My 56-mile commute to and from work has spawned the bad habit of scrolling through my emails at stoplights. A few days ago, I made a mental note to return to an article whose provocative title I noted only briefly; it went something like this: “Black feminists must choose whether to be politically black or politically female.” I have tried in vain to find the article, my failure due in part to the vast number of Google hits. However, my initial reaction stands. On the one hand, as a former graduate student in the history of American race relations, I have been shamed by my lack of currency in the field. On the other, however, this idea of “political X-ness” has forced me to consider once again the troubling consequences of what we now call single-issue and identity politics. And I must take a stand.
My first inclination when I read the disconcerting and distasteful title was a tongue-in-cheek exercise in self-examination. Let’s see: Shall I be politically . . .
- black? No. Even in 1975 when I crossed the continent to that hotbed of Southern liberalism, Chapel Hill, I did not view race as my only issue. In 2017, to so identify is not even one of my options. Rachel Dolezal, the former NAACP leader who identifies herself as black, certainly received her comeuppance when her Czech, Swedish, and German ancestry was revealed in 2015.
- white? No. Although far-left political theorists probably disagree, I would argue that I do not make decisions because of any color or absence of color. Furthermore, I must disavow the very idea of voting as a white person because I fundamentally agree with those on both the left and the right who suggest that the disaffected voters who won the election for Trump made their choices based on white identity politics masquerading as populism.
- female? No. I support continuing access to safe abortion (although I don’t believe it is right nor a right), funding for Planned Parenthood, and equal pay in the workplace. However, I prefer male doctors and priests and am at most wishy-washy about many other so-called women’s issues. I do not believe that morning-after regret equals rape when half-clad girls get drunk at frat houses, nor do I believe in the lifelong punishment of the sex-offender registry. It’s also important to keep in mind that Anita Bryant, Phyllis Schlafly, Sarah Palin, and Kellyanne Conway were/are also women. And although the majority of women have voted Democratic in the last six Presidential elections, 53% of white women voted for Donald Trump in 2016.
- Christian? No. I worship weekly at an Episcopal church and certainly consider myself Christian. However, the Christian demographic targeted by politicians is generally what Pew identifies as “white, born-again/evangelical Christians”–81% of whom voted for Trump. Presidential politics aside, I am diametrically opposed to the evangelicals on matters of race, sexuality, immigration, education, science, Islam, biblical inerrancy . . . let me count the ways.
- heterosexual? No. I have never understood anyone’s desire to publicize his or her behavior in the bedroom, and I am certain that what I do or don’t do or want to do with my clothes off does not determine where I put my X on the ballot.
- fat? No. There is indeed a fat acceptance movement, and my LGBTQ guru includes avoirdupois under the umbrella of causes he espouses. However, despite a lifetime battle with the scale and the mirror, I am not yet willing to be on the frontline of fat-is-fine.
- Italian-American? No. It’s the closest I come to being a member of an ethnic group; my paternal grandfather immigrated around the time of the First World War. But he changed his name to Ray and his birthday to July 4. None of his five sons spoke Italian, nor did they pass along to their own children any remnant of Italian heritage. A few days ago, after I began contemplating identity politics, I overheard a heated conversation in the halls of the college where I teach. The loudest voice proclaimed, “Italians are NOT white!” The others chimed in with references to white European culture and Hispanic brown skin, and I chuckled that people in 2017 are scrambling to be singled out as different.
- cognoscenti? It would never fly. But the effort would give Merriam-Webster a new word of the day.
Even during my first incarnation as a graduate student–a 22-year-old self-styled radical studying American history to prove that Lockean liberal capitalism was fundamentally a system of racial oppression–I was never on board with identity or single-issue politics. In one seminar, as the assigned critic for a classmate’s review of the literature on women abolitionists, my strongest response called into question the basis of the entire project, suggesting that green-eyed abolitionists would have been just as viable a topic.
Now, I shudder when I observe the quagmire into which identity politics has led us in the four-plus intervening decades. We have multicultural literature texts that omit only the dead while males by whom our culture was founded. Diversity education is so rife that one student actually wrote in a paper this semester, “My family has always been diverse”; he meant tolerant. Every election cycle features the first ______ (black/woman/Latina/transgender) to run for some office, and even awards for thespian ability are not immune to the politics of labeling and self-labeling.
In my view, Mark Lilla’s post-election commentary in the New York Times has provided the most trenchant analysis of the problems of and the remedies for identity politics. He suggests that awareness and celebration of our differences is “a splendid principle of moral pedagogy–but disastrous as a foundation for democratic politics in our ideological age.” He decries “campus-diversity consciousness” and the “laziest story in American journalism–about ‘the first X to do Y.'” And he argues persuasively, “National politics in healthy periods is not about ‘difference’; it is about commonality.”
Wherever you stand on the political continuum, I suggest that you read and reflect on Lilla’s message about the polarization that results when we identify too closely and too exclusively with the interests of one group. I encourage you to discover for yourself the balkanization of American politics, leaving those on both sides full of fear and hate. I urge you to remember that we can be great only when we view ourselves as Americans and focus not on what divides us, but on what we share.