by Christopher Paslay
Robin DiAngelo mistakenly ties the Civil Rights Movement to identity politics, when in fact the movement was based on universal human values.
Robin DiAngelo, who has made an estimated $2 million from her controversial bestseller White Fragility — and charges up to $40,000 for a half-day workshop — insists all social progress in America has come from identity politics.
“The term identity politics refers to the focus on the barriers specific groups face in their struggle for equality,” DiAngelo wrote in her author’s note to White Fragility. “We have yet to achieve our founding principle [in America], but any gains we have made thus far have come through identity politics. . . . All progress we have made in the realm of civil rights has been accomplished through identity politics.”
But just as DiAngelo mangles the story of Jackie Robison in White Fragility, she also misrepresents both the concept of identity politics, and the association of identity politics with the Civil Rights Movement. Her statement that “identity politics refers to the focus on the barriers specific groups face in their struggle for equality” is disingenuous because it’s only half of the equation. While identity politics does aim to remove barriers to marginalized groups, it also uses identity itself — race, religion, gender, and sexuality — as a source of power. In other words, it places membership in a social group over the character of the individual, thus turning MLK’s “dream” on its head.
DiAngelo, along with many anti-racists, insist the Civil Rights Movement was a form of identity politics because it advocated very explicitly for a certain identity group — it called for universal human rights, freedoms, and opportunities by focusing on the identity groups who lacked them. This advocacy, however, is not identity politics. It is what Helen Pluckrose and James Lindsay call universal liberalism; in this case, “liberal” does not mean left of center on the political spectrum, but refers instead to a well-established philosophical and ethical position which focuses on individuality, liberty, and equal opportunity (conservatives, liberals, and libertarians all employ some forms of universal liberalism).
What is the difference between universal liberalism and identity politics? Both want to end inequality, but use very different approaches, as explained in the article “Identity Politics Does Not Continue the Work of the Civil Rights Movements,” published on the website New Discourses by Pluckrose and Lindsay. “Universal liberalism focuses on individuality and shared humanity and seeks to achieve a society in which every individual is equally able to access every right, freedom, and opportunity that our shared societies provide,” Pluckrose and Lindsay write. “Identity politics focuses explicitly on group identity and seeks political empowerment by promoting that group as a monolithic, marginalized entity distinct from and polarized against another group depicted as a monolithic privileged entity.”
In layman’s terms, universal liberalism seeks diversity, equity, and inclusion through individuals seeking a shared humanity at the personal level — practicing the kinds of core principles and values that transcend race and other identities; things like friendship, love, respect, and tolerance for diversity are the core building blocks that unite us and provide equal access to rights, freedoms, and opportunities. Identity politics, on the other hand, are rooted in social constructivism — the idea that “truth” and “knowledge” are constructed by hierarchies of power within society. In other words, universal values and shared humanity don’t exist, and do not transcend identity (race, religion, gender, sexuality). Therefore, civil rights can only be achieved through dismantling so-called power structures in society, which, according to an anti-racist framework, require the disruption and dismantling of things like “whiteness,” “toxic masculinity,” etc.
As Pluckrose and Lindsay write:
The problems with this kind of rationale are not only that it sets different identity groups in opposition to each other, makes communication difficult, and creates a moral economy that locates social power (immunity from legitimate accusations of bigotry) in perceptions of victimhood or oppression. It also reduces the ability to be able to genuinely empathize across identities if we are understood to have entirely different experiences, knowledges, and rules.
There are three core problems with identity politics, according to Pluckrose and Lindsay:
- Epistemological: It relies on highly dubious social constructivist theory and consequently produces heavily biased readings of situations.
- Psychological: Its sole focus on identity is divisive, reduces empathy between groups, and goes against core moral intuitions of fairness and reciprocity.
- Social: By failing to uphold principles of non-discrimination consistently, it threatens to damage or even undo social taboos against judging people by their race, gender, or sexuality.
Pluckrose and Lindsay also state:
It is generally a terrible idea to have different rules of behavior dependent on identity because it goes against the most common sense of fairness and reciprocity which seems to be pretty hardwired. It is also antithetical to universal liberalism and precisely the opposite of what civil rights movements fought to obtain. Identity politics which argues that prejudice against white people and men is acceptable while prejudice against people of color and women is not do still work on a sense of fairness, equality, and reciprocity but it is reparative. It attempts to restore a balance by “evening the score” a little, particularly thinking historically.
Despite disingenuous claims from DiAngelo, the Civil Rights Movement did not employ the use of identity politics. Instead, it used the values of universal human rights and the inherent worth of every individual, and did so regardless of race, religion, gender, or sexuality. If we truly care about diversity, equity, and inclusion in America, we must resist using polarizing identity politics, and instead choose an approach based on universal human values.