We cannot afford to reduce any 2020 presidential candidate down to their identity alone, we must look at their politics and policy proposals.
By Anuhya Bobba
The 2020 election, like the election that preceded it, is heavily underlined by identity politics.
When Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib endorsed Bernie Sanders for the Democratic presidential nomination, it was seen as a denial—for some—of their identity, specifically their group identity. They, in their endorsement, nominated a white man as opposed to, Kamala Harris, for example, who posits herself as the first Black woman president of the country or, Elizabeth Warren, who situates herself as the first white woman president.
One consequence of the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy (a term coined by bell hooks) is that—as a method of survival—we are asked to absolve individual identity for a larger group identity—often rigid, non-negotiable. This is because one individual, in the same white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, is seen as a sufficient representation of the group to which they are then prescribed.
Identity politics “is intimately connected to the idea that some social groups are oppressed” and thus “starts from analyses of oppression to recommend, variously, the reclaiming, redescription, or transformation of previously stigmatized accounts of group membership.” In that definition, then, Harris, Warren, and Buttigieg represent the oppressed white woman, the oppressed Black woman, and the oppressed white homosexual. Their group membership is consistently evoked because, in their experience of that membership, each is positioned with a moral authority to recommend, reclaim, redescribe, or transform.
What occurs as experience becomes central to the articulation of identity politics is “an epistemology of provenance” or “political perspectives gain legitimacy by virtue of their articulation by subjects of particular experiences.”
However, identity politics functions similarly to the essentialism and humanism that is characteristic of eurocentrism. In fact, identity politics levels “unifying claims about the meaning of politically laden experiences to diverse individuals.”
Identities are plural, but identity politics focuses on the singular.
We cannot afford to see Harris as only a Black woman, but as a Black woman who supports and has nurtured the school to prison pipeline and the prison industrial complex during her career. We cannot afford to see Warren as only a white woman, but as a white woman who is a self-described “capitalist to the bone” and who falsely categorized herself as “American Indian” in a form to the State Bar of Texas. We cannot afford to see Buttigieg as only a gay, white man, but as a gay, white man who complimented the Tea Party, ushered in the gentrification of his constituent town, and fired the first Black police chief of his constituency.
It comes to be reductive to view each candidate in the singular identity that they choose to highlight, in an effort to appeal to the forced white supremacist capitalist patriarchy absolution of individual identity to a monolithic group identity.
As identity-based on class interest began to decline from the 1960s onward, identity politics—as composed by ideology—entered the national and the political consciousness. Ocasio-Cortez, Omar, and Tlaib’s endorsement of Sanders is rooted in class or in “the standard old-style Marxist criticism that identities other than class-based ones get in the way of seeing where our real interests lie.”
It is also rooted in a rejection of present-day identity politics, where marginalized persons are “constantly being encouraged to pluck out some one aspect” and “present this as the meaningful whole, eclipsing or denying the other parts”—which “black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet” Audre Lorde deems “a destructive and fragmenting way of life.”
That destruction and that fragmentation will ultimately serve white supremacist capitalist patriarchal interest—where the white person can exist as “individual and/or endlessly diverse, complex and changing” and the rest are homogenized and restricted by an “externally imposed definition.”