What Does Identity Politics Mean? The Irony Of White Conservatives Bashing The Term
If you were keeping track of political conversations during the 2016 presidential election, you might have spotted the deployment of the phrase "identity politics" by pundits across the political spectrum. "Identity politics" became one of the primary issues when discussing people's favorite presidential candidates and how each handled the subject of race in the context of America. Time and again, conservatives would bemoan "identity politics" and fault people of color for clinging to their identities. But it is worth letting them know that white supremacists created "identity politics," not ethnic minorities.
Now, it doesn't take a lot to figure this one out. In order for a cultural attitude to become prevalent, it has to originate somewhere. When conservatives complain about people of color demanding that public officials understand what it is to be a racial minority and wanting representatives who stand in favor of basic rights like fair opportunities for employment, sustainable housing, not being racially profiled, equal wages, and other necessities to live a healthy and humiliation-free life, they assume this falls under the ominous and divisive umbrella of "identity politics."
In outlets like the American Conservative, right-wing writers speculate about identity politics as if people of color coined and mainstreamed the phrase they find so disdainful, but a stroll through history shows how white supremacy created an identity crisis for itself along with the rest of United States.
In other words, identity politics is a product of white nationalism. As laid out in a timeline by Slate, when the American Constitution declared its approval of slavery in 1787, it birthed the very first chapter in identity politics. When white supremacy denied citizenship to men and women of African descent in 1865, it agreed to create a hierarchy of racial identities by placing itself at the top of its own pyramid. When white nationalism sanctioned segregation in 1896, it denied civil rights to black Americans and forced a racial minority to protect its identity and safety from further subjugation. Even though segregation officially ended in the 1960s, discrimination against black Americans permeates American society to this day.
Extreme inequality in wages, bias in law enforcement agencies, unfair and unstable housing developments — these issues and more continue to plague the lives of people of color, while white Americans enjoy more social and political benefits. In such a climate, where one's racial identity places them in the crosshairs of white-sanctioned prejudice and disadvantage, it is only natural and necessary to defend one's identity.
Perhaps the irony in this brief history lesson may change some minds. Three hundred years of suppression primed, legalized, and promulgated by white nationalism brought forth "identity politics." The advent of America began the history of identity politics. If white supremacists are indeed so utterly sick of identity politics roiling America, they should opt for detailed introspection and a deeper look at the ideology they espouse so proudly.
Instead of reactionary calls to people of color to back down from defending themselves from more inequality, those who find themselves at odds with "identity politics" should wonder why a group of marginalized people wish to protect themselves from more disadvantage. Maybe then they'll understand and point in a different direction.