Politics of Identity

By Kaminer, Wendy | The American Prospect, September 24, 2001 | Go to article overview
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Politics of Identity

Kaminer, Wendy, The American Prospect

GEORGE W. BUSH OPPOSES affirmative action, at least in theory; in practice he has an affirmative-action record that might have made Bill Clinton proud. According to Time magazine, Bush "has appointed more women to positions of power and influence than any president in history." He even has a diversity policy that requires 30 percent of administration jobs to be filled by women. He seems to have sought racial diversity as well: According to his personnel director, Clay Johnson, minorities constitute 20-25 percent of people selected for top government jobs.

Conservative opponents of affirmative action who once derided President Clinton for bean counting have generally exercised their right to remain silent about Bush's efforts to diversify. Their reticence is not surprising. They also have declined to criticize his dad's affirmative-action appointment of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. (I imagine that even people who did not believe that Justice Thomas harassed Anita Hill did believe that the elder Bush selected him at least partly because of race.)

Liberals have been flummoxed by the demographic diversity of the younger Bush's appointments. They're loath to praise his concern for diversity, even though it reflects their own success in expanding opportunities for women and racial minorities. It's difficult to celebrate the political ascension of your opponents: "We knew if we kicked the doors open, conservative women would walk through," former NOW president Patricia Ireland ruefully remarked. But liberals could learn from Bush's affirmative-action program: It illustrates the falsities of identity politics. Race, ethnicity, sex, and sexual orientation are not reliable or appropriate predictors of ideology.

That may sound obvious, but it challenges a fundamental premise of left-wing crusades for diversity: the belief that heterosexual women, lesbians and gays, and racial minorities are united by their respective histories of subordination, resulting in reliably liberal group-think (so long as they are true to themselves). Diversity is not only valued as a demonstration of equal access and an essential element of economic equality; it's also considered a virtual guarantee that particular political perspectives will be voiced and strengthened. The power of this belief--that all members of "victim groups" do or should think more or less alike politically--is reflected in the vituperative denunciation of conservative African Americans as race traitors, the dismissal of conservative women as "male-identified," and the presumption that conservative homosexuals are "self-hating."

Unfortunately, as Bush's diverse judicial nominations are considered, we're bound to hear more epithets like these. Conservatives will pounce on them as evidence of liberal bias and intolerance of dissent. They'll have a point. The patronizing condemnation of conservative women, gays, and racial minorities is a triumph of circular reasoning: If you dismiss all right-wing women as morally or politically deviant, you never have to reconsider your assumption that liberalism is a female norm. You also avoid the intellectual challenge of arguing about legal and political ideas, by relying on personal accusations of disloyalty. You betray the progressive ideal of individualism by imputing political views to people on account of race, sex, or sexual orientation. Civil rights struggles are supposed to give people more freedom of thought and behavior, not less.

Identity politics has atavistic appeal, I admit. I'm not above wondering why many Jews vote Republican or give large sums of money to Harvard. I was always persuaded by the bumper sticker that proclaimed, "If men got pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament." There is even some empirical evidence that people with common experiences of discrimination and common cultures do form political cliques, as voters or legislators. African Americans tend to vote Democratic.

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