrastructure within the United States, it should avoid the traditional identity-based caucus approaches to organizing members. Instead, promote conferences with issue-focused breakout sessions. We can imagine statewide progressive meetings to address local issues and lay the foundation for national projects.

Extreme inequities exist; there is no denying that. Stemming from our laws of property and contract and perpetuated by those in power. Redistributing wealth from one disenfranchised group to another isn’t going to address the underlying issues that generate the inequality that we are trying to remedy.

An alternative to this identity-first approach is the development of new social, legal, and economic arrangements. A program large enough to inspire imaginations towards a new way of living but developed enough to allow for piecemeal implementation.

We can see examples of this philosophy in its infancy through presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders’ policies to democratize the market economy, socialize banking, and to decouple educational funding from municipal taxes. These programs illustrate policy proposals that recognize the underlying causes of social inequity. They are the first steps towards a larger structural project. These issues contain the substance to unite a progressive majority of working-class people throughout the United States.

The Reality of Racism

The rejection of identity politics doesn’t ignore the fight against racism here in the United States. It makes it more effective. We recognize racism for what it is, intentional aggression against a person or persons, and criminalize it. Democracies across the world already have these measures in place [7]. Individualized racism connects to structural issues, but they are two different evils.

Australia’s Racial Discrimination Act [8] makes it unlawful to behave in a way that is reasonably likely to offend, insult, humiliate, or intimidate a person or group because of their race. It includes racially offensive material posted on the internet, in newspapers, comments in a public space, and racially offensive speeches at a public rally.

It also includes provisions supporting free thought and speech. People can use racially charged language in artwork or performance, public statements for academic or scientific debates and discussion, accurately reporting matters of public interest, and for fair comments expressing a genuine belief. By making clear distinctions between intent to harm and the exploration of thought, the bill provides a pathway to higher consciousness.

Germany evolved a “defensive democracy” after World War II. They recognized that democracies might require limits on free speech and imagery to prevent the rise of despotic and racist rule [9]. Democracies need shared values of democratic coexistence and peace. Beliefs that support violence and the suppression of particular groups of people to gain power have no place in modern society.

One possible path is to legally recognize and classify the psychological damage and trauma caused to targets of racism. Making deliberate racial hate and aggression akin to assault. Appropriate charges bring enforceable restraints into society. There is already legal precedent for criminalizing speech intended to harm others, such as yelling “Fire!” in a movie theater.

When implemented, we can expect conflict and protest from those within society today who believe that racism is an acceptable form of expression. Long term, education about and criminalization of racism will lay the foundation for higher degrees of responsibility in social conduct. No democracy is safe from itself. We must continue to evolve.

Progressives can expand upon this idea by developing projects to give States the ability to address structural and individual racism. Today the United States contains several classes of people stuck in a cycle of disadvantage and exclusion that they cannot escape from. In these circumstances, the state and community must free them from their institutional imprisonment.

Consider the prison-industrial complex in the United States. Poor black people are the majority of victims, the majority imprisoned for small scale drug offenses [10]. There is also a measurable bias in our policing and sentencing of poor black males [11].

Now, why is that? Racism is certainly a part of it, but not the whole issue. Policies like the funding of public education through municipal taxes creative generational systemic disadvantage. Poor people in the United States face a multitude of issues, the combination of which is overwhelming. The politics of criminal justice reform cannot be limited to descriptive identities. It only serves to weaken the cause.

Progressives should unite around a program that presents the issue of biased incarceration for what it is: the combination of the failure of our legal, educational, and political arrangements.

Rejecting identity politics doesn’t deny that appropriate reparations are needed to correct the existing injustices. They are. But these failures are not isolated to a specific group forever. If we address the issues with identity politics at the forefront, we will only end up with a different bias skewed towards different people. We must attack the problem at its root.

At the heart of these policies is the theme that every human being is a source of nearly infinite potential. By relegating entire classes to the fringes of society, we are squandering a significant amount of innovative potential, our most valuable resource given the changing nature of work. It’s vital to our success to see beyond our inherited identities.

Progressives would benefit from rejecting identity politics in favor of a broader progressive agenda to restructure the economic, political, and legal arrangements of our society. Building the communities of tomorrow cannot be accomplished with the tactics of yesterday. Using identity politics as a strategy will act against genuine transformation. It divides our potential for a progressive majority and weakens our movement as a whole.

Now is the time for the new. Change is changing. We are not bound to fight our battles within the divided fronts we were born into. Unifying a progressive majority towards the development of a structurally inclusive government allows us to address the primary generators of inequality. By rejecting identity politics, we free ourselves from the puppet strings of the past. Moving forward, we unite against artificial division and systemic injustice.


[1] Implicit Bias and Policing by Katherine B. Spencer, Amanda K. Charbonneau, and Jack Glaser University of California Berkeley https://gspp.berkeley.edu/assets/uploads/research/pdf/SpencerCharbonneauGlaser.Compass.2016.pdf

[2] U.S. incarceration rates by race Prison Policy Institute https://www.prisonpolicy.org/graphs/raceinc.html

[2a] Black Codes Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_Codes_(United_States)

[3] Black Separatism Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Black_separatism

[4] Reconstruction History.com https://www.history.com/topics/american-civil-war/reconstruction

[5] Freedmen’s Bureau History.com https://www.history.com/topics/black-history/freedmens-bureau#section_2

[6] White women benefit most from affirmative action — and are among its fiercest opponents by Victoria M. Massie Vox https://www.vox.com/2016/5/25/11682950/fisher-supreme-court-white-women-affirmative-action

[7] European Hate Speech Laws The Legal Project https://www.legal-project.org/issues/european-hate-speech-laws

[8] What is racial discrimination? Australian Human Rights Commission https://www.humanrights.gov.au/our-work/race-discrimination/publications/know-your-rights-racial-discrimination-and-vilification

[9] Why you see swastikas in America but not Germany by Sarah Wildman Vox https://www.vox.com/world/2017/8/16/16152088/nazi-swastikas-germany-charlottesville

[10] Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie 2019 by Wendy Sawyer and Peter Wagner Prison Policy Initiative https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/pie2019.html

[11] There’s overwhelming evidence that the criminal-justice system is racist. Here’s the proof. by Radley Balko Washington Post https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/opinions/wp/2018/09/18/theres-overwhelming-evidence-that-the-criminal-justice-system-is-racist-heres-the-proof/

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