How to Do Identity Politics

The March for Our Lives was a master class in bringing together individual and collective experiences.

WASHINGTON, DC - MARCH 24:  Jennifer Hudson sings at the March for Our Lives Rally on March 24, 2018 in Washington, DC.  (Photo by Shannon Finney/Getty Images)

Jennifer Hudson sings at the March for Our Lives Rally on Saturday in Washington, D.C.

Shannon Finney/Getty Images

Few topics have roiled political discourse since the 2016 election more than the question of what the Democratic Party and the left, broadly speaking, ought to do with identity politics. In his book, The Once and Future Liberal, and in the pages of the New York Times not long after the 2016 election, Columbia University’s Mark Lilla argued that the embrace of factional identities, particularly among younger Americans, might spell doom for America’s liberals. “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, Lilla wrote in his essay “The End of Identity Liberalism.” In the New York Times last week, David Brooks confessed befuddlement about how to address the problem. “I’m a columnist and I’m supposed to come to a conclusion” he wrote, “but I’m confused.”

Now we are at a place where it is commonly assumed that your perceptions are something that come to you through your group, through your demographic identity. How many times have we all heard somebody rise up in conversation and say, “Speaking as a Latina. …” or “Speaking as a queer person. …” or “Speaking as a Jew. …”?

Now, when somebody says that I always wonder, What does that mean? After you’ve stated your group identity, what is the therefore that follows?

As a philosophical matter, the question of how we might locate the individual beneath the thicket of our entwined, often competing identities—as members of a particular race, gender, sexual orientation, class and so on—is genuinely a complicated one. Politically, grappling with identity is a much simpler task. It requires little more than understanding that that those long ignored within, or sidelined from, the political process are going to want and ought to be given a voice, that their communities have particular needs that ought to be reflected in the policymaking process, and that even problems shared in common have disparate particular impacts on different groups.

The weekend’s March for Our Lives was a master class in accomplishing all of the above. The post-Parkland gun control movement has most closely identified with a mostly white group of Stoneman Douglas students. Those students have taken every opportunity to say they’re aware of this. Before the March, David Hogg, one of the more prominent Parkland activists, criticized the media for not spotlighting the school’s African American students. “My school is about 25 percent black,” he told Axios, “but the way we’re covered doesn’t reflect that.” In her speech Saturday, Stoneman Douglas junior class president Jaclyn Corin attributed the attention the media has given to the Parkland shooting’s survivors to the wealth of her community. “We recognize that Parkland received more attention because of its affluence,” she said, “but we share this stage today and forever with those communities who have always stared down the barrel of a gun.”

Indeed, speeches from Stoneman Douglas students during the march were generally followed immediately by speeches from minorities hailing from communities like the South Side of Chicago, South Central Los Angeles and the rougher neighborhoods of the nation’s capital—places where shootings are a daily reality. Edna Chavez, a student from Los Angeles whose brother was gunned down outside her home in 2007, was among those who spoke about the need to address poverty and disinvestment in minority communities as part of efforts to combat gun violence and warned additionally against turning to policing as a solution.

It is normal to see flowers honoring the lives of black and brown youth that have lost their lives to a bullet. How can we cope with it when our school district has its own police department? Instead of making black and brown students feel safe, they continue to profile and criminalize us […] We need to tackle the root causes of the issues we face and come to an understanding on how to resolve them.

I am here to honor the Florida students that lost their lives and to stand with the Parkland students. I am here today to honor Ricardo. I am here today to honor Stephon Clark. I am here today to uplift my South LA community.

There was nothing in this speech, or in the speeches of the other teens who extended a hand to Parkland’s victims while memorializing those lost in their own communities and families, to support the idea that young people in tune with their particular race or class identities are “narcissistically unaware” of the things happening to distant communities of strangers. There was moreover little evidence that many have found the efforts of Parkland’s activists to zoom in on minority communities divisive or alienating.

Instead, it’s likely that the diversity of the march will build solidarity with the movement going forward—not just because its speeches made clear the stakes different communities have in curbing gun violence, but also because they made clear to all the true scale of the issue. A problem large enough to touch those in communities vastly different and distant from each other makes greater demands on the individual conscience than a problem more narrowly conceived and defined. None of this should be terribly hard to grasp for those who, as Brooks does, imagine themselves as wizened observers of society. But the need to loudly recognize the needs of minority communities is going to be rendered as a mystifying ask for as long as they’re around to express their bewilderment.

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