The Gary and El Paso conventions became potent symbols of what later would be called the era’s “identity politics.” First coined by black feminists in the Combahee River Collective in 1977, the term most often referred to the racial and cultural politics of African Americans. “Focusing on our own oppression is embodied in the concept of identity politics,” they declared in the Combahee River Collective Statement. “We believe that the most profound and potentially the most radical politics comes directly out of our own identity, as opposed to working to end somebody else’s oppression.”1 Yet such a statement could have been articulated by any number of the era’s movements, from gay men to white working-class ethnics. And the term did come to define any politics rooted in the societal cleavages of ethnicity, religion, class, gender, region, age, and sexual orientation. Practitioners of such politics identified first and foremost with their subgroup and used it as a base to forward their specific policy agendas. This approach certainly embodied the beliefs that many African American and Mexican American activists had held for years, and that culminated in the political conventions of 1972. They declared that they can assist others only by empowering and seeking justice in their own communities first.
Not surprisingly, many social and political commentators—especially whites—found this perceived fragmentation in the body politic threatening. Critics left, right, and center demonized identity politics, characterizing it as destructive to both liberal democracy and the Marxist dream of class unity. Such criticism came to a head in the 1990s but pointed to the “rights revolution” of two decades before to explain the phenomenon. “The ethnic upsurge… began as a gesture of protest against the Anglocentric culture,” wrote Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., a liberal consensus historian and former aide to President Kennedy, in 1991. But epitomized by the 1974 passage of the Ethnic Heritage Studies Program Act, Schlesinger argued, the upsurge “became a cult, and today it threatens to become a