Identity politics is nothing new

But the focus has shifted from supremacy to oppression.

Flagstaff, Arizona. © Dave DuBay

Human beings are a tribal species. We sort ourselves into “us and them” with little effort. And from the dawn of humanity various groups have promoted cultural narratives and even legislation to their advantage.

Historically the focus has been the superiority of the in-group. In the 1600s British colonists in what became the United States of America justified African slavery with the allegation that Africans were the cursed sons of Ham (though Genesis chapter nine says nothing of the sort). And whites labeled the indigenous nations of North America as savages.

The ideal of equal and universal human rights is a desired antidote to supremacy claims, but identity groups can be a barrier. In the 1850s when scores of Catholic immigrants arrived from Europe, Anglo-Saxon protestants in America claimed that something must be done about these cultural pollutants. The short lived American Party—better known as the “Know Nothings” due to their secretiveness—at one point managed to elect over fifty party members to the House of Representatives on an anti-immigration platform. Though the American Party quickly collapsed, nativism continued and anti-immigration legislation based on race persisted into the twentieth century.

And of course, the Ku Klux Klan emerged after the Civil War to enforce unequal treatment based on race, helping along the creation of Jim Crow laws.

Starting in the 1950s the civil rights movement reasserted the ethic that we are all created equal and endowed with inalienable rights. But in contrast to this message of unity, by the late 1960s left wing groups were advancing an ideology based on identity group conflict. Rather than claiming supremacy, the emerging identity politics of the left focused on oppression. In the Communist Manifesto Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels claim that,

The history of all hitherto existing societies is the history of class struggles.

Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight, a fight that each time ended, either in a revolutionary re-constitution of society at large, or in the common ruin of the contending classes.

Whether you are privileged or oppressed is based on your demographic profile. Everyone belongs to multiple groups, however, and the concept of intersectionality—the complex matrix of identity groups that individuals belong to—emerged to navigate the degree to which one might be oppressed. And higher status is conferred on those who are the most oppressed.

Though neo-Nazis continue to carry the tiki torch of racial superiority, groups labeled as privileged are increasingly adopting the left’s oppression based identity politics. And this has significantly shifted conservative politics.

Samuel Sommers of Tufts University and Michael Norton of Harvard Business School write in the Washington Post that their research shows that by 2011 whites on average perceived anti-white bias as more of a problem than anti-black bias. The researchers note that this belief stands in contrast to shorter life expectancy for African-Americans compared to white Americans, the greater chance of blacks facing police brutality, and other forms of discrimination. Sommers and Norton interpret these findings as a zero-sum mindset—improvements for blacks are thought to come at a cost to whites.

But it’s not just white Americans. The assumption that we must focus our concerns only on oppressed groups has resulted in a counterreaction from those who disingenuously claim men are more oppressed than women. While men and boys do face unique challenges, the claim that men are now second class citizens overstates the case. Instead, as I wrote for the Good Men Project, we should challenge the notion that a group must be oppressed before we take their issues seriously.

Finally, Emma Green writes for The Atlantic that “most American Christians believe they’re victims of discrimination.” She cites a survey on immigration from the Public Religion Research Institute and the Brookings Institute which finds that “nearly eight in ten (77%) white evangelical Protestants say that discrimination against Christians now rivals that of other groups.” Though only half of Catholics and mainline Protestants agree, three-quarters of Republics concur.

While the Pew Research Center has found that public opinion of evangelicals is much lower among younger Americans—57% favorable for Americans in their 30s and 40s compared to 67% favorable for those over 65 — people in their 20s show a slight uptick in approval of evangelicals (59%). In contrast, most Americans in all age groups have an unfavorable view of Muslims.

Identity politics on the left and right seem to be pushing us into a downward spiral. Status based on oppression incentivizes maintenance of a victim identity, which includes finding more and more subtle ways one is oppressed.

Resentment grows. Various groups feel more alienated from one another as their shared identity as Americans and as human beings erodes. In some cases this even leads to a willingness to initiate violence.

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Author: Dave DuBay

Dave is a social worker from Phoenix, Arizona. He blogs at thepaintedporch.net. He's also at twitter.com/Dave_DuBay.

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