Identity Politics and Social Movements

Identity Politics and Social Movements
By Wade Lee Hudson

An important recent Ezra Klein Show podcast is the interview with Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, an associate professor of African-American Studies at Princeton University and the author of How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective, which traces the origins of the term “identity politics.” In the podcast, Taylor argues that the weakening of social movements in the 1980s contributed to a distortion of the term’s original meaning.

Taylor reports that  Barbara Smith, Demita Frazier and Beverly Smith, members of the Combahee River Collective, coined the phrase “identity politics” as a way 

to capture the political experiences of Black women and to explain the source of Black women's radicalization as a way to say that the politics of Black women was shaped not by doctrine, not by political prescriptions that were quite heavy in the late 1960s and 1970s, but first and foremost, they were shaped by the experiences of oppression Black women faced as people in American society. 

In response, Klein asks, “Is identity politics true only for certain identities or is it something that is true for all politics but is less discernible when it is majoritarian identities that hold power?”

Taylor replies:

I think, yes. On the one hand, identity, whoever you are, is a formative factor in the political ideas you gravitate towards, what you decide to do, how you decide to act on those ideas. That's all part of the formation of individual politics and to some extent even group politics. But I think what the women in the Combahee River Collective were trying to situate were the particular experiences of Black women at this historical conjuncture.

She then recounts that many collective members had been active in the anti-war movement, which was dominated by the white Left, and the white feminist movement, which did not incorporate their experiences, “their history, their background, their politics.” And they had a similar experience “within the Black movement which had become even more dominated by Black nationalist politics and was very masculine and male-oriented.” 

And so part of the project of “identity politics” was to map out within this context what was happening to Black women…. And so even though there is a universal aspect, which this framework holds true, I do think the authors' statement and the people who gave life to this political framework, this concept, were thinking very much about the situation of Black women at that particular historical moment.

Klein then asks:

One of the interesting parts of your book is when in your interview with Barbara Smith when she talks about her surprise about the way identity politics came to be understood as an exclusive, as a way of creating a politics that other people couldn't tap into, and how different that was from her understanding of it — that you would have to have many identities coming together, you would have to have a politics of solidarity if you  were to have a politics that was effective at all. Can you talk a little bit about the way the term mutated from feeling inclusive to exclusive?

Taylor replies:

Sure. I think that happens…. They introduced the term and in some ways it took on a life of its own. In some ways that's an interesting way that language works. There are phrases and political points and frameworks that mean one thing in one context and come to mean something somewhat different in some circumstances, or something completely different, from the original intention of the authors or progenitors of it.... Some of that had to do with the changing political context. That was certainly the case with identity politics.... 

In the 1980s, with the Reagan Revolution, opportunities for coalitional, activist egalitarianism became more limited, which led to estrangement and “deep political aloneness.” Within that context, Taylor says 

identity politics is no longer a tool for activists to be able to explain a particular worldview  or set of experiences of Black women, but it becomes a way to differentiate Black people. And it's not just African-Americans. Identity politics is used to explain the social reality of different marginalized, socially oppressed groups, and in some ways to explain why they are marginalized and why they are oppressed and why there is something unique to that oppression, which becomes a way of cutting that particular group off from other people — so that in effect without having this particular experience of an LGBT experience or an experience of African-Americans or a particular Chicana experience,  [it is said] there is no way for you to understand my oppression. And it doesn't necessarily mean that we can't work together, but there is something about that that even cuts off the possibility of activism or changing that situation. 

And I think that has to do with the downturn in political activism, the feeling that Margaret Thatcher perfectly captured, that there is no alternative to this new social reality, that is then amplified again, that we've reached the end of history, that there is no longer any conflict around the major ideas in the world, and this kind of market-dominated racist societies are the best that we have to offer and you really have to find a way to situate yourselves within that. So in many ways I think the deeply pessimistic use of identity politics is really just a reflection of the dramatically changed circumstances that come about with politics in the 1980s. 

EK: Tell me a little bit more about why that would be, because I understand, I think, the way in which making your identity legible to the people you're working with is a way of having your politics and making it possible for that politics to be interoperable with other people's politics. But tell me more about this theory because I haven't heard it before and it's interesting, that it was in the Reaganite-Thatcherite move that that became something closed off. Because it seems to me there's a certain power in people foregrounding their identity and then there's a backlash as people tried to take marginalized groups making claims and dismiss their claims. [If I say:] If what you want is identity politics, it's narrow, it's particularistic, it's a group, and what I want is politics that's universalistic, that anybody can be part of, it's for us all, then there's a real power in my position. I've just grabbed the high ground. So it often seems to me to be an opportunistic, weaponized rebuttal. But I'm interested to hear this alternative version of it, that maybe it was a response, even among the Left, to a  changing environment for organizing and activism. 

KT: Even if you look at the high point of the Black movement in the late 1960s there is a backlash, an undeniable backlash, but there’s also a way in which the Black movement from civil rights even through the urban insurgencies has a way of creating sympathy, even among a significant portion of the white population….. For most white people the riots have convinced them that we need a  new kind of WPA program,... an even bigger social welfare state…… Barbara Smith and Demita Frazier don’t write the Combahee River Collective statement until 1977…. 

[Until then,] there’s still a belief that coalitional politics is not just desirable but they are preferable. This is what we need to do in order to achieve some form of Black liberation, of women’s liberation. 

Ten years later, much of that hope that “we can change the world” has been crushed, and not just in a vacuum, but also by the weaponization of identity with Reagan’s “welfare queen,” the war on drugs, and “the amplification of the notion of a Black underclass.” The possibility of change seems cut off. So identity politics in that circumstance 

becomes almost a way of introspection, a kind of internal politics, a kind of way for oppressed and marginalized people to talk to each other, and to really turn away from this idea...of collective and social change [that] was in some ways rooted with the idea that white people would resist the dominant social order and that white people could play some role in a movement to transform society. That is what was seen in the civil rights movement. It was seen in the antiwar movement, the women’s movement. Even though there were deep divisions and debates and political strains and tensions there was still an activist presence that could validate the sense that if they figured it out, if they got it right, we could build a type of movement that would transform society. By the end of the 1980s you have none of that….. That’s where the pessimism and the marginality of identity politics in the 1980s comes out of. It’s not to blame people who were victimized. In many ways it is a normal reaction to an increasingly suffocating racist society that the U.S. is becoming… It’s not a self-generated nationalist impulse to pull away from politics. It’s in reaction….

Taylor’s perspective seems consistent with that of Stacey Abrams, who served as Minority Leader of the Georgia House of Representatives from 2011 to 2017 and was the Democratic Party’s nominee in Georgia’s 2018 gubernatorial election. In “E Pluribus Unum? The Fight Over Identity Politics,” she points out:

  • Identity has been used to deny opportunity.

  • The marginalized did not create identity politics: their identities have been forced on them by dominant groups.

  • Embracing the distinct histories and identities of groups in a democracy enhances the complexity and capacity of the whole.

  • These parallel but distinct developments are inextricably bound together.

  • By embracing identity and its prickly, uncomfortable contours, Americans will become more likely to grow as one.

And Abrams writes that “amorphous, universal descriptors [can be] devoid of context or nuance” and argues for:

  • [the affirmation of group identity] not to the exclusion of others but as a recognition of their specific policy needs.

  • articulating an understanding of each group’s unique concerns instead of trying to create a false image of universality.

  • a politics that respects and reflects the complicated nature of these identities and the ways in which they intersect.

  • an expanded, identity-conscious politics.

These questions are difficult. There are no easy answers. But I believe Taylor and Abrams can help us see the issues more clearly in a way that can nurture the unity that we need to make major progress.