Identity politics is a political approach wherein people of a particular gender, religion, race, social background, social class or other identifying factors, develop political agendas that are based upon these identities. The term is used in a variety of ways to describe phenomena as diverse as multiculturalism, women’s movements, civil rights, lesbian and gay movements, and regional separatist movements.
Many contemporary advocates of identity politics take an intersectional perspective, which accounts for the range of interacting systems of oppression that may affect their lives and come from their various identities. According to many who describe themselves as advocates of identity politics, it centers the lived experiences of those facing systemic oppression; the purpose is to better understand the interplay of racial, economic, sex-based, and gender-based oppression (among others) and to ensure no one group is disproportionately affected by political actions, present and future. Such contemporary applications of identity politics describe people of specific race, ethnicity, sex, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, economic class, disability status, education, religion, language, profession, political party, veteran status, and geographic location. These identity labels are not mutually exclusive but are in many cases compounded into one when describing hyper-specific groups. An example is that of African-American, homosexual, women, who constitute a particular hyper-specific identity class. Those who take an intersectional perspective, such as Kimberle Crenshaw, criticise narrower forms of identity politics which over-emphasise inter-group differences and ignore intra-group differences and forms of oppression.
Critics of identity politics have seen it as particularist, in contrast to the universalism of liberal perspectives, or argue that it detracts attention from non-identity based structures of oppression and exploitation. A leftist critique of identity politics, such as that of Nancy Fraser, points out that political mobilization based on identitarian affirmation leads to surface redistribution that does not challenge the status quo. Instead, Fraser argued, identitarian deconstruction, rather than affirmation, is more conducive to a leftist politics of economic redistribution. Other critiques, such as that of Kurzwelly, Rapport and Spiegel, point out that identity politics often leads to reproduction and reification of essentialist notions of identity, notions which are inherently erroneous.
Critiques and Criticisms of identity politics
Critics argue that groups based on a particular shared identity (e.g. race, or gender identity) can divert energy and attention from more fundamental issues, similar to the history of divide and rule strategies. In response to the formulations of the Combahee River Collective that necessitated the organization of women around intersectional identities to bring about broader social change, socialist and radical feminists insisted that, instead, activism would require support for more “basic” forms of oppression. Other feminists also mirrored this sentiment, implying that a politics of issues should supersede a politics of identity. Tarrow also asserts that identity politics can produce insular, sectarian, and divisive movements incapable of expanding membership, broadening appeals, and negotiating with prospective allies. In other words, separate organization undermines movement identity, distracts activists from important issues, and prevents the creation of a common agenda. In addition, Chris Hedges has criticized identity politics as one of the factors making up a form of “corporate capitalism” that only masquerades as a political platform, and which he believes “will never halt the rising social inequality, unchecked militarism, evisceration of civil liberties and omnipotence of the organs of security and surveillance.”
Those who criticize identity politics from the right see it as inherently Collectivist and prejudicial, in contradiction to the ideals of Classical liberalism. Those who criticize identity politics from the left see it as a version of bourgeois nationalism, i.e. as a divide and conquer strategy by the ruling classes to divide people by nationality, race, ethnicity, religion, etc. so as to distract the working class from uniting for the purpose of class struggle.
Sociologist Charles Derber asserts that the American left is “largely an identity-politics party” and that it “offers no broad critique of the political economy of capitalism. It focuses on reforms for Blacks and women and so forth. But it doesn’t offer a contextual analysis within capitalism.” Both he and David North of the Socialist Equality Party posit that these fragmented and isolated identity movements which permeate the left have allowed for a far-right resurgence. Cornel West asserted that discourse on racial, gender and sexual orientation identity was “crucial” and “indispensable,” but emphasized that it “must be connected to a moral integrity and deep political solidarity that hones in on a financialized form of predatory capitalism. A capitalism that is killing the planet, poor people, working people here and abroad.”
Black feminist identity politics
Black feminist identity politics concern the identity-based politics derived from the lived experiences of struggles and oppression faced by Black women.
In 1977, the Combahee River Collective (CRC) Statement argued that black women struggled with facing their oppression due to the sexism present within the Civil Rights Movement and the racism present within second-wave feminism. This statement in which the CRC coined the term “identity politics” gave black women in the U.S. a political foothold both within radical movements and at large from which they could confront the oppression they were facing. The CRC also claimed to expand upon the prior feminist adage that “the personal is political,” pointing to their own consciousness-raising sessions, centering of black speech, and communal sharing of experiences of oppression as practices that expanded the phrase’s scope. As mentioned earlier K. Crenshaw, claims that the oppression of black women is illustrated in two different directions: race and sex.
Gender identity politics is an approach that views politics, both in practice and as an academic discipline, as having a gendered nature and that gender is an identity that influences how people think. Politics has become increasingly gender political as formal structures and informal ‘rules of the game’ have become gendered. How institutions affect men and women differently are starting to be analysed in more depth as gender will affect institutional innovation.
Arab identity politics
Arab identity politics concerns the identity-based politics derived from the racial or ethnocultural consciousness of Arab people. In the regionalism of the Middle East, it has particular meaning in relation to the national and cultural identities of non-Arab countries, such as Turkey, Iran and North African countries. In their 2010 Being Arab: Arabism and the Politics of Recognition, academics Christopher Wise and Paul James challenged the view that, in the post-Afghanistan and Iraq invasion era, Arab identity-driven politics were ending. Refuting the view that had “drawn many analysts to conclude that the era of Arab identity politics has passed”, Wise and James examined its development as a viable alternative to Islamic fundamentalism in the Arab world.