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What is Identity Politics?

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  • Written By: Michael Pollick
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 02 August 2014
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When members of a specific subgroup unite in order to affect political or social change, the result is often called identity politics. This phenomenon is not limited to the major racial or gender divisions of our time, but extends into sexual orientation, ethnicity, citizenship status and other instances where a specific group feels marginalized or oppressed.

The phenomenon sometimes derisively referred to as "identity politics" primarily appeared during the politically tumultuous years following the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1965. While much of the attention was focused on the plight of disenfranchised African-Americans, other groups also sought recognition and acceptance through political activism and collective awareness raising.

The success of the desegregation efforts for marginalized African-Americans spurred other groups to take political action of their own. Under the concept of identity politics, women could unite in order to promote the passage of an Equal Rights Amendment. Homosexuals could organize political rallies or start grassroots campaigns to have stronger hate crime laws created or allow same-sex partners to qualify for marital benefits.

Other groups such as legal Hispanic immigrants or Native Americans were also empowered through identity politics. The idea was for marginalized or oppressed groups to be recognized for their differences, not in spite of them. By identifying himself or herself as an African-American or a homosexual or a feminist, a person could focus all of his or her energies on a specific political cause. This singularity of purpose appears to be the most positive aspect of this phenomenon.

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There are those who see identity politics in a less positive light, however. By focusing so much energy on a specific political agenda, practitioners may appear to be just as closed minded or exclusionary as those they claim are oppressing or marginalizing their group. The idea that an outsider could not possibly understand the problems or needs of a specific group could create more problems in the political arena.

African-Americans who felt oppressed by a majority white government, for example, had to accept that passage of the Civil Rights Act required the votes of conservative white legislators. Under the focused umbrella of identity politics, such a compromise would have been much more difficult to achieve. This is why many organized minority political groups have largely abandoned this model for a more ecumenical approach to common goals.

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anon217160
Post 4

"By identifying himself or herself as an African-American or a homosexual or a feminist, a person could focus all of his or her energies on a specific political cause. This singularity of purpose appears to be the most positive aspect of identity politics."

Is this really a "positive aspect"? Singularity of purpose requires us to wear blinders about how our "cause" impacts and is impacted by larger issues.

For example, basic "Libertarian" political theory has significant benefits for many who just focus on their one issue and whatever party will support it (until they get elected, that is). Having a wider view is a grown-up approach, not the adolescence of "I want what I want right now."

mutsy
Post 3

SurfNturf-I wanted to add that Israeli proponents might suggest that supporting Israel is in the United States best interest because it makes us safer.

A strong ally in that region of the Middle East helps to protect Israeli interests but American interests as well.

Many people see this as a national security issue that will protect all Americans. This is a strong example of international relations and world politics security economy identity.

surfNturf
Post 2

Sevenseas- While I agree that there is too much emphasis on polling data in political races such as the presidential race. I do believe that special interest groups do play a role in American politics.

For example, American Jewish identity politics might revolve around the protection of Israel. If someone from this group decides to support a candidate solely on the basis of their pro-Israeli stance, then they have not moved beyond identity politics.

sevenseas
Post 1

I wonder how much of identity politics are real similarities between the political interests or political focus of members of a subgroup and how much is spurred by the media. Not to blame everything on the media...and society. ;) But, it seems that in the 2008 US presidential campaign too much focus rests on how racial/gender/age/educational groups vote. Or maybe that was the case all along and it's now only pronounced because the 2008 presidential candidates are from relatively diverse backgrounds -- or, at least, this collection of candidates are one of the most, if not the most, diverse groups of candidates the US has had.

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