Free the Most Oppressed First

Do we still need to talk about identity politics? In the wake of the 2016 election and amid the ongoing parody that is the Trump administration, the subject has ...

Do we still need to talk about identity politics? In the wake of the 2016 election and amid the ongoing parody that is the Trump administration, the subject has been much in the news. Identity politics has been blamed by a liberal professor for the Democrats’ poor electoral showing, linked to the sudden ascendance of white nationalists to the national stage, accused of driving an individualist politics that makes solidarity impossible, declared synonymous with civil rights, and more. In all of this exhausting debate, perhaps we should first ask what identity politics is and what is its history.

In her new work, How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor provides an invaluable guide to the coiners of the phrase while providing them an opportunity to reflect on the changes in the political landscape over the past 40 years. Intended as a celebration of the 40th anniversary of the Combahee River Collective Statement, How We Get Free includes the Statement; individual interviews with the three original coauthors, Barbara Smith, Beverly Smith, and Demita Frazier; an interview with Black Lives Matter activist Alicia Garza; an essay by the historian Barbara Ransby; and an introduction by Taylor. The range of voices allows for a thorough understanding of the deeply felt importance of the CRC’s work, and the interviews allow the reader to appreciate the historical situation out of which the original statement emerged.

Identity politics, according to the Statement, comes from disillusionment with the way left-wing and antiracist activists dismiss or ignore the thoughts and needs of black women. “We realize the only people who care enough about us [black, lesbian women] to work consistently for our liberation are us,” goes the Statement. “This focusing upon our own oppression is embodied in the concept of identity politics. We believe that the most profound and potentially most radical politics come directly out of our own identity, as opposed to working to end somebody else’s oppression.”

Divorced from the context of black women’s activism, the Statement can be misread as saying that people should only work toward improving the lot of their own; yet as the Collective writes later, they are committed to antiracist activism and solidarity: “We struggle together with Black men against racism, while we also struggle with Black men about sexism.”

For the Combahee River Collective, identity politics represented a way to fight the dismissal of the interests and ideas of black lesbian women by the mainstream of left-wing movements. As Barbara Smith states in her interview with Taylor, “What we were saying is that we have a right as people who are not just female, who are not solely Black, who are not just lesbians, who are not just working class, or workers—that we are people who embody all of these identities, and we have a right to build and define political theory and practice based upon that reality.”

Identity politics, then, is a way to go beyond a presumed white or a presumed male subject and to incorporate the needs—material and beyond—of the most marginalized. Far from a call for separatism, the Statement is a call for a socialist and antiracist politics that incorporates those it had previously excluded.

More than just the origin of the phrase “identity politics,” the Statement is both a manifesto and a work of black feminist political theory:

We are actively committed to struggling against racial, sexual, heterosexual, and class oppression, and see as our particular task the development of integrated analysis and practice based upon the fact that the major systems of oppression are interlocking. The synthesis of these oppressions creates the conditions of our lives. As Black women we see Black feminism as the logical political movement to combat the manifold and simultaneous oppressions that all women of color face.

A decade before Kimberlé Crenshaw would make “intersectionality” a key term for Critical Race Theory, the Combahee River Collective had already spelled out the theory’s basic tenets. The idea of interlocking oppression has a long history in black feminist thought, dating at least as far back as Anna Julia Cooper, but the Statement’s formulation builds on this insight to illuminate its radical implications for left political projects. As Taylor writes in the introduction, “If you could free the most oppressed people in society, then you would have to free everyone.”

That the Combahee River Collective Statement and identity politics emerged out of a radical left-wing context is made clear repeatedly throughout the interviews. The women of the Collective were activists first and foremost, while also working as writers, scholars, and organizers. This experience, and the failure of activist movements of the time to heed and attend to the experiences and thought of black women, inspired the creation of the Collective and the Statement itself, which says, “We are not convinced, however, that a socialist revolution that is not also a feminist and antiracist revolution will guarantee our [black women’s] liberation.”

As we learn through the interviews, despite their active involvement in protest and politics, the Smiths and Frazier were inevitably pushed to the periphery of the left organizations. The alienation of these experiences comes through in each of the interviews, and it is a testament to the energy and commitment of the women that instead of withdrawing from politics, they created new organizations to advocate for and express their political needs. In a statement that modern activists should be sure to heed, Demita Frazier says,

I never ever ever [sic] would join an organization that did not have a feminist and a Black feminist analysis. Because if I can’t have that conversation about how all those things intersect, and have a reasonable conversation without it turning into what it usually turns into, which is “Y’all need to go someplace, and get your mind right, because you’re talking about the wrong things.” That was the response by most Black men to us when we wanted to talk about issues of feminism.

If the life of “identity politics” ended with the CRC statement, the topic would be important but mainly academic. The problem, at least for critics on the left, is that the term has taken on new meaning. At some point “identity politics” was removed from its roots in socialist feminist antiracist activism and overtaken by the neoliberal logic of representation.

According to Asad Haider in his new book, Mistaken Identity: Race and Class in the Age of Trump, identity politics “in its contemporary ideological form” is divisive; it is “based on the individual’s demand for recognition … suppresses the fact that all identities are socially constructed … [and] undermines the possibility of collective self-organization.” Haider argues, convincingly, that identity politics as it is commonly used has become a perversion of the Combahee River Collective’s understanding of politics.

Haider largely agrees with the Combahee River Collective’s political analysis, writing that the Statement “brilliantly demonstrated” the nature of interlocking oppression and showing how “black women, whose specific social position had been neglected by both the black liberation movement and the women’s liberation movement, could challenge this kind of empty class reductionism simply by asserting their own autonomous politics.” Class reductionism is therefore not the Combahee River Collective’s notion of identity politics, rooted in socialist solidarity, but the “ideology that emerged to appropriate this emancipatory legacy in service of the advancement of political and economic elites.” Haider’s statement is an attack on the form of identity politics taken up by, to use one of his examples, Hillary Clinton’s campaign and deployed against Bernie Sanders.

For the sake of clarity, let’s call this liberal identity politics. Whereas the socialist roots of identity politics seek further avenues for solidarity, liberal identity politics is individualistic, focusing on the wounded identity of the individual, creating a politics of performance where—as Haider writes of Rachel Dolezal—“positioning oneself as marginal is the recognized procedure of becoming political.”

Noting that liberal identity politics demands recognition of rights from the state, Haider writes that “When rights are granted to ‘empty,’ abstract individuals, they ignore the real, social forms of inequality and oppression that appear to be outside the political sphere. … In other words, when the liberal language of rights is used to defend a concrete identity group from injury … that group ends up defined by its victimhood.” Instead of addressing the material causes of physical or verbal injury, liberal identity politics ends up “reduced to a reaction,” as Haider puts it, and “emancipatory content disappears.” As Barbara Smith wrote 25 years ago in a critique of the liberal politics of the mainstream LGBTQ movement, if the left “ultimately wants to make a real difference, as opposed to settling for handouts, it must consider creating a multi-issue revolutionary agenda. This is not about political correctness, it’s about winning.”

How do we avoid pushing black feminist thought to the periphery while embracing universality?

For a slim book, Haider’s argument is expansive and philosophically challenging. Although he never overwhelms the reader with unexplained jargon, the range of work he engages with is impressive, including that of Althusser, Judith Butler, Wendy Brown, Paul Gilroy, Stuart Hall, and more. Moving through this material with skill and acumen, Haider sets out to undercut the material and philosophical foundations of identity politics (and the idea of identity itself). However, he misses an opportunity to engage with the tradition of black feminist thought beyond the Combahee River Collective.

While Haider discusses in detail Amiri Baraka and the black radical tradition, he is silent on the black feminist thought of Hortense Spillers, Saidiya Hartman, and the work of left-wing writers such as Angela Davis and Cathy Cohen.1 All of these thinkers, like the writers of the Combahee River Collective, have made serious arguments about the role gender plays in shaping racial (and sexual) experience. Although Haider explicitly states that his book will be “entirely focused on race,” by ignoring the intersection of race and gender he risks making precisely the critical error the Combahee River Collective Statement sought to prevent. The point is not merely that Haider should cite more black women or that black women all agree on identity politics, but that by rushing past a key insight of the Statement he misses developing and enriching his own account of race.2

This is not to dismiss Haider’s work, however. Writing with similar ease in both autobiographical and philosophical registers, he has produced a compelling critique of identity in the neoliberal era. Haider and the Combahee River Collective are united by a common commitment to radical socialist politics. To again quote Barbara Smith, “One would expect Black feminism to be antiracist and opposed to sexism. Anticapitalism is what gives it the sharpness, the edge, the thoroughness, the revolutionary potential.” The journey of identity politics from its socialist origins to mainstream liberalism is mostly left unexplored by both books.

Early in Mistaken Identity, Haider suggests that it is identity itself, as an abstraction from social conditions, that is at fault, and pointedly states, “I don’t accept the Holy Trinity of ‘race, gender, and class’ as identity categories.” By this Haider means that the “Holy Trinity” are not atomistic, essentialized things-in-themselves, but instead abstractions created by social relations. It seems to be the “identity” in identity politics that has led us astray, led us to think that there is something stable that constitutes us.

Instead Haider advocates for an “insurgent universality” that “does not demand emancipation solely for those who share my identity but for everyone; it says that no one will be enslaved … it insists that emancipation is self-emancipation.” This insurgent universality is socialist in its worldview and prizes solidarity above individualism. It is insurgent in that it does not seek redress from the state for injury, but rather creates the “program, strategy, and tactics” (to borrow Haider’s quotation from C. L. R. James’s The Black Jacobins) to ensure a new and better world.

As much as I want to see a revitalized left take up this revolutionary call, I worry that too little attention is being paid to the draw of liberal identity politics. Why is identity such a powerful platform, and why—in its liberal form—does it so adamantly avoid economic analysis? Is the fact that identity is easily assimilable into a consumerist culture enough to dismiss it from left analysis? How can an insurgent universal politics recognize the inspirational power of seeing yourself represented when you occupy a traditionally marginalized position? How do we avoid pushing black feminist thought to the periphery while embracing universality?

These are difficult questions, but ones worth asking. Despite its surge in response to Trump and Republican dominance, the left is still in a precarious position. Encouraging as the recent growth of organizations such as the Democratic Socialists of America and (early on) Our Revolution is, revolution is still a long way away. Barbara Ransby, in the closing essay of How We Get Free, writes that what we must take away from the Combahee River Collective Statement is “(1) never be afraid to speak truth to power … (2) in the face of racist, misogynist threats of violence and attacks, when you have the impulse to either fight or flight, what do you do? Fight! And, (3) always ally yourself with those on the bottom, on the margins, and at the periphery of the centers of power.” By fighting and working with those at the margins, at the periphery, we can truly fight for a restructuring of society. This is, as the book says, how we get free. icon

  1. Haider has recently discussed Saidiya Hartman’s work in relation to his own in a recent essay in Viewpoint Magazine.
  2. This also leads to some difficulty in his understanding of afropessimism—a school of philosophical thought associated with Frank Wilderson and Jared Sexton that posits that blackness is seen as ontologically “outside” of the human—which he bases on an uncharacteristically shallow reading of a single essay by and a radio interview of Wilderson. That Wilderson and Sexton draw explicit, if occasionally problematic, inspiration from the work of Spillers and Hartman is left unexplored. That I largely agree with Haider on afropessimism makes this missed opportunity all the more frustrating, as his criticisms—particularly on the adaptability of white supremacy and capital to incorporate a black elite—are salient but unlikely to persuade readers sympathetic to afropessimism without further detail.
Featured image: Combahee River Collective members march in a memorial to 11 women of color murdered in the Boston area (1979). Photograph by Tina Cross via Verso