Race, Class and Fractured Identities

When it comes to capitalizing on white resentment, Trump was masterful. But he did not invent white resentment any more than liberals invented identity.

Perhaps the most notorious critique of liberal identity politics came from Mark Lilla, who claimed that liberal discourses on identity are expressive but not persuasive. “Diversity discourse exhausts political discourse.” And political discourse should be larger, and should be about a larger, common good. There is a kernel of truth to this critique of identity politics, in that discourses on the intersections of identities with class are not well-articulated, and they largely are not heard in the noise about ‘political correctness’ on campus, or how Target labels its bathrooms.

Being Left progressives, we talk about class a lot, and we talk about it as a set of relations, connected to structural power. And we tend to agree that liberal discourse in general doesn’t deal well with class (which after all, is more than an identity, as is race, as is gender). But Lilla’s critique falls short when he lays the blame for white resentment at the feet of progressives and liberals who care about diversity and identity. Is this the reason white, rural and blue collar Americans experience high degrees of both economic anxiety and cultural dislocation? Given the onslaught of right-wing narratives that scapegoat and direct anxieties toward ‘others’ who have been ‘unfairly advantaged’ by political and cultural elites, a good many of these folks may believe it. But, in reality, their identities, their ways of life are being threatened, not by transgender rights, but by neoliberal policies and ideas that have hollowed out rural communities and spread the experience of precarity beyond poor communities of color. 

If the Democrats have any hope of regrouping and then seizing the future, they would do well to heed this advice from Sean McElwee:

“The solution is not for Democrats to abandon “identity politics,” a sneaky term for its commitment to racial justice, gender equality, LGBTQ rights and inclusivity. Rather, Democrats must put forward their own populist agenda, one that addresses the real causes for stagnant wages (financialization, weaker unions, lower minimum wages, slack labor markets) rather than scapegoating immigrants and people of color.” 

White workers’ identities are in flux. We can and must feel curiosity and sympathy for the conditions and experiences that are causing such a sense of dislocation for this segment of the working class without ignoring how some (perhaps many) people grasp for ‘whiteness’ and ‘nativism’ to make sense of their conditions. Some, hopefully, many, in these segments of the working class are reachable. Some may be willing to step back and examine the racist impacts of their decision to empower a race-baiter who embraces white supremacist fascists. And how these reactionaries will harm our democracy while worsening economic conditions for working people. But many are not reachable. And we should not waste our time on them. They may be part of the 99 percent, but they will not be part of the new multi-racial bloc that we need to knit together.