Pawel Wargan

Among the most dangerous of apologists are those who, with intellectual vigor and good intention, call for the dismantling of the safeguards of equality in the interest of appeasement. 

The latest incarnation of this thinking appeared a few weeks ago with Mark Lilla's article “The End of Identity Liberalism" in The New York Times

Lilla's argument goes something like this: American liberals are fixated with identity. In "calling out explicitly to African-American, Latino, L.G.B.T. and women voters at every stop," they made white voters feel excluded. These feelings of exclusion have created an audience for demagogues. To be "aware of and 'celebrate' our differences," then, is "disastrous as a foundation for democratic politics."

At first blush, this arithmetic seems convincing because it carries an important truth: Elections are lost without white voters. The Democrats lost in part because they failed to build an inclusive platform receptive to the needs of white, middle-class Americans. The liberals, isolated in bubbles partly of their own design, failed the see what was coming. But even if we accept this uncritically, it doesn’t follow that a defeat at the polls repudiates the importance of identity in politics.

Lilla promotes a dangerous myth that is rooted no less in the notion of white exceptionalism than racism itself. It suggests that white identity inhabits its own safe space, threatened by haughty rhetoric from afar. It suggests that whites are governed by an intellectually and morally impoverished determinism. Moved by their essential whiteness, they can’t help but take fright at the creeping otherness of the “liberals.” The onus to spare them from their purgatory, then, is on those who have the capacity for understanding. "Liberals," whoever they are, must reach out to “Americans of every walk of life.” 

In this worldview, minorities are the “liberals” and whites the “of every walk of life.” Although the “liberals” are educated—they go to university, where they debate controversial topics like gender equality and institutional racism—they bear ultimate responsibility for the whites’ intellectual inertia. The distant rumblings of progressivism shake mid-west suburbia into a frenzy. People begin to vote for demagogues and say racist things in public. See this reasoning for what it is: an insult to whites and a caricature of liberalism.

But it’s a neat mind trick. It plays on the “liberals’” own imperative to understand. After all, we owe a lot of our capacity for empathy to the oppressed. Freed slaves wore the mantle of the suffragettes, and the feminists later taught us to look at the world through the lens of the vulnerable. Their oppression was almost always at the hands of white men. (In an aside, Lilla takes pains to attribute the success of the women’s rights movement to the founding fathers, even though American women only won the right to vote in 1920.) Now we ask them to extend that solidarity to those who feel threatened by it.

There’s a creeping fascism in this reasoning, which pits education against the comfort of the masses, and freedom against conformity. Lilla criticises college campuses for fostering discussions of identity, which he believes play “into the hands of populist demagogues who want to delegitimize learning in the eyes of those who have never set foot on a campus." Yet, it would be absurd to suggest that universities should defund the study of philosophy because people on the outside are outraged that students are talking about trolleys running over innocent bystanders. Why should we be surprised that students are debating important questions of identity and social justice? The role of higher learning is to elevate the national discourse, not to adjust to its basest prejudices.

His solution is to sublimate the anger of the marginalised into a benign class of “Americans as Americans…a nation of citizens who are in this together." Applaud the "real and important" achievements of the women's rights movement, Lilla says. Celebrate the success of the civil rights movement. Be happy that Hollywood has played a role in “normalising” homosexuality. But please, please, tone down the “diversity” talk. In other words, conform, know your place and count your gains, lest the despots come to rule over you. 

It’s a nice fiction, but it’s not good enough. It’s not enough when about one in five women is sexually assaulted in her lifetime. It’s not enough when a black man is five times more likely to be in jail than a white man. It’s not enough when 11 out of 16 presidential candidates in this year’s election opposed gay marriage. There is work to be done. It involves creating spaces within which identity no longer needs to be invoked as a defence. People aren't born into identity politics. They are forced into it when their appearance or way of life comes under attack. This is no less innate to blacks, Latinos, gays or women than it is to whites. It’s a function of being human.

Lilla is no apologist for racists and demagogues. But his sin is to conflate national destiny with whiteness. In his vision for American civic life, the identities that have come to be defined by their struggle for recognition are absorbed into the sameness of those who have always had it. In this light, it’s understandable but perverse for Lilla to bring up the KKK as a warning about identity politics gone awry. The blacks aren’t to trying to create a black America, the Latinos aren’t trying to create a Latino America, the gays aren’t trying to create a gay America and women aren’t trying to create a female America. They are fighting to benefit from America’s promise of equality.

There is a stronger argument, which Bernie Sanders made when he wrote that the aims of racial and gender equality are intertwined with economic power. In a narrow sense, the fight for identity could be seen to distract from the broader aims of social justice for all. But this is a mistake. Economic inequality isn’t just about earning less than bankers on Wall Street, it’s also about earning less than your friend down the block who went to a better school. Identity persists because economic disparities manifest themselves differently for different groups. As Jamelle Bouie wrote in Slate: 

Not all inequality is created equal… Black and white workers face the same kinds of economic disadvantage… But black workers (and other non-white workers) face additional challenges that move their disadvantage from a difference of degree to a difference of kind: residential segregation, discrimination in jobs and housing, and discrimination by lenders and banks, which in turn contribute to unfair and draconian policing, poor and unequal schools, and heightened exposure to impurities in air and water.

Social injustices magnify economic disparities. This is why we talk about identity. In losing your personal story within the myth of a national destiny, you lose the promise that you may someday be equal to your white neighbour, male colleague or straight friend. Lilla’s piece is culpable because it calls for the disarmament of those who have a lot to defend—and, now, a lot to lose. 

Pawel Wargan is an itinerant and occasional writer based in London. By day, he works as a lawyer. Twitter @PawelWargan

Image via VIVISXN