Three Responses to "Intra-Black Racism and Identity Politics"

A few bloggers have responded to my post on identity politics. Check ‘em out.

First of all, John Cole of Balloon Juice (which is a blog I read and enjoy frequently, by the way) writes:

Pretty clearly there is a difference between using single issues or groups of people suffering similar types of discrimination as an organizing principle to address grievances and the incidents Jeff and I are discussing. [...]

Those who choose to pretend that the broad-based coalition that helped to enact Civil Rights legislation (and other similar acts) is the same exact thing as a group of people who say that whites are forbidden to comment when a black man dresses up another black man in ‘sambo’ outfits are free to hold their opinions, but I don’t have to take them seriously.

Okay, now John’s distinguishing between different types of identity politics, and saying it’s only a certain specific type he’s against. That’s a position I don’t think John made sufficiently clear in his original post.

I’d also point out that the position John now says he objects to, was not a position found in the post John originally objected to. That post never said or implied “whites are forbidden to comment” – it didn’t even say that whites should be forbidden to comment. (I’d certainly disagree with any such view; I think everyone, whites included. should be free to comment on whatever they want to comment on. Kinda like how, although I think the US would be a better country if whites didn’t vote, I nonetheless think whites should have the right to vote.)

So what did the original post John responded to say? Well, a lot of dross and sarcasm aside, it said “the difference between Caucasians doing these things to African-Americans, and AfAms doing them to other AfAms” is essential. And I agree. Whites aren’t forbidden to comment about black-and-black racism; but the vast majority of the time, I think it’s a better use of time to worry about large-scale, institutional anti-black racism. Blacks being racist to blacks is something that blacks are capable of handling without white assistance; on the other hand, the large-scale problems will never be solved if whites don’t take an interest.

Another of my fave bloggers, David at The Debate Link, writes:

I think my condemnation of such acts as Steve Gilliard blackfacing Steele gives me credibility amongst moderates and conservatives when talking about race issues that I wouldn’t otherwise possess. After posting on Lt. Gov. Steele, I’ve inoculated myself against charges of bias and partisanship, such that it’s more likely that the people we need to reach will take me seriously. If some conservative reads one of my posts about structural racism and makes the stock attack, that I’m anti-white or just some wild-eyed multicultural radical, I can point to these posts and prove that I’m not. They might still ignore me, but it’s more likely that they’ll tune in and in any event any undecided observers will look on me more favorably. That’s a positive benefit and one that’s seriously lacking when we only attack white power and privileges. We can’t expect to make any gains on race when we’re alienating the majority of our audience. If whites hold the levers of racial power in our society, than it is whites who we need to persuade to affect racial change, and we must adapt our arguments accordingly.

I’m not saying we should go out of our way to find incidents of black racism for counter-balancing purposes. But when they’re thrust in front of our faces, we should be clear where we stand.

It’s possible I’m perhaps a little knee-jerk about whites complaining about black racism, because in my live I’ve frequently encountered whites who complain about anti-white and intra-black racism, yet make excuses for or overlook structural racism (I’d call it institutional racism, but perhaps David’s term is better) that hurts blacks. But to accuse David of such a thing would be obviously unfair.

Finally, Cathy Young – who I seem to be linking to every day lately – writes:

I think Barry rather oddly and sweepingly conflates social and political equality movements with “identity politics.” The leaders of the civil rights movement did not say, “We should be allowed access to public facilities, the voting booth, jobs, and housing because we’re black”; they said, “We should be allowed equal access to public facilities, the voting booth, jobs, and housing because we’re human beings and American citizens.” The feminists who won equal property and employment rights for women did not ask for special gender-based privileges; rather, they challenged gender-based restrictions on their rights. The same goes for gays who challenged anti-gay bigotry and discriminatory laws. A demand for simple equality is the opposite of identity politics.

I think that conservatives like Cathy are using some very strange definition of identity politics that wouldn’t be recognizable to any lefty who actually practices identity politics – in other words, what you describe is more identity politics as conservatives caricature it, then it is identity politics as anyone practices it. I think Wikipedia’s definition makes more sense:

Identity politics is the political activity of various social movements which represent and seek to advance the interests of particular groups in society, the members of which often share and unite around common experiences of actual or perceived social injustice. Such groups argue that they are in some way socially or politically disenfranchised, marginalized or disadvantaged relative to the wider society of which they form part. These movements seek to achieve better social and political outcomes for the members of such groups. In this way, the identity of the oppressed group gives rise to a political basis around which they then unite.

By this definition, I think I was quite correct in describing the civil rights and feminist movements as identity politics movements.

Cathy then provides a parade of horribles she attributes to identity-politics movements; the temptation to debate her parade in detail has been resisted. Regardless of particulars, her parade of horribles is irrelevant to my argument, because I never said “identity politics movements have never done anything wrong.” All political movements sometimes make mistakes or have excesses; why should identity politics be an exception? But very few political movements have done as much good as identity politics has.

My argument was that John’s claim – “this brand of politics will lead to nothing but rancor…” – was mistaken. None of Cathy’s counterexamples contradict my argument.

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10 Responses to Three Responses to "Intra-Black Racism and Identity Politics"

  1. 1
    Glaivester says:

    Speaking for myself, I don’t object to acts such as Steve Gilliard blackfacing Steele because I think it gives me credibility, or because I care about whether or not it is “racist.” I object because I think that it is a misleading and unfair characterization of his views.

    It is the black liberal equivalent of calling anyone who objects to the war in Iraq “anti-American.”

  2. 2
    Lee says:

    I’m not the right color to talk about this (as they say in my neighborhood), but the whole “group-think” thing makes me very uneasy. I can understand that some people find Steele’s entire political career offensive, because they (presumably) feel that he’s selling out to the oppressors, and that the GOP is using him to prove that they aren’t racist. But isn’t one of the goals of the civil rights movement the right for people to have equal agency in all arenas, regardless of their physical characteristics or ethnic backgrounds?

    I think it’s less race in his case than it is background – would Steele be generating the same kind of rancor if he were originally from Haiti or Nigeria? He’s obviously being slammed because he was born in and grew up in the U.S., and as a (presumed) descendant of slaves, he should know better than to use his talent, brains, and money to present a different point of view than the majority of his brothers and sisters in adversity hold.

    Racism is still a significant problem in the U.S., we still bear the burden of many many many years of slavery and discrimination, and we still do not live in a color-blind society. But I don’t think it gets us very far down the Tolerance Road if it’s OK to slam someone on the basis that s/he thinks and acts differently than most other people from the same group.

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  4. 3
    hp says:

    Personally, I would look at each of those movements as not necessarily being identity politics in the theoretical, but identity politics in the actual due to the ‘necessary’ exclusions to focus public attention on the specific issues that each group was interested in.

    Each group took a universal theme–equality for all!–and specifically applied to the subset of inequality that affected them (or more kindly, that they thought could and should be addressed). The suffrage movement, at times, could be racist. I know that I’ve seen evidence that the leaders who wanted to expand the movement to include anti-racism messages were shot down. Sometimes it was the belief that it couldn’t be addressed, sometimes the belief that voting rights for [white] women and voting rights for blacks were “different” topics.

    Some parts of the civil rights movement–especially in recent years, when it’s been campaigned by religiously conservative black leaders–is distinctly anti-woman and anti-gay. Or, even if not actively anti-woman and anti-gay, tries to imply that movements for equal rights for women and equal rights for gays are somehow “different” and actively campaigns against comparisons between their social movement and other social movements.

    That’s when it becomes identity politics. It’s not all parts of each social movement. But there’s plenty of “worry about me (us), screw those who aren’t me (us).”

  5. 4
    Nanette says:

    I thought Gilliard’s manipulation of Steele’s photo to make him appear in blackface was stupid, counterproductive and needlessly inflamatory… but I didn’t think it was racist. Possibly because I would venture to say that most (especially older) Black people seeing that would know immediately what he was implying, even if they had never heard of Steele. However, things like that don’t travel well.

    One point I would like to make regarding a sort of ill feeling that many Black people have towards Black Republicans. For the most part, the ones you hear about are not disliked because they are conservative, or believe in many of the things the Republican party has traditionally said they believe in (in the absence of any evidence that they actually do so)… the lower taxes and fiscal responsibility and all that. There are plenty of conservative Black people, some very much so… and some even vote Republican.

    No, what I would say is one of the main thorns is that it’s pretty well accepted

  6. 5
    Nanette says:

    (sorry, hit post too soon… laptop keyboard :(

    anyway, it’s pretty well accepted that Black Republicans are going to, in some way, be asked to stand up for and provide cover for not only the (what are perceived as ) racist policies of some Republicans, but also the racist speech or actions. So you see Steele trotted out to poo poo the fact that the Governor appeared at an all white country club. Or the various ones who came out to declare that yes, it’s true – why be angry? Black babies really ARE all criminals after the Bennett thing, and many other examples.

    It’s not that they are Black and believe different things than many other Black people – that is not necessarily the case… it’s that they are seen as willing to denigrate and humiliate other Blacks in order to have a seat at the Republican table.

  7. 6
    NancyP says:

    I will cheer on any black who calls to account fellow blacks who, for careerist purposes, excuses racism by patron whites or works against the interests of the majority of blacks. Similarly, I am always cheered by someone trashing the Elaine Chaos and Phyllis Schlaflys of the world, and I brighten up when some anti-gay Republican closet case (such as Rep. Dreier) is outed. Hurrah for schadenfreude.

  8. 7
    Silverkris says:

    Actually, a lot of black people are conservative, culturally.

    And I would echo that the criticism of Steele was his waffling about appearing at a lily-white country club, rather than his views/ideological stance per se. A lot of black voters would see that as a deficiency of character and integrity, and not standing up for himself.

  9. 8
    hf says:

    If some conservative reads one of my posts about structural racism and makes the stock attack, that I’m anti-white or just some wild-eyed multicultural radical, I can point to these posts and prove that I’m not.

    Has this ever worked? Even from a logical perspective, criticism of Gilliard does not automatically rule out “anti-white” radicalism. And people making the stock attack sometimes seem immune to any argument.

  10. 9
    Joe O says:

    I always believed in a “color-blind” approach to life. I see that as the essence of the anti-prejudiced life style. Contemporary racial politics seem to me to be the antithesis of what I believed in all my life.

    Furthermore, I see a clan-like positive-prejudice among African-Americans that is really subject to very little checks and balances. Meanwhile if you look at relations between American “black” people and newly arrived African people you find the real Africans are more inclined toward prejudice toward American blacks then Amerian whites are. It seems prejudice in America is no longer about race. Its about culture and group politics.