On November 18, 2016, there was a fantastic essay in the New York Times by Mark Lilla of Columbia University called “The End of Identity Liberalism”. This essay will go down in history as one that I will remember for a long time.
I have long wanted to write something about identity politics, but I could never find the time to research and eloquently describe my beliefs on such a sensitive topic, so a concise reaction to Lilla’s essay will have to do for now.
Despite being a registered Democrat, one area where I seem to disagree with liberals — at least if we can infer anything from the 2016 election, which admittedly is asking for a lot — is over the issue of identity politics. I personally feel uncomfortable at best about the practice of identity politics. I also believe that, while identity politics obviously has well-meaning intentions, it accelerates the development of undesirable side effects.
Exhibit A: the election of Donald Trump (well, undesirable to most liberals).
When I was reading Lilla’s essay, the following passage hit home to me:
[Hillary Clinton] tended on the campaign trail to lose that large vision and slip into the rhetoric of diversity, calling out explicitly to African-American, Latino, L.G.B.T. and women voters at every stop. This was a strategic mistake. If you are going to mention groups in America, you had better mention all of them. If you don’t, those left out will notice and feel excluded. Which, as the data show, was exactly what happened with the white working class and those with strong religious convictions. Fully two-thirds of white voters without college degrees voted for Donald Trump, as did over 80 percent of white evangelicals.
While it is true that, if I had to pick any race to associate with the “privileged” label, white Americans would be the easy choice. However, as suggested by Joe Biden, it is difficult for the white working class to associate themselves with privilege and with identity liberalism.
Aside from the working class whites, another group of people in America who I believe “lack privilege” are people with disabilities. I also think that this group fails to get sufficient recognition compared to other groups (relative to population size). That is not to say that the group is ignored, but with limited time and money, political parties have to selectively choose what to promote and champion. Clinton talked about supporting disabled people in her campaign, but this was probably more motivated from Trump’s actions than a Democrat-led initiative to treat disabled people as a political group with higher priority than others. (Again, it’s not about being in favor of or against of, but about the priority level.)
After thinking about it, even though I might benefit from increased “identity politics” towards people with disabilities, I still would probably feel uncomfortable taking part or engaging in the practice, given that any such focus on a group of people necessarily leaves out others.
A second reason why I would feel uncomfortable is that within voting blocks, we are seeing increased diversity. According to exit polls of the 2016 election. Trump actually made gains among African Americans, Hispanic Americans, and Asian Americans compared to Mitt Romney! Sometimes I worry that the focus on labeling groups of people has the effect that Lilla observes later:
The surprisingly high percentage of the Latino vote that went to Mr. Trump should remind us that the longer ethnic groups are here in this country, the more politically diverse they become.
I wouldn’t want my beliefs pigeonholed just because of who I am. (Sadly, I have experienced several frustrating examples of this within the deaf community.)
Overall, I prefer the approach where policies are designed to bring everyone up together, so long as they are given an equal starting ground. I know that this is sadly not true in America yet. Therefore, if I had to support any form of identity politics, it would be one which focuses chiefly on improving the lives of children from low-income families within the first 5-10 years of life under the critical junction of education and nutrition.
I am under no illusions that part of why I did well in school is that I didn’t grow up in poverty. And indeed, being 50% Asian and 50% Caucasian might have helped (though Asians are often not treated as minority groups, and mixed-race people are often ignored in polls about race, but those are subjects for another day).
Ultimately, identity politics is probably not going to make or break my life goals at this point. My impetus in raising this discussion, however, is largely about my concern over the future of many students and old friends that I know from high school. Some come from low-income families and face challenges in their lives which are not prioritized by the current identity liberalism. For instance, I was shocked to learn this year when someone I knew from high school was recently arrested for attempted murder. I still have access to his Facebook page, and it’s heartbreaking to read. His wife posts pictures of him and his child and keeps asking him to “hang in there” until he can return to the family.
This guy is younger than me and his future already seems dashed. His biggest challenge in life is probably that he shares my disability, so I worry that people similar to him will never be able to escape out of their cycle of poverty. I hope that there is a way that we can move towards an identity-free future without the risk of alienating people like him, and also of course, with the effect of increasing the economic possibilities and fairness for all of us.