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Why racial identity politics does more harm than good

By emphasising difference, we are losing sight of our common humanity

The Afro-American writer Toni Morrison proclaimed, “There is no such thing as race. None. There is just a human race — scientifically, anthropologically.”

To me, this is what fighting racism should be about: emphasising unity and shared humanity, with the goal of becoming difference-blind. Its message should be simple, not inundated with alienating and divisive academic jargon.

Modern identity politics, meanwhile, emphasises difference. Its aim is to promote the concerns and agendas of particular oppressed groups perceived to be marginalised by traditional forms of politics, underpinned by the idea of restoring dignity. It involves the formation of exclusive political alliances which seek to achieve greater self-determination and political freedom through understanding each group’s distinctive interests.

But surely it is more productive to focus on our shared interests as a human race? Left-wing politics in the twentieth century was largely focused on forging broad economic and social equality: radical egalitarianism. Meanwhile, in the twenty-first, leftists tend to emphasise the distinct rights of marginalised groups. Rather than build solidarity around large collectives such as the working class or the economically exploited, they began to focus on ever-smaller groups which found themselves marginalized in specific and unique ways. Stemming from resentment and anger over perceived indignities, this emotionally-charged brand of politics, while well-intentioned, is serving to fracture societies across the liberal western world, rather than uniting them.

The angry demands of these groups and their spokespeople for more recognition have led to a backlash among other groups, who feel a loss of status and a sense of displacement; this is reflected primarily in the rise of populist nationalism.

It is a colossal irony that campaigners against racism, sexism, transphobia, homophobia and classism have launched a crusade against a movement which they effectively created. identity politics as currently practiced by the left has stimulated the rise of identity politics on the right, in the form of patriotic protection of traditional national identity. I am not defending Nigel Farage’s ardent fans, or the white, blue-collar Trump voters who yearn for a better time in the past when they believed their place in their own society had been more secure, but merely pointing out that their grievances also stem from frustration and alienation.

The solution is not to stop fighting these various forms of prejudice, because they constitute a very real and very urgent crisis. Instead, I believe we need to think more carefully about how we frame this battle. In fact, we need to stop seeing it as battle, as a war, because then how can we expect to achieve unity? Liberal democracies need to work their way back towards more universal understandings of human dignity, to prevent social fragmentation.

Anger over immigration alone cannot explain why the nationalist right has in recent years captured voters who formerly supported left-wing parties. In both the US and in Europe, the drift towards nationalism and conservatism reflects the failure of left-leaning parties to speak to people who feel their social and economic status is under threat: the white working class.

We have to recognise that this sentiment is not unfounded. In America, the share of all income earned by the white working class fell from 45% to 27%, and their wealth share tumbled from 45% to 22% between 1989 and 2016. (Source: Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis.) White, rural working-class communities have witnessed a crippling opioid epidemic over the last decade. Life expectancy for white working-class men fell between 2013 and 2014, and the proportion of white working-class children growing up in single-parent households increased by 14%. (Source: The Andrea Mitchell Center for the Study of Democracy).

One of the biggest factors which sent Trump to the White House and drove the UK to vote to leave the European Union is the perception of invisibility and injustice. In America, this issue is especially pertinent because to be ‘American’ has a meaning which goes beyond ethnicity. Americanism constitutes a set of beliefs and a way of life: the supreme importance of individual freedom, particularly of speech; the idea that everyone is equal under the law; the concept that hard work should bestow dignity on an individual. Many white working-class and middle-class Americans - and, to a lesser extent, Europeans - feel that their dignity is not recognized and that the government gives undue advantages to minorities. Whether this is perception or reality is neither here nor there, because nationalist politicians will continue to play on this fear and resentment, unless something changes.

Identity politics arose out of the perceived failure of social movements in the 1960s: the civil rights movement in the US; second-wave feminism; the counterculture movement which shattered traditional norms surrounding sexuality and the family. Even after laws changed to provide more opportunities and stronger legal protections for marginalised groups, they continued to differ in wealth and performance, bias and bigotry prevailed and minorities continued to cope with the burdens of discrimination, disrespect and invisibility.

In response, marginalised groups chose to assert a separate identity and demand a different sort of respect for their members to that of mainstream society, dictating that the broader society recognize and celebrate the intrinsic differences which set them apart. However, the constant discovery of new identities, discourses and terms, and the shifting grounds for what is acceptable and what is not, is alienating.

While Martin Luther King demanded equal treatment for black people and white people, the new generation of campaigners for black rights argue that the authentic inner selves of black Americans are not the same as those of white people, but shaped by their unique experience of growing up black in a hostile society, one which outsiders cannot appreciate nor understand.

The BLM movement began with demands for justice for victims of police brutality, but soon broadened into an effort to make people more aware of the lived experience of black Americans. Contemporary police violence has been connected to the long history of slavery and lynching, reinforced by narratives of white privilege and colonial guilt, leading ultimately to the conclusion there is an unbridgeable gulf between blacks and whites. But if the gulf is unbridgeable, how can it be claimed that equality and unity is the end goal?

Identity politics in its current form fundamentally causes more division and disunity than it resolves. It is fragmenting societies into ever-narrower identities, each demanding unique treatment; its jargon-heavy, exclusive rhetoric alienates those who justifiably perceive it as posing a threat to the free and rational discourse needed to sustain a democracy; and finally, whether we like it or not, it is fuelling populist nationalism.

I hope that in the future, we will choose to embrace a form of identity politics, racial or otherwise, which is unifying, serves common ends and supports liberal democracy rather than undermining it.

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