Skip to content

Of Many Minds

Why identity politics is so vexing for so much of the left

In the mainstream media, “identity politics” is what fuels clashes on college campuses over the diversity and inclusivity of curricula and discourse. It’s dangerous, by these accounts, because it spreads beyond the ivory towers to wreak havoc in workplaces and domiciles throughout the wider United States, where humble, hardworking Americans live in terror of not being sufficiently woke. Yet you don’t hear the term used to describe immigration policies that target Mexicans, Haitians, Central Americans, Somalis, other non-white immigrants and/or Muslims whose targeted exclusion is rooted in a Trumpian fetish for white identity and supremacy. “Identity politics,” in other words, is for all those whose identities are supposedly suspect. Rallying around a white nationalist, patriarchal agenda, by contrast, is just plain old “politics.”  

In Mistaken Identity: Race and Class in the Age of Trump, Asad Haider considers a more nuanced and multifaceted debate about identity politics, one that critiques the mass-media version while being cognizant of the larger threat posed by the identity politics being trafficked from the White House. A PhD candidate at the University of California Santa Cruz who is also the editor of Viewpoint magazine, Haider writes about the ways identity is a critical site of political awareness and reform, as well as a source of endless argument and division—at once a boon and burden to leftist causes.

He traces his concerns to experiences some years ago as an activist on campus. In encounters with the Occupy movement in Northern California, for example, Haider got into discussions with white Marxists who discounted the need to directly struggle against racism because “the real problems of people of color could be explained by the contradictions of the economic base.” He contrasts this position—as well as the overall failure of the Occupy movement to adequately diversify—with the fact that black Americans had disproportionately suffered the effects of predatory lending and the recession. Moreover, according to Haider, though the larger Black Lives Matter movement that initially united to protest police brutality “did not draw an artificial boundary between class and race,” he was again frustrated—when protesting privatization at UC Santa Cruz—by the rift he saw among groups that elevated one issue over the other.

Student activists and community groups convened to devise anti-privatization tactics, which included drafting slogans and platforms. “It seemed to be most effective, in terms of rallying the troops,” Haider writes, “to say that rising tuition ‘hits students of color the hardest.’” However, he notes, expressly opposing tuition hikes because of racial bias could imply that “racially equitable university privatization would be somehow acceptable.” Disagreements ensued. In the end, Haider describes the dissolution of the anti-privatization coalition into mostly People of Color and non-POC groups—a separation that intensified as protests against police brutality grew across the country. “The latest trends of identity politics,” writes Haider about this time, “made a bridge between issues like police violence and access to higher education functionally impossible.” He further describes watching black-identified activist groups staging die-ins as their counterparts “dwindled in size.”

Haider writes about the ways identity is a source of political awareness and reform, as well as argument and division—at once a boon and burden to leftist causes.

The valuable contribution of Mistaken Identity is that Haider gives himself room to explore his own double consciousness when it comes to identity politics, a subject that has been weaponized against the progressive causes for which he fights. Aren’t we all familiar with the terms of the mass-mediated debate? If you’re for identity politics, you acknowledge that political and socioeconomic forces act on different identities in differing ways. A serious reckoning with identity—whether, religious, racial, gendered, sexual, etc.—is fundamental to advocating for rights and remedies that would benefit members of a given group (or cross-section of groups) who have been harmed on account of who they are. Identity, so the thinking goes, isn’t inherently political but was politicized in the first place via state-sanctioned acts and omissions that bred discrimination. Targeted groups saw their identities as points of political mobilization against such oppression. How can you expect to have a serious discussion about mass incarceration and the War on Drugs, for example, without examining the systemic racism of a criminal justice system that has been more than five times more likely to imprison black than white people even though both groups statistically use illicit drugs at similar rates?

If you’re against identity politics, you might deem identity-based advocacy as a “distraction” from “more important” issues, such as class—(the sub-divisions of which, according to this view, curiously do not constitute identity groups); you might also believe that identity politics prevent broader-based coalitions on the left from gaining traction, dividing a potentially potent political base into off-shoots that are much easier for a right-wing political movement to conquer. You might contend that identity politics have forsaken a mass movement for justice for a war of words, prioritizing political correctness over “politics,” sacrificing macrostructural reform in order to call out microagressions. You might, moreover, for all of the above reasons, argue that identity politics largely turn off a white middle-class voting base, who is also curiously devoid of any “identity” and whom you implicitly deem the norm—the default bloc to whom all these “other” groups should cater and cajole into inadvertently supporting their tangential causes.

Such is the back-and-forth we’ve heard since the late 1980s, when the so-called “culture wars” began to sweep across college campuses and into media awareness throughout the country. What is notable and refreshing about Haider’s approach in Mistaken Identity is that he develops a progressive critique of identity politics. He doesn’t outright dismiss the importance of identities; but he asks whether collective action can be harmonized from the cacophonous cries for various forms of justice. Haider’s take, further, is not hot but cool—a well-composed and intellectually rigorous consideration that situates the current understanding of identity politics in historical context.

Haider lauds the identity politics of the Combahee River Collective (“CRC”), a group of black lesbian feminist activists who coined the term in their 1977 mission statement. Committed socialists, CRC members were alienated from a broader class-based activism that championed the claims of “raceless, sexless workers.” Centering their politics in their own intersectional identity, the CRC, according to Haider, was moving to create a foundational movement that incorporated the seemingly disparate claims of activist groups singly dedicated to, for example, black liberation or to the rights of women, LGBTQ, or workers, respectively. Occupying the overlap of this Venn diagram of social movements, then, the CRC intended for their identity-based politics to be more inclusive, comprehensive and ultimately more effective than any of the movements operating in relative isolation. On this point, Haider quotes CRC co-founder Barbara Smith:

What we were saying is that we have a right as people who are not just female, who are not solely Black, who are not just lesbians, who are not just working class, or workers—that we are people who embody all of these identities, and we have a right to build and define political practice based upon that reality . . .

Smith’s reflection on the CRC’s praxis recalls philosopher John Rawls’s theory of justice, according to which a given society can be deemed fair and just insofar as it has been organized to be of greatest benefit to the least (structurally) advantaged within that society. Smith’s statement also recalls Alice Walker’s womanism, which is centered in and arises from the lived experiences of women of color while being “committed to the survival and wholeness of an entire people, male and female.” Smith’s clarification of the CRC’s mission also contextualizes the oft-repeated plea for the relatively privileged to listen to the relatively structurally marginalized—a prerequisite for this sort of grassroots vision of identity politics to take root and transform society from the so-called bottom up.

Among the theoretical critiques of identity politics raised by Haider is that its current fracture into single-issue advocacy “end[s] up centering the most privileged members of a group, marginalizing those whose identities exposed them to other forms of subordination.” Quoting Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor in From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation, he relays how advocacy based solely on race often results in non-white people “diversifying” managerial slots in an already dysfunctional system. As Taylor wrote of the uprising in Baltimore in response to Freddie Gray’s killing: “When a Black mayor, governing a largely Black city, aids in the mobilization of a military unit led by a Black Woman to suppress a Black rebellion, we are in a new period of the Black freedom struggle.” Nonetheless, with the current incarnation of identity politics, institutional prominence, achievement, and high visibility are consolation prizes for the absence of any semblance of freedom or justice, spurring those of us who share similar identities to, say, wax nostalgic about the Obama administration despite its having overseen the deportation of more people than any of its predecessors, or revel in the resource-rich homeland of Wakanda as it is plundered by a profiteering Hollywood system, or weep at Meghan Markle’s wedding to a monarchy ultimately funded by empire and colonialism. 

Those of us launching identity-based claims are often aware of our own powerlessness, which we attempt to compensate for with the performance of our superior moral standing.

Identity, indeed, is just as much a prison as it is a potent site of possibility. And this is not just an existential conundrum. On the political consequences, Haider references Judith Butler, who pointed out that the identity pursuant to which any given person has been injured is essentially conditioned upon the existence of, and regulation by, the state. Whether the state once fixed someone as a slave on account of being black, or not worthy of voting on account of being a woman, or not entitled to marry on account of being homosexual—identity politics doubles down on this “problematic” identity by appealing to the very same state that has ascribed to it an oppressive meaning in order to redress resulting grievances. “Our political agency through identity,” writes Haider, “is exactly what locks us into the state, what ensures our continued subjection.” One disturbing metaphor that encapsulates this no-win tactic is a victim of domestic violence appealing to her abusive partner for relief—a hopeless move that is replayed over and again when families of victims of police brutality attempt to avenge their loved ones’ death in a court system that, despite all evidence, repeatedly acquits defendant police officers.  

Theorist Wendy Brown came to a conclusion similar to Butler’s in her 1995 critique of identity politics, States of Injury. Brown, however, went further to say that those of us launching identity-based claims are often somewhat aware of our own powerlessness, which we attempt to compensate for with the performance of our superior moral standing. Citing Nietzsche’s work on ressentiment (suppressed feelings of resentment redirected at the perceived source of one’s pain), Brown writes that “morality emerges from the powerless to avenge their incapacity for action; it enacts their resentment of strengths that they cannot match or overthrow.” The idea, here, is to shame those “in power” into “doing the right thing,” or to disgrace them into falling from their appointed thrones. However, naming and shaming can only work if those “in power” are capable of contrition—or if the state is capable of adjudicating their culpability. The recent upswing in the #MeToo movement (as well as much of human rights “enforcement”) has relied heavily on ressentiment—which, in the case of sexual harassment, has for so long quietly stewed in the hearts and minds of so many who believed, for good reason, that their injuries would never be adequately addressed by their employers, much less the state. The seeming impunity of Trump, moreover, has amplified the moral shaming of those who, unlike the real-estate mogul, are not similarly untouchable. Perhaps the rising decibels of both ressentiment and pressure to be woker-than-thou on social media are despairing attempts to balance a Trump-heavy imbalance of power. But what, ultimately, is there to be done when the emperor has no shame?

It’s worth noting in the end that, in critiquing identity  politics, Haider does not assume the typical and irritating “everyman” stance, glossing over his own identity and personal preoccupations in a bid to promote some abstract notion of “universality.” He begins by letting it be known that he was born in Central Pennsylvania to Pakistani immigrants. “Whatever bits and parts may have constituted my selfhood appeared to be scattered over the globe,” Haider writes. “Between the white kids in Pennsylvania who asked me where I was from (not Pennsylvania, apparently) and the Pakistani relatives who pointed out my American accent, it seemed that if I had an identity, no one was really prepared to recognize it.” Throughout Mistaken Identity, Haider demonstrates that being of two minds—or even of three, four or five—does not necessarily imply confusion, but a complex worldview whose seemingly disparate parts are seeking integration.