Contextualizing Identity Politics

Contextualizing Identity Politics

Contextualizing Identity Politics

by Nina Henry

Before the sun came up on Wednesday morning, news outlets were already publishing autopsies of the Democratic Party. A dominant narrative emerged- white working class men felt forgotten, and the Democrats were too busy hosting Lady Gaga concerts to listen to “real America.” All over my Facebook feed, I saw liberal colleagues claiming that the working class had been cast aside in favor of social issues and “identity politics.”

That characterization didn’t sit right with me. There is unquestionably genuine suffering in many predominantly white working class areas. Grinding poverty has taken a devastating toll on towns supported by dying industries like coal. There needs to be a concerted push to revitalize American industries, reject neoliberal policies that cause a “race to the bottom,” strengthen unions, and end the opioid crisis. But the narrative of the impoverished white man voting for Trump out of pure survivalism is simply false.  As Stacey Patton wrote in Dame magazine, “The most ardent Trumpsters aren’t young men in the rural underclass. They are older retirees—former autoworkers, civil servants, small businesspeople and others—with pensions and other resources that put them in the ‘have’ category in depressed small towns.” It’s hard to call Trump the champion of the working class when 48% of those who earn more than $250,000 a year and 49% of white college graduate voters chose Trump. Hillary Clinton wanted to strengthen and enforce fair trade deals, invest in infrastructure jobs, raise taxes on the very wealthy, and regulate Wall Street. She got called the liberal elitist, while a gold-plated Grinch who stiffed his employees was called the voice of the working man.

I worry that this narrative is creating a dangerous trade-off: that we can have policies that benefit the working class, but only if they focus on the “forgotten” white people. Hadley Freedman wrote in The Guardian that “For decades, American politicians have demonized the black working classes who suffered far worse structural inequalities and for far longer – and Trump continues to do so today.” The sociologist Michael Kimmel described this phenomenon in his excellent book Angry White Men: when a group that has been historically favored sees a group that has been historically oppressed making inroads, they feel that they’re losing something-- that America is no longer great.

Programs that aim to correct social inequalities, like affirmative action and equal pay laws, are thoroughly decontextualized until they’re presented as “reverse racism” or “sexism against men.” Last year, a local columnist wrote a long tirade against Smith College, the women’s college that I attend, huffing that “Maybe I would feel better if there were 43 all-male colleges, but there aren't, there won't be and there shouldn't be.” I don’t know if he knows about the historical admissions policies of nearly every major American university going back to the founding of Harvard University in 1636. He might be surprised.

In a 1989 interview, Donald Trump said, “A well-educated black has a tremendous advantage over a well-educated white in terms of the job market.” I don’t need to tell you what a profoundly ugly statement that is, but it became an implicit campaign message that resonated with many Trump supporters-- equality means a loss of your privilege. Elites have pitted the white working class against people of color, whether it’s “illegals” who want to steal their jobs or “a well-educated black” who benefitted from affirmative action. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. famously said that “When [the white man’s] wrinkled stomach cried out for the food that his empty pockets could not provide, he ate Jim Crow, a psychological bird that told him that no matter how bad off he was, at least he was a white man, better than the black man.”

Policies that aim to correct social injustices are not “social issues” that we can brush off like unsubstantial decorations on a real economic policy. They go to the heart of economics, politics, and yes, our jobs. I was proud to work on the Women’s Vote Team of Hillary Clinton’s campaign over the summer, and we thought our policies were smart solutions to structural economic problems. We emphasized that initiatives which benefitted women of color, who make up the nation’s fastest-growing sector of entrepreneurs, would have positive effects throughout our whole economy. The Institute for Women’s Policy Research has suggested that equal pay for women would “jump start” the economy and could even go a long way towards reducing poverty. Yet when political commentators of both parties talk about “women’s issues” or “race issues,” they treat them like icing on the cake, not serious, necessary proposals that will make our society stronger and fairer.

Less than a week after the election, Paul Ryan was asked if women would lose birth control access if the Affordable Care Act was repealed. Ryan snapped, “I’m not going to get into all the little nitty-gritty details of these things.” Nitty-gritty detail? The choice to have children is fundamental to a person’s life and career. Hillary Clinton, speaking at a Planned Parenthood event, explicitly linked reproductive rights and economic security, saying, “The percentage of women who finish college is six times what it was before birth control was legal. The movement of women into the workforce, the paid workforce, over the past 40 years was responsible for more than three and a half trillion dollars in growth in our economy.” She also made equal pay, childcare, and paid leave important components of her economic platform. Like her “women’s rights are human rights” speech, her economic policy was a revolutionary way to bring “women’s issues” into the mainstream.

I reject the notion that Democrats have to choose between social justice and economic populism. They are meaningless without each other. Of course we must fight for the rights of marginalized groups because it’s the just thing to do, hard stop. But a focus on social justice is not as antithetical to economic policies that benefit the “angry white man” as it’s often portrayed. Ending systematic inequalities ripples out to our entire economy. We can’t afford to ignore the “nitty-gritty details” that profoundly shape people’s lives. We also can’t claim that the disenfranchisement of the working class in any way legitimizes votes for racism, homophobia, ableism, and sexism. The Democratic Party should constantly be working to become more inclusive and innovative. We will not achieve that by turning our backs on progressive values.


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