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The Problem that Identity Politics Never Addressed

Nobody knows why the Democrats did so poorly in the recent election or why Donald Trump beat Hillary Clinton. Right up to the day of the election, before the votes started rolling in, I heard media pundits proclaiming that the massive defeat of the Republican Party and its presidential candidate was due to it not listening to the famous “autopsy” done after the 2012 election in which it was clear that any party that didn’t pay attention to minorities would never again win the White House.

So much for political savvy among the experts.

Now the talk is that the Democrats, perhaps because they did pay attention to the Republican autopsy, focused too much on various minorities and issues of race, gender, and sexual identity and failed to look at the needs of the disgruntled White working class. This is encapsulated in the phrase, bordering on a new slogan, that Democrats need to quit focusing on “identity politics.”

The monumental errors of post-election analyses by experts in the past ought to caution us to take this latest analysis with a grain of salt.

I’m no expert on why people vote the way they do, but I do keep my eye on a lot of what is going on in our country and, aside from the question of how to win an election, I have some observations about what people are doing and saying – at least on the political left. Whatever the conservative anger and fear is, I’m not an expert on it, so my comments are mostly, but not entirely for people who label themselves liberal or progressive.

What has identity politics been about? In the last few years I have seen it become a supposedly deep moral issue to stop university professors from committing “microagressions” when they say things such as, “anyone can get ahead by hard work,” or to point out that Miley Cyrus is committing “cultural appropriation” by using a Black dance move on television, or to argue that continuing to have the name of a slave owner such as Thomas Jefferson or  a president with racist leanings such as Woodrow Wilson attached to buildings or monuments on college campuses is not just offensive but “traumatic” for students of color. During our election, Donald Trump’s use of the term, “bad hombre” received headlines and was debated for days as to what depth of racism toward Hispanics it represented in the candidate. Hillary Clinton’s use of the term “super predator,” in the 1990’s, a term that was being bandied about the media at the time, was used as evidence that she was, at heart, a racist  and not deserving of Black support, unless perhaps she apologized  for using such a term.

None of these focuses deals with the real issue of race and ethnicity in the United States. They pale in comparison to the issue of differences in life span, educational attainment, household wealth, and incarceration rates, all of which show monumental disadvantage to Blacks and sometimes Native Americans and Hispanics compared to Asian and White Americans—disadvantages which have not diminished substantially, even as everyone’s lives have gotten better over the last several decades. As pointed out by Antonio Moore, referring to a recent UCLA study, in  the city of Los Angeles, the White family’s average Net worth, or wealth (the sum of the value of total assets minus the value of debts) is $355,000. Chinese, Japanese and Asians from India all have net worth above $400,000. For U.S. born Blacks the figure is $4,000, for Mexicans, $3,500. In terms of liquid assets (stocks, bonds, checking or savings accounts or cash), the average White family in L.A. has $110,000, which is still below the average Chinese, Japanese, or Asian Indian, while the average U.S. born Black family has $200 in liquid assets and the average Mexican family $0.

In terms of health, Black Americans have significantly higher rates of death by heart disease, stroke, infant mortality and homicide than any other group in the U.S. Average lifespan for Blacks in the U.S. is nearly ten years shorter than that for Whites or Hispanics. On most measures of health, Asian Americans do best, Hispanics and Whites are about equal and Blacks and Native Americans are far behind.

In terms of education, according to the U.S. census, 93.3% of non-Hispanic Whites graduate from high school, 89.1% of Asians, 87% if Blacks and 66.7% of Hispanics. In terms of attaining a bachelor’s degree, 36.2% of non-Hispanic Whites, 53.9% of Asians, 22.5% of Blacks and 15.5% of Hispanics achieve this level of education. In terms of advanced degrees, 13.5% of non-Hispanic Whites , 21.4% of Asians, 8.2% of Blacks and 4.7% of Hispanics go this far.

And even when educational backgrounds are equal, the racial differences in income are substantial. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, White high school graduates with no college (the group that overwhelmingly voted for Donald Trump and which to which the Democrats are now trying to cater) make 20% more than Blacks with the same education and 17% more than Hispanics. With a bachelor’s degree the disparity increases. Whites with a bachelor’s degree make 26% more than Blacks with the same degree and 21% more than Hispanics with the same degree.

Black men are more than six times more likely to be incarcerated than White Men, and for young Black men the disparity is even worse. Tah Nehisi Coates, in an article in The Atlantic, pointed out that “In 2000, one in 10 black males between the ages of 20 and 40 was incarcerated—10 times the rate of their white peers. In 2010, a third of all black male high-school dropouts between the ages of 20 and 39 were imprisoned, compared with only 13 percent of their white peers.”

Black people, Hispanics and Native Americans are worse off than most other racial groups in America, and in the area of health outcomes, Black people stand out as doing less well. Except in the area of health outcomes, Latinos, particularly Mexican Americans are also worse off than Whites or Asians on measures of educational attainment or finances.  On some measures, Hispanics are worse off than Blacks, particularly in terms of education and economic assets. Some of these differences are due to socioeconomic differences, such as income and education, on which racial and ethnic groups, as shown above, differ markedly,  but even when SES is controlled, health disadvantages for Blacks, for instance are still present. This is something that has not change appreciably over decades in the U.S. or under the  governmental control of either political party.

Black people in America have had to endure slavery, Jim Crow laws, segregation, and discrimination on nearly all fronts and after having done so, they remain disproportionately poor, sick, unemployed and in jail. Hispanic Americans are now receiving some of the same treatment. Perhaps some of the discrimination against Hispanic Americans will lessen, in the same way it has for other immigrant minority groups such as the Irish and the Italians. But right now the disparities in our society related to Black race or Hispanic ethnicity or to being Native American, are large and glaring. But it is not these disparities that get talked about.

Politicians on the left and right rant about the plight of the middle class in America. It is stylish to say that they are being “left behind” in  the growth of the economy over the last few decades. Wages have stagnated and the wealth of the upper 1% has mushroomed. Nearly all discussions of the ignored working class  refer to it as, or imply that it is, a “white working class,” ignoring the fact that other races and ethnicities make up the working class also and that they are being left behind even more than are Whites. The “plight of the working class” has become an identity politics meme for economic status of White people without college degrees.

Liberals and progressives are being urged to stop talking about issues such as race and ethnicity (as well as gender and sexual identity) and talk about “real” issues that face all Americans. They are being told to do this while enormous disparities in income, wealth, education, health and incarceration rates, based on race and ethnicity, still plague American society. If one is concerned about leaving specific segments of our society behind and leaving them based on the color of their skin or the country they came from or the language they originally spoke, then these disparities are not only “real” problems, they are problems that should make us question whether our country is upholding our basic values of equality and equal opportunity.

Maybe the problem is to stop talking about these issues in the way they have been talked about. Whether Khloe Kardashian is appropriating Black culture by wearing her hair in “Bantu Knots” or whether Colin Kaepernick should or shouldn’t stand for the national anthem, or whether a university is “normalizing” racism by allowing Ann Coulter to speak on its campus, or whether an entertainer should apologize for saying “all lives matter” should not occupy the center of our national conversation on race. The problem of racial inequality in this country is more real than these side issues. Of course how we talk about race and how the culture approaches race in entertainment and sports are factors that play a part in determining people’s attitudes toward bigger racial issues, but we may have missed the forest by talking about the trees.

That we live in a country in which race and ethnicity play such a major role in determining quality of life and in which some races —being Black or Native American—and some ethnicities—being Hispanic—have a quality of life so far below others is a disgrace. Even if Hispanics still have a chance of traveling the same road other immigrant groups have traveled in America and eventually join the middle class, African-Americans have as long or longer history in our country than do most White Americans and still, the country has not learned how to allow them the progress that everyone else is making (the same is true for Native Americans who were the original inhabitants of this country and for whom all the quality of life indicators are as poor as Blacks and Hispanics).

No political party that represents all the people, that represents liberal values of equality can continue to turn its back on the racial disparities in this country. The current effort to “re-align” the Democratic party with working class White Americans and abandon so-called “identity politics” is misguided. Identity politics, as it has been practiced, has failed to address real racial issues in this country. But those issues remain and they cannot be ignored even further by abandoning the pursuit of racial equality for some imagined failure to acknowledge the plight of White working Americans. There is room to address both of these issues, so turning the decision into a choice is misleading. But the groups that always have been, still are, and will continue to be hurting most in this country need to become the focus of our political conversation.

Reader Comments (4)

Hi Casey, I agree with this analysis. A couple of observations as a small contribution towards pushing through the "neither/nor" you describe: First, you assume, as I believe all liberals and progressives do, that the statistics you cite are indicative of a fundamental injustice -- this is because you believe, as all true American patriots should, that "all men are created equal." However, this gift of the enlightenment has apparently been jettisoned by a great many conservatives with the ascendancy of the so called alt right. If it's true that "we" might be talking to people who don't agree with this assumption (that we ought to hold as self-evident) then a number of important considerations arise about strategy and tactics. I don't believe you can convince someone of this if they don't also believe it to be self-evident. Second, the triviality of the discourse in the media. What would be our approach if we were to decide that this misdirection, trivialization, and general focus on the wrong things was deliberate? What if this has something to do with corporate media itself? Here too, immediate implications arise if we were to assume this.

November 26, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterTedd Siegel

I think it is a mistake to concentrate on one reason. I've heard various commentators suggest, racism, not doing enough for white workers, fake news, vote suppression and comments by the head of the FBI as reasons. They may all be correct to some degree. I agree that we should be discussing and facing the effects of racism.

November 26, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterWarren Bull

I think it's important to insist that we can have a "politics of redistribution" and a "politics of recognition" at the same time. Attempts to point the finger at identity politics to define what went wrong drive a wedge we don't need right now. There are a lot of puzzling things that need to be better understood. For example, it's a fact that American de-industrialization was largely accomplished as early as the late 70s and early 80s, and both conservatives and liberals had a hand in it and have presided over it since, although liberals have tried to maintain and extend social safety nets and conservatives have not. So why vent this fury on the democrats and why now? Is this really about white working class economics? Do white working class voters have more to be angry about than anyone else falling out of the middle class?

November 26, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterTedd Siegel

I'm old enough to remember being horrified when I first came to Detroit in 1963 that people we knew warned us about "colored" people with knives. The black people I met were teachers and workers trying really to raise families in a city in so many ways inimical to them. I was quite young then, and when the President of the United States came on TV and talked about the inequality of opportunity in this nation I felt validated. Nine months later that President was assassinated. The President who succeeded him successfully pressed Congress to pass the most affirming civil-rights legislation since the end of the Civil War. There has been nothing but resistance on the part of white Americans since those times to the push toward equality. The more educated among us (but education means so much more than time spent in college like a duck in water never getting wet), the younger among us, the many new immigrants facing similar challenges understand and are willing to try to keep the momentum toward equal opportunity going. But so many, especially those living in isolated areas where the big city and its "ghettos" are mythical places full of sin, crime, and danger do not. Their only claim to superiority is their whiteness. Hard to let go, even when voting against their own economic interests has screwed them time and again.

I agree with you, Casey. If we do not as a nation address racial and other inequalities we will destroy democracy.

November 26, 2016 | Unregistered CommenterAnca Vlasopolos

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