Racial essentialism, Identity Structures, and the Language of Social Progress

            Human beings cannot escape their tribalism, and all of us revert back to irrational bracketing in difficult social circumstances. It is easier to pick sides or teams and enjoy the solidarity and comfort in numbers than to attempt to navigate tense subjects rationally and fairly. More specifically, identity politics have resurfaced with a vengeance. As a result of postmodernism run amok, today’s culture finds little clarity or interest in objective thinking. Today’s culture is far more sympathetic to subjectivity and perceived differences than it is to traditional thinking. This is the case almost with everything: politics, personhood, literature, history, and even science. Why is all of this a problem?

            Below I take time not to focus on why this has become such a problem at this moment, but rather why identity politics and identity thinking is a problem generally.  Lastly, I take a moment to elucidate the concept of social progress and how language is essential to this project.

Racial Essentialism

             A good example of an identity structure is race. As we become less confused about race scientifically, the cultural and social circumstances seem to become more complicated. This is seen now - and especially historically - almost exclusively from white people. The “white race,” a scientific non-entity, is seen by many whites as being superior in its very essence to other races. Racial superiority historically has been the peg on which the white race has hung its hat. Thankfully we have spent much of the last half century obviating and overturning these grotesque principles. Indeed, every period since the emancipation of slaves has been an improvement on the previous period. These improvements – the hard work of so many concerned with social and economic justice – paved the way for a black president of the United States.

            We have to be careful, though, not to assume that we now live in a post-racial or “color blind” society because of these advancements. President Obama himself could be blamed for advancing these sorts of sentiments. Ta-Nehisi Coates ardently reminds us of this. Coates - pre-eminent black intellectual, author, and writer for The Atlantic - has been on the frontlines the past several years re-inventing the concept of racial improvement and racial identity. His writing on race pushes around all of our intuitions about what it means for whites and blacks to live with each other. Like Coates, many other writers and intellectuals have paved hallowed ground, elucidating the entrenched institutional racism that still pervades society. They have shown us all that old habits do indeed die hard.

            But Coates goes further. He believes that there is no hope for the future. Race relations, according to him, are forever tainted with the white brush of perceived superiority. There is nothing black people can do to advance, and nothing any white individual can do to move the white collective in a positive direction. In this belief Coates is a fatalist: a racial identity structure that allows for no movement. This is a big problem. Thankfully, though his historical understanding is accurate, his conclusions are false.

            How can his premise be correct and his conclusions false? Surprisingly, there are no real glaring logical fallacies in his understanding of race realities. His grasp of history – both in details and in broader narratives – is impressive. Coates’s mistake is the subtler missing the forest for the trees. His latest book is entitled, “We Were Eight Years in Power: an American Tragedy.” Only Coates, it seems, could truly miss the irony in this title. Nothing for him can break the hold on white society’s plunder and rape of the black community. It is true that through economic networks, housing paradigms, mass incarceration, and a skewed justice system that systemic racial injustice is prevalent. It is also true that the notion of “color blindness” in some utopian post-racial society is far-fetched. Coates, however, is still oblivious to all of the progress that has been made already. He recounts the horrors of slavery and Reconstruction and Jim Crow, but fails to notice that each of these moments in time were improvements upon the past. This isn’t a whitewashing of any of these historical horrors. As bad as Civil Rights era relations were, to conflate this era with that of the era of enslaved field hands is a ghastly mistake. This move is truly to make a mockery of the real notion of progress and objective facts. This makes a mockery of history. It makes hash of the way both whites and blacks thought and operated in the world. I fear that Coates and those sympathetic would read this as an unfair assessment or a discounting of the racial distress and outrage of every subsequent age. That is not the case. I can’t fail to notice – as Coates does – that we moved from a nation of physical slavery of the African race to electing one to the highest office in the land. This move isn’t imaginary and it isn’t nominal. Almost everything had to happen in between for this to be the case. The fatalist idea that that there is no potential end to black plunder by the white race fails to account for the tangible progress that has been made for the last one-hundred and fifty years.

            Understanding this is also to deliver a blow to identity politics. Identity politics are bred from this sort of racial essentialism. Groups like Black Lives Matter, as necessary as their intent may be, peddle a sort of exclusivity built on the twin pillars of white guilt and essentialism. They implore the white man to understand their plight, to take himself out of the role as white individual and press himself into the ragged shoes of the oppressed black individual.  However, they simultaneously ensure this move impossible to make. They claim ultimately that there is no real way the white experience can unspool itself in a way to fully embrace the black experience. You need to understand us, but there is no way you could possibly make the leap. I think history has shown this demonstrably to be false (at least in a meta-historical way), but even if true it does not serve any practical purpose to commit to this sort of dual masochism. A philosophical or ideological statement of solidarity need not serve a practical purpose, but it would appear that the point of BLM demonstrations (if not Coates) is to serve a practical end. Identity demonstrations, especially those in the political realm, must embrace the concept of inclusivity and progress to be effective. If not, we are all merely barking in the wind.

            It seems in some sense that barking in the wind – hearing oneself air greivances for the sake for it – has become a new reality. And the barking has become more vociferous and less rational.

Identity Structures

            Identifying with certain groups or certain people can feel comfortable or appropriate. It is difficult for anyone to escape this move for long. We sow the seeds of political affiliations as well those of certain pastimes, hobbies or interests. Sometimes we notice these affiliations and sometime we don’t. Coates points out in his book that although identity politics elected Trump in 2016, they also elected Obama in 2008. Indeed, Coates points out that identity politics are seen everywhere and affect broad subsets of society and culture. He suggests that perhaps we complain too much about identity politics when they don’t suit us, but this goes unnoticed when we embrace the results we like.

            I think this is fair insofar as identity politics haven’t become poisoned with a virulent particularism. Trump’s base, degenerate though many of them may be, don’t seem to take their identity so seriously and particularly as to be culturally dangerous. White supremacists (which evidently comprise a subset of Trump’s base), however, do project an invariable identity that results in a dangerous fatalism. The key is to notice when identity becomes an unchanging factor in advancing some principle or piece of legislation, a factor that is held as essential even in the growing face of evidence. Irrationality has never led to better outcomes. When identity stands as an obstacle to rationality and evidence and decency and fairness, then identity needs to be reevaluated.

            Two notable examples of identity politics that have run ashore the jagged rocks of cultural incredulity are the transgender pronoun issue and the #metoo movement. Liberal campuses at several American universities have become hotbeds of unrest in recent years. The illiberal left (or “Ctrl-Left,” as Maajid Nawaz dubbed it), comprised of many confused millennials, has begun acting in authoritarian ways, abandoning their commitment to the principles of open dialogue. Recently, this faction of the left has become an opponent of classically liberal ideals, brewing up high profile campus fiascos. Language – how we speak to each other and of each other – has been central to much of these debates.

            The concept of transgenderism has met little scientific resistance. The resistance to transgender ideas was surprisingly rare (save some Christian moralizing) until the ideas moved into the practical and legislative realms, namely the bathroom and the classroom. When the idea of a transgender male or female encroaching on someone else’s territory became possible, the resistance became more vocal. The concern on who was in your bathroom was misguided but unsurprising considering the nature of our scientific confusion on the matter. People are typically afraid of what they do not understand. At any rate there is a period of distant and careful acclimation. But the pushback against this fear and confusion was also problematic: the denial of any confusion whatsoever. The speed at which culture – especially the left – rationalized and appropriated transgender issues was vertiginous. Now, the apologists for pronoun appropriation among transgender people have spawned a new battleground. There are credible threats in some places in Canada that criminal penalty will be applied to those who refuse to use new, fabricated gender pronouns for people who want them. Among other absurd pronouns, the word “they” is now being used to refer to one person. This is not only confusing for practical conversation, but also insidiously authoritarian in nature. Legislating one’s speech in such a way leads down dark roads. To suggest that some of these transgender people (and it isn’t all of them, to be sure) might be confused about some biological principle or maybe confused about themselves is to raise a shocking and painful taboo. Again, identitarians of this sort have hung their hats and everything on else on these particular feelings. You are either accepting of them – and not just them but everything about them and everything coming from this corner of our cultural conversation – or you decidedly are against them. This is the sort of false dichotomy, the Manichaean and quasi-religious partition, that unwavering belief in an identity structure creates. The room for nuance, inclusivity, and progress come to a dead halt. The illiberal left would naturally claim that there is some irony in this position, that to be inclusive and progressive would mean accepting transgenderism in all facets – including the absurdity of the pronoun debacle. But this is a red herring and a bait and switch. To favor conversation about objective scientific observations and cultural nuance is not to be unaccepting of people; it’s to prepare the road for more acceptance and ultimately better understanding of each other. To level the accusation of intolerance or even hate for this sort of rational concern for open dialogue is to shatter liberal ideals.

            Identity structures in today’s culture have become mechanisms for turning supposed liberals against themselves. Identity has become more of a problem on the left than it has on the right.

            The #metoo movement, raising awareness of and pushing against the shibboleth of male dominance (and the “Patriarchy”), has become another self-cannibalizing identity movement. This movement transcends political boundaries. Like many originally decent and important movements, the radicalization of it seemed inevitable. But it wasn’t inevitable, and that is the important point. Exposing sexual predators and men who act in grossly inappropriate ways (engaging in harassment and molestation) is as clean a point on which to agree that there is. However, the process of doing this became a “movement” - it became an identity.

            Once the movement developed its own identity, some of the movement’s adherents engaged in starkly illiberal and unfair behavior. Women began to “come out” on popular television shows and some of them relaying non-events to a credulous and gullible America. Not only were some of the accounts being relayed not consistent with harassment in the slightest, but also many of the allegations were improvable. Our language begins to take a hit when we start conflating things like rape and off-color compliments in the work place. When we start talking about these things in the same way we begin to lose traction on reality. Historically, this is how events like witch hunts and communist show trials become possible. We become confused about reality and ultimately believe our own lies and fabrications. The most disconcerting fact about movements like these is that once a collective developed opinion is decided, any perceived opposition in conversation becomes taboo. Association with “harassment” – which means being an apologist for it, real or perceived – becomes a death knell. Identity here leads to quasi-revolutionary thought, and not the kind that is beneficial to anyone. Real victims of sexual harassment (and worse) are done a disservice by those who feign (or misunderstand) grievance.[1] The #metoo movement always had the seeds of radical misappropriation, but it was not inevitable that it would be misused. Here the identity of abused women – and to some extent all women – has allowed for a pointed and unfair witch hunt with confabulatory and misandrist overtones.

              Can we avoid these identity traps?


Language and Social Progress

             The solution is simple in theory. It is clearly more difficult in practice. We first have to agree to be wary of language. What are we saying about certain subjects and what are we saying to each other? More importantly, are we allowing each other to say what we feel (as long as we do so non-violently) without resorting to a moratorium on dialogue upon threat of violence? Campus unrest is a normal part of the higher education environment, so long as we do not become radicalized to the point of causing lasting damage to our conversations and our ability to have them.

            Inclusivity, openness, and a clear eye to science and progress are the weapons to combat the threat of poisonous identity structures. These features are amenable to a healthy respect for cultural differences and tough conversations. White supremacy does not fit into this paradigm. Neither does black fatalism and attendant white guilt. The transgender identity structure, as well as the #metoo movement have warped into profoundly unhealthy versions of what they once were.

            It is easy in the age of unhindered, globalized information to bracket off into groups of opinion, especially if it is radical opinion. It is much harder it seems to vocalize a more nuanced view of issues. The silent majority, however, need not stay silent. Speaking up allows us for us to avoid identity traps and the wake of their destruction. Avoiding identity structures can allow for true social progress and collective understanding. Unfortunately, it feels that navigating one another in tense times has become a project that many don’t feel the need to continue. Let’s hope that changes.


[1] Ben Affleck was accused of “brushing against” the breast a woman during a hug. Matt Lauer had a consensual affair with woman who “came forward” to tell her story. I’m still unsure why this story was important.