“Court Choice Brings Issue of ‘Identity’ Back Out,” heralds the New York Times. The ascendancy of Barack Obama was supposed to have ushered in a new post-racial era. However, the choice of Sonia Sotomayor to replace Justice Souter has inconveniently brought to fore the debate over race and identity, which was really never settled at all.
Plain truth is, we are not in a new post-racial or post-identity age. In an increasingly diverse society with growing inequity, identity – racial, ethnic, religious, regional, class and gender orientation – will continue to play an important role in public discourse. Identity Politics, that is, political action to advance the interests of a group whose members perceive themselves to be oppressed by virtue of a shared and marginalized trait, is integral and crucial to American democracy.
People who share characteristics because of which they experience disenfranchisement and oppression coalesce to challenge and transform prevailing negative ideas and stereotypes about them. They act to change the injustice and inequity they live with daily. They are empowered and become active citizens. They gain a place in the political arena previously inhabited and dominated by white privileged males.
Critics argue that identity politics causes division. Then again, the rifts have barely been bridged, much as some would like to declare the project complete. While stressing difference might seem to widen gaps, I believe that embracing diversity and working through its challenges will result in a stronger and more equitable society. It fosters, at times forces, dialogue.
The LGBT movement is a prime example. By embracing a gay identity, individuals challenge and contest long held ideas and prejudices against them. Since the Stonewall Riots, LGBT people have gained a voice in the public square, are emboldened and more visible, and continue to gain allies. Most of all, this minority group marches on to gain full equality as citizens. We follow the footsteps of African Americans and women.
It would be rather disingenuous for anyone to say that we are past differences and that there is no need to acknowledge and deal with the hard realities of our pluralistic nation. As R.D. Parker wrote in the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy, “All politics is identity politics. Political activity is – and, at its best, is – animated by efforts to define and defend who I am, or who we are, or you are, or hope to be, or hope to be seen.” Furthermore, “the choices and the commitments we make in politics are ones with which we mean to – or by which we cannot help but – identify ourselves.”