Multiculturalism ― Reading #2



The End of Identity Liberalism

Mark Lilla

NYT | November 18, 2016


[1] It is a truism that America has become a more diverse country. It is also a beautiful thing to watch. Visitors from other countries, particularly those having trouble incorporating different ethnic groups and faiths, are amazed that we manage to pull it off. Not perfectly, of course, but certainly better than any European or Asian nation today. It’s an extraordinary success story. But how should this diversity shape our politics? The standard liberal answer for nearly a generation now has been that we should become aware of and “celebrate” our differences. Which is a splendid principle of moral pedagogy — but disastrous as a foundation for democratic politics in our ideological age. In recent years American liberalism has slipped into a kind of moral panic about racial, gender and sexual identity that distorted liberalism’s message and prevented it from becoming a unifying force capable of governing.


[2] One of the many lessons of the recent presidential election campaign and its repugnant outcome is that the age of identity liberalism must be brought to an end. Hillary Clinton was at her best and most uplifting when she spoke about American interests in world affairs and how they relate to our understanding of democracy. But when it came to life at home, she tended on the campaign trail to lose that large vision and slip into the rhetoric of diversity, calling out explicitly to African-American, Latino, L.G.B.T. and women voters at every stop. This was a strategic mistake. If you are going to mention groups in America, you had better mention all of them. If you don’t, those left out will notice and feel excluded. Which, as the data show, was exactly what happened with the white working class and those with strong religious convictions. Fully two-thirds of white voters without college degrees voted for Donald Trump, as did over 80 percent of white evangelicals.


[3] The moral energy surrounding identity has, of course, had many good effects. Affirmative action has reshaped and improved corporate life. Black Lives Matter has delivered a wake-up call to every American with a conscience. Hollywood’s efforts to normalize homosexuality in our popular culture helped to normalize it in American families and public life.


[4] But the fixation on diversity in our schools and in the press has produced a generation of liberals and progressives narcissistically unaware of conditions outside their self-defined groups, and indifferent to the task of reaching out to Americans in every walk of life. At a very young age our children are being encouraged to talk about their individual identities, even before they have them. By the time they reach college many assume that diversity discourse exhausts political discourse, and have shockingly little to say about such perennial questions as class, war, the economy and the common good. In large part this is because of high school history curriculums, which anachronistically project the identity politics of today back onto the past, creating a distorted picture of the major forces and individuals that shaped our country. (The achievements of women’s rights movements, for instance, were real and important, but you cannot understand them if you do not first understand the founding fathers’ achievement in establishing a system of government based on the guarantee of rights.)


[5] When young people arrive at college they are encouraged to keep this focus on themselves by student groups, faculty members and also administrators whose full-time job is to deal with— and heighten the significance of— “diversity issues.” Fox News and other conservative media outlets make great sport of mocking the “campus craziness” that surrounds such issues, and more often than not they are right to. Which only plays into the hands of populist demagogues who want to delegitimize learning in the eyes of those who have never set foot on a campus. How to explain to the average voter the supposed moral urgency of giving college students the right to choose the designated gender pronouns to be used when addressing them? How not to laugh along with those voters at the story of a University of Michigan prankster who wrote in “His Majesty”?


[6] This campus-diversity consciousness has over the years filtered into the liberal media, and not subtly. Affirmative action for women and minorities at America’s newspapers and broadcasters has been an extraordinary social achievement— and has even changed, quite literally, the face of right-wing media, as journalists like Megyn Kelly and Laura Ingraham have gained prominence. But it also appears to have encouraged the assumption, especially among younger journalists and editors, that simply by focusing on identity they have done their jobs. Recently I performed a little experiment during a sabbatical in France: For a full year I read only European publications, not American ones. My thought was to try seeing the world as European readers did. But it was far more instructive to return home and realize how the lens of identity has transformed American reporting in recent years. How often, for example, the laziest story in American journalism— about the “first X to do Y”— is told and retold. Fascination with the identity drama has even affected foreign reporting, which is in distressingly short supply. However interesting it may be to read, say, about the fate of transgender people in Egypt, it contributes nothing to educating Americans about the powerful political and religious currents that will determine Egypt’s future, and indirectly, our own. No major news outlet in Europe would think of adopting such a focus.


[7] But it is at the level of electoral politics that identity liberalism has failed most spectacularly, as we have just seen. National politics in healthy periods is not about “difference,” it is about commonality. And it will be dominated by whoever best captures Americans’ imaginations about our shared destiny. Ronald Reagan did that very skillfully, whatever one may think of his vision. So did Bill Clinton, who took a page from Reagan’s playbook. He seized the Democratic Party away from its identity-conscious wing, concentrated his energies on domestic programs that would benefit everyone (like national health insurance) and defined America’s role in the post-1989 world. By remaining in office for two terms, he was then able to accomplish much for different groups in the Democratic coalition. Identity politics, by contrast, is largely expressive, not persuasive. Which is why it never wins elections — but can lose them.


[8] The media’s newfound, almost anthropological, interest in the angry white male reveals as much about the state of our liberalism as it does about this much maligned, and previously ignored, figure. A convenient liberal interpretation of the recent presidential election would have it that Mr. Trump won in large part because he managed to transform economic disadvantage into racial rage — the “whitelash” thesis. This is convenient because it sanctions a conviction of moral superiority and allows liberals to ignore what those voters said were their overriding concerns. It also encourages the fantasy that the Republican right is doomed to demographic extinction in the long run — which means liberals have only to wait for the country to fall into their laps. The surprisingly high percentage of the Latino vote that went to Mr. Trump should remind us that the longer ethnic groups are here in this country, the more politically diverse they become.


[9] Finally, the whitelash thesis is convenient because it absolves liberals of not recognizing how their own obsession with diversity has encouraged white, rural, religious Americans to think of themselves as a disadvantaged group whose identity is being threatened or ignored. Such people are not actually reacting against the reality of our diverse America (they tend, after all, to live in homogeneous areas of the country). But they are reacting against the omnipresent rhetoric of identity, which is what they mean by “political correctness.” Liberals should bear in mind that the first identity movement in American politics was the Ku Klux Klan, which still exists. Those who play the identity game should be prepared to lose it.


[10] We need a post-identity liberalism, and it should draw from the past successes of pre-identity liberalism. Such a liberalism would concentrate on widening its base by appealing to Americans as Americans and emphasizing the issues that affect a vast majority of them. It would speak to the nation as a nation of citizens who are in this together and must help one another. As for narrower issues that are highly charged symbolically and can drive potential allies away, especially those touching on sexuality and religion, such a liberalism would work quietly, sensitively and with a proper sense of scale. (To paraphrase Bernie Sanders, America is sick and tired of hearing about liberals’ damn bathrooms.)


[11] Teachers committed to such a liberalism would refocus attention on their main political responsibility in a democracy: to form committed citizens aware of their system of government and the major forces and events in our history. A post-identity liberalism would also emphasize that democracy is not only about rights; it also confers duties on its citizens, such as the duties to keep informed and vote. A post-identity liberal press would begin educating itself about parts of the country that have been ignored, and about what matters there, especially religion. And it would take seriously its responsibility to educate Americans about the major forces shaping world politics, especially their historical dimension.


[12] Some years ago I was invited to a union convention in Florida to speak on a panel about Franklin D. Roosevelt’s famous Four Freedoms speech of 1941. The hall was full of representatives from local chapters— men, women, blacks, whites, Latinos. We began by singing the national anthem, then sat to listen to a recording of Roosevelt’s speech. As I looked out into the crowd, and saw the array of different faces, I was struck by how focused they were on what they shared. And listening to Roosevelt’s stirring voice as he invoked the freedom of speech, the freedom of worship, the freedom from want and the freedom from fear— freedoms that Roosevelt demanded for “everyone in the world” — I was reminded of what the real foundations of modern American liberalism are.


'Identity politics for white people':

Experts debate who gets to appeal to race in American politics

Vanessa Williams

WaPo | September 22, 2017


[1] Mark Lilla has become the face of the anti-identity politics crusade that has roiled some liberals and progressives since last fall’s election. The Columbia University humanities professor made his case 10 days after President Trump’s election in a New York Times op-ed, arguing that the Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s “tragic mistake” was focusing too much on “calling out specifically to African-American, Latino, L.G.B.T. and women voters at every stop.” This turned off white working-class and evangelical voters, Lilla said, who found their place instead in Trump’s more exclusive appeals. He said what is needed is a “post-identity liberalism” that would “concentrate on widening its base by appealing to Americans as Americans and emphasizing the issues that affect a vast majority of them.”


[2] Lilla turned that essay into a book, “The Once and Future Liberal,” which came out last month, and which has generated much discussion. I talked with Lilla about the central argument of his book, that the Democratic Party must abandon “identity politics” if it expects to have any shot of beating Trump in 2020, flipping Congress and stopping the dismantling of laws and policies that help people of color, women, LGBTQ individuals and immigrants.He said his message is aimed at the “activist class [who] don’t know how to think about politics except in terms of identity.” In his book, Lilla makes reference to one such political activist, Symone D. Sanders, former national spokeswoman for Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ campaign against Clinton for the Democratic nomination.


[3] In a footnote to an argument, he praises Bernie Sanders for stating that candidates’ and public officials’ stance on the issues is more important than their race or gender. He expresses disapproval at Symone Sanders (now a Democratic consultant and CNN commentator) for noting that the Democratic Party is diverse and its leadership should reflect that diversity. In recent interviews, we asked Lilla and Sanders to address each other’s arguments. Their responses— Lilla’s via phone and Sanders’s via email— have been lightly edited for length.


[4] Lilla effectively calls on people of color, women and LGBTQ individuals to forego pressing for issues important to them because talking about those differences is not a winning political strategy.

“To win elections, it requires something else entirely. That is to develop a vision that different people from different walks of life will see themselves in. If you have a larger message and principles that people can look to and see how it will help them, then they can come together without having to focus on differences, because with the electoral politics in our system of democracy, you have to win elections in every part of the country. I’m focused on how to defeat a rabid Republican Party so that we actually protect the people we care about. That’s the job of political persuasion, not self-expression, not having your say. … We have to focus on what binds us.


[5] Sanders says Lilla’s thinking ignores major demographic shifts in American society.

“The working class and America are browning. Based on projections from the U.S. Census Bureau, the Economic Policy Institute has found the working class of the U.S. will be majority minority by 2032. Furthermore, the U.S. Census Bureau reports the combined populations of all nonwhite racial and ethnic groups will make up more than half of the U.S. population by 2043. This means when we talk about effective communication to Democratic voters, we should be talking about white, black, Latino, Asian American, Native American and other people of color who identify as working people. That also includes women. This is our base. The base of the Democratic Party is also LGBTQ people, millennials (who are the most diverse generation ever by the way) and black women. Succumbing to the false assertion that we must abandon attention to some in hopes of earning a few ‘white working-class voters’ runs the risk of alienating reliable Democratic voters.”


[6] Lilla says it’s easier to unite people around principles, rather than asking white people to try to imagine what it’s like to be of a different race or ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation.

“Rather than talking about African Americans or transgender or gays or women or whatever group, instead, you should start by saying, ‘Do we or don’t we agree about equal protection under the law?’ If we believe in equal protection, then women being paid three-quarters of what men earn is unfair. What about redlining or lending policies that prevent African Americans from moving to the suburbs? Once you have people in parties agreeing, then you can try to persuade them.”



[7] Sanders argues that can be accomplished without silencing everyone else. She pointed to a survey of “swing voters” (Trump voters who had voted for Obama previously) and Democratic voters who didn’t vote in 2016 (largely African Americans and millennials) commissioned by Priorities USA.

“The results might be stunning to some. Both groups were concerned the government might make cuts to Medicare and Medicaid or other important government programs, both were concerned about their economic situation, both supported increased spending on infrastructure and both supported providing paid leave to new mothers. A strategy of separating ‘white-working class voters’ from the rest of the electorate, is what Donald Trump did in 2016 and harks back to the ‘Southern strategy’ of the Republican Party during the presidential election of 1968.  It is a type of ‘identity politics’ for white people.  This is a strategy that feeds off inflammatory rhetoric, false dichotomies and the ‘othering’ of people. When in fact, voters actually have more in common with one another than they think. We do not have to deny or ignore our differences to find common ground.”


[8] Lilla says some groups are too wrapped up in “movement politics” and are more interested in making a statement than winning an election. He cited Black Lives Matter, both in his book and the interview. He praised the young protesters for issuing a much-needed “wake-up call” to the country about the issue of police use of lethal force against African Americans, but:

“What did they do after that? Adopted a confrontational tone and showed up where Hillary and Bernie and others were speaking. They were attacking the people who are on their side. Movement politics leads to this kind of increasing radicalization. They don’t care about winning, they only care about making their point. The message I want to get across is you cannot protect yourself unless you win elections. You’ve got to make a choice: Do you want to make a point or do you want to make a difference?”


[9] Sanders notes that American activism has a long history of making a difference.

“The Black Lives Matter movement pushed the conversation and the campaigns to talk about issues that otherwise would have gone uncentered. We should be thanking the young activists who boldly stood up and demanded their voices be heard. Now, as a campaign staffer, do I like my candidate being interrupted at a rally? Absolutely not, so the remedy to that was to get in rooms and have conversations. To learn from activists and allow them to inform and help direct policy. Both campaigns engaged in this work and I think both campaigns were better for it.


[10] “Perhaps Lilla’s privilege has blinded him from the fact that movement politics has proven effective in recent years. It was a movement that ended apartheid in South Africa and helped establish the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. It was a movement that fought for and achieved the Civil Rights Act of 1964. It was a movement that won the right to vote for women. It was a movement that helped achieve marriage equality. And it is a movement of bold, radical and revolutionary young people that will change America for the better. Members of the movement are running for office, creating policy and are stakeholders at the table. Maybe Lilla just is not ready for the revolution.”


What Liberals Get Wrong About Identity Politics

Mychal Denzel Smith

New Republic | September 11, 2017


[1] In the mid-1970s, a group of black feminist scholars and activists began meeting in Boston to form an organization that would address the political concerns of black women, which they felt had been ignored by the larger feminist movement. The group included renowned poet Audre Lorde, celebrated scholar/activist Barbara Smith, and future First Lady of New York City Chirlane McCray, among others. They called themselves the Combahee River Collective, taking their name from the South Carolina site where the abolitionist Harriet Tubman led a military campaign that freed more than 750 enslaved people in 1863.


[2] In 1977, the group issued “A Black Feminist Statement,” the culmination of their work to clarify their politics, “while at the same time doing political work within our own group and in coalition with other progressive organizations and movements.” They made clear that they were “actively committed to struggling against racial, sexual, heterosexual, and class oppression” and that they saw “Black feminism as the logical political movement to combat the manifold and simultaneous oppressions that all women of color face.” Having found that other groups—including the civil rights, black power, and feminist movements—were lacking in their approach to ending the oppression of black women and women of color, the collective wrote: “We realize that the only people who care enough about us to work consistently for our liberation is us. ... This focusing on our own oppression is embodied in the concept of identity politics. We believe that the most profound and potentially the most radical politics come directly out of our own identity, as opposed to working to end somebody else’s oppression.”


[3] That term, identity politics, has been hotly debated in recent years, most notably in reaction to the 2016 election. For some, the Democratic Party’s insistence on focusing on identity politics— or at least, a certain definition of identity politics— is what cost them the election. The most prominent and vocal critic of identity politics has been Columbia University professor Mark Lilla, who declared in a New York Times op-ed ten days after the election “that the age of identity liberalism must be brought to an end,” because it had been “disastrous as a foundation for democratic politics in our ideological age.” Lilla expanded this argument into a book-length polemic entitled The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics, released in August of 2017. His main complaint is that identity politics is having a pernicious effect on the Democratic Party’s ability to win votes from “the demos living between the coasts.” He finds that a focus on identity politics at the university level is to blame, since young people are not being taught that “they share a destiny with all their fellow citizens and have duties toward them.”


[4] The Enduring Importance of Identity LiberalismMark Lilla argues that the Democratic Party needs to move beyond identity politics. But that's precisely where the country's salvation lies.Except Lilla’s argument has nothing to do with identity politics. At least, not as the Combahee River Collective, which coined the term and theorized its meaning, originally laid out. In fact, Lilla spends very little time engaging the collective’s meaning of the term, instead devoting his energy to his own interpretation of identity politics. The one time he does mention their work he is dismissive. In the book he writes: “With the rise of identity consciousness, engagement in issue-based movements began to diminish somewhat and the conviction got rooted that the movements most meaningful to the self are, unsurprisingly, about the self. As the feminist authors of the Combahee River Collective put it baldly in their influential 1977 manifesto, ‘the most profound and potentially most radical politics come directly out of our own identity, as opposed to working to end somebody else’s oppression.’”


[5] Lilla’s spin on this statement would make identity politics sound like a selfish political theory. But his bad interpretation is not the same as a bad theory. When the collective writes that the “most radical politics come directly out of our own identity,” Lilla reads this as applying to each individual group’s identity when the Combahee River Collective meant “our own” to apply specifically to black women. It is a result of their belief, as they write later in the statement, that, “If Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression.” The original intent of identity politics was articulating black women’s struggle at the nexus of race, gender, sexual, and class oppressions, and then forming strategies for dismantling each of these, both in black feminist spaces and in coalition with other groups.


[6] How Lilla misses this is beyond me, since if he read the collective’s statement in full he would have to challenge his own definition of a selfish identity politics against the group’s statements. For example, that they are socialist because “we believe that work must be organized for the collective benefit of those who do the work and create the products and not for the profit of the bosses,” and that they believe in “collective process and a nonhierarchical distribution of power within our own group and in our vision of a revolutionary society.” He makes a lengthy argument against the notion of identity politics without ever engaging the context in which the theory was developed. He sees only a focus on identities that are not his own, not the political forces that shapes those identities and that the collective sought to engage.


[7] Any coalition worth forming has to take stock of those differences or suffer an agenda that is insufficient to liberating all people. Even removed from its original context, identity politics applied more broadly would not be as Lilla sees it. Identity is the place to understand what forms of oppression are operating within your own life. From here, coalitions can be built with others who face similar forms of oppression, so long as it is also understood that oppression is not experienced the same across identities. This is where intersectionality, the theory developed by black feminist scholar and activist Kimberlé Crenshaw, is useful. It helps us to understand that class oppression will look different for those who also exist at the intersection of marginalized race, gender, and sexual identities. Any coalition worth forming has to take stock of those differences or suffer an agenda that is insufficient to liberating all people.


[8] Lilla’s failure (and he is not alone) is zeroing in on the part of this theory that acknowledges we all have varied identities, and then ignoring the rest. While the terms identity politics and intersectionality have taken hold of our discourse, the substance of these theories has been left behind. We haven’t taken the intellectual contributions of black women seriously enough to engage them beyond empty sloganeering. And since these concepts have been reduced to catchphrases, everyone has been free to fill in their own meanings. Not only does this make for a poorer debate, it replicates the circumstances which made the Combahee River Collective and their theory of identity politics necessary in the first place.


[9] The Combahee River Collective was assembled to define a radical vision for black women’s freedom—and thus, as they believed, all people’s freedom. They did this through an antisexist, antiracist, socialist political strategy. It remains to be seen whether the Democratic Party is prepared to fully embrace this strategy, but liberals undermine it by coopting its revolutionary language, which only dilutes the impact of actual identity politics and its ability to challenge systems of power. Lilla seems to think Democrats are at fault for embracing identity politics, but the true crime is that it has been taken out of the revolutionary hands to which it belongs.


Is American multiculturalism a failure?

Steve Chapman

Chicago Tribune | August 31, 2016


[1] Has the great American experiment in diversity ended in failure? That's the impression you might get from an array of recent developments — Black Lives Matter protests, anti-Muslim sentiment, resentment of unauthorized immigrants and, last but not least, Donald Trump. We seem to be loudly fracturing and separating, not coming together. We're all pluribus and no unum. Trump's embracing of the alt-right movement, which was condemned at length by Hillary Clinton in a recent speech, highlights our apparent racial and religious polarization. His new campaign CEO is also head of Breitbart News, which regularly fans white fears and denounces "multiculturalism." A characteristic Breitbart story began mournfully, "Four centuries after white Christians landed in Jamestown and settled what would later become America, a report reveals that white Christians are now a minority in the nation their forebearers settled." (They were also a minority then, by the way.) More mainstream conservatives also fret about the perils of diversity. "Multicultural societies," warned Victor Davis Hanson, a scholar at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, "usually end up mired in nihilistic and endemic violence."


[2] It's clear from Trump's capture of the Republican presidential nomination that many whites regard demographic diversity as an evil, not a blessing. When Trump vows to "make America great again," he harks back to a time when the country was more homogeneous. But the Trump phenomenon is a symptom of growing desperation, not growing strength, among a shrinking faction whose conception of America is obsolete. These people are in a frenzy because they are beginning to realize the battle is lost. Most Americans have come to embrace the inclusion of every race, ethnicity and religion. That wasn't always the case. In 1994, reports the Pew Research Center, 63% of Americans said immigrants were a burden. Today 59 percent regard them as an asset. The shift is even more pronounced among young people, 76 percent of whom have a positive view of immigrants. For many people, racial and ethnic lines are increasingly irrelevant. In 2010, 15% of new marriages occurred between partners of different races or ethnicities — more than double the rate in 1980. "Among all newlyweds in 2010, 9% of whites, 17% of blacks, 26% of Hispanics and 28% of Asians married out," reports Pew. One reason white Christians are a declining share of the population is that more whites are abandoning Christianity. Since 2007, the share of whites with no religious affiliation has risen from 16% to 24%.


[3] Islamophobia is rife among Trump supporters. Two-thirds of them express negative attitudes toward Muslims. But only one-third of all Americans feel that way. Islamist terrorism obviously fueled worries and suspicions. But in 2011, 82% of American Muslims said they were satisfied with their lives — which suggests they don't find prejudice to be a major problem. The biggest source of racial tension is also the oldest one—the gulf between whites and blacks, manifest in economic disparities and views of law enforcement. Most whites have confidence in police; only 30% of African-Americans share that trust. While blacks continue to feel they face discrimination, most whites believe they don't. Other groups have integrated into American society more fully than could have been expected. Asian-Americans, who once faced intense prejudice, are likelier than any other group to intermarry and live in racially mixed neighborhoods. Their households also have a higher median income than white households. In a society dominated by racial animosity, you'd see different groups segregating themselves, or being segregated, from others. That's not what is happening.


[4] Scholars John Logan and Wenquan Zhang found that compared with 1980, in the 20 most diverse metropolitan areas, people of every race are likelier to live in "global neighborhoods" inhabited by whites, blacks, Hispanics and Asian-Americans. In these cities, half of whites now live in such areas. If multicultural societies were prone to intergroup violence, a growing immigrant population would generate more disorder. In fact, Harvard sociologist Robert Sampson has documented that the rise in immigration has produced a sharp decline in crime rates. "The transformed vitality of cities was most visible in the places that had seen the greatest increases in immigration," he wrote in The American Prospect.