After Identity Politics
On recovering what was most radical in identity politics.
This essay is part of the Special Issue “After Life: Identity and Indifference in the Time of Planetary Peril.” It features papers presented at the inaugural symposium of The Democracy Institute at the Ahimsa Center at Cal Poly Pomona, which was co-sponsored by the Institute for New Global Politics, in March 2023.
Identity politics is under attack and has been for decades. Those on the right scoff at its centering of the concerns of women, ethnic minorities, LGBTQIA+ people, Black and Brown people, and anyone else who sits outside of the white, Western, heterosexual, and cis male hegemonic perspective. In a report from Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Representative Chip Roy (R-Texas) obtained by Fox News Digital last November, they deride the Biden Administration’s push for diversity and equity training in the military. The report warns against turning the military into a “left-wing social experiment,” arguing that it “cannot be used as a cudgel against America itself. And it cannot be paralyzed by fear of offending the sensibilities of Ivy league faculty lounges or progressive pundits” (Hauf Nov. 21, 2022).
States across the nation have been on an aggressive offensive against identity politics, diversity and equity trainings, Critical Race Theory, and any approach to education that disrupts what Tesha Sengupta-Irving calls the “untroubled center” for the past few years. As Sarah Schwartz reported for Education Week in June of 2021 (and updated in January 2023), since January 2021, 44 states have “introduced bills or taken other steps that would restrict teaching critical race theory or limit how teachers can discuss racism and sexism…Eighteen states have imposed these bans and restrictions either through legislation or other avenues” (Schwartz 2021). Florida’s ban is perhaps the most far-reaching. Positioned against what he calls the “state-sanctioned racism that is critical race theory” (DeSantis 2023), Republican Governor Ron DeSantis (Fla.) signed into law the “Stop W.O.K.E. Act” last April (2022), and we are already feeling its reverberations. Numerous faculty have either cancelled or significantly modified the courses they are teaching so as to be in compliance with the law and not risk losing their jobs (Golden 2023).
With Florida’s newest proposed addition to the act, Florida Bill 999, the state is poised to cut entire programs and departments from the university curriculum, including “any major or minor in Critical Race Theory, Gender Studies, or Intersectionality,” or any “derivative major or minor of these belief systems.” As Adam Steinbaugh reported for Fire in February, Florida Bill 99 will prevent faculty involved in teaching the general education curriculum “from including material that ‘teaches identity politics,’ which the bill defines as ‘Critical Race Theory’” (Steinbaugh 2023). Even more terrifying is the power HB 999 cedes to the board of trustees who will now interfere in hiring, tenure, and promotion processes. It will authorize the “board of trustees to, ‘at the request of its chair, review any faculty member’s tenure status’, omitting comparable ‘with cause’ language.” This omission, Steinbaugh notes, “appears to grant boards and presidents the authority to ‘review’ tenure without cause—a change that would effectively eliminate tenure as most faculty understand it today” (Steinbaugh 2023).
But it’s not just the political right that is out to rid the nation of identity politics. Indeed, progressive political pundits and leftist scholars have been critical of identity politics for decades. Such criticisms have intensified in the wake of cancel culture and the rise of what appears to be an emboldened White nationalism sweeping the country since the 2016 presidential election. As Mark Lilla put it in his now well-known New York Times op-ed in November of 2016 (also see Malik 2020), liberals must take responsibility for how “their own obsession with diversity has encouraged white, rural, religious Americans to think of themselves as a disadvantaged group whose identity is being threatened and ignored” (Lilla 2016). It is liberals, Lilla implies, that have fed the far right the watchwords and rationale needed to defend White nationalism. Even if those on the far right are partly reacting against the “omnipresent rhetoric of identity,” they are now weaponizing diversity and identity rationales to defend their unabashed racism. “Liberals should bear in mind,” Lilla warns, “that the first identity movement in American politics was the Ku Klux Klan, which still exists. Those who play the identity game should be prepared to lose it,” he concludes (Lilla 2016).
In response to the monuments and statues that came down across the United States in the wake of the George Floyd protests in the summer of 2020, the centrist president of France, Emmanuel Macron, boldly asserted that “the Republic will not erase any trace, or any name, from its history…it will not take down any statue” (quoted in Mortimer 2021, emphasis added). Asked in an interview with Elle the following year what he thinks about identity politics, Macron answered, “I see a society that is progressively racialising itself,” adding that “the logic of intersectionality fractures everything” (quoted in Mortimer 2021). Perhaps aligning with Lilla’s appeal to “post-identity liberalism” (Lilla 2016), and certainly in keeping with his centrist politics, Macron asserts in the same interview, “I am on the side of the universalist,” continuing, “I don’t recognize myself in a fight which sends each individual into his identity or his own specific characteristic,” noting especially his displeasure for the concept of “white privilege” (quoted in Mortimer 2021).
But even before all of this, and among leftists who wouldn’t dare retreat into a universalist project naively optimistic about the promise of Enlightenment principles, we find similarly devastating critiques of anything that smacks of identity politics. Indeed, and as I have argued elsewhere (Taylor 2022), progressive feminists influenced by poststructuralist theoretical orientations towards “ontological unfixity” have been opposed to identity politics since the late 1980s. Because categories such as “women,” they assert, are produced in and through language (that is, produced discursively), they are always in the process of becoming and never arrive firmly in the realm of being. This was, of course, Judith Butler’s point in Gender Trouble (1990), leading her and other poststructuralist feminists such as Diane Elam (1994), Diana Coole (1993), Joan Scott (1997), Diana Fuss (1989), Elizabeth Grosz (1994), and Moya Lloyd (2005), to name only a few, to remain incredibly wary of any form of politics that depends on a stable notion of an identity category such as women. In its stead, they opt for a conception of identity that emphasizes permanent open endedness as a state of being (Lloyd 2005, 16 & 17), what Lloyd refers to as an ontological state of “existing in process” (19, 22). A feminist politics that rallies around an identity category such as “women,” they maintain, is not only descriptively misleading but politically dangerous insofar as such acts of definitional closure risk marginalizing women who might sit outside of such parameters.
Though it is often women of color that they have in mind in warnings around definitional closure, poststructuralist feminist literature is notable for its conspicuous absence of any real engagement with the theoretical insights of U.S. Women of Color feminism. In moments where they do engage with Women of Color feminist appeals to identity politics–both Diana Fuss and Moya Lloyd, for instance, briefly mention the Combahee River Collective–they quickly dismiss them as trapped within the essentialist logic of ontological closure (Fuss 1989 99-100; Lloyd 2005, 36; and Jasbir Puar 2012). Had they engaged seriously with activist-theorists such as Audre Lorde, Barbara Smith, Bernice Johnson Reagon, Gloria Anzaldúa, María Lugones and numerous others actively publishing in the 1980s, they would have confronted a very different understanding of both identity and its relationship to politics (see Taylor 2022, 106-149).
Which brings me back to the question of why the need to push beyond identity politics. The reason we must imagine an “after” to identity politics is not because any of these critiques are particularly compelling. Indeed, I never found the poststructuralist critique very convincing. Their all too easy dismissals of identity politics and those who defend it at best represent a profound misreading of the very activists who gave us something called “identity politics,” to which I turn momentarily. At worst, they reflect an outright hostility to U.S. Black feminism. Critiques from the political left and right are equally uncompelling. Most notably because they vastly overestimate the left establishment’s commitment to the kind of politics that would make a positive material difference in the lives of ethnic minorities, women, and Black and Brown people. Nancy Fraser’s account of the 2016 presidential election is instructive on this point. As she persuasively argues, the same neoliberal policies that devastated the livelihoods of working-class white Trump voters were equally devastating for women, ethnic minorities, and Black Americans. Rather than taking aim at the real culprit, which is of course neoliberalism, Trump’s voters took aim at what Fraser dubs “progressive neoliberalism,” which is effectively neoliberal political and economic policies wrapped in a progressive gloss of symbolic recognition for women, LGBTQIA+ people, ethnic minorities, and Black people (Fraser 2016, 281-282). And so, while the extreme backlash on the right against what has come to be known as identity politics is very real, what they are reacting against is nothing more than a veneer of progressive change, which stings all the more acutely for them due to the devastating effects of the neoliberal policies it glosses. When identity politics is nothing more than a facade, it is easily reappropriated by the right even as they disdain it. Both the backlash and the reappropriation should concern us, but not because they spell a need to retreat to Enlightenment universalism, but because they might help us to make sense of the politics needed in our contemporary moment.
It’s no coincidence that the extreme reaction against identity politics and Critical Race Theory gained momentum in the wake of the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests, protests that galvanized a much deeper conversation around systemic racism than the toppling of statues would suggest. With proposals to defund the police, to provide a universal basic income for all Americans, and to provide an extra income to Black Americans as reparations, among other far-reaching measures (LaTour 2016, Owen 2016, BLM 2016), B.L.M.’s 2016 Vision for Black Lives demanded real material changes in the lives not just of Black and Brown people but of whole swaths of America who are suffering under racial capitalism. The establishment left and right and the far right united around their disdain for such a radical platform, effectively wresting once again identity politics from its more radical moorings and situating it firmly in its far less threatening permutation as veneer or gloss, except now what is being obscured is not just the policies that define the neoliberal racial order, but the very politics needed to confront this behemoth.
Thus, I want to frame the remainder of my remarks on why we must indeed move beyond identity politics outside of these critiques and inside the political world out of which the unique epistemology and corresponding politics that was identity politics first emerged. The after sought here, to be clear, is perhaps better thought of as a recuperation of what was always most radical about identity politics, in this way according with Shahzad Bashir’s conception of “positive nostalgia” or the imperative to remember what was most emancipatory from the past as we rethink the terms and concepts of our democratic futures. To recover what was most emancipatory in identity politics, I turn to the tradition of U.S. Black and Women of Color feminism, and specifically to the Combahee River Collective’s “Black Feminist Statement.”
The Combahee River Collective (Combahee) was a Black feminist lesbian socialist organization active in Boston from 1974-1980, including among its members Barbara Smith, her sister Beverly Smith, Demita Frazier, Cheryl Clarke, and Audre Lorde. After a few years of organizing, the Combahee members drafted their famous “Black Feminist Statement” (dated April 1977). It’s in this statement that they name their politics “identity politics.” It is therefore also this statement that is referenced by poststructuralist feminists who critique what they misidentify as an appeal to essentialism and representative group politics.
The portion of the statement referenced in moments of these critique reads as follows.
Above all else, our politics initially sprang from the shared belief that Black women are inherently valuable, that our liberation is a necessity not as an adjunct to somebody else’s but because of our need as human persons for autonomy. This may seem so obvious as to sound simplistic, but it is apparent that no other ostensibly progressive movement has ever considered our specific oppression as a priority or worked seriously for the ending of that oppression. […] We realize that the only people who care enough about us to work consistently for our liberation is us. Our politics evolve from a healthy love for ourselves, our sisters and our community which allows us to continue our struggle and work.
This focusing upon our own oppression is embodied in the concept of identity politics. We believe that the most profound and potentially the most radical politics come directly out of our own identity, as opposed to working to end somebody else’s oppression (Combahee 2015 , 212).
In the above passage, Combahee names their politics “identity politics,” asserting that this politics comes “directly out of” their identity. Critics have misread these words on two key points, first in their interpretation of the notion of “identity” used here, and second in their interpretation of the notion of politics invoked. On the identity point, they assume that Combahee’s identity politics is invested in an essentialist notion of what it means to be a Black woman. In this way, the critique is an accusation of definitional closure. Critics claim that even if the group being defined in this instance is a marginalized group, that same group can still be guilty of the future marginalization that comes with acts of definitional closure. Critics thus accuse Combahee of treating the category “Black woman” as fixed or static; in this sense, it is an essentialized notion of Black women. Second, on the politics point, critics assume what is being advocated for here is representative group politics; a politics oriented toward celebrating a group identity and fighting for the needs, rights, or interests of that particular group.
Both accusations, however, reflect a profound misreading not only of the passage cited above but also of how it is situated within the larger statement. On the charge of essentialism, Combahee never set out to define the Black woman’s experience and certainly not in essentialist terms. There is a large Black feminist literature that affirms this reluctance toward what the critics call definitional closure (see especially Collins 2000). Nevertheless, Combahee does believe there is something unique about where a Black, lesbian woman sits relative to oppression. It is also true that they set out to celebrate what is valuable in the unique standpoint this affords. The Combahee members speak here from their experience of marginalization from other progressive movements, and namely from the civil rights movement on account of their gender and from the white feminist movement on account of their race. The understandings of oppression that shaped these other progressive movements were inadequate, Combahee is arguing, for capturing the unique form of oppression they experience. They also learned through their involvement in these movements that the Black men and white women working in them had no interest in expanding their understanding of oppression to account for the unique forms of oppression shaping the Combahee members’ lives as Black, lesbian women. It is for this reason that they felt the need to form their own separate Black feminist lesbian socialist organization. Thus, what their identity gives them is a wider vantage point or, as Patricia Hill Collins calls it, “angle of vision” (2000), from which to make sense of the multiple forms of oppression at play in their lives. It’s therefore no wonder that in the same sentence in which they say their politics come “directly out of” their identity they also specify that these politics must be “radical” and that they effectively conflate a focus on identity with a focus on oppression.
This becomes especially clear when we situate their appeal to “identity politics” within another important passage from the statement.
The most general statement of our politics at the present time would be that we are actively committed to struggling against racial, sexual, heterosexual, and class oppression and see as our particular task the development of integrated analysis and practice based upon the fact that the major systems of oppression are interlocking. The synthesis of these oppressions creates the conditions of our lives. As Black women we see Black feminism as the logical political movement to combat the manifold and simultaneous oppressions that all women of color face. (Combahee 2015 , 210, emphasis added)
As I and others have argued elsewhere (Mohanty 1991, Alcoff 1997, Collins 2000, and Taylor 2022), while they use the language of identity, what they are speaking to is best understood as a “position,” “analytic,” or “standpoint,” which is necessarily also for them a “politics.” As Collins aptly puts it, one of the key features of Black feminism is the dialectical relationship between their analysis of oppression and their politics of resisting oppression (Collins 2000, 25). Indeed, and as Barbara Smith (one of the co-founders of Combahee) has clarified in numerous interviews in the past few years (Smith 2020, Smith and Goodman 2020, and Smith, Breedlove, and Sonnie 2020), their identity shaped their politics insofar as it provided them an analytic for making sense of the multiple, fluid, and, as they famously put it above, “interlocking” systems of oppression that shape their lives. Their “task,” as they put it–and I read this as both a political and an analytical task–is to create “integrated analysis,” which is to name and make sense of interlocking systems of oppression. Their “identity” politics is captured in another label referenced in the passage above, and that of course is simply “Black feminism.” It is rooted in a political commitment to making sense of and undermining interlocking oppressions. This is not representative group politics; it is neither premised on an essentialized notion of group identity, nor is it oriented toward delineating a set of group rights or interests. It is rather focused on learning from the unique vantage point of Black lesbian women and using this perspective to make sense of interlocking oppressions and to shape a politics oriented toward dismantling them.
This identity or, as Bernice Johnson Reagon famously put it in a speech on coalition politics in 1981, this “home” politics is needed for the sake of building the integrated analysis that positions Black feminists to enter coalitional struggle with other subordinated groups. Indeed, Combahee makes precisely this point in their statement. They clarify that while they spent months working in their isolated Black lesbian feminist space, their politics also involved working in coalition with other groups committed to tackling interlocking oppressions (Combahee 2015  213). In this sense, identity politics, when understood with Combahee, sets the stage for the difficult work of coalition politics. Indeed, this is perhaps Reagon’s most influential piece of advice in her famous speech, which is of course to value the place for both a home or identity politics and a coalition politics but to never conflate the two. Unlike the comfort one might find at home, Reagon boldly asserts that working in coalitions across our differences is dangerous, life-threatening work. Doing this kind of work, she tells us, should feel uncomfortable; most of the time, she sagely warns, “you feel threatened to the core and if you don’t, you’re not really doing no coalescing” (Reagon 1983, 343). What compels us to nevertheless enter these dangerous spaces, these spaces that we don’t particularly “like” entering, are two things: one, our survival as people suffering under one or more of these interlocking oppressions (344); and two, what she calls the principles of coalition, which amount to a political commitment to struggling against multiple forms of oppressions simultaneously. As she puts it, it is about “showing up” at all the different struggles and taking them on as your own struggle (350); it’s even about being what she calls “biased” and “bigoted” in our commitment to fighting interlocking oppressions (353). What I believe she means by this is that this political commitment is uncompromising; it is rigid, and it is absolutely necessary when taking on the many-headed monster of oppression.
Which brings me back to the question at hand, and what it might mean to move beyond identity politics in our contemporary moment. While we must indeed move beyond identity politics when understood as progressive gloss, a veneer that can easily be retooled to defend White nationalist bigotry; ultimately, it is not the bigotry that we need to move beyond; it’s the impulse to turn our politics into superficial gloss. Instead, I suggest that we let our politics be biased, biased in favor of intersectional liberation. I suggest we follow Audre Lorde (1984) and María Lugones (2003) in letting “anger” drive our politics, a type of anger that we might understand with Nahum Chandler and Aishwary Kumar as democratic anger, one animated by moral and epistemic clarity rather than by the refusal to examine our suicidal resentments. Let us take firm, uncompromising political stands. Let our politics be informed by where we sit relative to oppression and let us not sit there for too long before stepping outside of what Reagon calls our “x-only” spaces for the sake of building alliances and struggling in coalitions to undermine intersectional oppression. This is what identity politics was about for Combahee and numerous other U.S. Women of Color feminists in the 1970s and 1980s. Let’s learn from them and embrace political rigidity. The left has proven its cowardice in relation to taking bold, biased stances and so they have watered down what was most radical and what was most promising in Combahee’s identity politics. Curiously, it’s the right who got the most useful message from Combahee, which is of course embracing political rigidity, only the right reappropriated political rigidity in the service of oppression rather than in the service of ending it.
I was recently at the American Political Science Association (APSA) Teaching and Learning Conference where I stood in the minority with several co-agitators as we tried to convince colleagues in our discipline serving on the Undergraduate Education Subcommittee of the Presidential Taskforce on Rethinking Political Science Education to take a bold antiracist and intersectional stance so that APSA might better support colleagues who find themselves in hostile states such as Florida. I believe it is boldness like this that will be necessary in our contemporary moment. Florida and other states want to cancel entire critical programs from the college curriculum, the very critical programs that provide the epistemic clarity needed to defend a multiracial democracy. Let us show them that such critical stances are not siloed into gender and ethnic studies. If states want to start banning the entire humanities and social science curriculum, then so be it. Let us have that national conversation, and when we do, I sincerely hope that left academics and pundits might find the audacity to embrace political rigidity in the face of accelerating democratic collapse.
Liza Taylor is Assistant Professor of Political Science at California State Polytechnic University, Pomona.
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