Three things – 11/20/16: Identity and the election

This week I’ve ben thinking a lot about identity and the election. No surprise, I’m sure. Identity politics has been at the forefront of many election analyses in the couple of weeks. Racism, sexism, and heterosexism intersected powerfully in this election, and the voting patterns of whites, and particularly of white women without women college degrees, has been given particular attention for good reason. The emboldening of white supremacist groups by Trump’s campaign dog whistles – and his explicitly racist comments – signals a rise of identity politics on the far right at exactly the moment when we on the left are wondering whether we need to focus on economics over identity. I’d argue that we can’t separate economics from identity entirely. Class is identity. Race is identity. Discriminatory policies are often based on ideas about identities and the power and privilege that attach to them.

Here are three articles I’ve read that gave me different ways to think about identity in this election.

The End of Identity Liberalism,” by Mark Lilly, criticizes the tendency of we on the left to focus on rights and issues attached to specific categories or communities of people. Lilly, a humanities professor at Columbia University,  argues that liberals have lost track of the kinds of broad-based economic and local community needs that unite people across identity-based communities. While there is a degree to which this claim makes sense to me, I think he misses the ways that suburbanization and de facto class and race segregation in our communities have each done more to undermine civic discourse. I also think that Lilly underestimates the importance of identity politics in securing the kinds of fundamental human rights that protect ethnic, racial, sexuality and gender minorities. That said, broad based movements like the labor movement have at times done excellent work to fold those into a broader agenda. We certainly wouldn’t be in this mess if we had a stronger labor movement.

How We Broke Democracy, But Not The Way You Think,” by Tobias Rose-Stockwell on Medium.com, picks up on the identity issue by looking at the way that social media reinforces the fragmentation of audiences – groups of people paying attention to something – by filtering our information according to very micro-level patterns in our social networks. Taken together with the segregation of our physical communities, this online segregation is potentially devastating to cross-community discourse. If we look at the red-county/blue-county divide and see “two Americas,” this analysis actually shows us that there are millions of Americas, and they overlap in ways that reinforce bias and belief, and heighten our tendency to respond with emotion rather than reason.

An Open Letter to White Liberal Feminists,” by Rhon Marigault-Bryant, published on the web site of the African American Intellectual History Society, expresses a mix of disappointment and hope. Marigault-Bryant is a professor of Africana Studies at Williams College, and her disappointment is aimed particularly at those feminists whose focus on simple equality of opportunity in the workplace or in colleges and universities has often rendered invisible the structural racism puts the lives and futures of people of color at risk in ways that are much more fundamental than whether or not they’ll get equal pay at their law firm job. Her hope is that, at last, some of those feminists will realize that even their liberal agendas are at risk, but I have to say that in my own years of struggling against liberal feminism’s opposition to many human rights issues that matter to me as a queer socialist feminist, I’m not sure I have much hope.

As usual I don’t have answers, but I do know this. Identity is a powerful organizing tool, and communities are certainly affected differently – and targeted differently – based on identity-linked aspects of their members. When people say “we’ve neglected the white working class and their economic anxieties,” they may be implying that members of the white working class are not concerned about identity, but that would be replicating a mistake we make all to often: assuming whiteness as a standard, and class as purely financial. I know one thing for certain: Neither of those things is true.

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“Lets Talk” conversation bubble image is by Ron Mader on Flickr and used under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike generic license.

Three Things That Helped Me This Morning

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Image is of a dozen overlapping conversation bubbles in a range of colors with the words “let’s talk” underneath.

My initial reactions to Tuesday night were, in order, disbelief, anger, and hopelessness. Over the last couple of days I’ve listened, watched, and participated in a number of conversations about moving forward. Earlier today, I posted the following on Facebook:

We’ve come to the point where it’s about “survival” for 99% of us, but we 99% are divided about what survival requires. Those divisions are fueled by decades of residential segregation, fear-mongering, and economic exploitation. Trump’s middle-America voters who are hoping for that Carrier plant to stay open? They’re going to be angry and disappointed. Others whose bigotry has been emboldened threaten those of us whose skin color, religion, or relationships offend them, making it really fucking hard for us to talk to those who are mostly just worried about that Carrier plant. Many of us across the political spectrum stand to lose health care, access to education, and jobs. The 1% that remains in charge no matter who wins elections has the rest of us right where they need us.

That seemed to resonate with a lot of people, and it got me thinking about the small things we can do to contribute to the building of a future that truly sustains many more of us. I’m thinking about how our social media bubbles insulate us and harm us. I’m thinking about how our communities feel vindicated or threatened. I’m thinking about the fear-mongering and about the very real dangers many of us are facing. I’m thinking about how desperately we need to be able to talk across difference and about how hard that is when we feel more and more polarized and threatened. The threats are real and yet the polarization is greater than it needs to be. In my classrooms I work with students who are often for the first time interacting with a diverse group of peers. Facilitating conversation, even being present in conversation, when the underlying inequalities are so deep and yet often rendered invisible, is a challenge. That is a challenge many of us need to take up.

This morning over breakfast I read three pieces that helped me think about the complexities we face in trying to talk about this election and all that it touches. I want to share them, just as three possible levers to use in moving conversations about the future.

The first was a news article from The New York Times, “Can Trump Save Their Jobs? They’re Counting On It,” written by Nelson D. Schwartz, asking what will happen if Donald Trump can’t save the Carrier manufacturing plant in Indiana that he used as a central figure in his campaign speeches.

The second was a more personal piece with the title “What a Gay, Muslim, Pakistani-American Immigrant Learned Traveling to Rural Alaska the Week Before the Election,” written by Riaz Patel, and published on GlennBeck.com. Patel talks about the people he met while traveling across the United States, including a trip to Alaska, meeting and getting to know – and getting known by – exactly the kinds of white working class voters that have been so central to discussions about the 2016 election.

The third was an open letter from Our100.org, a coalition of leaders who are women of color and who are committed to continuing the work of organizing for social justice. They recognize that it is often the work of women, and often of women of color, queer women, immigrant women that pushes the nation to do the right thing, focus on on solutions and breaking down the politics of hate.

I’m sharing these three pieces because they come from very different sources and because they identify some of the ways that survival is at stake for so many of us.

I’m thinking of all of the small things we can each do to contribute to one another’s survival. One thing I commit to doing is to sharing three articles a week that were meaningful to me as I think about the issues we have to face. This campaign didn’t create the issues. Instead, the issues created the conditions for the campaigns we watched and the election outcome we’ve all just witnessed.

Here’s one small thing I’m going to do. I’m going to start a weekly email newsletter – just a very small thing – that will share three articles I’ve read recently that helped me think about and talk about these issues with people who don’t immediately share my perspective. I’ll include a brief summary (no more than what I’ve included above), that explains what prompted me to share the article. I might include a couple of questions that the articles prompted me to ask. And maybe a cat picture or some small bit of humor.

If you’d like to receive such a thing, SUBSCRIBE HERE.

 

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“Lets Talk” conversation bubble image is by Ron Mader on Flickr and used under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike generic license.