The politics of identity
Have we missed the opportunity to become a post-racial nation?
Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor has attracted a fair share of criticism over a comment she made in 2001 at the Boalt Hall School of Law at the University of California at Berkeley:
I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.
The comment has been regarded as either the smoking gun that she’s an “activist” or proof that she has a racial agenda (Rush Limbaugh called her a “reverse racist”). As Peter Baker writes in Saturday’s New York Times, the controversy swirling around Sotomayor has dragged “identity politics” — a notion Obama publicly disdains — back to the fore of national politics:
In the heat of his primary battle last year, Barack Obama bemoaned “identity politics” in America, calling it “an enormous distraction” from the real issues of the day. Many thought his inauguration as the first African-American president this year was supposed to usher in a new post-racial age.
But four months later, identity politics is back with a vengeance. A president who these days refers to his background obliquely when he does at all chose a Supreme Court candidate who openly embraces hers.
Obama may deride identity politics, but they have played a important role in the arc of American history. What is commonly called identity politics tends to impact how people think of equality in society.
One kind of equality is treating everyone the same. If brother and sister are fighting over a slice of cake, each gets half–that’s equal.
Another type of equality is treating relevant differences differently. Usually this means allowing for the fact that two people may require different treatment to achieve the same opportunities. For example, equality might mean providing both a person paralyzed from the waist down and an able-bodied person who can walk access to the same public building. For the paralyzed person, this will require a wheelchair and a ramp. The desired outcome is the same, but the means are different and demand different resources.
America has tended to embrace the second kind of equality, especially in the 20th century. Most laws and Supreme Court decisions have affirmed that differences of gender, race, ability and even age do matter. The term “post-racial” implies that race is like eye color. It’s a difference, but not one that impacts opportunities. This approach, while defensible, hasn’t been ours.
There are strong movements for “color-blindness” in American policy, especially when it comes to affirmative action in college admissions (the focal point of the debate over identity politics).
But this movement has never had the power here that it does in other governments. The French conception of equality has centered on the first definition (treat everyone the same) since the French Revolution. As a result, France limits the collection of statistics on racial and ethnic identity among citizens, and rarely brings such information to bear on official public policy debates.
Whether or not it would be a good thing for America to become a post-racial, post-gender or post-identity society, the most salient — and least asked — questions are, first, whether differences matter now and, second, whether ignoring them makes them matter any less.