Every election produces postmortems. 2012, for example, brought us the famous Republican “autopsy” urging more outreach to voters of color. This year we see hand-wringing mainly on the Democratic side – since, after all, the losers generally feel the most urgent need to figure out what went wrong. In this discussion, some are telling progressives they must abandon “identity politics” in order to appeal to a broader array of voters.
The most explicit (and short-sighted) expression of this sentiment can be found in Mark Lilla’s controversial New York Times column, published in mid-November.
“[T]he fixation on diversity in our schools and in the press,” Lilla writes, “has produced a generation of liberals and progressives narcissistically unaware of conditions outside their self-defined groups, and indifferent to the task of reaching out to Americans in every walk of life.” Lilla argues for “a post-identity liberalism” that “would concentrate on widening its base by appealing to Americans as Americans and emphasizing the issues that affect a vast majority of them. … As for narrower issues that are highly charged symbolically and can drive potential allies away, especially those touching on sexuality and religion, such a liberalism would work quietly, sensitively and with a proper sense of scale.”
The staggering condescension of that last sentence is matched only by its profound ignorance. To explain, let me introduce you to two people I know well. The first I’ll call Francisco (I’m using pseudonyms because millions of people are in similar circumstances; these are examples, not rare or unusual cases). He’s Latino, and earlier this year his father was detained and nearly deported in a case of mistaken identity. His dad has a common last name, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement got him confused with someone else. Happily, he had friends and family who were knowledgeable enough and had resources enough to mount a loud and public campaign to protect him, gaining a fair amount of media coverage, and eventually he was let go. But the experience put whole family through an emotional wringer.
My friend Angelo came to America from the Philippines as a 13-year-old. He has the papers he needs to be here legally, but a few members of his family are undocumented, and he worries about what could happen to them. He also has a partner I’ll call Jason. Now, thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court, Angelo and Jason can get married if they choose, but he knows a future Supreme Court could take that right away as quickly as it was given.
And now you want to tell me the basic human rights and dignity of my friends and their families are mere “identity politics”? Something we must tiptoe around “quietly, sensitively and with a proper sense of scale”?
On Twitter the other day, Jose Antonio Vargas put it succinctly:
What you call “identity politics” is the everyday complexity of my life. You’re politicizing my life, then dare blame me for it. Stop.
— Jose Antonio Vargas (@joseiswriting) December 6, 2016
Tens of millions of our neighbors have a target on their back today because they’re immigrant or Latino or Muslim or African American or queer (or merely look like they may be one of those things), and pundits want them and their allies to quietly back off and not make any noises that might frighten the white people.
This sounds a lot like the white religious leaders who told Martin Luther King Jr. in 1963 that his Birmingham, Alabama civil rights demonstrations were “unwise and untimely.” King rightly responded, “I am in Birmingham because injustice is here.”
Today the “here” is all of America. And we – white people most of all — must defend the rights of those in danger because of their identities because injustice is here and their lives are on the line. If that makes you uncomfortable, rather than complaining about “identity politics,” you might want to take a long, hard look in the mirror.
Injustice is here.