On August 11, hundreds of white nationalists marched the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia bearing tiki torches demanding that a statue of Confederate hero Robert E. Lee stay erect. The following day, the demonstrations turned violent when a car plowed through a group of counter-protesters, killing one woman and injuring many others.
After a shockingly lucid initial response, during which he called the violence “domestic terrorism,” Donald Trump later hedged, saying that “this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence” was “on many sides.” He doubled down in a fiery exchange with reporters at a press briefing at Trump Towers in New York City.
“Not all of those people were neo-Nazis, believe me,” he said. “Not all of those people were white supremacists by any stretch.”
The president of the United States, in effect, sympathized with people who had gathered in the name of white nationalism. He felt that outside of neo-Nazis and white nationalists who he had “condemned,” the idea of protesting the removal of a Confederate statue in the name of preserving history was a legitimate gripe. “George Washington was a slave owner,” he said during the same press conference. “Are we gonna take down statues to George Washington?”
Fast-forward to a couple of months later: It was reported last week that the Women’s Convention, a conference put together by the organizers of the Women’s March to be held in Detroit at the end of October, had invited Senator Bernie Sanders to open the first night of the event. Some women were shocked that the convention would have a man speaking in such an important slot—especially a man whose popularity was partially fueled by a dislike for the first-ever woman candidate for president, a man whose supporters have called for a “universal” approach rather than a “divisive,” identity-based one.
To some, it was yet another example of the left refusing to acknowledge the role sexism played in Hillary Clinton’s loss. And it was also an example of the left hotly debating “identity politics” once again—even as the president of the United States openly aligns himself with one particular identity: white people.
In 1977, a group of black feminists came together as the Combahee River Collective to stage an intervention: Since the existing political caucus didn’t address the direct perils facing black women and women of color, they would focus on their own oppression, and this focus would be “embodied in the concept of identity politics.” Their statement explained that “the most profound and potentially most radical politics come directly out of our own identity, as opposed to working to end somebody else’s oppression.”
This definition of identity politics has since unraveled, becoming interchangeable with “political correctness” or “diversity.” The concept as it is understood now has motivated thinkers across the spectrum to label overly identity-focused progressives the greatest threat to free speech. That’s right: Pink-haired college students working in coffee shops and listening to Kendrick Lamar who demand you call them the right gender pronoun and don’t want braggadocious white supremacists speaking on their college campuses are what’s dangerous to American democracy (rather than, say, white supremacists).
But based on the definition of “identity politics” by the Combahee River Collective—a movement to centralize the needs of black women and women of color because existing political infrastructure failed to—white nationalism is an expression of identity politics in the purest form. White Americans seduced by the language of white nationalism feel dismayed and overlooked, and that their needs are not being met by the current political system.
So while the president unapologetically advocates for the rights of one specific group, the left is still mulling over whether “identity politics” should be phased out in favor of a broader sense of American-ness. It seems identity politics are only bad when they are on the left. Yet even though the right doesn’t call what they do “identity politics,” appealing to whiteness has increasingly become par for the course.
Every time the politics of the left are up for discussion, we ritualistically re-litigate what happened in the 2016 election and re-engage in what now feels like a collective trauma. The continual revisiting of What Went Wrong is both toxic—a break-up where you still want to make it work but should really just walk away—and understandable. If Democrats don’t want to lose again, the logic goes, they should probably retrace their steps, figure out where the strategic errors were, and build a more cohesive movement.
Sanders, who has been a vocal critic of what he perceives as “identity politics” on the left, has called for universality over the specific needs of certain communities. The theory is that a focus on diverse candidates or elevating marginalized voices is alienating for a broader swath of the American public. At a post-election rally in Boston in November 2016, in response to a young Latina woman who asked how to get involved in politics, he said, “It’s not good enough for someone to say, ‘I’m a woman! Vote for me!’...what we need is a woman who has the guts to stand up to Wall Street, to the insurance companies, to the drug companies, to the fossil fuel industry.”
Sanders is right in suggesting we need more than token references to identity to galvanize authentic support from voters. But most identity politics have always been about class, too. And wanting a candidate who reflects one’s values doesn’t diminish the importance political leadership to not just be ideologically diverse, but representative of the country itself.
Suggesting we move away from identity politics also runs the risk of forgetting how racism affected the last administration. The election of the first black president touched the powder keg of race relations in our nation and inspired the public rise of white nationalism. First we saw the infiltration of the Tea Party, a group of right-wingers who were ostensibly united by their desire for small government and “fiscal responsibility,” but were undeniably anti-black and anti-immigrant. They consistently tried to delegitimize Barack Obama’s presidency, from peddling birtherism to Tea Party Caucus member and House Rep. Joe Wilson screaming “You lie!” at Obama during a joint session.
When those once-fringe candidates won seats in Congress, they made Obama’s life hell. They fought him on almost everything from healthcare to the Supreme Court nomination to fill the late Justice Antonin Scalia’s seat. Nothing would pass Congress as long as he proposed it, endorsed it, or wanted to get anything done. They were committed to ensuring the first black president would not win. Republican lawmakers sat like toddlers with their arms crossed refusing to budge, seemingly because they didn’t like that their president was black.
That hatred found an even better leader in Trump. He launched himself into the national political spotlight in 2011 as he decided whether to run for president by lying about Obama’s citizenship status. He demanded to see Obama’s birth certificate, a question rooted in identity: literally, “What are you?” When he campaigned for president in 2016, he stoked fear of minorities by proposing Muslim bans, calling Mexicans “thugs” and rapists,” and weaving in dystopic stories about urban people of color: “Our inner cities are a disaster,” he said in the final presidential debate against Hillary Clinton. “You get shot walking to the store. They have no education, they have no jobs.”
Trump’s campaign was both a referendum on certain types of identity and a reinforcement that American identity is only one thing: white.
During the election cycle, he deflected criticism of racialized language as unnecessary “political correctness”—another derisive term used to describe liberals’ attempts to express sensitivity toward minorities. Political correctness has for decades been an obsession of thinkers across the political spectrum. Left-leaning writers like Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt have caricatured “safe spaces” and “trigger warnings” as evidence that today’s college students are intellectually coddled. New York magazine columnist Jonathan Chait called PC culture “exhausting,” claiming that being held to the standards of political correctness is difficult and ineffective.
Meanwhile, the media has fallen all over themselves in the wake of the election to drum up sympathy for Trump voters, many of whom voted on the appeal to their own white identity. David Brooks admonished Democrats for not being good enough listeners. Nicholas Kristof emphatically claimed that Trump voters were not the enemy. A series of books taking white resentment seriously have been published, from J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy to Carol Anderson’s White Rage. Chait recently argued that we are too quick to label things “white supremacist.” To move forward, the left must be more sensitive to the needs and proclivities of Trump supporters, we must hear their stories and internalize them, we must course-correct as needed.
We should be listening to each other, but that Trump’s explicit appeals to white identity and resentment are considered legitimate rallying cries that supposedly united an unheard working-class base, while the left is called divisive, suggests that calls for “universality” amount to centralizing white, male experience. The experiences of people of color are marked as non-standard, but white identity, white concerns, white sensitivities, white anxieties are taken as representative of the whole. Anything that deviates from that identity is “diversity” or “difference.”
On the right, the appeal of identity is not talked about as identity because whiteness has for so long been understood as American-ness. Trump’s most relied-upon phrase “Make America Great Again” is laden with a subliminal referendum on the diversity of America today. If progressives backpedal on how we centralize a definition of identity that is rooted in systemic power—the definition laid out by the Combahee River Collective—they take a step backwards. A fundamental tenet of progressivism is to centralize and prioritize those most disenfranchised, not just because it is the correct moral and ethical thing to do but because such a move helps everyone.
From a tactical standpoint, identity politics on the left may be alienating to working-class voters who see their privilege as earned and that the cause of their economic stagnation is due to competition with other lower classes, such as working-class people of color or immigrants, as opposed to a system that privileges the rich. But the answer is not to shy away from uncomfortable truths about race, gender, class, sexuality, and disability. As the country grows more diverse—by 2050, whites may well become a minority of the population—these truths become harder and harder to ignore.
Identity-based organizing is our best tool in the fight for equality. Granted, it’s not always easy. Within each of these communities there are robust, sometimes difficult, and sometimes agonizing discussions about the fickle borders of identity. What issues should be included? How can we include all of these issues and still stay focused on a common goal? How do we prioritize our agendas with so many different factions involved?
But those questions shouldn’t divide the left; instead they pressure-test beliefs and ensure the fight for justice and equality is expansive, creative, and inclusive. The fight for trans rights, for example, doesn’t weaken the feminist movement but instead strengthens it, forces it to be more comprehensive and truly inclusive. And it is exactly those conversations that need to enter the mainstream political discourse rather than our hiding from them in the service of a false narrative about America. How do we navigate a world that simultaneously gave us Beyoncé’s groundbreaking album Lemonade, a tribute to black women’s sexuality and power, and the rise of the alt-right?
We live in complex, confounding times, and the only way to understand them is to understand each other: the good, the bad, and the sometimes extremely ugly.
In the end, diversity is embedded in America’s social fabric. Hillary Clinton might have lost the election by way of the electoral college, but she won the popular vote—so more people across the country supported her vision of America than Trump’s. And Barack Obama, our first black president, won twice. We may not see eye to eye on the political positions of these candidates or how the details of identity politics play out on the national stage, but coalitional politics—recognizing and fighting for the diverse needs of many—are our best shot at building a progressive future. It will be our ability to draw from, incorporate, and celebrate our differences that will truly make America great.
This piece is adapted from an essay in the new anthology Nasty Women: Feminism, Resistance, and Revolution in Trump’s America, edited by Samhita Mukhopadhyay and Kate Harding (Picador).