Now, More Than Ever, Identity Politics Matter
On Sunday, Senator Bernie Sanders told supporters in a speech that it was time for the Democratic Party to shift away from "identity politics," positing instead that the party needed to shift focus toward the "working class." By setting up this dichotomy, Sanders implied that it is time for the left at-large to take up the mantle of the white working class—erasing in the process the unique marginalization faced by women and people of color, who more often live in poverty than their white and male counterparts. Sanders' statement is part of a growing narrative by liberal and progressive thinkers—many of them white and male—who claim that the outcome of this year's presidential election indicates that talking about race, gender and sexuality is a "losing" message.
That narrative, and those thinkers, are wrong.
It is certainly valid to say that talking about economic policies and poverty should be a more central theme in the Democratic Party, but those issues of class cannot be parsed out from issues of identity if the goal is true economic justice. The future of movement-building has long been intersectionality, and to pursue an economic agenda without weaving in the unique ways identities impact our lives—economically and otherwise—is simply bad politics.
"Framing 'identity politics' as an idea that takes the focus away from 'working people,'" activist Bree Newsome explained on Twitter, "is basically saying let's ignore racism and sexism." That ignorance matters when you're a Black woman making even less than a white women who makes even less than a white man on the dollar. That ignorance matters when you're a parent worried about losing the Obamacare-provided coverage that keeps your kids healthy. That ignorance matters when you're a woman at risk of losing her job because you're pregnant.
It is worth nothing, too, that Sanders' speech Sunday came on the heels of his remarks last week that he would be "an ally" to Donald Trump. What he implied through this half-endorsement is that it is acceptable to work alongside someone who has vowed to uphold and implement racist and sexist policies in order to advance an economic agenda—a perspective that is especially troubling considering how Trump's election put the most marginalized folks in America on the line.
The largest problem with Sanders' statement isn't that he disavows and diminishes the importance of identity politics—although that, in light of the starkly visible divisions among Americans, is in and of itself egregious. The problem instead is that he is implying that we should abandon the violence and discrimination people who aren't the most privileged face just for who they are in pursuit instead of an economic agenda.
Economic equality won't fix all of the other inequalities in our culture. Economic equality won't stop rape and sexual assault. It won't stop police from shooting Black people in the streets. It won't stop bathroom bills. It won't stop parents from sending their kids to anti-gay "conversion therapy" programs. It won't stop educators from disproportionately punishing students of color. It won't end the ongoing fight for commonsense immigration reform or commonsense gun law reform.
Economic policy is not the singular answer to violence, hatred, oppression, and marginalization. That doesn't mean it isn't important—it just means we don't have to choose. It means we cannot choose. We must weave issues of identity and economics together as we embark on a new era in politics in which many of us will be fighting not just to make ends meet, but to survive.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, which as of last week had counted 400 acts of harassment and violence since Trump's election, has now counted over 700. White nationalist groups are celebrating Trump's victory loudly and without apology, and while the President-Elect had the time to tweet about the Hamilton cast calling on Vice President-Elect Mike Pence to protect all Americans from discrimination, he has yet to tweet about his supporters painting swastikas and threatening Muslims while invoking his name.
In addition, Donald Trump's growing staff has come to encompass a Klan-sympathizing racist, an "alt-right" media head supported by neo-Nazis and an anti-Muslim extremist.An advisor was spotted carrying notes about "extreme vetting," tracking immigrants, building a wall on the U.S./Mexico border and scaling up deportations. His Chief of Staff listed Dick Cheney and Andrew Jackson among his inspirations (in addition to Satan) for the direction of Trump's administration and excitedly told a reporter that he hopes to take America back to the 1930's—all racially coded statements that refer to a whiter America where people of color, and especially Muslims, Japanese-Americans and Native Americans, were at risk. A former spokesperson for his campaign invoked the internment camps for Japanese-Americans instated in World War II when advocating for Trump's promise of a national Muslim registry.
We cannot risk pushing away from issues of identity and marginalization—because in the process we could leave the most vulnerable without a left to champion them.
This election was not simply about "economic anxiety." The Democrats did not lose because they failed to "reach" working-class voters. The mainstream media, which falsely depicted Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump as equivalently "populist" candidates, has fueled this myth in the face of basic data and anecdotal evidence to the contrary. Hillary Clinton won the working-class in the general election, albeit in lower numbers than Obama. In fact, Trump's support came largely from college-educated white folks who made about $70,000 a year. Meanwhile, in the Republican primary, 67 percent of Trump supporters stated that they were in favor of a national registry of Muslim-Americans; in the general election, his margin of victory among men was significantly higher than that of previous GOP candidates.
It is undeniable that race and gender played a part in the results of this election—namely, that many voters rejected a candidate with an intersectional feminist agenda. Even if some Trump voters were voting on economic issues, untangling Trump's "populism" from his racism and sexism is nearly impossible. Parsing out whether a voter is racist, sexist or economically inclined—or a mix of all three—is similarly impossible.
It is true that Hillary Clinton ultimately lost the election in terms of Electoral College votes. It is not true that she was a "bad candidate," however, or that Trump's message was more well-received. Hillary Clinton won a record amount of votes in the presidential election, second only to Barack Obama in 2008. Her lead in the popular vote is growing to a predicted 2 million. Clinton's campaign, and her policies—which centered so-called "identity politics"—have a public mandate. In the face of the hate and violence taking a grip on our nation in the wake of the election, that public mandate cannot be forgotten or forsaken on the left.
Identity matters, and so do identity politics. Those who are not cis, straight, white men in this country are currently being made into targets. The rights and well-being of immigrants, people of color, women, the disabled and LGBT folks are at risk. With each coming day the Trump/Pence administration shows more hostility towards equality and justice. The moral imperative now is to continue fighting for those who are being victimized, not to abandon the conversations about their marginalization that are more pertinent than ever.
For the left to ignore the divides of this nation putting so many communities at risk, particularly now, would be frankly inadvisable—and unforgivable.
Carmen Rios is the Managing Editor at Argot Magazine as well as the Digital Editor at Ms., Community Director and Feminism Editor at Autostraddle, and a Contributor at Everyday Feminism. Her words have been published by BuzzFeed, BITCH, ElixHER, MEL, and Feministing, among others, and she was once a blogger and activist with the SPARK Movement, a writer at Mic, and Managing Editor of THE LINE Campaign blog. Carmen's successful work for over eight years in digital feminism—as a writer, social media maven, and activist leader—has earned her the titles of “digital native,” “intimidating to some,” and “vapid and uninteresting.” She's too honest on Twitter , too vague on Tumblr and consistently uses the same Instagram filter. You can learn more about her at carmenfuckingrios.com.