Beyond identity politics
Diversity, divisions and the ‘American mutt’
By Rick Holmes
Oct. 13, 2017
There’s a song I’ve thought of often as I’ve wandered the countryside these last eight months. In it, Jamie Kent looks over his family tree and finds “Blue-eyes and brunettes/Rainbows and rednecks/Scottish, Jewish, Christian, Buddhist.” Also “Republicans and Democrats, they get along like dogs and cats.”
Nice line, but maybe an insult to dogs and cats, who have always managed to get along in my family. In my country, on the other hand, Republicans and Democrats seem incapable of doing anything but snarl at each other.
There are other divisions among Americans, along the typical lines of race, culture and religion, differences partisans have always tried to play to their political advantage.
Which brings me to “identity politics,” which in some quarters is being blamed for the Democratic Party’s current woes. Self-described pragmatic centrists have been making the case that Democrats have spent too much effort these last few decades catering to every minority except white males; too much energy focusing on what makes us different instead of building alliances; too much time looking inward and not enough winning elections.
Maybe so, if political success is measured by the number of state representatives wearing your party label. But those making that argument should watch their implications. The social justice agenda matters. The expansion of rights – women’s rights, LGBT rights, minority rights, disability rights – is the crowning achievement of the last half-century, and the Democrats should be proud of it. Fighting institutional racism is not a trivial distraction from the import job of winning elections; it’s a core progressive mission.
It’s not just Democrats who practice identity politics. When Republicans pander to evangelicals or gun-owners, that’s identity politics too. Much of Donald Trump’s campaign was an exercise in identity politics. He attacked minority groups – Muslim Americans, Hispanic Americans, LGBT Americans, African-Americans – for the precise purpose of winning votes from the minority group he identifies with: Aggrieved white Americans.
The real issue with identity politics is whether it is used to pit people against each other or to bring people together.
We’re all members of some minority group; we each have our own identity, we’re all hyphenated Americans. Our families, our heritage, our circle of friends include “all kinds of crazy,” as Jamie Kent sings in “All-American Mutt.” Jamie’s a friend of mine, a Pioneer Valley singer-songwriter who made the move from Massachusetts to Nashville.
I’ve also been listening to Zeshan Bagewadi. His parents are Indian Muslims who immigrated to Chicago, where Zeshan was born. From his mother he learned to love Indo-Pakistani music; from his father he learned to love American blues, soul and R&B. Zeshan B combines those traditions - singing in English, Punjabi and Urdu - in a sound that’s both fresh and authentic. His version of an old Civil Rights anthem, “Crying in the Streets,” seethes with the passion of today’s social justice movement, giving it a faint South Asian accent. Some on the left may call that cultural appropriation. I call it America’s secret ingredient.
One of the most important divides in America today is between those who see diversity as a strength and those who see it as a threat. Voters in the latter category – anti-immigration, anti-globalization, anti-innovation – may control the White House for now. But history teaches that the future belongs to those with linked arms and open minds.
Identity politics has been with us from the beginning, when 13 colonies with different origins, economies, languages and laws – joined to make common cause and create a new country.
The challenge now is the same as then: To find strength in our diversity, to respect and empower every citizen, and to restore faith in the part of our identity that comes after the hyphen: American. The Founders had a Latin motto for building the American identity: E Pluribus Unum – Out of Many, One.
Those Founders were less diverse than we are. But we are more American than they were, for we are the beneficiaries of centuries of effort to make the nation they founded live up to their ideals. Generations have taken their challenge and run with it. To their bloodlines, we have added genes from every corner of the planet.
We’re all American mutts, and that should be a source of pride and encouragement. If we can embrace the diversity and contradictions that are our heritage – and learn to accept not only those who look different from us but also those who disagree with us on politics – we can pull this country together and make it work for everyone.