The ever-present debate about “identity politics” continues to rage. It’s a conversation that gained strength during the civil rights activism of the latter 20th century, but it truly became a cultural touchstone amid what many have come to see as the “culture war” that has culminated in the horrifically divisive 2016 election, and the current state of politics that persists today.
And indeed, as Americans who have chosen to wrestle directly with the problem of affective political polarization—whereby we’re gripped by feelings of contempt for our political opposites, rather than mere disagreement—the question of whether identity politics contributes to this cleavage is certainly relevant to our work at Better Angels.
A new era of prominence for the term kicked off, in fact, with the publication of The Disuniting of America by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., a prominent liberal thinker and former aide to President John F. Kennedy. While he valued the embrace of our country’s multicultural tradition, he argued that the emphasis on our differences can go too far, especially when writing off our Western foundations as purely sinful in its victimization of less powerful cultures, leading to the fracturing of civil society.
Some have lamented that this approach to politics returns us to a less-evolved tribal mindset, which we had, to some extent, transcended with the modern development of the nation-state. With it, we have been able to join together varying ethnic and other cultural groups under a shared identity that helps us to advance our collective interest more effectively.
For nations to hold together, it is argued that there must be an emphasis on cultural assimilation and integration, and that we’ve somehow lost sight of this goal, with the former image of our country as a “melting pot” giving way to that of a “salad bowl”—though the food metaphor continues to sprout more variants, and I most recently heard the suggestion of “chili bowl” as more of a middle ground, which does seem apropos given chili’s cross-cultural roots and endless geographically-based variants.
But I digress, and make myself hungry. The issue of assimilation is vital to address, given how differently it’s seen by various stakeholders.
At last year’s Better Angels Convention in St. Louis, I got to co-chair a debate on “immigration and social cohesion,” where the word assimilation was on the lips of many of the speakers. As the debate progressed, I was a bit disappointed by the lack of viewpoint diversity, with most people arguing that assimilation should be one of our top goals for those who are new to our country. Many of the speakers seemed to emphasize that those groups that had embraced American culture most fully were the ones that were most successful, with the highest incomes and the safest, most stable communities.
As the descendant of Jewish immigrants, I found myself frustrated not only with this attitude, but with the seeming lack of probing that was happening around the idea. It cast my thoughts back to conversations about the different waves of immigrants that this country has seen throughout its history, and how my ancestors fit into that story. Not only were Jews subject to immigration quotas in the U.S., even as they were being slaughtered by the millions in Europe, but when we got here we were cruelly otherized, treated as undesirables by an American public that sought to welcome Northern and Western Europeans, but had little patience for, or desire to employ, those from other places.
Forefront in my mind was the idea that Jews, like many other groups that have experienced cultural discrimination, were expected to accept the burdens of assimilation—learning a new language, conforming to different dietary patterns, dressing differently—but missed out on many of the benefits, like acceptance into civic life and expanded employment opportunities.
That eventually changed, as it did for other immigrant groups, like the Irish and Italians, who just as often had been asked not to reply to job postings. That change was made much easier by the fact that they shared their race with the majority of Americans, but it took a significant span of time for them to be fully accepted as white, and I’ve heard these groups characterized as “recently white.”
A conservative friend of mine pointed out that this was a major theme in The Godfather films, and indeed this analysis of those films from the Italian-American perspective indicates that elements of this still remain: “Italians have always been considered something other than ordinary Americans: we’re European, but not exactly white.”
Looking around the room at the debate, I considered voicing this thought, introducing the idea that cultural assimilation is a two-way street. It’s not always enough that members of a group may want to assimilate; it can feel highly unfair if they still feel the sting of exclusion regardless of their efforts. But I hesitated, considering that I’m a member of a group that has largely achieved cultural parity, and I can go through life as a white person. I have yet to experience that kind of struggle still felt by many people of color.
The concept was only introduced by the very last speaker, a black woman who rose to voice her own frustration at what she was hearing. For some of us, she said, assimilation isn’t even a choice. And to demand it is to ignore that fact and to belittle the hardships of the countless Americans who have faced stereotyping and discrimination based on their appearance.
It hit the room like a bolt of electricity, instantly cranking up the tension, just in time for the final question period of the debate. Inquisitors in the room challenged her in a way that conveyed their irritation, particularly one man who seemed to feel that the cultural influence that black people enjoyed in the realms of entertainment and sports, as well as the election of a black president, invalidated her criticism.
The debate ended on a sour note, never offering a fuller examination of the issue due to time constraints. Which I think is unfortunate, because this is a conversation that will likely continue indefinitely, probing at a core question of what it means to be an American. In a nation as diverse as ours, what does assimilation even mean?
Many people cite the adoption of English as a prime indicator of integration into our society, but let us not forget that there is no official language of the United States. Walk down the street in many of our cities, and you might hear several different languages spoken. Why is this an issue? Those who need to interact with a government agency, for example, will often find someone there who speaks their language, since the government is indeed composed of people from the community. And if they don’t, they can often find help from a relative or friend. Is there a particular reason that two people conducting official business in Spanish or Tagalog offends the sensibilities of some?
In my mind, the vast variety of languages, foods, fashion and even core values is what makes this country so incredible. Some cultures, for example, place more emphasis on individualism, versus those with more of a collectivist streak, and this variety, among many others, is a strength for our amalgamated culture just as much as genetic variations are a strength for the health of a population.
When it comes to “identity politics,” members of some identity groups are criticized for seeking to hold on to their cultures, and then for complaining when those differences lead to unequal treatment. Somehow the conclusion is that a national identity is seen as a threat to cultural identity, when there seems to be little evidence of this.
I can only speak from personal experience when I say that the immigrants I know place intense pride in both their initial cultural identity and their newfound role in the American story. That, in fact, is a crucial part of the story itself.
Blues often feel that they’re smeared with a label of anti-American, and they respond by emphasizing that their patriotism includes a healthy dose of self-reflection and therefore some self-criticism. My fellow blues believe strongly that the impulse to improve upon our country is a fiercely patriotic one.
And talking about the systemic disadvantages that align against certain groups, while necessarily reliant on identity, is a necessary precursor to our striving for a more perfect union. As an organization, Better Angels is highly focused on our common ground, and that often means recognizing that our differences, whether they be ideological or cultural, are not as large as we tend to perceive.
But deemphasizing our differences doesn’t mean ignoring the consequences those differences have already had. It’s not harping to point out that the white-black wealth gap has not budged—it remains a 7:1 ratio—in the past six decades.
From a progressive perspective, critics of identity politics fundamentally misunderstand our position. I’ve heard several times from reds that they’re frustrated that blues emphasize equality of outcomes over equality of opportunity. In fact, the emphasis on the left is not on equality at all, but equity.
Image Credit: CAWI Ottawa
This image is one of the clearest explanations I’ve seen of the difference, illustrating that an equal approach—the first panel—doesn’t take into account disparities in need, most arising through no fault of the affected. The second panel is a more equitable approach, but it can still be improved upon by removing the systemic barriers that handicap certain populations in unique ways, as is done in the third.
We can only fully understand how different groups experience life if we’re willing to talk about those groups, and the differences that may create that experience. While singling out one group as more deserving of respect than another can certainly lead to a fracturing of our civic unity, emphasizing that the respect that every human is worthy of might come in different forms based on different needs does no such thing.