identity politics, race, conservatives

Conservative critiques of identity politics as divisive

11 minutes to read
Rosalyn Negrón

She is branding herself as "the anti-AOC". Catalina Lauf, a conservative Latina millennial from the American heartland, is running to win back a seat that Republicans lost in the US House of Representatives when Rep. Lauren Underwood - the youngest black representative - won by a 5% margin.

In her campaign launch video, Lauf declares herself a child of the American dream and appeals to unity and equality, as fundamental American values. As she puts it, "Today, angry voices seek to divide us, by skin color, economic class, and where we come from... they forget that America is an idea." To clarify who she means by "they", the words "angry voices" are cross-cut with video images of "Squad" members Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez's and Rashida Tlaib's fierce, castigating arm movements. Because, in her telling, she is a proud "Latina by heart, American first," Lauf sets herself apart from those who insist that their racial, ethnic, or gender identity "makes us [Americans] who we are". In other words, she rejects identity politics.

Identity politics and racial division

The notion that the left is the driving force of racial and ethnic division in America is a common complaint among US conservatives. Some version of this discourse has been circulating in conservative media over the past several years, sometimes in defense of Donald Trump's racist rhetoric. The typical telling is as follows: by highlighting differences based on race, ethnicity, gender, and sexuality, and then making claims based on those differences, proponents of identity politics are sowing division in America and rejecting the American ideal that all are created equal.

When the prominent black Democratic politician Stacy Abrams wrote an essay defending identity politics, Fox News conservative media personality Tucker Carlson went as far as saying that what she wanted was a revolt. He gave an alarmist interpretation of Abram's insistence that “The marginalized did not create identity politics ,” rather “Their identities have been forced on them by dominant groups, and politics is the most effective method of revolt.” Abram's take on identity politics echoed Barack Obama's who has said that identity politics originated with the segregationist Jim Crow laws of the American south. 

Though identity politics can pertain to a number of non-dominant social groups, typically, the notion of identity politics as divisive frames divisions in racial and ethnic terms.

To be clear, identity politics has critics on the left as well. Presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg also views identity politics as divisive, as foreclosing dialogue and empathic connection. His own take differs from the conservative line in that he does not view identity politics as solely a people of color (POC), left issue, but also includes those who, like Trump, use white identity politics for political gain.

Similarly, presidential candidate Tulsi Gabbard decries how identity politics in both American political parties creates an "us vs. them" dynamic. Echoing this, lawyer and writer Amy Chua notes that identity politics play out on both sides of the political spectrum in her book on US political tribalism. She sees POC identity politics as a response to color blind policies that ignored minority group's legitimate claims. But since identity politics on the left excludes whites and rejects whiteness as a point of pride, Chua argues this has caused a backlash on the right, a reactionary identity politics, a turn to tribalism common to any group that feels threatened and mistreated. 

Whose identity politics divides (according to whom)? 

Following from these critiques, though identity politics can pertain to a number of non-dominant social groups, typically, the notion of identity politics as divisive frames divisions in racial and ethnic terms. This is key, because while different language is used to discredit, say, LGBTQ identity claims, I argue that it is primarily racial identity politics that is framed as divisive.

Nevertheless, as left critiques of identity politics point out, whites have a long history of pursuing their interests in collectivist terms, and in opposition to those of blacks and other POC (see for example Carol Anderson's trenchant analysis of the politics of "white rage"). We can therefore point to two expressions of identity politics: that which advances the interests of whites, and that which advances the interests of POC. In the US each of these have been closely linked with right versus left political ideology, respectively. Notably, few on the right would actually claim to be engaged in (white) identity politics. 

Accordingly, conceptions of identity politics differ on the left and the right. Equality and justice are central to left definitions of identity politics. For example, Robin DiAngelo defines identity politics as "the focus on the barriers specific groups face in their struggle for equality.”  And Stacy Abrams sees identity politics as a "tool of democratic justice." On the right, the left's identity politics is talked about in ways that highlight division as a central concept.

Take as an example Francis Fukuyama's thinking on identity politics, which prompted Stacy Abram's response above. While recognizing the merits of identity politics, Fukuyama sees identity politics as a process though which American society is "fracturing into segments based on ever-narrower identities, threatening the possibility of deliberation and collective action."

Unpacking the 'left identity politics as divisive' frame

I will now turn to the logics that underlie conservative critiques of left identity politics. Lauf's campaign video is an exemplar of the "identity politics as divisive" critique on the right. Granted, this critique is shared by centrist liberal politicians like Buttigieg, who point to divisive rhetoric on the left and the right. However, I'd like to unpack the specific significance of this discursive frame among conservatives because, I argue, critiques on the right discursively accomplish something that centrist arguments against identity politics do not.

Critiques on the right discursively accomplish something that centrist arguments against identity politics do not.

Right-wing critiques of identity politics turn grievances against racism on their head by framing such grievances as the true causes of racial strife. Some have argued that identity politics' push for radical societal transformation in the face of continued racial grievance, is antithetical to conservative preference for gradual social change and stability. The demands of identity politics, in this view, are divisive and troubling as liberals advance claims that benefit non-dominant groups at the expense of whites.

However, here I focus on the ideologies that produce the discursive frame of "identity politics as divisive". These are: color blindness, American exceptionalism, and the primacy of American identity. 

Color blindness

Critics of identity politics deride it as a politics of grievance; in Lauf's telling, as "angry voices". Central to this is a denial of race and racism as continuing forces affecting the life chances of blacks and other POC. This is the logic of color blindness. Color blind ideology advances a race-neutral, equal opportunity idealism (salient in Lauf's video) that looks to incidences of explicit racism as a way to gauge racial progress.

Sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva  argues that color blind ideology is shaped by four frames, through which the existence of racist structural forces is denied: 

  1. Abstract liberalism: applying equal opportunity and individualist principles to racial matters in ways that are completely abstracted from the persistent disadvantages that POC face. Note for instance how Lauf heavily emphasizes the theme of equality in her video, something I return to below.
  2. Naturalization: racialized patterns of social organization, such as segregation, are attributed to all people's natural preference for members of their own race. In this frame, identity politics is a warped form of same-race preference that bitterly advance the interests of minority groups at the expense of a unified American identity.         
  3. Cultural racism: differences in black's and white's life outcomes are explained by cultural differences and POC's cultural dysfunction. This, also, is subtly featured in Lauf's article, as when she attributes her mother's escape from poverty and corruption in her native country to her mother's hard work.           
  4. Minimization of racism: declaring racism as being in decline, and POC's legitimate grievances about racism as overly sensitive, while claiming that only overt discrimination counts as racism. In this frame, seeing and calling out racism where none might exist, is cast as a feverish obsession with race and difference. It is a turning of the tables that at times serves to disarm accusations of racism. This table-turning is a key way in which conservative critiques of identity politics differ from moderate or liberal ones. 

American exceptionalism

Color blind ideology fits neatly within a worldview of America as exceptional. This too is part of the logics that shape discourses about identity politics as divisive. The notion, held by many Americans, that the US stands above other countries is laden with deeply embedded ideas about US's cultural, political, and moral superiority. And conservatives are most likely to hold such beliefs.

Lauf's campaign video strongly exudes the ideal of American exceptionalism, especially as expressed through the concept of the American Dream: America offers unparalleled opportunities for upward mobility to all if only one works hard enough to achieve them. Belief in the fundamentals of the American Dream go hand in hand with the cultural racism frame that Bonilla-Silva describes. In other words, a person's lack of progress is due to personal, rather than systemic, failings.

For many on the American right, denying US exceptionalism is a sort of sacrilege that cuts deep to the core the country's creation myth. Politicians who point out that the US has faults and has faltered are fiercely accused of not being real Americans or of being unpatriotic.

In this sense, racial identity politics, which holds the nation to account for the sins of institutional racism, forwards a view of the US as a fundamentally flawed project. It is a therefore a direct affront to deeply held beliefs about American exceptionalism. Within this framework, identity politics as divisive evokes a divide between "believers" and "non-believers": those who believe that America is uniquely superior, and those who do not. Those who, as Lauf states, have an "unapologetic love" for the US and those who, ostensibly, do not. 

Racial identity politics, which holds the nation to account for the sins of institutional racism, forwards a view of the US as a fundamentally flawed project.

To give an example, the value of equality is basic to notions of US exceptionalism, in which equality is seen as continually manifest in American society. Indeed, if US exceptionalism is untainted and lasting, so is equality, its most lofty ideal. Lauf herself proudly speaks of America being founded on the idea that everyone is equal; of opportunity available to people like her mother, a Latina immigrant who achieved the American Dream through hard work. But as a central political claim, identity politics denies the existence of true equality in the US, pointing to systemic injustices that create inequality of opportunity and of outcome for POC in the US. As color blind, abstract liberalism suggests, such arguments are dismissed through assertions that everyone in the US is equal and treated equally, therefore there is no true cause for grievance.

Through the frame of equality, identity politics is also dismissed by critics who say that because everyone is equal, one person's grievance does not trump anyone else's ("All Lives Matter"). So, while proponents of identity politics may see their efforts as fulfilling America's ideals, conservative critics see it as a rejection of those ideals. As "true" believers in America's exceptionalism, Americans on the right see in identity politics a certain ingratitude, even "envy", according to Lauf - presumably envy of those who, through their own striving, achieved the American Dream.  (It's beyond the scope of this article, but the idea of the ungrateful citizen fits George Lakoff's formulation of the "strict father" frame, which, he argues, shapes conservative thought on the relationship between the government and the people. Arguably, within this frame, children who reject the father as a right and just provider are ungrateful and subject to discipline or rejection.)

The primacy of American identity

In her campaign video, Lauf describes herself as a proud Latina at heart, but American first. This is consistent with the idea that American identity supersedes other ethno-racial loyalties. In its more benign, inclusive, forms, this idea produces narratives of national unity bound to recognition that the US is a pluralistic society.

In the context of so much difference, then, to be American means to adhere to the values that make America exceptional, values such as equality, as discussed above. I won't go into the many malignant, exclusionary, forms of "American identity as primary", but suffice it to say that scholars have shown how historically, American identity has been indexed by whiteness, if not explicitly inscribed in law. We can also look at recent tweets by Donald Trump, as president, telling congresswomen of color (concretely: three US-born and one a naturalized citizen) to go back to where they came from. His comment leaned heavily on the notion that POC are contingently part of the American nation.

Given this, it is meaningful that Lauf identifies as Latina and turns this into a prominent feature in her video. Doing so accomplishes at least two things. First, it allows her to draw a parallel between her and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Latina, that is crucial for her branding as the "anti-AOC". Second, invoking her Latina heritage is a vehicle for asserting herself as "American first". This would seem to be a jab at AOC's identity politics, which, as conservatives complain, advances the interests of specific groups over that of all Americans. It would also seem to be a-not-so-veiled critique of AOC as an un-American seeking to divide the nation.

But in a way, the assertion of her Americanness responds to the idea that POC in the US must affirm their loyalties to the US to be considered truly American. Even as she draws attention to how different she is from AOC, she reveals the forces to which she and AOC are both subject, in ways that white Americans are not.       

Revisiting right-left critiques of identity politics 

Despite declarations to the contrary, the US is not a post-racial society. This has become painfully clear over the past years, as Trump's ascendancy has emboldened closeted bigots and galvanized neo-Nazis. With hate crime rates at 16-year highs and amid discursive moves to legitimize the grievances of white supremacists, American public life is laden with the sense of a freshly widening black-white racial divide. Public demonstrations of long simmering racist hatred are set in the backdrop of economic, political, legal, and healthcare systems that continue to reproduce disadvantages for POC. 

Along with fears of racial divides, right vs. left debates about identity politics are often framed in terms of white folks objecting to the claims of black and brown folks. However, zooming in reveals white-white conflict and disagreement.

In her analysis of identity politics, Amy Chua argues that identity politics is a defensive move by people who perceive their "tribe" to be under threat. However, this interpretation does not account for the fact that white liberals defend POC identity politics against threats from white identarians. Complicating the picture further, race scholars argue that US whites on either side of the political spectrum harbor anxieties about becoming a numerical minority. Whether on the left or the right, they argue, whites fear that demographic shifts may change the power balance that currently benefits them. 

It's liberal whites who actually express the most concern over racism, while conservative whites are least likely to see racism.

The divide among whites relative to white identity - one group rejecting, the other embracing white identity - is sharpest along educational lines. This "diploma divide" is strongly related to attitudes on race, with non-college educated whites pining for the America of 70 years ago. 

Along these lines, political scientist Eric Kaufman argues that Americans are in fact not locked in racial conflict, but are actually divided by views on race. He cites survey data to show that it's liberal whites who actually express the most concern over racism, while conservative whites are least likely to see racism. US white liberals and conservatives hold widely divergent explanations for the persistent differences in life outcomes between blacks and whites, and for whether white racial self-interest is a form of racism.

Alarmist narratives about identity politics are often framed in us vs. them, black vs. white (or white vs. POC) terms. These discourses conceal the complexity of division in American society, a divide unfolding along lines of ideology, education, and class.