What Liberals Get Wrong About Identity Politics

Audre Lorde. Wikimedia Commons

In the mid-1970s, a group of black feminist scholars and activists began meeting in Boston to form an organization that would address the political concerns of black women, which they felt had been ignored by the larger feminist movement. The group included renowned poet Audre Lorde, celebrated scholar/activist Barbara Smith, and future First Lady of New York City Chirlane McCray, among others. They called themselves the Combahee River Collective, taking their name from the South Carolina site where the abolitionist Harriet Tubman led a military campaign that freed more than 750 enslaved people in 1863.

In 1977, the group issued “A Black Feminist Statement,” the culmination of their work to clarify their politics, “while at the same time doing political work within our own group and in coalition with other progressive organizations and movements.” They made clear that they were “actively committed to struggling against racial, sexual, heterosexual, and class oppression” and that they saw “Black feminism as the logical political movement to combat the manifold and simultaneous oppressions that all women of color face.” Having found that other groups—including the civil rights, black power, and feminist movements—were lacking in their approach to ending the oppression of black women and women of color, the collective wrote: “We realize that the only people who care enough about us to work consistently for our liberation is us. … This focusing on our own oppression is embodied in the concept of identity politics. We believe that the most profound and potentially the most radical politics come directly out of our own identity, as opposed to working to end somebody else’s oppression.”

That term, identity politics, has been hotly debated in recent years, most notably in reaction to the 2016 election. For some, the Democratic Party’s insistence on focusing on identity politics—or at least, a certain definition of identity politics—is what cost them the election. The most prominent and vocal critic of identity politics has been Columbia University professor Mark Lilla, who declared in a New York Times op-ed published ten days after the election “that the age of identity liberalism must be brought to an end,” because it had been “disastrous as a foundation for democratic politics in our ideological age.” Lilla expanded this argument into a book-length polemic entitled The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics, released in August of this year. His main complaint is that identity politics is having a pernicious effect on the Democratic Party’s ability to win votes from “the demos living between the coasts.” He finds that a focus on identity politics at the university level is to blame, since young people are not being taught that “they share a destiny with all their fellow citizens and have duties toward them.”

Except Lilla’s argument has nothing to do with identity politics. At least, not as the Combahee River Collective, which coined the term and theorized its meaning, originally laid out. In fact, Lilla spends very little time engaging the collective’s meaning of the term, instead devoting his…

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