America will never have a productive conversation about race so long as the country remains in the grip of identity politics.
This false, divisive ideology slices and dices human beings into broad groups; it asserts that race, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation determine our experience and shape our identity. Ironically, as it reinforces difference, it washes it away. It separates whites from blacks, blacks from Hispanics, Hispanics from Asians, gay from straight. It is the epitome of “Us vs. Them” thinking; it turns others into, well, “others.”
The nice word for that is stereotyping; the uglier version is racism. No wonder our discourse is so filled with hate.
This ideology also suggests that all members of designated groups share common interests, concerns, identities. If you think I’m overstating this, think how often you read about the black “community” and LGBTQ “community” as if everyone lives on the same block and gets together over sweet tea and barbecue. Or recall Michael Eric Dyson’s darker iteration of this idea in a recent op-ed addressing “white America.” This language is both absurd and destructive as it works to pigeonhole and limit others. Yet it is also common parlance.
It is what Philip Roth railed against in his early novels as he shook his fist at a world that demanded he not only be seen, but see himself, first and foremost as a Jew.
Identity politics prevents meaningful discussion of difference through its embrace of what Max Weber called the “theodicy of disprivilege” — the belief that salvation is granted to those who’ve suffered most. In our secular society, this means that members of “oppressed groups” are innocents who cannot be engaged with or held to the same standards as others. Their views must not be challenged by those who are “privileged,” just heard and understood.
This denies the humanity of the speakers by pretending that everything they say is the gospel truth. In fact, we all see things through the fractured lens of our own experience; everyone’s knowledge is always incomplete. When “good people” shy away from healthy, provocative discourse, when they see their role as silently nodding their heads instead of saying, “I don’t see things that way,” differences are not acknowledged and resolved but avoided and left to simmer.
Productive conversation is hard enough; it is almost impossible without the freedom to say what we think. This is the corrosive dynamic of political correctness, which shuts down rather than encourages the open exchange of ideas, feelings and beliefs. It is the closed window that shuts out sunshine’s disinfectant.
I am not suggesting that race, ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation are not powerful influences, or that collective action by blacks, women and others has not made America a better place. I am arguing that these factors have far too much impact: In modern America, identity politics is the hammer that turns every social issue into one of its nails. It teaches people to view their lives through this narrow lens.
Sadly, it denies personal agency and accountability by asserting that our fate is predetermined by dark and faceless powers. It reduces complicated questions of criminal justice and educational opportunity, for example, to simple questions of race and ethnicity. (For an excellent critique of race and the criminal justice system, see Heather MacDonald’s new book “The War on Cops.”) It pretends that all people are hard-working and law-abiding citizens doing the very best they can, that they would succeed but for the roadblocks put in their way. It urges people to ask, What has been done to you, rather than what can you do for yourself?
It creates the one thing too many Americans embrace: a culture of victimization, grievance and impotence.
Again, this is not to deny that profound inequalities exist in our society — they always have and always will. And many of these are rooted in the injustices of the past. But when we attribute all such disparities to identity, we have a hard time explaining, for instance, why “privileged” working-class white men seem to be in crisis. (For more, see “White Trash,” Nancy Isenberg’s new book.)
More dangerously, identity politics pretends that we can cure all that ails us by thinking better and spending more. The past 60 years, which have been marked by a flowering of freedom and trillions in social spending, belie that. We have not ignored our problems; we just don’t know how to fix them all.
So, yes, it is important to acknowledge difference and to hold those in power accountable. But to move forward, we must come together and reject the stranglehold of identity politics.
J. Peder Zane is a columnist for the News & Observer.