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What Liberals Get Wrong About Identity Politics

Lilla’s spin on this statement would make identity politics sound like a selfish political theory. But his bad interpretation is not the same as a bad theory. When the collective writes that the “most radical politics come directly out of our own identity,” Lilla reads this as applying to each individual group’s identity when the Combahee River Collective meant “our own” to apply specifically to black women. It is a result of their belief, as they write later in the statement, that, “If Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression.” The original intent of identity politics was articulating black women’s struggle at the nexus of race, gender, sexual, and class oppressions, and then forming strategies for dismantling each of these, both in black feminist spaces and in coalition with other groups.

How Lilla misses this is beyond me, since if he read the collective’s statement in full he would have to challenge his own definition of a selfish identity politics against the group’s statements. For example, that they are socialist because “we believe that work must be organized for the collective benefit of those who do the work and create the products and not for the profit of the bosses,” and that they believe in “collective process and a nonhierarchical distribution of power within our own group and in our vision of a revolutionary society.” He makes a lengthy argument against the notion of identity politics without ever engaging the context in which the theory was developed. He sees only a focus on identities that are not his own, not the political forces that shapes those identities and that the collective sought to engage.

Even removed from its original context, identity politics applied more broadly would not be as Lilla sees it. Identity is the place to understand what forms of oppression are operating within your own life. From here, coalitions can be built with others who face similar forms of oppression, so long as it is also understood that oppression is not experienced the same across identities. This is where intersectionality, the theory developed by black feminist scholar and activist Kimberlé Crenshaw, is useful. It helps us to understand that class oppression will look different for those who also exist at the intersection of marginalized race, gender, and sexual identities. Any coalition worth forming has to take stock of those differences or suffer an agenda that is insufficient to liberating all people.

Lilla’s failure (and he is not alone) is zeroing in on the part of this theory that acknowledges we all have varied identities, and then ignoring the rest. While the terms identity politics and intersectionality have taken hold of our discourse, the substance of these theories has been left behind. We haven’t taken the intellectual contributions of black women seriously enough to engage them beyond empty sloganeering. And since these concepts have been reduced to catchphrases, everyone has been free to fill in their own meanings. Not only does this make for a poorer debate, it replicates the circumstances which made the Combahee River Collective and their theory of identity politics necessary in the first place.

The Combahee River Collective was assembled to define a radical vision for black women’s freedom—and thus, as they believed, all people’s freedom. They did this through an antisexist, antiracist, socialist political strategy. It remains to be seen whether the Democratic Party is prepared to fully embrace this strategy, but liberals undermine it by coopting its revolutionary language, which only dilutes the impact of actual identity politics and its ability to challenge systems of power. Lilla seems to think Democrats are at fault for embracing identity politics, but the true crime is that it has been taken out of the revolutionary hands to which it belongs.

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