Critical Race Theory has become a political football. The right is using it as a culture wars wedge issue while the left wants to dismiss it as just an obscure grad school discussion topic.
So, let’s give CRT a rest for now and avoid all that. Instead, let’s consider identity politics, a concept that both sides employ and one with a definition that is pretty clear in common usage. I think a fair definition of identity politics is: Appealing to voters (or consumers) primarily on the basis of their race or gender identity. Pretty straightforward. Also, more even-handed than CRT, which is a school of thought that comes from the left.
The right appeals to white, Christian identity, whereas the left appeals to the identity of pretty much anybody who isn’t a straight, white male, very wealthy or a political conservative. Both sides see themselves as the victims of an oppressive majority.
Whether practiced by left or right, identity politics is a cancer on the culture and on our political life. Here’s a short inventory of what’s wrong with it.
Identity politics encourages people to think of themselves as victims. White Christians are egged on to think of themselves as being threatened by gay rights, civil rights, feminism and all manner of social movements. Identity groups on the left are encouraged to think of themselves as put upon by white privilege and the patriarchy, among other evils. In both cases, victimhood becomes a sought-after status. Groups engage in a sort of victimhood Olympics. “You may be a woman, but I’m a Black woman and therefore a double victim!” “You may be a white Christian, but I’m an evangelical, and so I’m a more worthy victim than you are!”
Identity politics identifies scape goats. Problems in society — crime, income inequality, homelessness, etc. — are caused by some group identified by their race, gender, wealth or some other characteristic. So, you can blame immigrants, Black people, white people, intellectuals, the under-educated, the one percent, blue collar workers who don’t understand their own best interests, the main stream media… take your pick. What’s corrosive about this should be obvious. Finding demon groups on which to blame social, cultural or economic ills always ends badly.
Identity politics discounts personal initiative, merit and hard work. If you’ve achieved anything it isn’t because of your native talents or your hard work. No, it’s because you got an affirmative action break or you’re a beneficiary of white privilege. This is nihilism. Your fate was decided at birth based on your skin color and gender. Nothing you do matters, so why try?
Identity politics discourages personal responsibility. This is the flip side of the previous point. When things go astray, it’s not your fault. Dropped out of high school? It’s systemic racism in the school system. Didn’t get the job? It’s affirmative action.
A society steeped in identity politics breeds people who are always looking for new ways in which they can imagine that they have been victimized, people who blame categories of other people for what’s wrong in society, people who don’t see the point in hard work because their future has been fore-ordained, and people who refuse to take responsibility for their own failures.
In short, identity politics nurtures the very worst characteristics in human nature. Better, I think, to strive for a society that sees people as individuals with potential and with flaws, a society that doesn’t ignore discrimination but sees it as something to be eliminated and, crucially, does not see it as the explanation for 100% of every problem.
I would rather live in a society that encourages resilience instead of victimhood, hard work instead of resignation and personal responsibility over group identity.
This current political culture of bitterness, resentment and finger-pointing — practiced by both hard-right and hard-left — is getting us nowhere. In fact, I believe that it’s at the root of our polarization.
Those of us who are worried about Critical Race Theory — and there are a lot of liberals and moderates who are concerned about it — are right to be worried. But it’s not as if this kind of thing is exclusive to the left. CRT is a refined form of identity politics and that is a practice that is used on both the right and left.
It seems to me that a fundamental project for us as Americans right now is to get back to the practice of seeing one another as individuals.
Welcome to the 171st consecutive day of posts here at YSDA. Thanks for reading!