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If You Love Your People, Set It Free (or How an Identitarian Came To Prefer Universal Policy Over Identity Politics)

This post is late because I was in LA last week, where I made a point of walking as much as possible to enjoy my audiobook. Although I still have 20/20 vision I have been slow to accept that aging has made it more difficult to read, making it feel increasingly like a chore. In fully embracing this I've finally started looking for audiobooks I might find engaging enough to not be constantly distracted. For my trip I chose Mehrsa Baradaran's The Color of Money, which looks at the persistence of the racial wealth gap in the US.  It was incredibly striking and depressing listening to The Color of Money while accidentally walking through encampments of the unhoused, watching new encampments sprout up in the short time that I was there. This is who we've always been. If you have any doubt, the history recounted in The Color of Money makes it clear that capitalism has always been about extracting wealth from Black people and keeping poor people poor. On checking into Twitter I was shocked and dismayed to find people who say they believe in a radical class based project to redistribute wealth more fairly in the US engaged in a heated argument over homelessness.  It was not about the best way to house everyone or place displacement in check, it was over whether the relative racial privilege of a white homeless person was significant. I personally fell on the side of, "this is a painfully stupid argument." Whatever minimal privilege an aspect of a homeless person's identity might bestow is essentially made moot by being homeless. Some pointed to the treatment of homeless people and the way that a person's race might make the difference between being told to move on or being arrested. I have trouble seeing that as a marker for privilege. Outside of demanding to be arrested in solidarity with Black homeless people it's not a situation that allows much agency. What might be more useful is attempting to understand the impetus behind arguing that the privilege of whiteness, regardless of one's economic status and ability to enact it, must be checked and balanced with the relative privilege of identities accepted as more vulnerable.

Over the last few months I have been reading and writing about racism and race in an attempt to better understand what it means to combat racism and envision what it would mean to end it.  Reading through the argument it seemed obvious to me that two things were happening simultaneously. People explaining that the relative privilege was important were talking about racism while conflating systemic racism and personal bias and a number of them were espousing identity politics and intersectionality without fully understanding the concepts. Both concepts were essentially born from the scholarship of Black women and were once useful for considering needs that might not be universal or that may differ on the basis of different identities. I would argue that they have come to be used as tools for further entrenching racism. The framework used by proponents of identity politics looks at racism as a problem of Black people and people of color which white people should help to combat out of the goodness of their hearts or a sense of justice, but not generally because it serves their best interests. According to this framework, racism serves their best interests. According to this framework, white people combating racism are either self-sacrificing, stupid or into self harm. In this framework all of the labor falls on the people of color, white people just receive knowledge and feel guilt, I guess. Many proponents of identity politics where race is centered rely on personal experience to claim a mantle of expertise while expecting white people in the discussion to somehow already know, absorbing the benefit of the person of color's experience from digital osmosis, or accept the person of color's vision without question. If I seem especially pointed it's because I'd have been arguing from that perspective a year and a half ago. Even recognizing how ineffective the concepts have been for political organization they are admittedly hard to let go, the pervasiveness of identity as the node around which we focus political energy is part of it. The larger part has been the atomization of the working class and the absence of mass movement alternatives to identity politics.

When I entered the conversation I attempted to add structure, tying the discussion to history and text. When everyone is arguing from opinion the range of what might be correct is huge, not meant for resolution, wrapped more tightly in history and theory the disagreement shrinks to differences in interpretation; it also helps to make clear who is arguing in bad faith and with incomplete knowledge. I offered my last post since I'd made an effort to distinguish between bias and systemic racism to point out that the purposes and methods for opposing them were diametrically different; essentially showing that what we call anti-racism is typically, at best, anti-bias work. I also made the point that true anti-racism work centers economic redistribution/investment, and that it's not only possible for poor  and middle class whites with bias to combat racism, it's in their best interests. It is not pro-bias. It is not an attempt to tell other Black people and PoC how to deal with and protect themselves from the bias they encounter; I'm not attacking personal agency or the ways in which we each learn to employ it in resistance. It is not in anyway an attempt to erase the history of racial hierarchy and the negative effects of that history under legalized Jim Crow. Jim Crow is no longer the law of the land. If anything it's noting that we continue to think of racism as if Jim Crow is still the law and noting that the strategies employed to fight this discrimination are the polar opposite of the strategies employed to overturn Jim Crow. Although I lay out the origins of racism and whiteness the point is to consider what their origins suggest about combating the negative effects of that history. It's about what we do and how we organize ourselves to do it. I shared my piece because, although racism is a topic for all of us to discuss if it is to be de-powered, I'm just not willing to pretend that all opinions are equally valuable on this topic. I shared my piece because it states very clearly what my goal is and the role that my interpretation plays in reaching it, not that it stops people from misrepresenting what I wrote. I offered it as an invitation for grounded dialogue. What I got instead was blocks and a bunch of white kids who'd been mutuals telling me that I either didn't understand racism or really care about it. In response I asked which theorists' work they were interpreting to make their assessments.

Putting aside the people arguing in bad faith, this is when it started to become clear that the proponents of identity politics didn't fully understand the concept and also how incredibly damaging it is as an organizing tool. Many of these conversations on the value of identity politics will start by focusing on race as an identity. Once a difficult question is asked, the identity roulette wheel is spun to offer a different identity which might better answer the question. I like to ask, "Which aspects of systemic racism are not met by economic redistribution?" and "When has it ever been effective to organize around identity?" In these conversations 'disabled' becomes an identity because the ADA allows them to say it's organized around identity, they drop the topic once it turns to enforcement. The only example of effective organizing around identity offered has been the gay rights movement. It's a better example since we're talking about a recognized identity and it shows the limitations of movements around discrete identities. I don't say this to downplay the successes, just that I tend to evaluate success on the basis of how it affects the most vulnerable. In this regard, the successes are less significant the further you move from wealth and whiteness. In one conversation with a woman who insisted that fighting noneconomic expressions of racism are important, I asked how and she deferred to people not in the conversation. This is what I mean about identity politic being damaging to organizing. This woman legitimately cares about confronting racism but she's dedicated to a model that strips her agency because as a white woman, "it's not her lane." If your model for systemic change suggests that only Black people and PoC should speak on race, gay people should speak on sexuality, trans people and women should speak on gender I'd suggest your tool isn't for systemic change. She, like many proponents of identity politics conflated identity with identity politics, a concept fully developed and shared by the Combahee River Collective in 1977; a number retcon the concept into the Civil Rights Movement and Black Panthers.
Again, if I seem particularly pointed, it's less due to current proponents of identity politics than the length of time that I was one. One of the interesting things about social media are the assumptions that people make on the basis of something said. Depending on the conversation I'm playing digital blackface, I'm self-hating, a reverse racist, racist adjacent, fascist, fascist adjacent, a communist, a socialist, a marxist. I'm not particularly ideological and I'm pretty sure I've never read a word of Marx, but apparently I share perspective with people who have. If I'm completely honest I'm basically just an identitarian who spent some time living in a democratic socialist lite country. It offers a certain perspective. I'm not sure that it's possible to grow up in this country as the descendent of the enslaved and not be at least somewhat of an identitarian (with a few useless exceptions). It's impossible to put my identity aside, to simply ignore it, I imagine as difficult as it might be for a white man to put his identity aside. It's impossible for most Black people aware of the news and history not to feel more vulnerable after the death of Mike Brown and all of the very public unpunished murders of unarmed Black people that followed. Recognizing that I felt both more vulnerable and more powerless and noting the condition of the larger Black community at the end of the Obama administration, I found it helpful to divorce myself from what had begun to feel like a stream of Black tragedy porn. I have found it more empowering to think systemically while looking back at our past. I had been incredibly cynical about the idea of racism ending, because the framework I had employed would require white people to be committed to ending racism, essentially out of the goodness of their hearts. Again, my framework made racism a Black problem, a PoC problem, that existed to the benefit of white people. It made racism a huge immutable thing. It has been helpful and empowering to separate systemic racism and personal bias to understand racism as the class consciousness breaking tool it is.

If at times it seems like I'm making statements as if stepping gingerly on possibly fragile ice it's because, like I said some time ago, I'm making the road by walking. Or more precisely, I'm making declarative statements that feel right that I then feel compelled to research. This has been a very non-linear process. The statement that eventually led to the death of identity politics for me: There's been no positive structural change for Black people in the US that wasn't the result of our struggle in multiracial coalition. Understanding that, it becomes clear that an organizing strategy that flattens racism and bias and assumes all white people are racist is not going to build the strongest possible coalition. Recognizing common needs and our shared humanity on a planet preparing to fight us to the death would seem to be a more effective thing around which to organize than hunting down personal bias. The current iteration of identity politics seems to flatten Black people into victims and makes white people either racists or saviors. I've written about this before,
I am uninterested in a history that offers no lessons for action or examples of resiliency and effective resistance. I am especially uninterested in a history that renders all people, but Black people in particular, into passive objects instead of the actors we have been. I'm interested in working to create the next coalition, and being afraid of the past plays no part in it.
The ingenuity and resiliency of Black people in the US is incredible. So much of our history involves laws designed to put us back in boxes too small for our collective imaginations. One story from The Color of Money that stood out is of a group of the formerly enslaved deciding to work their patches of land collectively to maximize their cotton yield and ensure enough subsistence crops being forced to stop because it was too unconventional for whites (or offered a model they found threatening). It's not about ignoring identities or expecting people to ignore their needs, it's about using their needs to ensure we have the strongest policy possible supported by the most expansive coalition possible. If we're organizing around identity I can't help but notice that the largest identity group is white people and that's just not an axis for organization that I find personally appealing.

If you're like the person arguing with me that the Black Panthers definitely focused on the racial bias of individuals I want to share this video of Bob Lee, a Chicago Black Panther, speaking to a group of white former southerners. Note the things he says, his pitch for trying to collaborate.

Notice that he's not discussing their potential personal bias, at a time when cross-racial consciousness was considerably lower than it is now. He doesn't ask them to ignore their identities (although there was a commitment made to not being explicitly racist.) He doesn't ask these whites to help the Black community with its problems. He made the pitch that they had problems of deprivation in common that they could potentially work on together.

I won't say that a radical redistribution of wealth to make our country more fair will end bias, but I'm not sure that's possible without giving people first a clear understanding of the depth of our similarities. As I've said, poverty in the US is disproportionately Black and brown, and numerically very white. Looking at our history it's clear to me that as long as poverty exists in the US it will always be disproportionately Black.


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