By Guest Contributor: Sudip Bhattacharya
At a post-election event in Boston, Senator Bernie Sanders uttered the following: “It’s not good enough for someone to say, ‘I’m a woman! Vote for me!’” No, that’s not good enough. What we need is a woman who has the guts to stand up to Wall Street, to the insurance companies, to the drug companies, to the fossil fuel industry.”
Since the victory of Trump over Clinton, comments like those have echoed across the political spectrum, including from several Democrats (or those claiming to be). Those who hail from the political left fear that the Democratic party has lost its way with the “working class” — which is a problematic frame that I’ll explain later — or that Democrats are more invested in diversity than in dismantling class oppression. These are both valid points. However, those of us who are underrepresented and politically insecure — especially those of us who are people of color — have reason to worry: this framing portrays us and our issues as mere distractions from the “real” concerns of American people. Evidently, the soul of the Democrat Party is a site of struggle. I hope to push back against the forces that would marginalize racial justice on the Left, and which would leave POC like ourselves stranded and more powerless than before.
There are valid critiques of “identity politics,” including some raised by other folks of color. We might, for example, confuse a person’s background for their politics. When we elect Bobby Jindal or Nikki Haley, some of us can make the mistake of believing that they’ll stand up for us, or that their wins should be celebrated. Similar sentiments might also apply to Margaret Thatcher or other so-called “change” candidates, even when these figures are revealed to only serve the interests of the wealthy elite. However, the argument turns bitter and dangerous when the person advocating against “identity” politics invokes a sort of “neoliberal” agenda to divide and rule the people while neglecting working class politics.
The critiques of “identity politics” are problematic in three ways. First, it marginalizes the experiences of African Americans and other groups of color who are part of the working class. Second, it distorts the image of who is the typical reactionary voter. Most importantly, it consistently negates the power of race and racism in the U.S., both past and present.