From Identity Politics to Emancipation

From Identity Politics to Emancipation

Movements that put forth the rights of the marginalized as a universal cause are the only way to move beyond a superficial politics of representation.

A response to Leo Casey.

Alliances between movements, like Black Lives Matter and Fight for $15, require participants to take a role beyond allyship (SEIU Local 99 / Flickr)

There is a certain experience familiar to all people of color in America, no matter their ethnic identity or national provenance. It is the experience of being reminded, by a white person, of one’s race. This experience takes many forms, but it has one thing in common: the recognition that the physical features that constitute race in the eye of the beholder are a barrier between the self and the social world. Sometimes, this takes the form of overt racism, and is easily identified. But more frequently, it takes subtler shape.

In my life, the most common example is the question, “Where are you from?” This is a question that unites the parochial racist and the cosmopolitan liberal. I have witnessed white people meeting other white people; there are a range of subjects discussed. But the question of ethnic and national origin comes up with disproportional frequency when white people encounter a person of color. Worse-case scenario, it can be a xenophobic threat, but it is usually a well-meaning display of liberal tolerance. In either case, the question contains an assumption neatly articulated by another classic phrase: “you’re not from around here.”

There is also a political version of this experience. It is increasingly the experience of people of color on the left. In encounters with liberals or leftists whose politics are closer to the center, radicals of color can find themselves told to limit their political demands along the lines of race. Our politics, structured by our experience of inequality under capitalism as mediated through the white supremacist legal and cultural institutions of the United States, are too broad. When we demand universal emancipation, we are told to limit the scope to demographics. We should reduce our subjectivity to one that is defined by ethnicity, and consequently reduce our demands from the universal to the particular. This charge is often accompanied by a paradox—the denial of the radical person of color’s race.

I had a version of this experience recently, while reading the pages of Dissent. I found myself cited in an essay by Leo Casey called “The Perils of Universalism,” a piece responding to a political climate which he writes is characterized by “authoritarian efforts to diminish and degrade democratic citizenship,” particularly of “‘racialized’ others.” In response, Casey calls for a defense of “identity politics,” which he defines as “shorthand for political organizing on the left around issues of race, gender, and sexual identity.” I am named as a critic of this sphere of politics, along with Jacobin contributor Connor Kilpatrick and Columbia professor Mark Lilla, author of the recent book The Once and Future Liberal.

Lilla and Kilpatrick can speak for themselves, and indeed I part company with both of them in significant ways. But as I sit at the proverbial roundtable with my interlocutors, I can’t help but notice I am the only person of color. Casey, himself white, has quoted two white Americans, Mark Lilla and Connor Kilpatrick, and one Pakistani-American, myself. It is one thing to for a white person to accuse two other white people of overlooking race and racism, but it is another thing entirely for him to address this accusation to me. Whatever other claims my three interlocutors may make to more particular identities than “white male”—and these particularities are often entirely valid—mine is the only one that belongs to Casey’s category of the “racialized other.” My ethnic origin in the Muslim world means I am a direct object of derision by President Trump and his followers. According to Casey, since I am the only one facing authoritarian efforts to diminish and degrade my citizenship, it would seem I have something substantial to offer to this debate that the others do not.

Casey makes no such distinction. “In Jacobin,” he writes, “the critique of identity politics has been given a Marxian gloss by writers such as Shuja Haider and Connor Kilpatrick.” But the essay in question by Kilpatrick is an investigation of the notion of the “white working class,” a notion I reject. As Richard Seymour has put it in Salvage, the category is “a reification, a sock puppet, and a scapegoat” produced by the punditocracy to assign blame to working-class people for the rightward shift in contemporary politics. To defend such an entity is to accept terms of debate that have been set in order to exonerate upper and middle-class voters, who bear far more responsibility for the political climate in which we find ourselves today.

My essay, “The Safety Pin and the Swastika,” (which was reposted at Jacobin but originally written for Viewpoint Magazine, where I am an editor) was on a different subject. I wrote it in response to the rising reactionary tide that preceded Trump’s inauguration. I had noticed a disturbing development in the rhetoric of new right-wing icons, most prominently Richard Spencer. His organization, the National Policy Institute, had convened a conference on the theme of “identity politics.” These emergent ideologues of the “alt-right” had begun parroting the language of social justice activism, deploying concepts like “safe spaces” to their own white supremacist ends. This is not to say that the alt-right was somehow caused by identity politics; but that it had adopted its language and used it to intrude into the mainstream of U.S. politics. Alongside this development has been the neoliberalization of identity politics, with Hillary Clinton amending her vocabulary to replace the word “superpredator” with “intersectional.” When both the alt-right and the liberal center have claimed the term “identity politics” as a description of their respective ideologies, I argued that we on the left should be careful about adopting the concept uncritically.

Though the term “identity politics” was initially coined the 1970s by the Combahee River Collective, a black socialist feminist organization, it has since traveled a long way from its source. In the wake of the so-called culture wars of the 1990s, it was appropriated by many who do not share the CRC’s radical egalitarianism. This is why scholars of race and racism like Paul Gilroy have long been cautious about its use. The phrase is now casually deployed by the likes of Hillary Clinton’s former communications director Jennifer Palmieri, who said on Meet the Press in February 2017 that protesters against Trump weren’t interested in “moving policy to the left,” with measures like a $15 minimum wage. “It’s all about identity on our side now,” she said, championing boycotts of Nordstroms and Neiman Marcus as more effective tactics.

This, I thought, presented a challenge for what used to be called “anti-racism.” “It should go without saying that left-liberal identity politics and alt-right white nationalism are not comparable,” I wrote, in a crucial point that Casey neglects to acknowledge. “The problem is that they are compatible.” My claim—about the strategic considerations necessary to meet this adversarial tactic—is taken by Casey to be exactly what I said it wasn’t: a claim of equivalence. He wasn’t the only one. Many readers, with preconceived ideas about a lack of sensitivity to racial injustice on the socialist left, reacted to my argument by expressing disagreement with my description of the relationship between “race and class.” I was assumed to be white on social media so many times I lost count.

Casey poses the following question: “why posit a binary opposition between a politics that addresses class and a politics that addresses race, gender, and sexual identity, as the critics of identity politics do?“ It would be a perfectly reasonable question for someone who had done so, as Jennifer Palmieri did. As it turns out, “race and class”  were never placed in opposition in  “The Safety Pin and the Swastika.” The word “class” appeared in the essay exactly twice, both times as part of the phrase “working class,” in neither case preceded by the word “white,” and both times in quotations. The closest I came to advancing a theory about the relationship of race to class was in delineating between “the powerless and the powerful,” which refers to something broader than class; power, as I’m sure Casey would acknowledge, takes a multitude of forms.

“The rhetoric of Haider and Kilpatrick may be Marxian,” writes Casey, “but the logic of their polemics against identity politics is no different than that of the liberal Lilla.” However, I am on record regarding my vehement disagreement with Mark Lilla, who fails to offer an adequate counterstrategy to the revanchist right. People like Richard Spencer have capitalized on the rise of cultural-studies language in mainstream political discourse by equating American identity with white identity. The result has been a battle over the territory of American identity between liberals and reactionaries, with centrists like Lilla claiming that American citizenship is an inclusive, democratic category that contradicts the exclusionary racism of the alt-right. This, ultimately, is the solution Casey advances as well.

The problem here is that American citizenship is literally founded on the equation with white identity. In early American legal documents, citizenship and civil rights are based on distinctions between racial types, comprising such departures from reason as the “One-Drop Rule” and “Pocahontas Exception” of Virginia’s Racial Integrity Act of 1924. The alt-right has history on their side. They also have capitalism on their side. These racial taxonomies are carried on not just by the alt-right, but by social norms that maintain inequality—segregated housing, income inequality, mass incarceration, cultural hierarchies. They are embedded into society. I’m of the belief that eliminating these structural inequalities should be the primary goal for left activism today, for the benefit of “racialized others” like me, and for everyone else too.

Speaking from this perspective, I find Casey’s attempt at advocacy for my rights insufficient. Defending citizenship can only get us so far. Indeed, it places us in the same arena as Mark Lilla and the Trump administration. Our use of the concept should be informed by realities like the life of Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, an American citizen killed by Obama’s drone program. It should acknowledge the American citizens in Kentucky, Florida, and Iowa who cannot vote because they were once convicted of a felony, as well as the prisoners in nearly every state who cannot vote during their incarceration. It should take into account the fact that many American people of color are immigrants, documented or undocumented, and that for many of those targeted for deportation, a national identity earned by an American upbringing is not enough to make them citizens in the eyes of the law. The framework is entirely inadequate.

But Casey continues to proffer it, in opposition to socialist universalism. He calls for “the hard work of constructing real political agency out of conceptions of ‘citizen’ and ‘worker’ that are opposed to racism, sexism, and homophobia at their core.” But in “The Safety Pin and the Swastika,” I had already given an example of a movement against racial inequality that stands for universal values:

Alliances between movements, like coalitions between local chapters of Black Lives Matter and Fight for $15, require participants to take a role beyond allyship. As Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor points out in her book on the history of Black Lives Matter, there is a “logical connection” between these causes: “the overrepresentation of African Americans in the ranks of the poor and working class has made them targets of police, who prey on those with low incomes.” With more than half of black workers making less than $15 an hour, the fight for a living wage has become part of a call for racial justice. It also makes a demand on behalf of everyone.

The portion of the working class made up of people of color is growing; the Economic Policy Institute estimates it will be a majority by 2032. What centrists like Jennifer Palmieri fail to acknowledge is that the interests of the working class are the interests of marginalized people in America. Movements that put forth the rights of the marginalized as a universal cause are the only way to move beyond a superficial politics of representation.

Merely calling for more diversity among politicians and CEOs, as the Democratic Party version of identity politics does, presumes the permanent retention of power and wealth among the existing state and ruling class. This is an impoverished politics, and a necessary object of critique for the left. It’s not enough to say that there should be fewer people of color among the unemployed, or that cops should beat up fewer innocent people of color. That speaks of a profound lack of vision, of hope, of solidarity. There shouldn’t be any surplus population of the unemployed, cops shouldn’t beat up anyone, and no one should accumulate profit at the expense of others.

Debates among the left are often productive, when conducted in good faith, when the autonomy of separate thinkers is presumed, and when the difference in experience and perspective is taken into consideration. Indeed, Viewpoint and Jacobin carry out this dialogue on an ongoing basis. But there is something peculiar about a politics like that of Casey, who is willing to choose between universal class consciousness and universal citizenship, without considering universal emancipation in the process.


Shuja Haider is an editor at Viewpoint magazine. His writing has also appeared in Jacobin, the New York Times, and the Believer.

Read Leo Casey’s original essay, “The Perils of Universalism,” in our Winter issue.

Read Leo Casey’s reply.

Correction: A previous version of this article misstated Jennifer Palmieri’s title. She was Hillary Clinton’s communications director, not her campaign manager.

Seven Coffee Roasters [Advertisement]