Ian Haney López addresses “Identity Politics” in his Race-Class Academy teachings. In Haney López’s view, “all politics is identity politics.” Identity is rooted in our personal experiences. When we share an experience – an experience of social injustice, of discrimination, of prejudice, and mistreatment – that shared experience identifies us. It must also unite us.
Haney López challenges those who dismiss political advocacy for social justice as “merely identity politics”. So, who is dismissing identity politics? Critics on the right, of course, but also some on the left. Identity, they argue, is the label you wear based on what you “are” – your race, your gender, your ethnicity, your sexuality – and these are traits that you do not choose. In the view of these critics, identity politics is a dividing factor, setting one group against another and marginalizing each group. This labeling, they say, creates division and fractures the ability of like-minded people to work together even when they have shared goals and shared concerns.
This criticism misrepresents what identity politics is. Haney López argues that, rather than merely being labels, “identity politics refers to the ways in which individuals make political choices to improve their lives based on their own experiences.” We ask ourselves these three questions – the identity questions:
Who am I in this society?
Who threatens me?
Who are my allies?
In politics, identity is meaningful only in the context of our social surroundings and our lived or learned experiences within those surroundings. So, the first question asks about my identity “in this society” – not on a deserted island somewhere, but in the context of the society. The second and third questions depend entirely on other people – how am I treated by others?
Haney López says that “it’s the frame that people use to understand their lives … that drives how they participate in politics.” How, then, should we understand identity politics? Identity politics is the explicit recognition of our shared experiences – our division, our marginalization, our denigration, our depiction as a threat to be feared – at the hands of a power-wielding majority. And that experience comes from being different from them – a different skin color, a different gender, a different race. It comes from a shared social injustice due to a label others have placed upon us.
It is this shared experience of social injustice that identifies us – and must unite us into a multi-racial supermajority, a democracy that works for all of us, together.
Join a conversation: Democracy Endgame? Not If We Join Together! with Ian Haney López, February 10, 2022, at 6:00PM Eastern Time. Register here: https://us02web.zoom.us/webinar/register/WN_5HwkNDl6SNat5cN_x_TpQg
Washington Post op-ed, Ian Haney López & Anat Shenker-Osorio , 2018: https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/the-answer-to-gop-dog-whistles-democrats-should-talk-more-about-race-not-less/2018/08/22/7cfa4d3a-a184-11e8-8e87-c869fe70a721_story.html
Race-Class Academy, Video 2.4 “Identity Politics”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gLcUdcNf-HI&autoplay=1&cc_load_policy=1&rel=0
Race-Class Academy, Discussion Guide 2.4: https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5f242778987a1d1b201fa593/t/5f59447bdbad750249f1dd3f/1599685756564/Discussion+Guide+2.4+UPDATED.pdf
Vox, Ian Haney López interview on “Merge Left”, 2020 https://www.vox.com/2020/2/18/21116867/ian-haney-lopez-merge-left-race-class-project-trump-racism-dog-whistles-2020-democrats
Protect Democracy article by Ian Haney López, “Can Democracy Survive Racism As A Strategy?”, 2021 https://protectdemocracy.org/project/endgame/#section-4