by Brendan Kennedy
Since the election of Donald Trump, an understandable panic has arisen about the future of the American left. Many commentators (often centrist or just left-of-center, and almost exclusively white) have chosen to blame the left’s embrace of “identity politics” for generating a backlash that made Trump inevitable. This is a weakly-supported notion peddled by people who never really supported “identity politics” in the first place. Blaming identity politics ignores Clinton’s unique weaknesses as a candidate, falsely paints handfuls of overly-aggressive college students as representative of all liberals, and downplays how extreme shifts in the right’s opposition to Obama paved the way for a candidate like Trump. The rejection of identity politics assumes that backlash from the right makes it bad. That’s absurd.
Our nation’s entire history of civil rights shows that the worthiest forms of identity politics also tend to draw the most extreme backlashes.
Trump’s campaign and incoming administration has made identity explicit by criticizing an American judge because he is “a Mexican”, appointing Cabinet members who view peaceful Muslims as a threat, and promoting false facts to suggest black laziness and criminality. We need to be conscious of race and ethnicity in order to address the overt racism that minorities face.
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And some of the most politically significant movements in American history would likely be dismissed as “identity politics” by these critics. Columbia professor Mark Lilla, in the most well-known critique of “identity politics,” praised past identity movements such as women’s suffrage while failing to draw parallels with modern identity movements. Lilla seemed to assume that modern identity politics only serves to shun ideological enemies and, somehow, erase the public’s sense of civic duty. But history has shown that without these movements, the rights of minorities are quickly erased, and our strongest political organizations are abandoned. The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, for example, may be the most successful organic movement from the left in decades. BLM has raised awareness for issues of criminal justice and police brutality, pushed for the exposure of racial discrimination by police departments, and inspired significant changes to policies and practices across the board. Even if cynical centrists dismiss it as “identity politics,” they would be ignoring how effective it has been in promoting action and positive change. No matter how you label it, the left needs to embrace movements like that, not abandon them.
The common criticism of “identity politics” is that it unnecessarily draws lines between groups. These critics generally encourage a more universalist progressive platform, arguing that identity politics makes it impossible to reach a broad swath of voters. In pursuing identity politics, they say, the left has ignored the struggles of the white working class.But this argument falls flat when you realize that, of all the policy agendas and political movements generated in recent years, the one that addresses these issues best may be a product of “identity politics.” The Movement for Black Lives, an umbrella organization of many groups including Black Lives Matter, released a platform in August. It provided six main planks from which their proposals develop: End the War on Black People, Invest-Divest, Community Control, Reparations, Economic Justice, and Political Power. The platform has the depth, scope, and research to rival the platforms of America’s major political parties. The proposals that it lists are universalist, progressive, and focus on employment and opportunity for all while addressing the unique barriers that minorities face in our society. It is a healthy mix of common-sense reforms, necessary protections, and lofty aspirations that will inspire Americans.
The Movement for Black Lives’ policies may very well be the platform that the left needs to embrace moving forward.
This section includes the policy goals typically associated with the Black Lives Matter movement: demilitarizing law enforcement, ending for-profit prisons, focusing on rehabilitation over retribution, bail and sentencing reform, and an end to zero-tolerance policies and criminalization of black youth. These reforms address a moral crisis that has been brewing for decades. But the policies listed here also address an economic crisis, which has resulted from the massive levels of overincarceration. Adopting them should be a priority for both reasons.
This section also embraces a number of important protections for civil rights and liberties which aren’t traditionally associated with BLM. It calls for immigration reform, especially the system which targets immigrants to satisfy for-profit prisons. It also includes support for LGBTQ people who face unique levels of discrimination in society. Finally, it opposes mass surveillance. All of these protections are generally in line with broader progressive goals, and focus on some of the most important questions of civil rights and liberties for our age.
Investigations like the review of the Ferguson Police Department show that local and state governments often have criminal justice systems which are set up to target, impoverish, and incarcerate low-income minorities for the profit of a small few. Private prisons and other factors create a similar pipeline on a national scale. Our system currently invests in sending people to prison for as long as possible, instead of other fundamental societal goals such as education. Reforming this system would produce savings across the board; ending mass incarceration would reduce corrections costs at all levels. Police reform would improve community relations and make crime-fighting more efficient.
Both reforms would turn people who would otherwise be abandoned by the system into working, tax-paying citizens with stronger social bonds.
The invest-divest plank calls for investing the savings from reforms into the communities that policies formerly targeted. Where money is divested from criminalization and incarceration, it should be invested into education, rehabilitation, healthcare, and economic growth. This plank calls for a broad restructuring of priorities, and also mentions divestment from the War on Drugs, reliance on fossil fuels, and the staggering levels of military spending. This restructuring of priorities in spending would promote opportunity in communities that need it most.
The Movement for Black Lives’ policies to promote economic justice are the most fascinating. They expand the common progressive agenda to include more far-reaching efforts at economic opportunity, with specifically tailored plans to aid black communities. This plank calls for policies like tax reform, a renegotiation of trade deals, worker and union protections, an end to the privatization of necessary natural resources, and Wall Street regulations including a restoration of the Glass-Steagall Act. On top of these more mainstream proposals, the plank offers a couple of ambitious goals.
The first far-reaching proposal: a federal jobs program. The economy’s rebound following the Great Recession has passed over many who needed it most, and the middle class continues to shrink while employment falters. But, paradoxically, this shortage of work is coupled with a shortage of skilled labor. The federal jobs program is a fascinating concept to address these problems. Sandy Darity, a Duke professor of economics and director of the DuBois Cook Center on Social Equity, describes the general concept as a federally funded employment program that would guarantee living wages, health insurance, and training. The programs could be used for infrastructure, and would use funding to directly aid workers and target needed improvements. This is in contrast with the plan proposed by Donald Trump, which gives tax breaks to investors in a way that fails to guarantee more jobs or target areas of needed improvement which private companies often ignore. In addition, jobs could help support local education, health, and social organizations.
The training and job experience would be a significantly better investment for American workers than unemployment benefits, and would provide a pipeline to long-term employment and skills for a new generation of workers.
The platform also calls for specific protections and opportunities for black people, recalling how many New Deal programs worked to exclude African Americans. There is a stunning racial gap in employment, and discrimination is still rampant: for example, in Milwaukee and New York City, employers preferred white applicants with felony convictions to black applicants with clean records. This “targeted universalism,” or benefits which are available to all but also geared toward areas of need, would help everyone and acknowledge inequities.. A jobs program ought to work to erase the stain of racism in our labor market.
The community control and political power tenets address concerns that politicians and bureaucrats do not have community interests at heart. The tenets advocate reforms to encourage community participation in law enforcement, education, and budgeting. Community control of law enforcement is a key part of the Black Lives Matter movement. Many law enforcement departments still aren’t representative of the communities they police. But proposed reforms are about far more than the demographics of police forces. True community control also means community advisory and oversight to put a check on abuses of power.
We have known the benefits of community-controlled policing for decades, and it is time for us to fully embrace it.
The platform also encourages more widespread adoption of community schools. This is a newer model for public schools, in which schools rely on community programs to bolster skill development, expand knowledge, and provide special programs. This model has proven successful at both the state and local level, and energizes public schools while avoiding the disastrous consequences that can result from the unrestricted school choice promoted by the Trump administration. The beauty of community schools is that they combine the benefits of local control, after-school programs, job preparation, and community efficacy in a way that is replicable in both urban and rural areas. The community school model, like other proposals in the Black Lives platform, gives communities the resources to improve themselves in the best way possible.
The political power tenet covers a variety of popular political reforms and protections. Included are calls to diminish the role of money in politics, support net neutrality, and guarantee full access to the right to vote for all people (an unfortunately necessary protection following Republican efforts to erase the Voting Rights Act). In addition, this plank urges protection and support for black political, social, and educational groups. Special protections for other minority groups may very well become a larger focus in the coming years, especially since around a quarter of U.S. Latinos and Muslims identify as black. These proposals would take meaningful actions are taken to protect the voices of minorities and everyday Americans from efforts to silence them.
This plank is easily the most controversial of the Black Lives platform. Even President Obama, ever the optimist about the capacity of Americans to do good, acknowledges that the topic of reparations is too hot for most white Americans to handle. When it comes to discussing the idea of reparations for the harms of slavery and Jim Crow, white Americans tend to recoil. While the United States government has paid reparations before, it hasn’t addressed harms of this magnitude (estimates of the impact of slavery alone range from $5 to $10 trillion). The subject has become a sort of taboo as a result. Many advocates for reparations now simply would settle for a debate over the issue.
This is more or less the position of the Black Lives platform. It focuses on programmatic reparations: repaying the harms done by the U.S. government through access to education, livable income, food, and healthcare, as well as a social acknowledgment of the harms of slavery (all of which could be achieved through previous policy proposals). The plank also calls for federal and state legislation to explore proposals and claims for reparations that have been made, but deliberately falls short of endorsing specific proposals. In short, this plank only urges investments into black communities, with legislative action to acknowledge the harms done and address them.
Given the staggering evils of slavery and Jim Crow, reparations shouldn’t be controversial; given the ingrained racism in American society, it almost certainly would be.
The Path Forward
A campaign in this mold would be the anti-Trump campaign in many ways. While Trump’s campaign was largely xenophobia and white grievance defended as economic populism, this policy agenda would be true economic populism attacked as racism and black nationalism. But with increasing calls for a retooled liberal platform, this agenda seems to provide many of the right solutions, and would directly challenge the incoming administration with better ideas. And while some of the platform is ambitious and unorthodox, its creators say that the implementation of every single policy isn’t the main objective. The same is true for major party platforms. Instead, the proposals listed are an attempt to take the movement’s impressive political momentum and use it to re-energize the left, protect threatened groups, and re-focus the progressive movement’s appeals to the working and middle classes.
So far, centrist critics of “identity politics” have provided little more than armchair quarterbacking and smug retrospection. It’s not hard to see which movement is in a better position moving forward.
The policy agenda presented here is as thorough and well-researched as any in American politics today. It takes the tremendous political momentum generated by Black Lives Matter and develops a complete plan for economic and political prosperity. The plan would encourage direct investment in workers and ambitious plans to give communities the impetus to create their own opportunity. Because this platform comes from the Movement for Black Lives, and because the proposals here recognize the unique burdens faced by African Americans, the plan might not be readily accepted by all in a society where racism is still so powerful. However, if the American left wants a plan that provides opportunity, expands freedoms and rights, energizes voters, and appeals to workers, then the Movement for Black Lives and their platform is a fantastic place to start.
Brendan Kennedy is a senior at Trinity University from Dripping Springs, Texas, majoring in Political Science.
The views expressed in this article are those of the writer. The Contemporary takes no position on matters of policy or opinion.
The photo above was taken by Fibonacci Blue, is under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license, and can be found here.