“Identity politics like McCarthyism has run its sad and destructive course.”
So sneered a reader in an email criticizing my story last month about Georgia’s contentious 6th Congressional District race. I had noted that the state was poised to elect its first Republican woman to Congress.
“A large majority of the American people have rejected this divisive tactic at the ballot box,” the reader — he or she did not include a name — continued.
This person was talking about the November election of President Trump. The assertion has become a common refrain among those who believe discussions about gender, race and ethnicity distracted Democrats from “real issues” or — as my critic put it — issues that resonate “with people in their everyday lives.”
But the reader was wrong on two points: “A large majority of the American people” did not vote for the winner of the fall presidential election. Indeed, a slight plurality of voters cast their ballots for Democrat Hillary Clinton (48.2 percent). Also the 46.1 percent of the voters who gave Trump his electoral college victory did not reflect the diversity of the overall pool of people who participated in the election. Some 87 percent of Trump’s voters were white, significantly more than the 73 percent of the electorate that was white.
If Democrats played identity politics, did Republicans as well?
Conservative commentators and activists have been complaining for decades — but with much more fervor over the past eight years — that “identity politics” put an unfair focus on the grievances of minority groups at the expense of the majority, i.e. white, heterosexual Christians. A bit more surprising has been the reaction of some white progressives who, since being stunned by the election’s outcome, have been apologizing to their working-class counterparts in rural and Rust Belt areas for ignoring them. They have joined the right in calling for an end to “identity politics” in civic governance and on college campuses, arguing that it is unnecessarily divisive.
Vocal contingents on both the right and on the left argue that if people of color, LGBTQ individuals, women, non-Christians and other “others” hadn’t been so adamant about being seen and heard and having their concerns addressed during the election, then white men — and 52 percent of white women — wouldn’t have sought refuge in Trump’s message to “make America great again.”
But does their argument ignore that calling for an end to identity politics is, in itself, identity politics? After all, isn’t a distinct group — white, heterosexual, Christian male — now demanding to be seen and heard?
Zandria Robinson, a professor of sociology at Rhodes College in Memphis, doesn’t like the term “identity politics.”
“It suggests that people actively choose to be aligned with minority groups/identities rather than the reality that they are organized into them by structures of oppression — sexism, racism, heterosexism, cissexism, ableism, capitalism, imperialism,” Robinson said in an email.
Indeed, critics of identity politics — including some women, people of color and LGBTQ individuals — tend to downplay discrimination and inequality. They are quick to quote the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s exhortation that one day we would judge people not by the color of their skin but the content of their character. Many of them argue that King’s dream of a just and fair society was realized with the election of Barack Obama as the nation’s first black president (even though most white people did not vote to make that happen) and it’s time to move on — or to go back to the days when “every man” was a white, heterosexual, Christian male, even though each year the country is less so.
In 2016, non-Hispanic whites were 61 percent of the U.S. population, down from nearly 64 percent in 2010. Before the middle of this century, demographers expect people of color to make up a majority of the country’s population.
Activists and scholars, such as Robinson, note that whites always have feared demographic shifts that threaten to put them in the minority, dating back to U.S. slavery. Such fears drove the legal and violent attacks on the rights and lives of African Americans during and after Reconstruction. And it was the basis of the Republican southern strategy in response to the civil rights movement.
The call to back away from — or outright suppress — the voices of people of color, LGBTQ individuals and religious minorities suggests that our country is not preparing for its inevitable future. It is certainly not happening at the top levels of government, nor is it happening on college campuses, where conservatives and liberals seem unable to coexist. Neither is it happening in the news media, which since the election has focused much of its coverage on the distress of the white working-class. Most newsrooms still struggle to reflect the growing diversity of the country.
Robinson said that major institutions, including the news media, corporations, and the education sector — from prekindergarten through graduate and professional schools — should be engaged in preparing the country for the changes.
“But I’m not holding my breath for the kinds of meaningful transformations that need to happen to assuage white liberal or conservative panic about what their declining numerical dominance means,” she said. “In fact, it is whites of all beliefs that have held most fast to a commitment to identity politics.”
Today, The Washington Post is launching an effort to do its part to explore — rather than ignore — the many identities that make the United States what it is. We will create a space to learn about each other — what makes us unique and what we share — to prepare ourselves for the new, emerging majority.
We’ll take you to a community of native-born Muslims whose place in America is fading amid an immigration wave. We’ll introduce you to a transgender man who discovered his identity in a military that now rejects him. And we’ll start a conversation about what it means to be a black gun owner in the era of Trump.
We’ll explore these issues through enlightening essays, captivating images and engaging discussions. These truly are the issues that “resonate with people in their everyday lives.”
We hope you will join our conversation about the many people and identities that make up our nation — a conversation About US.
Scott Clement contributed to this report.
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