America will never have a productive conversation about race so long as the country remains in the grip of identity politics.
This false ideology divides human beings into broad groups; it asserts that race, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation determine our experience and shape our identity. Ironically, as it reinforces difference, it washes it away.
The nice word for that is stereotyping; the uglier version is racism. No wonder our discourse is so filled with hate.
This ideology also suggests all members of groups share common interests, concerns, identities. Think how often you read of the black “community” and LGBTQ “community” as if everyone lives on the same block and gets together over sweet tea and barbecue. Recall Michael Eric Dyson’s darker iteration of this idea in a recent op-ed addressing “white America.” This language is absurd and destructive as it works to pigeonhole others. Yet it is common parlance.
It is what Philip Roth railed against in his early novels as he shook his fist at a world demanding he not only be seen, but see himself, first and foremost as a Jew.
Identity politics prevents meaningful discussion of difference through its embrace of what Max Weber called the “theodicy of disprivilege” – the belief that salvation is granted to those who’ve suffered most. In our secular society, it means members of “oppressed groups” are innocents who cannot be engaged with or held to the same standards as others.
This denies the humanity of the speakers by pretending everything they say is the truth. In fact, we all see things through the fractured lens of our own experience. When “good people” shy away from healthy, provocative discourse, when they see their role as silently nodding instead of saying, “I don’t see things that way,” differences are left to simmer.
I am not suggesting that race, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation are not powerful influences, or that collective action by blacks, women and others has not made America a better place. I am arguing that these factors have far too much impact: In modern America, identity politics is the hammer that turns every social issue into one of its nails. It teaches people to view their lives through this narrow lens.
Sadly, it denies personal agency and accountability by asserting that our fate is predetermined by dark, faceless powers. It reduces complicated questions of criminal justice and educational opportunity, for example, to simple questions of race and ethnicity. It pretends all people are hard-working and law-abiding citizens, that they would succeed but for the roadblocks in their way. It urges people to ask, what has been done to you, rather than what can you do for yourself?
It creates the thing too many Americans embrace: a culture of victimization, grievance and impotence.
Again, this is not to deny that profound inequalities exist in our society – they always have and always will. And many of these are rooted in the injustices of the past. But when we attribute all such disparities to identity, we have a hard time explaining, for instance, why “privileged” working-class white men seem to be in crisis.
More dangerously, identity politics pretends we can cure what ails us by thinking better and spending more. The past 60 years, marked by a flowering of freedom and trillions in social spending, belie that. We have not ignored our problems; we just don’t know how to fix them all.
Yes, it is important to acknowledge difference and hold those in power accountable. But to move forward, we must come together and reject the stranglehold of identity politics.