“Race politics is not an alternative to class politics; it is a class politics.” Adolph Reed Jr.
There is a proposed Straight Pride Parade planned for the end of August in Boston. Rather than see this as a sign that they’re actually winning the culture wars, or as an unusual opportunity to organize, or even as something worthy of little more than apathy, “the left” sees it as something to confront.
For the purpose of this writing, I’m using “the left” as a stand-in for people who are interested in growing justice for groups that have been historically discriminated against on the basis of their race, class position, gender, sexuality, national origin, etc.
While it’s convenient to use ‘the left” as shorthand here, it also shows its limitations and suggests, in fact, there may be no actual left, because there is no central ideology or element around which “the left” is currently defined. Put simply, the effort to focus on ascribed identities has a tendency to flatten class distinctions within each group, and flatten them to such a degree that real, material goals are made secondary to symbolic representation and visibility. It’s an approach that purposefully ignores that the oppression “the left” is concerned with is most significantly experienced through economic deprivation.
This dynamic is why “confronting” the Straight Pride Parade can only be problematic, because rather than offering any substantive material goals for those who have been historically discriminated against, “the left” is focused only on extending them public recognition and affirmation. With this as the goal, anything seen as merely rhetorically challenging recognition of the marginalized must be fought, even if it represents no actual material challenge or real-world discrimination.
There’s a special irony involved when a group focused on public recognition on the basis of identity protests another group seeking public recognition on the basis of identity. Additionally, the protest of Straight Pride feeds into the conservative accusation that Queer Pride, rather than just being a celebration of the LGBTQ community, is inherently anti-straight. This allows conservatives to promotes their longstanding false binary that there are good and bad identities. It’s important to remember, though, that even if the organizers frame the Straight Pride Parade as anti-queer, “the left” is really under no obligation to accept their framing.
To better explain the dangers of buying into this binary thinking for “the left” and where it leads us, it’s worth considering what’s happening within this largely undefined and self-identified “left” cohort.
Since the end of the Civil Rights Movement and Martin Luther King’s universal Poor People’s Campaign, “the left”, by organizing around identity groups (as if racial or cultural differences create inherently different needs for people), has increasingly moved away from concrete goals to instead focus on acceptance of cultural differences.
Partially as a result of this less material focus, organized labor is historically weak and union membership is at an all-time low; the Black/white racial wealth gap has tripled; despite increased productivity, wages have been stagnant for 40 years; the top 1% increased it’s net worth by 21 trillion dollars, while the bottom 50% lost 900 billion dollars in wealth.
In this light, I believe it’s fair to say that identity politics has completely failed “the left” and should be thoroughly rejected. Yet, for some on “the left” this observation is the equivalent of saying that women, queer people, Black people, and immigrants should be rejected. At this point, the left’s focus on identity-based recognition has gotten so extreme that it’s begun to mean that not explicitly recognizing individual identity groups is the same as apathy towards them, or even actual hatred.
People on “the left” focused on materially driven, mass-movement politics and who rejected the moral idealism of identity politics have often been called “class reductionists”. However, the people using this term have been typically unable to define it or explain how they plan to address manifestations of systemic racism without confronting them through material policies of economic redistribution or empowerment.
And now, increasingly, it’s being intimated that people who are focused on economic redistribution are, in fact, actually promoting fascism and are possibly alt-right, or at least “fascist-adjacent” (and often called strasserites). This is completely chilling: people who note that an increase of the minimum wage to $15/hr is inherently a raise for 40% of Black workers, people promote multi-racial coalitions to make that raise a political reality, are sometimes being called ‘nazis’.
Let’s be clear. People focused on material politics are being called nazis by the same ostensible “leftists” who promote the notion that “if you see a nazi, punch a nazi.” One has to ask. What is the value of a framing that creates adversaries of people interested in seemingly similar goals? And how does a framing that creates enemies of allies serve the goals of the left’s actual enemies?
The way we analyze and frame a problem tends to suggest its prescription. A racialized or cultural framing suggests a racialized or cultural solution. A material framing suggests a material solution. The questions and problems often attributed to the culture wars are consistently promoted as cultural issues, whether they happen to be gun control or abortion. But an abortion is a material medical procedure. Does framing abortion around personal or cultural beliefs materially make access to the procedure less vulnerable to prohibition?
To extend the question, at this point, does framing LBGTQ issues solely around acceptance and visibility help increase acceptance? I would argue that the excessively cultural framing promotes a binary. It forces people to choose between two competing sides, usually on the basis of how effective the rhetoric is. It’s arguable that the confrontation that gay activism represented in the wake of Stonewall and the AIDS crisis—through ACT UP and Pride organizing—has been largely successful in changing the cultural landscape for LBGTQ people.
It’s also arguable that the protections championed by that activism have largely been won at the federal level, albeit with a number of states still resistant. Despite these cultural gains, the culture wars continue because there are no other metrics to assess the progress of culture war issues aside from the effectiveness of the rhetoric. In a nation of people who feel increasingly alienated regardless of identity, the goal of “the left” continues to be centered on acceptance and visibility. To the degree that strategy has been successful in the past for the LBGTQ community, evidence suggests it no longer is.
The Straight Pride Parade makes clear, though, that the growing sense of alienation felt across the entire population necessarily leaves people in socially dominant groups feeling particularly vulnerable. This represents the danger of “the left” organizing solely around identity. For people interested in extending justice, identity politics wind up somewhere that’s ultimately contradictory. What begins as a focus on historically disfavored minority groups begins to beg the question: Who decides which identities are worthy of celebration?
Walter Benn Michaels spoke to this in an interview in 2016. He noted that,
“As racism and anti-discrimination have become more central to the moral compass of the country, what you get is an increasing number of white people who are convinced that they’re the victims of racism…in a world where racism is a central issue, people begin to understand their own genuine victimization through that lens.
A discrimination framework doesn’t speak to that sense of victimization. A cultural framework prompts a cultural solution. Benn Michaels explains that an anti-discrimination framework promotes the idea of culturally representative inequality in which the statistical representation of groups in poverty matches general society. He says, “if you’re poor because you’re a victim of racism, sexism, homophobia, that’s a problem because it’s an inequality of opportunity. But if you’re not a victim of one of those things, fuck you.”
Here’s a simpler way of getting at this: Aside from the exhortation not to do or say mean things— and to feel guilty about privilege—what has been “the left’s” mission for white people? What has been its mission for men? For straight people? What mission have we given these identity groups that includes them? What are we asking these identity groups to do that would benefit anyone suffering the effects of systemic discrimination and brutality?
To paraphrase Adolph Reed Jr., LBGTQ politics is not an alternative to class politics; it is a class politics.
The continued focus on just visibility and representation ignores a higher poverty rate for LGB people (even higher for transgender people) while offering diminishing returns on acceptance. “The left” can certainly continue to view things like the Straight Pride Parade through the binary that a narrowly focused cultural analysis affords. However, it might be better served by listening to Benn Michaels’ assessment, which echoes Reverend William Barber and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and consider the prescriptions that assessment suggests:
“White people are indeed victimized. They’re the largest group of poor people, the largest group of people on welfare, and group below the poverty level in this country. Those people begin to think, yeah racism is the problem. That’s why what we’ve seen emerge during this Trump campaign is a white identity politics, in which white people go around thinking of themselves as aggrieved, as victims—not because of Black people’s prejudice against them but rather the government’s, which prefer other groups.
It’s a mistaken view, but a standard view. But the response on the so-called left is just to go, “Racists!” That doesn’t change people’s minds. You’re not trying to organize them, you’re just scapegoating. Scapegoating people is a bad idea when they’re in the majority and you’re in the minority. It’s one thing if you’re scapegoating 10 percent of the population, but you’re scapegoating a very large part of the population. So as an electoral strategy, it doesn’t seem wise.”
For anyone interested in extending justice for groups historically deprived, it’s not clear that this scapegoating is a wise strategy for any purpose.