The Defeat of Identity Politics

Days after the national uprising began that boiled over after the police lynching of George Floyd in May 2020, Muriel Bowser, a black woman and mayor of Washington, DC, ordered the words “Black Lives Matter” painted mustard yellow on Sixteenth Street, near the White House. The symbolism radiated from several directions. Almost a week earlier, police officers had used tear gas to clear Lafayette Park, which crosses the street, of protesters. The mural was a thumb in the eye of Trump, who certainly viewed it as such. In response, he thundered that Bowser was “incompetent” and “kept coming back to us for ‘messages.’ ”

In the fall of 2021, Bowser announced that the section of Sixteenth Street featuring the mural — renamed Black Lives Matter Plaza — was made a permanent memorial. She explained, “The Black Lives Matter mural is a representation of an expression of our no, but it also identifies and claims a part of our city that has been taken over by federal forces.” Of its broader meaning, she said, “There are people who are after it long to be heard and seen and to have their humanity recognized, and we had the opportunity to send that message loud and clear on a very important street in our city.”

Last spring, almost two years after her confrontation with Trump, Bowser proposed a new spending budget for Washington, DC that spoke as loudly as the color used to decorate BLM Plaza. In a news conference celebrating a surplus created in part by the federal government’s pandemic stimulus, Bowser announced, “We’ve been able to invest in something we’ve wanted to invest in for a long time — the sports complex. We were able to invest in a new prison.” Bowser promised to spend more than two hundred and fifty million dollars to eventually replace part of the existing prison. She also proposed $30 million to hire and retain new police officers, aiming to bring the force to four thousand total members; Another nearly $10 million would add 170 new speed cameras throughout the community.

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Despite Bowser’s very public embrace of the “Black Lives Matter” slogan, which even anchored his existence in the nation’s capital, the DC mayor now advanced a political agenda in stark contrast to the movement’s call for defunding the police force . Instead, Bowser had exposed the movement’s most radical notions in the vaguely vague “demand to be heard,” while using it as a shield to protect it from activist accusations that its policies were harming black communities. Bowser could benefit from the assumption that as a black woman who had been angered and insulted by Trump after painting “Black Lives Matter” on a public street, she could be trusted to do what was in the best interests of black people community was .

The most profound changes in black life in recent decades have run along the lines of class and status, creating political and social divides between elites and ordinary blacks. After the struggles of the 1960s and 1970s, it was no longer politically tenable in the USA to make decisions about minorities without their participation. This was especially true in cities that had experienced riots and uprisings. But exclusion gave way to a superficial representation of African Americans in politics and the private sector as evidence of color blindness and progress. The rooms where decisions were made were no longer just white and male; They were now punctuated with symbolic representations of race and gender.

Not only could the few be representative of the many, but their existence could serve as evidence that the system could work for those previously excluded. And these new advocates could use the language of identity politics, too, because many of them continued to experience racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination. But their aspirations were different from those that first took advantage of this left-wing political framework. The new representatives were not so much interested in changing the system as in controlling it.

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These tensions are strained when Black elites or political activists claim to speak on behalf of the Black public or Black social movements while engaging in political actions that are either anti-movement or reinforcing the status quo. It is a process described by the writer and philosopher Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò as “conquest by the elite”. Derived from the politics of global development, the concept describes scenarios in which local elites in developing countries would usurp resources destined for a much larger public. Táíwò explains that the term is used “to describe how socially advantaged people tend to gain control over benefits intended for all” (albeit rhetorically).

Táíwò, a philosophy professor in Georgetown, published his first book earlier this year. Entitled “Reconsidering Reparations,” it argues that if colonialism and slavery were to blame for the misallocation of wealth and resources that has left blacks and browns particularly vulnerable to today’s climate crisis, the repair should be just as extensive or capable of the world. In 2020, Táíwò wrote several essays criticizing the diverse ways in which the concept of “identity politics” has evolved from a radical invention of the black feminist left of the 1960s and 1970s into a quiet appeal to the representation of race and gender changed. The themes of these essays have now been summarized in a succinct, short volume entitled Elite Capture: How the Powerful Took Over Identity Politics (and Everything Else) published by Haymarket Books.

Táíwò begins his exploration of identity politics with the Combahee River Collective, a group of black lesbian socialists that formed in the late 1970s. Among them were Demita Frazier and twin sisters Barbara and Beverly Smith, who authored the Combahee River Statement, in which they coined the term “identity politics.” The women were veterans of the anti-war and feminist movements, but also associated with the civil rights movement and black liberation struggles of the time. In her wide range of experiences, the issues important to her—namely, organizing against forced sterilization and intimate partner violence against women—were rarely taken seriously by others, including black men and white women.

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In the Combahee River statement, the authors explained that black women must chart their own political agenda: “We recognize that the only people who care enough about us to consistently work for our liberation are us.” They drove continued: “This focus on our own oppression is ingrained in the very concept of identity politics. We believe that the most profound and potentially radical politics comes directly from our own identity as opposed to working to end someone else’s oppression. . . . We reject pedestals, queenhoods and walking ten steps behind. It is enough to be recognized as a human being, a human being.”

In this way, standpoint epistemology, or the ability to acquire knowledge through lived experience or social position, is intimately connected to the combahee’s vision of identity politics. It was a powerful rejection of the status quo in the social sciences, which for many years had relied on powerful outsiders, typically white men, to extol their own wisdom about the lives of the marginalized, excluded, and oppressed. The powerful social movements of the era swept aside the common sense of white male authority and transformed the marginalized from objects of study into subjects capable of controlling their own destiny.

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