How Elites Weaponize Identity Politics

Design by Collette Lee

Image is a rectangular collage with a TV static background. Kamala Harris and Amy Coney Barrett are superimposed onto staticky TV screens, Harris in blue and Barrett in red. There are two buildings behind the TVs – the White House on the left, and the Supreme Court building on the right.

On November 7, the 2020 presidential election was called for the Biden/Harris ticket, and many celebrated that our country would soon see its first Black, South Asian, female vice president. Others viewed this more critically, given Kamala Harris’ criminal justice record as a prosecutor, district attorney and state attorney general. A Black, South Asian woman, whose history of upholding the prison-industrial complex epitomizes disastrous “tough on crime” policies, is to become vice president amidst one of the largest movements in American history to defund and abolish said prison-industrial complex. How does one reconcile the tension between what seems to be progress and simultaneously, the continuation of punitive neoliberal politics?

This contradictory phenomenon is not unique to Kamala Harris, and it is useful to view this through the lens of identity politics, and how it is being employed. Elites weaponize identity politics to offer us the appearance of progress without the meaningful policy required to improve the lives of marginalized peoples. As we continue to see the compounding of crisis after crisis as a result of centuries of capitalism and colonialism, from the massive eviction crisis to overcrowded prisons, it is more crucial than ever that we demand more than simply the image of change. 

The term identity politics has broad definitions and applications, but generally refers to an approach to politics based on the shared experiences of injustice among members of certain social groups. Identity politics has its roots in Black radical feminism, the term first being coined in the manifesto of the Combahee River Collective. The statement describes in detail how identity politics is embodied in the radical politics that stem from their identities as Black women, and how true liberation for all marginalized groups means not only the dismantling of patriarchy, but capitalism and imperialism as well. 

In the experiences of Black women in particular, we see how multiple social identities can overlap and impact our material conditions in different ways, a concept later coined as “intersectionality” by Black feminist scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw. There is struggle in class identity, there is struggle in race identity, there is struggle in gender identity. In identity politics, we find, not the “divisiveness” that many associate with identity politics, but the solidarity across groups engaged in struggle against a capitalist, imperialist, white supremacist, patriarchial system. Through the recognition of our shared lived experiences which stem from our identities, we create the coalitions necessary to build collective power.

And yet, that is not how identity politics is being played out in contemporary American politics. Elites of our political sphere weaponize identity politics to, at best, create the veneer of diversity and progressivism with mere promises of incremental change and, at worst, co-opt this political approach to advance even more harmful policies. In doing so, elites strive to minimize the centuries of efforts from Black and Indigenous people to dismantle oppressive structures by offering hollow representations of change, in attempts to appease demands for something more meaningful.

In the rush to confirm Amy Coney Barrett to Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s vacant Supreme Court seat, Republicans were quick to spin out the narrative of Barrett as the model for conservative feminism, in an appeal to identity. Barrett is propped up as a successful, empowered woman who balances motherhood and a career, in order to place yet another conservative justice on the Supreme Court. This 6-3 conservative-majority Supreme Court will likely overturn key rights, such as the right to an abortion or to same-sex marriage, impacting many marginalized groups in this ideological shift of the nation’s highest court. 

Conservatives co-opt the approach to politics that appeals to the shared experiences of injustice that certain social groups face, in this case being women, to advance an oppressive agenda while maintaining the narrative of “empowering women.” Even as there are women who may share those lived experiences, once the power derived from this weaponization of identity politics is used to then further oppress marginalized groups, the solidarity in the struggle against unjust systems that lies at the heart of identity politics becomes entirely non-existent.

The weaponization and co-optation of identity politics is, of course, not exclusive to the Republican party. During the Democratic debate in early March, when asked how his administration would advance women’s rights, Joe Biden stated that he would commit to selecting a woman as his running mate. This statement alone made headlines, and led to discussions about the prospect of the first female vice president and of Biden appointing women to positions in the Cabinet and the Supreme Court. 

Since then, Kamala Harris has been chosen to be Joe Biden’s running mate. And yet, the selection of a female vice president does little to fundamentally change the Democratic party’s incremental, neoliberal politics. Although Harris brands herself as a progressive, her past record on criminal justice demonstrates otherwise, with her defense of California’s death penalty in court, her punitive anti-truancy program, her role in keeping non-violent prisoners incarcerated, and more. Now, even as Harris has shifted slightly from her past positions, the Biden-Harris ticket’s opposition to Medicare for All, refusal to ban fracking, and support for reform over defunding the police reflects the continuation of the incremental approach with a progressive veil as a shield against demands for more meaningful policy. This perpetual resistance against radical, structural changes to our system serves to allow such oppressive practices to continue under the guise of diversity, representation, and progress.

Under a Biden-Harris administration, we can assume that many of the institutions that create and perpetuate our systemic problems, from for-profit healthcare to fracking to the prison-industrial complex, will continue to function in the same way, if past records and proposed policies are any indication. Biden campaigned on the promise of a cabinet and administration that will be representative of the diversity in the country, but without radical restructuring of our oppressive systems, this does not do nearly enough for the vulnerable people Biden claims he wants to represent. The promise of representation for marginalized people in positions of power in this appeal to identity functions to relieve the Biden administration of responsibility to the political commitments that true coalitional identity politics entails.

As described by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, “Much of what is meant by identity politics in its contemporary idiom is simply representation—the presence of Black, queer, gendered, and classed bodies with almost no attention paid to their political commitments.” The radical politics at the heart of identity politics’ origin in Black feminism is effectively nonexistent in the modern American political sphere; only the image of Black feminism is propped up as a thin, progressive-presenting mask over oppressive bourgeois politics. 

Taylor then explains, “The radicality of Black women’s politics was based on their position at the bottom. The view is decidedly different from the top. The C.R.C. [Combahee River Collective] gave us the political tools to understand the difference between bottom-up and top-down politics, and their distorted manifestation in the identity politics of today.” The collective power built from identity politics lies in the solidarity of shared interests, goals, and lived experiences, as well as the understanding of how identities intersect and overlap. Truly pursuing liberation means striving for radical change, and as Taylor points out, the radicality of Black feminism derives from bottom-up politics. The top-down weaponization of identity politics merely serves to uphold the current neoliberal, capitalist order that Black and Indigenous people have engaged in struggle against for centuries, and it is time the use of identity politics is taken from its co-optation by elites, back to its Black radical roots.

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