"What defines identity politics now is its focus on intersectionality, on multiple identities and how they inform the way Americans experience things like debt, employment, housing and policing. Advocates of identity politics would point out that intersectionality informs a class discussion, rather than detracts from it.
Nonetheless, it’s this specific iteration of identity politics that has drawn criticism not just from the right but from self-described liberals and progressives like Mark Lilla, whose book The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics argues that identity politics will break the Democratic Party.
Lilla and other (mostly white) liberals of his ilk, Hancock says, will disavow racism and sexism and look at them as “bad,” but also believe that tackling systemic oppression splinters and fractures progressive coalitions in ways that prevent them from getting the change they want.
In their arguments against identity politics (or what they think is identity politics), the Mark Lillas of America center that narrative primarily around white feelings and insecurities—a move that, ironically, actually does more to narrow the progressive umbrella than expand it.
As Lilla himself put it in a particularly excruciating NPR interview, “Imagine that you’re canvassing door-to-door somewhere in Missouri or Mississippi and you knock on someone’s door, and you say, ‘I’m here from the Democratic Party and I’d like to ask for your vote. But before I do, I have a series of tickets to give you.
“‘The first ticket is for your privilege. The second one is for being a racist. And the third one is for being homophobic. I hope to see you on Tuesday.’ Now, that is not going to attract or persuade anybody,” he continued.
Mychal Denzel Smith expands upon this in his excellent rebuttal in the New Republic: “What Liberals Get Wrong About Identity Politics.” In it, Smith cites the Combahee River Collective, a collection of black feminist activists and scholars from the mid-1970s who championed the rights of women of color against “racial, sexual, heterosexual and class oppression.”
Their mission and their work, Smith points out, was never intended to exclusively affect women of color—though they operated out of their identities as black women to challenge system of power.
The founders of the Combahee River Collective wrote, “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.” As Smith expands, the focus was always on coalition building and expanding the fight for equality on multiple fronts and with those holding intersecting interests:
“Any coalition worth forming has to take stock of those differences,” Smith writes, “or suffer an agenda that is insufficient to liberating all people.”