The Political Critique of Identity

"Any man who carries a hyphen about him carries a dagger which he is ready to plunge into the vitals of the Republic."

-Woodrow Wilson, 1918

"Not everyone is male, white, hearing, heterosexual. Very well. But what is a Left if it is not, plausibly at least, the voice of a whole people? ... If there is no people, but only peoples, there is no Left."

-Todd Gitlin (1995, 165)

Political concerns about the importance of social identity are voiced equally across left, liberal, and right wing perspectives. Moreover, the suspicion of identity is not relegated to the discourse of intellectuals but is also manifest in the mainstream as a widespread public attitude, and not only among white communities.

 

Without doubt, the critique of identity has worked effectively, and justifiably, against some of the problematic interpretations of identity politics, where identity is construed in reductionist and simplistic fashion and where its link to politics is rendered overly determinist. Nonetheless, I believe the more significant effect of the critique has been a negative one, in discrediting all identity-based movements, in blaming minority movements for the demise of the left, and especially in weakening the prospects for unity between majority and minority groups, contrary to the beliefs of such theorists as Schlesinger and Gitlin. Although the critique purports to be motivated by just this desire for unity, it works to undermine the credibility of those who have "obvious" identities and significantly felt identity-attachments from being able to represent the majority, as if their very identity attachments and the political commitments that flow from these attachments will inhibit their leadership capabilities. It also inhibits their ability to participate in coalition politics as who they fully are. In this way, the critique of identity has operated to vindicate the broad white public's disinclination to accept political leadership from those whose identity is minority in any respect: Catholic or Jewish, Black or Latino, Asian or Arab American.

 

The suspicion against ethnic identity has a long tradition in U.S. history, as Silvio Torres-Saillant has shown. In the early 1900's, the new immigrants from southern and central Europe who were less easily assimilated to the dominant Anglo culture were seen as a threat to the nation. Teddy Roosevelt declared that cultural assimilation, and the demise of the specific cultural ways of these ethnic groups, was a condition of patriotism: "The man who becomes completely Americanized...is doing his plain duty to his adopted land." This view gained strength during the first world war, when many in the U.S. expressed concern, sometimes violently, about the European allegiances of U.S. citizens who were of German or Austrian extraction. By 1916, when the U.S. was beginning to enter the war, Roosevelt insisted that the country's "crucible" ought to turn "our people out as Americans, of American nationality and not as dwellers of a polyglot boarding house,...we have room for but one loyalty and that is a loyalty to the American people." Woodrow Wilson even pressured his party in 1918 to condemn ethnic associations as subversive, and went so far as to state that "any man who carries a hyphen about him carries a dagger which he is ready to plunge into the vitals of the Republic."(Dicker 35; Stubbs and Barnet 677; McClymer 98; Quoted in Torres Saillant, nd)

 

Wilson and Roosevelt's concerns that ethnic identity would inevitably create conflicting loyalties was based on the assumption that ethnicity and nationality are permanently coextensive or co-determining, that is, that one's ethnicity determines one's nationality. This is a mistake few theorists or politicians would make today. However, strongly felt identities are still blamed for increasing conflict among various social groups by emphasizing differences at the expense of commonalities and thus weakening the prospects for an inclusive nationalism. And as the Wen Ho Lee case recently illustrated, certain ethnicities, especially Asian-American ones, are still suspected of harboring a primary loyalty to their countries of originÑno matter how many generations back. Wen Ho Lee, a naturalized U.S. citizen, came here as a student in 1964 to Texas A & M University, met his wife at the Rose Bowl, got a job at Los Alamos, and for over thirty years enjoyed bridge, classical music, and reading Charles Dickens before he was racially profiled and arrested for suspected treason (Wu 2002, 178). Lee's arrest occurred shortly after the House Select Committee on U.S. National Security issued a report in May of 1999 which argued that every individual of Chinese ancestry in the United States is a "potential spy"(Wu 2002, 179) Here, racialization mediates ethnic identity and national origin to produce the specter of an identity that is viewed as beyond assimilation or even rationality. As Frank Wu shows in his comprehensive study of contemporary anti-Asian prejudice, the idea that ethnicity determines nationality continues to operate in some casesÑmainly for Asian Americans and LatinosÑwhere ethnic identity has been racialized.

The Liberals

In classical liberal political theory, the initial state of the self is conceptualized as an abstract individual without, or prior to, group allegiance. It is from this "initial position" that the self engages in rational deliberation over ends and thus achieves autonomy by freely choosing, rather than blindly accepting, its doxastic commitments, including its cultural and religious traditions. As Kant developed this idea, a person who cannot gain critical distance from and thus objectify their cultural traditions cannot rationally assess them and thus cannot attain autonomy. In Kant's view, an abstract or disengaged self is for this reason necessary for full personhood. Moreover, the process of modernity, which was conceptualized as analogous on the societal level to the process of individual maturation, became defined as just this increased ability to distance oneself from one's cultural traditions. In this way this distancing ability also became a key part of the global, European-centered teleology of intellectual and moral development, defining the terms by which societies were to be labeled advanced or backward.

 

The norm of rational maturity, then, required a core self stripped of its identity. Groups too immature to practice this kind of abstract thought or to transcend their ascribed cultural identities were deemed incapable of full autonomy, as individuals or as groups, and their lack of maturity was often "explained" via racist theories of the innate inferiority of non-European peoples. But liberal social theorists attempted to develop non-racist explanations for the inability or unwillingness of some to let go of their identities.

 

In the 1960's an influential account of ethnicity was developed by Nathan Glazer and Daniel Patrick Moynihan according to which people develop a strong sense of ethnic identity as a result of being excluded from the melting pot and from political participation (Glazer and Moynihan 1963). According to this account, if individuals are shunned or segregated off to themselves, whether because they are Italian, Irish, or African American, they will develop a powerful sense of group identity and internal solidarity as a defense mechanism. Glazer and Moynihan thought that social steps toward inclusion, then, would work as the "solution" to ethnic identity. A kind of analogous position has more recently surfaced in feminist theory, suggesting that gender identity is also something produced entirely by conditions of oppression that would wither away under conditions of equal empowerment. For these feminists, feminism is the "solution" to gender identity.

 

Why is it assumed that social identities require a "solution"? This only makes sense given the liberal conception of the self as requiring autonomy from identity in order to have rationality. After all, the fact that a social identity was created under conditions of exclusion or oppression does not by itself entail that its features are pernicious: oppression can produce pathology without a doubt but it can also produce strength, perseverance, and empathy, and certainly solidarity is not an inherent evil. Moreover, the desire to be free of oppressive stereotypes does not necessarily lead to the desire to be free of all identity; it can just as easily lead to the desire to have more accurate characterizations of one's identity and to have the collective freedom to develop the identity through developing culture and community as well as the individual freedom to interpret its meaning in one's own life.

 

Nonetheless, strongly felt social identities are considered by many to harbor inherent political liabilities. Liberal political theorists such as Arthur Scheslinger (1991), David Hollinger (1995), Jean Bethke Elshtain(1995), and others have argued that a strong sense of group solidarity and group identification endanger democratic processes and social cohesion; that they will inhibit the ability to form political coalitions; that they will ground "knowledge and moral values in blood and history" (Hollinger, 3) and in this way substitute the determination of group membership for critical reflection, thus producing what Cornel West (1994) calls "racial reasoning."

 

Elshtain provides an especially clear articulation of the argument that identity politics derails democracy, and her account shows how this view is connected to the conception of rational autonomy sketched above. She holds that when private identity takes precedence over public ends or purposes...the citizen gives way before the aggrieved member of a self-defined or contained group. Because the group is aggrieved---the word of choice in most polemics is enraged---the civility inherent in those rule-governed activities that allow a pluralist society to persist falters. This assault on civility flows from an embrace of what might be called a politicized ontology---that is, persons are to be judged not by what they do or say but what they are. (Elshtain 1995, pp. 52-53).

 

Elshtain contrasts, as if they were mutually exclusive, (a) the citizenry that advances public or common purposes and (b) self-defined identity groups or "private identities" that are concerned with group-related grievances. She holds that the determination of public ends should not or cannot be developed through associations or actions that are organized around identity. In her view, public citizens and private identities are two separate kinds of things, even though instantiated in the same individual. In so far as that individual reasons and acts as a citizen, it cannot be thinking of itself primarily in terms of this private identity, and one that has been aggrieved and is enraged. Identities must be left aside so that individuals can enter the arena of public debate and action as anonymous or dispassionate reasoners, weighing evidence on the basis of its merit no matter its implications for the future of one's own social group.

 

Elshtain's argument that "only behavior, not identity, should be criticized"(53) is persuasive as an argument that one should not be criticized merely for one's identity. This is precisely the argument against racial profiling, which put identities themselves into suspect categories independently of behavior. Thus, she is correct insofar as she is asserting that, in assessing someone's behavior or ideas, we should never reduce the assessment to a mere question of identity. However, rejecting a reduction to one's identity does not require or imply rejecting the salience of identity under any circumstance. A police officer, for example, might legitimately take a person's apparent identity into account, not for the purposes of assuming criminal behavior, but for the purposes of ensuring that the person can understand the officer's commands given in English.

 

In the kinds of cases Elshtain is consideringÑpublic spaces of deliberation or debateÑthe question is whether judgement can be realistically disentangled from identity. We appear in public spaces just as much fully identified persons as we do in the private sphere, although because we are known less well in public than in private relationships, those identity categories may loom even larger in public. As anthropologist Renato Rosaldo has argued,

 

Can women disguise their gender in the public sphere? If they must appear as women, and not as universal unmarked citizens, then one can ask, who has the right to speak in public debates conducted in the square? Are men or women more likely to be interrupted with greater frequency? Are men or women more likely to be referred to as having had a good idea in these discussions? (Rosaldo 1997, 28) The point is that identities are constantly used to lend or withhold credence from participants in almost any public exchange. Ideas are assessed in relation to who expresses them, and indeed, will be expressed in variable ways depending on the speaker and the context. For example, we can sometimes gain a clearer interpretation and assessment of someone's claims by understanding it in relation to their identity. A young athlete tells me in-line skating is easy to learn, and I take his words with a grain of salt. In an argument over how easy the United States is on foreigners living here, an Anglo claims its very easy while a foreigner claims it is not; their identities don't prove their points but they are relevant to consider as I assess their likely knowledge on the matter. Foucault recommends that we reconceptualize discourse as an event, which would incorporate into the analysis not only the words spoken but also the speakers, hearers, location, language, and so on, all as a part of what makes up meaning. This neither reduces meaning to identity nor assumes a priori that it is in every case irrelevant.1 Thus there are good reasons to contest Elshtain's claim that it is possible to separate private identities and public citizens as well as the claim that it would always be desirable to do so. I will return to this issue to develop this argument further at the end of this chapter.

 

Elshtain's and Schlesinger's views represent a common liberal understanding that believes that ethnic attachments are legitimate only when circumscribed to the private realm. If one's ethnicity is allowed to be the site from which to launch grievances or antagonisms in public debate, liberals think this will reduce the latter to polemic and "war by other means." Thus, for liberals, a strong sense of ethnic or racial identity poses an a priori problem for a democratic state: for Elshtain because it conflicts with the development and assessment of public ends, for Glazer and Moynihan because it has been created by exclusion and thus is the obverse of democracy, and for Roosevelt and Wilson (and the House Select Committee on U.S. National Security) because it threatens the security of the United States. From this point of view, the movement toward a more perfect union is by definition a movement away from social and ethnic identity. Identities may be championed and their right to exist defended by political policies but they are not to play a constitutive role in policy formulation without risk of derailing the possibilities for rational deliberative democratic procedures.

The Left

In recent years the left has also played a prominent role in the critique of identity politics. Leftist writers such as Todd Gitlin, Immanuel Wallerstein, Richard Rorty, Nancy Fraser and others have criticized what they see as the turn to identity politics that occurred sometime after the New Left revival of progressivism in the 1960's. It is important to remember that this position has not been uniform among all left-wing, socialist or communist organizations, here or elsewhere. For example, the Communist Party USA of the 1930's demanded "Self-determination for the Afro-American Nation" in its basic party platform, and supported black nationalist demands even unto the right of separation (Haywood 1976, 1978; Foner and Shapiro 1991). In the early 1970's, a major difference between the groups that evolved out of Students for a Democratic Society was over the question of whether race and gender should be emphasized in present day organizing or held off until "after the revolution," and several groups vigorously criticized the latter position.2 And worker's parties in Latin America have differed sharply over their attitude toward indigenismo and black consciousness movements, with the very successful Brazilian Worker's Party strongly supporting the struggles of ethnic groups. Even the labor movement in the U.S. has come around to recognizing the importance of addressing ethnic and gender differences, and leading unions such as the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) have adopted diversity quotas for national conventions, put out multi-language newsletters, and now hold regular workshops for union stewards on questions of racism, sexism, and homophobia.

 

Nonetheless, most prominent (white) leftists in the U.S. today are critical in varying degrees of movements that make identity their organizing basis, and are worried about "overemphasizing" difference. The debate over multi-culturalism that raged throughout the 1990's was instructive in this regard. Most leftists wanted to carefully distinguish good and bad forms of multi-culturalism, and were very critical of forms that they felt reified identity and promoted a politics of visibility without an agenda of class struggle. The forms of multi-culturalism that they approved of were defined as those that characterized ethnic, racial, gender, and cultural differences as produced or created by structures of oppression (Kanpol and McLaren 1995). To avoid the pejorative label "liberal" a form of multi-culturalism needed to argue not only for the inclusion of diverse cultural groups but also for the inclusion of narratives explaining the relations of exploitation and oppression that existed between dominant and subordinate groups. That is, it needed to explain the relationship between identity formations and power structures. This brings out the most radical implications of identity struggles, showing the incoherence of an all-inclusive pluralism that would equate identities forged as tools of domination (whiteness, masculinity) and identities created to target populations for exploitation (blackness).

 

Few would context the link between identity formation and power structures, given the historical context of colonialism in which all of our identities have been shaped. The issue of contention here is whether identities that have been historically subject to oppression are reducible to that oppressive genealogy. Many leftists insisted that cultural differences can be explained mainly in reference to oppression, thus suggesting that without oppression, difference might well wither away. I will take issue with this view in what follows.

 

Leftist concerns with identity politics have been in many cases the same concerns that the liberals have, such as Schlesinger and Elshtain, but they also have some of their own worries. In his book The Twilight of Common Dreams: Why America is Wracked with Culture Wars, Gitlin echoes many of the liberal worries listed earlier: that identity politics fractures the body politic; that it emphasizes difference at the expense of commonalities; and that its focus on identity offers only a reductivist politics, one that would reduce assessment of political position to the process of ascertaining identity. But as a leftist, Gitlin's main worry is that the focus on identities and thus differences inhibits the possibility of creating a progressive political majority based on class. Rather than building from common interests, he thinks identity politics makes "a fetish of the virtues of the minority." And in his view this is not true of just some versions of identity politics, but of all: "all forms of identity politics" are reductive: they are all "overly clear about who the insiders are...and overly dismissive of outsiders."(Gitlin 1995, 127) He thus finds the emphasis on identities "intellectually stultifying and politically suicidal." If we want to make genuine social revolution, he argues that ethnic and racial based political organizing must be minimized.

 

Similar to Glazer and Moynihan, Gitlin attempts to offer a kind of therapeutic diagnosis to explain the current attachment that so many in our society have to their identities. "The contemporary passion for difference is...the consequence of unsettled psychological states. The American pace of change constantly eats away at identity...The search for hard-edged social identities is surely an overcompensation."(160) In other words, identity-based movements are forms of resistance against capitalism which has caused a fragmentation of the extended family, the breakup of community, and the lost significance of history and tradition. Americans are pining for fixities of identity to cure the vertigo produced by so much postmodern disarray. For the participants of identity politics, "the benefits of the pursuit of identity [are] manifold: a sense of community, an experience of solidarity, a prefabricated reservoir of recruits...Try telling someone who feels" as he puts it "the hunger for wholeness that this is a totalitarian principle, that he or she had better get used to the overlap and complexity of attachments."(147) Gitlin thus tries to sympathetically explain the motivations for identity attachments, even while he critiques the construction of identity as a kind of mistake. He believes that a strong sense of group identification may be understandable but that an insistence on identity's political salience is ultimately irrational, often opportunist, and strategically disastrous.

 

Gitlin's account thus returns us to an outdated view of class as an essentially homogeneous entity rather than a cluster concept with internal contradictions. By separating class demands from identity struggles he implies that there are generic class demands rather than the demands of skilled or unskilled workers, of the trades or the service professions, of minority workers, of women workers, of immigrant workers, and so on, that is, of groups whose interests sometimes coincide and at other times collide. Gitlin implies that the labor movement can only maintain a united front if it ignores internal differences.

 

In my experience, maintaining unity requires a careful attending to difference. For example, in a recent contract negotiation that I observed at a hospital in Syracuse, New York, the issue of preferences for internal hiring or in-house advancement came up for discussion among members of the SEIU bargaining committee, each of whom was an elected representative from a particular sector of the hospital. In the process of preparing the negotiating points that the union will put forward to management, priorities have to be set and some issues must be left aside, and the question on the table was, how much of a priority would the union give the issue of in-house advancement in its negotiations? The members of the professional tradesÑelectricians, plumbers, and so forth, who are almost entirely white menÑinitially saw no reason to fight for this provision in the contract or to make it a priority. However, an African American woman on the bargaining team spoke up for the importance of in-house advancement, pointing out that almost all of the minorities in the hospital worked at the relatively lower skilled and lesser paid jobs. Given the difficulty minorities still have in entering the trades, the outside hiring of minorities is a slim bet. It is much more likely that a minority person will be hired into housekeeping or dietary departments, for example, but be stuck in those departments unless preferences are given for in-house hiring into the trainee positions available in the more lucrative departments. In this particular bargaining sub-committee, if the tradesmen had voted as a bloc against this woman's proposal, and if the mostly white male union leaders had supported them, then the conditions of work for nonwhite workers at that hospital would continue to be unrelievedly at the bottom of the hierarchy during the next three or five year contract period. Fortunately, in this case the white workers united in supporting in-house advancement because they came to recognize the relevance that racial difference made to union members' work lives.3 These kinds of discussions are an everyday occurrence in labor organizing and contract battles. It is no accident that SEIU is today the largest union in the United States, the fastest growing, and that it has the most pro-active policies in support of racial and gender democracy.

 

Thus, one cannot either imaginatively or practically pursue "class demands" as if the working class has one set of united and homogeneous material interests. It makes neither political or theoretical sense to imagine an undifferentiated working class demanding a larger share of the pie, to be divided among them with the same ratios of remuneration as currently exist based on racism and sexism. Just as black workers cannot stand in for the whole, neither can skilled white workers. Each group is exploited in a specific manner, and to different degrees. Certainly, there is a motivation for unity, but unity will have to be negotiated in piecemeal terms, such as the bargaining committee in Syracuse discovered. Redistribution demands will either reproduce or subvert the inequalities among workers, or, what is often the case, do some of both.4 Thus, neither class demands nor class identity can be understood apart from the differences of social identity.

 

The very possibility of unity that Gitlin aims for will require that, for example, the minority members of a union feel connected to it and feel that it is addressing their conditions. But this requires the exploration and recognition of difference, as well as making a space in union meetings for sometimes extensive discussions about the different situation of the various workers, and accommodating their different demands, interests, and needs.

 

In her recent books, Justice Interruptus and Redistribution or Recognition?, Nancy Fraser offers a less polemical and arguably more persuasive critique of identity politics that tries to accommodate a recognition of difference. Though she is very critical of identity-based politics, she is also critical of those who use the excuse of its failures to retreat from the struggles against racism and sexism, turning back to class reductionism, economism, or the old fashioned kind of un-self-conscious universalism that existed prior to social struggles around identity.

 

Fraser develops a broad mapping of contemporary social struggles and political movements with many points of reference but essentially one major divide, between struggles for recognition (women, oppressed minorities, gays and lesbians) and struggles for redistribution (labor, the poor, welfare rights). She argues that there is an analytical as well as a practical distinction between these types of movements because struggles for recognition tend toward promoting "group differentiation" while struggles for redistribution tend to "promote group de-differentiation." In other words, gays and lesbians, for example, are fighting for the very right to exist free of violence and discrimination, while the poor would rather eradicate their identity as poor.

 

Fraser explains that "Recognition claims often take the form of calling attention to, if not performatively creating, the putative specificity of some group and then of affirming its value. Thus they tend to promote group differentiation. Redistribution claims, in contrast, often call for abolishing economic arrangements that underpin group specificity....Thus, they tend to promote group dedifferentiation...Thus, the two kinds of claims stand in tension with each other; they can interfere with, or even work against, each other."(Fraser 1997, 16) She views this conflict of aims between recognition and redistribution as one of the central problems of political mobilization today. Unlike other leftist critics such as Gitlin, Fraser holds that we should attempt to bring these two sorts of struggles together, and that both kinds make legitimate political demands. But, like Gitlin, Fraser is highly critical of the effects of interpreting the need for recognition in terms of a recognition of identities.

 

Fraser's critique of identity politics is the most perspicuous and clearly articulated to date, and thus well worth a careful reading.5 Her account is also worth addressing because, unlike many others, she not only sympathizes with the aims of recognition movements but attempts to reformulate them in such a way so as to lessen what she considers their problematic effects. In what follows, I will explore Fraser's arguments in some detail. After this, I will summarize the main points of the political criticism of identity, tease out the assumptions behind these criticisms, and then offer counter-arguments that address each major point.

Fraser's critique

Fraser divides the forms that struggles for recognition can take into two camps: the first involving the struggle for an affirmation of identity, and the second involving the struggle for equal participation.(Fraser 2000, 2003) Her main criticism is directed toward this first form, which she calls a "culturalist" struggle that aims at self-realization. It is this form of the struggle for recognition that she associates with identity politics. Identity politics by her definition, then, is a struggle in which the political goal is articulated as an affirmation, including self-affirmation, of previously denigrated identities.6

 

In part because she is critical of this form of recognition struggles, Fraser has endeavored to develop and articulate the second form (the struggle for equal participation), and in this way salvage the project of recognition from the deleterious effects of identity politics. I will consider this second option in a moment, but I will turn first to her concerns with the struggle to affirm identities.

 

Fraser argues that a politics that understands itself to be aiming at the affirmation of identities will have the following effects, even if unintended: (a) displacing redistribution struggles, (b) tending toward separatism and away from coalition, and (c) reifying identities, which she objects to not on metaphysical grounds but on the grounds that it leads to a policing of authenticity, the promotion of conformism, and some form of, again to use West's phrase, "racial reasoning." The struggle to affirm identities will tend toward these effects because, according to Fraser, these struggles tend to view identity based forms of discrimination as "free standing" rather than caused by a complex array of social institutions.

 

Largely silent on the subject of economic inequality, the identity model treats misrecognition as a free-standing cultural harm; many of its proponents simply ignore distributive injustice altogether and focus exclusively on efforts to change culture...[It] casts misrecognition as a problem of cultural depreciation. The roots of injustice are located in demeaning representations, but they are not seen as socially grounded....Hypostatizing culture, they both abstract misrecognition from its institutional matrix and obscure its entwinement with distributive justice.(Fraser 2000, 110) Neither here nor elsewhere does Fraser provide examples of groups that hold such views.

 

Here one might be tempted immediately to argue that the real problem is just these mistaken views about cultures and identities rather than identity politics per se. Identity based political organizing will not divert attention from redistribution, as she predicts, unless it also imagines that identity based hatreds occur within a completely autonomous cultural sphere. But it is not at all clear that such beliefs are an intrinsic feature of identity politics or of identity based political organizing which aims at the affirmation and self-affirmation of identities. One could desire to affirm identities even if one held non-hypostasized accounts of cultures and identities. Nor does the affirmation of identities itself entail a commitment to a particular social theory about oppressive causes. For example, the various media watch groups that report on minority representation in the media and that demand more and better representation are organized simply around media representation, and offer no full blown theory about social change nor do they imply that this reform will have a greater impact on society than other reforms. Yet they are clearly motivated by the goal of affirming presently denigrated identities.7

 

Fraser seems to accept that some forms of identity politics entail no commitment to a mono-causal theory of identity-based forms of oppression. But she says that even when the proponents of identity politics "appreciate the seriousness of maldistribution and genuinely want to address it" they still result in "displacing redistributive claims" through an orientation of practice toward recognition rather than redistribution.(Fraser 2000, 110) I suspect many more people share her concern with recognition struggles on these grounds, that is, because they believe that redistribution is a more important goal, and because they believe that redistribution has a more lasting value on society when its goals are achieved.

 

But we should note that, if the problem here is one of relative weight or importance, this is not an intrinsic problem with identity politics itself. The problem of relative weight only arises if one puts more importance on recognition than redistribution. One could also ask, if one truly believes that both the redistributive and recognition struggles are warranted, as Fraser claims, why is it the case that the recognition struggles are problematic because they may divert energy and attention from redistribution struggles, but not vice versa?

 

More importantly, we need to question the assumption that recognition can be separated from redistribution, which is an assumption necessary to generate the question Fraser addresses of whether it should be. In actual fact, identity based political organizing does not exist in necessary opposition to the struggle for redistribution of resources because redistribution demands are part and parcel of virtually all identity-based organizing. African-American political organizations, like the NAACP and the Black Radical Congress, have called for reparations for slavery; women's organizations like NOW have demanded an end to gender-based pay inequities and NARAL (the National Abortion Rights Action League) has demanded access to abortion for poor women. The National Council of La Raza has organized for welfare rights, home loans for Latinos, and improvement in public schools, and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force has fought for an end to job and housing discrimination and universal access to AIDS medication as well as health insurance for domestic partners. These are demands that would effect significant redistributions of income and resources and would benefit not only the middle class individuals marked by these identities but also the working class and poor members. Moreover, the organizing among immigrant women garment workers, as recounted in the wonderful book Sweatshop Warriors by Miriam Ching Yoon Louie, has largely developed from ethnic-based community centers, such as the Asian Immigrant Women Advocates organization, Korean Immigrant Workers Advocates, both in California, and the Chinese Staff and Workers Association in New York (Louie 2001). The languages and cultural backgrounds of immigrant workers significantly affects not only the possibility of communication but also the possibility of developing the high levels of trust required in organizing efforts that involve the risk of not only job loss but also deportation. In these cases, identity based organizing is simply a necessity, and has in no way blocked the coalition efforts made between these ethnic organizations of workers and various labor unions (unless the unions themselves are backward). These examples may not establish a logical necessity to the connection between recognition and redistribution demands, but they establish the historical fact that in the leading groups organized around identity, redistribution demands are their raison d'etre. Identity-based organizing is one way, and sometimes the only way, to mobilize and frame demands for redistribution and is an integral part of class transformation.8

 

Fraser may wish to characterize these sorts of groups as aiming, not at the affirmation of identities, but for equal participation, and thus to place them in her "safe" category distinct from identity politics. In this alternative approach, she says, "recognition is a question of social status" and "what requires recognition is not group-specific identity but the status of individual group members as full partners in social interaction."(Fraser 2000, 113) The language of recognition used here is meant to apply to the individual capacity and right of moral reasoning and political judgement, both of which are denied by identity based forms of discrimination. But in her view, instead of focusing on getting recognition for an identity that has the right of full participation, we should be focusing on the right of full participation directly. By articulating the demand in this way, Fraser argues, we will put the focus where it really needs to be.

 

In Joel Olsen's critique of her argument, he reminds us of Du Bois's demonstration in Black Reconstruction that addressing antiblack racism is not a diversion to class struggle but, in the context of the United States, centrally necessary for the very possibility of class struggle. White identity was created as a recompense, and distraction, to white workers for their economic disenfranchisement. Class consciousness has been stymied in the United States more so than in any other industrialized country through the racial ideology of white supremacy. This is precisely why, Olsen argues, that "the great American struggles for Ôrecognition'ÑAbolition, Reconstruction, and the civil rights movementÑhave inaugurated the nation's most significant efforts toward redistribution."(Olsen 2001, 175)

 

Nonetheless, the key aspect of Fraser's alternative approach to recognition is clearly its ability to de-center and even efface any concern with identity. Identities may enter in only in so far as they affect participation; otherwise we will be on the slippery slope toward affirming identities for their own sake, and this promotes further differentiation rather than de-differentiation. Rather than seeing the attainment of equal status as bound up with identity, Fraser contrasts the recognition of identity with the recognition of status, as when she explains that on her model a claim for recognition should be "aimed not at valorizing group identity but rather at overcoming subordination..."(2000, 114)

 

On the face of it, this alternative formulation may be persuasive in that it seems to be going after the real target and thus avoiding all the problems of the identity approach. But it is essentially a mischaracterization of the nature of oppression and a proposal that will risk making it very difficult for group differences or group interests to be articulated in the public sphere. Let me explain.

 

In separating redistribution from recognition, Fraser implies just as Gitlin did that class can be conceptualized apart from identity. Thus, she provides us with an example of a "pure distribution demand" as the case of a white male skilled worker who becomes unemployed due to a factory closing resulting from a speculative corporate merger. In this case, she tells us, "the injustice of maldistribution [that is, the worker becoming unemployed] has little to do with misrecognition. It is rather a consequence of imperatives intrinsic to an order of specialized economic relations whose raison d'etre is the accumulation of profits. To handle such cases, a theory of justice must reach beyond cultural value patterns to examine the structure of capitalism. It must ask whether economic mechanisms that are relatively decoupled from structures of prestige and that operate in a relatively autonomous way impede parity of participation in social life."(2003, 35)

 

But the reality here is that it is profitable to transfer production (or outsource it) from one class segment to another Ñ i.e. from white male workers to a lower paid segment of the labor force either within a given nation or outside of itÑ because of the segmentation of the labor market by race, ethnicity, gender, cultural identity, nationality, and geographical location. Corporate reorganizing increases profit when it lowers labor costs, and labor costs are lowered by transferring production to a different labor segment. Without an account that can couple an analysis of "cultural value patterns" with the "structure of capital," we have no way to explain why certain labor segments are thrown out of work, even if, as in this case, it is the segment of white male skilled workers.

 

National minorities often form, willingly or unwillingly, an "ascriptive class segment" which the Berkeley economist Mario Barrera defines as a "portion of a class which is set off from the rest of the class by some readily identifiable and relatively stable characteristics of the persons assigned to that segment, such as race, ethnicity, or sex, and whose status in relation to the means and process of production is affected by that demarcation."(Barrera 1979, 101) Besides developing the general concept of ascriptive class segments more than two decades ago, Barrera also developed concepts of colonized class segments in which segmentation in the labor market is based on race and ethnicity. Barrera defines colonialism as "a structured relationship of domination and subordination, where the dominant and subordinate groups are defined along ethnic/racial lines, and where the relationship is established and maintained to serve the interests of all or part of the dominant group."(1979, 193) Neither race nor gender determines class position; such identity groups almost always include persons from multiple classes. Yet this fact in no way obviates Barrera's point that social identities operate to organize and segment the working class, differentiating its structure of wages and benefits as well as it conditions of work. Picturing class formations as ideal types without race or gender disenables our ability to use the concept of class as an explanatory concept in social theory.

 

Fraser's hope that the demand for equal participation can bypass questions of the value of cultural and social identities is in vain. The reason why certain social actors are denied full participation in this context is their identity, as Fraser herself acknowledges when she says that "To be misrecognized...is not simply to be thought ill of, looked down upon or devalued in others' attitudes, beliefs or representations. It is rather to be denied the status of a full partner in social interaction, as a consequence of institutionalized patterns of cultural value that constitute one as comparatively unworthy of respect or esteem." (2000, 113-4) Thus, the denial of equal status is organized around and justified on the basis of identity. It is therefore unworkable to struggle for equal social status without contesting the basis upon which such status has been denied, which involves the negative attributions made about specific identities. We must tackle the issue of identity because it is, in an important respect, the key to the problem and to the solution. Minorities and white women are not denied equality because they are seen one by one as deficient, but because their group identity status is interpreted as deficient. They are "denied the status of full partner in social interaction" precisely because of their identities.

 

There are actually two separate reasons used to justify denying full partnership because of group identity: (1) because the particular group that the individual belongs to is argued to be inferior in some significant and relevant way, and/or (2) because any strongly felt group identity is argued to be an obstacle to reasoned judgement, since it will conflict with the individual's autonomy. If we can eliminate, in a utopian thought-experiment, the occurrence of sexism and racism and thus (1), this in no way decreases the possibility that (2) will continue to obstruct full participation. That is, one might have a strong attachment to an identity that is not denigrated, being Norwegian, for example, but this very attachment will itself be viewed with suspicion as likely leading to a distortion of judgement. Such an argument will seem to be a much more rational concern with the person's identity attachment, more rational than the simple denigration of their Norwegian specific identity, and for that reason may be even harder to dislodge. Thus, even if the individuals are saved in the struggle for equal social status, their identities will remain outlawed from the public realm of deliberation. This solution is no different from the liberal approach Sartre excoriated in Anti-semite and Jew when he said, the liberal wants to save the man but leave the Jew behind.9

 

The goal of redistributing resources, which Fraser claims to be her main concern, requires addressing all of the causes of the problem, which include (a) structural and institutional based forms of discrimination, (b) ideologies among dominant groups that legitimate their exploitation of, or inattention to, the plight of the subordinate groups, but also (c) the internalization of such ideologies among the oppressed themselves, among the effects of which is the reticence to demand redistribution. Internalizations of self-hatred and inferiority cannot simply be solved after redistribution, but must be addressed and at least partially overcome in order to make possible effective collective action. Every successful progressive and revolutionary movement has known this, and has then given expression to artistic, literary, and other forms of positive self-images as well as ways of working through and beyond the internalizations, from Soviet social realism to first world feminist art to the Mexican muralists to the AIDS quilt.

 

Consider Fraser's analysis in light of the recent battle at the University of North Dakota over the name of the school mascot, the "Fighting Sioux." It is not only the use of the name that has been opposed, but the highly demeaning images used around the local sports events, including portrayals of American Indians performing fellatio on buffalo. Although similar battles have occurred across the country for nearly three decades now, the battle at North Dakota had some unusual aspects. First, this is a university that houses 25 American Indian programs, including a quarterly student magazine, a program on American Indian life and culture, and a program in medicine that reportedly trains a fifth of the Indian doctors in the United States. Thus, one might argue that here is a case that was truly about the affirmation of identities rather than redistribution, since the demands of redistribution seem to have already been met.

 

But the second unusual aspect of this case reveals that there is more to the story. The battle came to a peremptory climax when a donor who pledged $100 million gift to the university for a new sports arena threatened to withdraw his gift and close down construction if the school logo or slogan were changed to omit the Indian name. If one is tempted to think, like some of the white students were reported as saying, that this is a trivial issue, a returned check for a $100 million dollars would suggest that for some it is indeed not trivial at all.

 

I would suggest that the identity politics at play in this case is white identity, in which whiteness is associated with the privilege to name others, to choose one's own form of discursive banter with total autonomy, as well as with the vanguard narratives of Anglo-European cultures which portray the rest of the world as existing in various stages of "backwardness." Can we really make a neat separation between racial ideology, psychic processes of internalized superiority, and the economic hierarchy of resource distribution? Clearly these are bound up together, mutually reenforcing. Eurocentric vanguard narratives are critical tools used to justify the existing hierarchies of ascriptive class segments. According to Fraser, the Sioux need to understand their long-term goal as a deconstruction of their identities. But this is simply an extension of the privilege associated with whiteness to name and signify difference and to determine its place in a progressive narrative of united struggle. Thus the lesson I take from the struggle at North Dakota is that redistribution and recognition demands are interwoven not only at the level of the resource allocations for the marginalized groups, as evidenced by the redistribution demands made by identity based political groups, but also at the level of the resources under the control of dominant groups.

 

Fraser certainly does not deny the need to combat negative images, but on her view, given the inherent problems associated with struggles organized around the affirmation of identities, the better strategy is still to fight for equality as persons rather than for respect as groups. Given her critique of the affirmation of identities, individual group members can only achieve equal status by transcending their group membership, at least in the domain of social interaction. To divorce identity affirmation from a struggle for social redemption is to encourage a move from group to individual interpellation. It appears then that, like Elshtain, Fraser would have the participants of public deliberation act and be seen primarily as individuals without their social identity, which is also suggested by her description of the future form of socialism: "For both gender and Ôrace,' the scenario that best finesses the redistribution-recognition dilemma is socialism in the economy plus deconstruction in the culture. But for this scenario to be psychologically and politically feasible requires that all people be weaned from their attachment to current cultural constructions of their interests and identities."(Fraser 1997, 31; emphasis added)

 

Thus far I have argued that recognition struggles do not necessarily pull against redistribution struggles, and that Fraser's preferred alternativeÑthe fight for equal statusÑcan not be successful without paying attention to the need for affirmation. Her "solution" leads away from groups and toward individualism despite the fact that she has not shown that group identities per se are problematic. Her two main remaining arguments against identity politics are its tendency toward separatism and toward reification. These two issues can be found across the literature on identity politics, and I will address them in some depth in the following section. But I want first to turn briefly to one fairly idiosyncratic argument Fraser uses that is independent of the arguments about separatism and reification but that is also representative of some of the common concerns about identity politics.

 

Fraser claims that identity politics, though it is generally theoretically grounded in a tradition of social theory that understands identities as the product of social interaction, operates with a "monologic" approach to identity affirmation. In other words, Fraser charges identity politics with the view that those outside the designated identity have no right to say anything about it. She says:

 

Paradoxically, moreover, the identity model tends to deny its own premisses. Having begun by assuming that identity is dialogical, constructed via interaction with another subject, it ends by valorizing monologismÑsupposing that misrecognized peoples can and should construct their own identity on their own. It supposes, further, that a group has the right to be understood solely in its own termsÑthat no one is ever justified in viewing another subject from an external perspective or in dissenting from another's self-interpretation.(Fraser 2000, 112)

 

Here Fraser is referring to the sort of view that says that only African Americans can define African American identity or that only Jews can say who counts as a Jew.

 

Fraser's argument concerns two distinct claims designating two different processes: one is the widely agreed upon fact that identity is constructed through recognition from another at a kind of deep psychological level; the other is the claim that the process of reassessing and reconstructing identities that have been denigrated and misrecognized should be done by those so misrecognized themselves. Fraser claims that, if one holds the first of these claims, one cannot hold the second. But this doesn't follow. One can hold both claims without contradiction, as, for example, Frantz Fanon did when he argued that black people need to redirect their gaze from the white man and instead toward each other in seeking recognition, that they needed to give up on winning recognition from the imperialist forces and instead work on developing a sense of identity that can yield self-respect because it is recognized as worthy of respect by other black people (Fanon 1967). Fanon did not believe that individuals can go about identity construction by themselves; if they could, withstanding racist insults would be much easier. But he did believe that the social interactions necessary for identity formation need not be dominated by the oppressor culture. Having a more accurate and loving recognition from within one's community can bolster a strong sense of self and a positive sense of identity, as many people have experienced.

I doubt that Fraser would hold, against Fanon, that oppressed groups require recognition from oppressor groups. I suspect that her concern is with group solipsism, in which all open critical dialogue with those outside the group is preempted. But it is clear that group solipsism does not follow from Fanon's position. In fact, in the utopian last lines of Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon himself holds out the hope for an "authentic communication" between whites and blacks. He says, "Superiority? Inferiority? Why not the quite simple attempt to touch the other, to feel the other, to explain the other to myself? ...At the conclusion of this study, I want the world to recognize, with me, the open door of every consciousness."(1967, 231-232)

 

Fraser's argument takes a familiar form of the slippery slope. First we repudiate the right of oppressor cultures to define us, and then, she surmises, we end in group solipsism impervious to outside input. I agree that group solipsism is to be avoided, but this does not require a repudiation of the political salience of identity. Solipsism can be avoided by the recognition that all group identities are internally heterogeneous, that group members will belong to a diversity of other groups as well, and thus, dialogical encounters across group differences occur always within groups. Secondly, solipsism can be argued against on the grounds that some other groups have experienced oppression also and may well have wise counsel. In the positive reconstruction I will give of the concept of identity in chapter four, it will become clearer why solipsism is not only avoidable, it is strictly speaking impossible, no less for groups than for individuals.

 

What about the favoring of intragroup processes of identity construction and recognition? Is this either feasible or a good idea? It does not preclude productive inter-group interactions around common political goals, or in other words, political coalition. And favoring intragroup processes makes a lot of sense within a climate of intense, daily denigration of one's cultural identity by the dominant society. One can perhaps relate this view to the commonly voiced idea that "You don't have to like me, I'm not looking to be liked, I just want my rights." This is surely motivated by the entirely plausible sense that, if the oppressed have to wait for love and understanding from dominant groups, the struggle for social justice will be unnecessarily stymied. But, again, rejecting the goal of gaining recognition from oppressor cultures does not require rejecting input from any and every external source.

 

Fraser's concern with identity politics is not simply based on inter-group relations but also, and equally, intra-group dynamics. She argues that identity politics "encourages the reification of group identities"(2000, 113) which in turn leads to "conformism, intolerance, and patriarchalism."(2000, 112) There is no doubt that these problems can occur, as well as defining authenticity arbitrarily (e.g. as male, straight, etc.), and discouraging open debate by casting aspersions on the authenticity or loyalty of internal critics. But are such problems intrinsic to identity based political movements? Will identity based political organizing inevitably devolve in these ways? Or are such problems more likely under certain kinds of contextual conditions that we might identify? For example, it might be the case that identity politics tend toward reification when the group is so embattled that a mistaken trust could cost lives. It is well known that social movements operating under conditions of intense state repression and surveillance are prone to paranoia and commandist forms of leadership. In order to analyze when, and why, social movements go wrong, we need careful attention to contextual conditions, specific histories, economic analyses, and so on.

 

The question that remains is why identity itself is taken to be the problem here when one might give seek out other explanations about the development of the problems Fraser and others identify. We can all agree that the internal policing for conformity, de-historicized and rigid accounts of identity, the refusal to consider the possibility of coalition across differences, and the separation of cultural from economic processes are mistakes and serious problems in political struggle. But do these mistakes follow necessarily from taking the political relevance of identity seriously, or from the desire to affirm identities, or from a notion of utopia in which social identity still exists?

 

The argument against identity launched by Fraser and others clearly has some missing premises, since the conclusion does not follow from the evidence presented. We need to see more precisely what the assumptions are behind the wholesale critique of identity. In the following sections I will summarize the key arguments, the assumptions behind these arguments, and then examine the plausibility of each claim.

The Key Arguments

The political arguments behind the critique of identity can be boiled down to the following three:

  1. Strongly felt ethnic or cultural identities will inevitably produce a problem of conflicting loyalties within a larger grouping, such as a nation, in which many such identities are included; Schlesinger for example targets what he calls the "cult of ethnicity" because it "exaggerates differences, intensifies resentments and antagonisms, drives ever deeper the awful wedges between races and nationalities."(Schlesinger 1991, 226) If identity by itself intensifies conflict, then identity based movements will weaken the possibility of coalition and lead to separatism. Call this the separatism problem.
  2. A second criticism of identity politics is that it "encourages the reification of group identities", as Fraser argues, which in turn leads to "conformism, intolerance, and patriarchalism."(Fraser 2000, 112-113) Where the separatism problem worries about relations between groups, this criticism worries about the kinds of problems that exist in intragroup relations: the policing for conformity, the arbitrary defining of authenticity, the de-emphasis and discouragement of internal differences, and the preempting of open debate by castigating internal critics as less authentic and disloyal. Thus, identity politics curtails the individual's ability to creatively interpret their identity as well as to determine its degree of relevance, or irrelevance, in their own lives. Because it reifies identity, then, identity politics constrains individual freedom. Call this the reification problem.
  3. And finally

  4. there is the problem identities pose for rational deliberation, especially over public ends. Rationality mandates that we must be able to subject the claims embedded in cultural traditions to rational reflection, and this requires achieving enough distance from our social identities such that we can objectify and thus evaluate them. Individuals need to be able to enter the arena of public debate and action as dispassionate reasoners, weighing evidence on the basis of its merit no matter its relationship or implications for the future of one's own social group. Call this the reasoning problem.

These three problems involve (at least) three important corresponding assumptions, without which the above claims would not be convincing. I am classifying these as assumptions because they are deep-seated beliefs in the western philosophical and political traditions rarely given explicit articulation or defense. I will list them here and then examine them more carefully in the following, final section.

 

(1a) The separatism problem follows from the assumption that strongly felt identity is necessarily exclusivist. This is what is behind Roosevelt and Wilson's arguments against the hyphenated citizen, but it is also behind more recent claims that identity politics exacerbates differences. Identities are thought to represent a set of interests and experiential knowledge or perspective that differentiates them from other identities, thus creating difficulties of communication as well as political unity.

 

Call this the assumption of exclusivity. This assumption is also operative in the reification problem, but the main assumption behind the reification problem is the following.

 

(2a)Whatever is imposed from the outside as an attribution of the self is necessarily a constraint on individual freedom. Social identities, by the very fact that they are social and thus imposed on the individual, inherently constrain individual freedom. Even if the individual is allowed to interpret the meaning of their identity, they are forced to do so, in so far as they are forced to engage with the identities imposed on them by the arbitrary circumstances of their birth. We are generally born into social identities, after all, we don't choose them. Many thus believe that even those who are given identities involving privilege are made less free by this despite the fact that their privilege increases their options vis-a-vis others; privileged persons are forced to have privilege whether they want it or not and this constitutes a constraint. If one considers identities associated with oppression that carry the weight of discrimination, fear, and hatred, and that did not even exist prior to the conditions of oppression (like black identity), it can seem even more odd that anyone would wilfully choose to be constrained by such an identity.

 

On this view, then, identities are constraining, tout court, no matter whether privileged or oppressed. The problems of conformism et al that are associated with reification follow from identity per se, and not only some forms of it. Conformism is itself a kind of social imposition; one cannot be a conformist in a class of one. Given this, if a political organization or movement is based on and therefore emphasizes identity, those constraints will be emphasized and even maximized for the individuals involved in that organization or movement. Call this the assumption of the highest value being individual freedom.

 

(3a) The reasoning problem associated with identity follows from the assumption that identities involve a set of interests, values, beliefs and practices. Therefore, the sort of reasoning that one is called on to do as a political leader or simply as a citizen engaging with public issues of concern requires transcendence of one's identity, or as much transcendence as possible, in order to be able to weigh the evidence rationally and without prejudice, interpret the relevant data, and give order to conflicting values. Reasoning, since the Enlightenment, is defined by just this sort of objectivizing, reflective operation, in which one detaches oneself from one's assumptions, or "foreknowledge," in order to put them to the test of rationality. To the extent that identities are like containers that group sets of beliefs and practices across categories of individuals, and to the extent that a strongly felt identity is defined by its commitment to these beliefs and practices, then it follows that the strength of identity will exist in inverse proportion to one's capacity for rational thought. Call this the objectivizing assumption.

 

These assumptionsÑthat identities are exclusivist, imposed from outside and therefore constraining on individuals, and that their substantive content provides a counterweight to rationality---are hardwired into western Anglo traditions of thought; by that I mean that they are rarely argued for or even made explicit. In the remainder of this chapter, I will provide some reasons that should, at least prima facie, call these assumptions into question.

A More Realistic View

The critique of identity politics is based on a certain picture of what identity is, a picture that begins to become visible once from the three assumptions listed above. This picture, however, does not actually correspond to either the actual lived experience of identity or its politically mobilized forms. In this section I will begin to develop an alternative account of identity, and will further develop this in the following two chapters. This alternative account will be used to show the inadequacy of the assumptions behind the critique of identity.

 

Let's start with the assumption that identities are inherently exclusive and thus tend toward separatism. When one goes beyond the anecdotal to the empirical, there is simply not sufficient evidence for the absoluteness with which the critics of identity have assumed that strongly felt identities always tend toward separatism. Of course there are problems with essentialist constructions of identity and overly narrow formulations of political alliances, and there are serious problems with the view that identity itself constitutes innocence or culpability or that only those sharing an identity can unite together in common cause. But these positions are the result of certain kinds of construals of identity rather than the automatic effect of a strong sense of group solidarity and group cohesiveness.

 

In the National Black Politics Survey conducted in 1993-1994, the first survey of mass political opinion among African Americans conducted in the United States, one of the most striking findings was a very high degree of belief in what political theorists call "linked fate": the belief that what generally happens to people in your identity group, in this case your racial group, will significantly affect your life.(Dawson 1994; Holliman and Brown1997) Researchers found that over 80% of respondents felt a strong sense of linked fate with African Americans as a whole. The idea of linked fate means that African-Americans will tend to use group data as a kind of proxy to understand how a given event might impact them or to predict how a given choice might work out for them as individuals.

 

A belief in linked fate has obvious political ramifications for alliances, organizing, and one's ability to trust the analyses of political leaders. Yet researchers also found that less than 40% of their respondents agreed with such proposals as "blacks should control the economy in mostly black communities," or "blacks should control the government in mostly black communities." Even fewer than this (by about a third) agreed with the proposal that "blacks should have their own separate nation." Thus, the very high level of group identification that exists among African Americans showed no evidence of having a correlation to a racially separatist political approach or a tendency to reject coalition efforts.

 

Political scientist Jose E. Cruz recently published an important ethnography of Puerto Rican politics in Hartford Connecticut (1998). In particular, he analyzed Hartford's Puerto Rican Political Action Committee as a case study of identity politics in action, in relation both to PRPAC's effect on the Puerto Rican community and on that community's relationship to the dominant Hartford political scene. The Puerto Rican community in Hartford is the oldest and largest concentration in the United States, and by 1990 they comprised over 25% of the city's population. Yet they had almost no political representation in city government. The PRPAC took up ethnic mobilization as "a way of achieving representation and a means to negotiate individual and group benefits" (Cruz 1998, 6), once again, uniting the demands for recognition with the demands for redistribution. And in fact, identity based organizing led not toward separation but was precisely the key to the enhanced political mobilization and involvement of Puerto Ricans in Hartford politics (Cruz 1998, 12)

 

Cruz concludes from his study that the focus on their Puerto Rican identity was not a rejection of "Americanism" but "a code that structured their entrance into mainstream society and politics" (Cruz 1998, 6). Identity politics did not "reify victimization" but "encouraged individuals to overcome passivity" precisely through a rearticulated "self-image" and the demand of "equal access to positions of responsibility within the civil and political society" (12). Although identity politics there as elsewhere had its problems, according to Cruz these "should be seen as cautionary rather than invalidating."(19) On balance, he argues that the identity based political organizing of the PRPAC resulted in significantly increased voter turnout and in the political representation for Puerto Ricans not only in the city but in the state. The very possibility of coalitions with the black and white communities of Hartford requires this political mobilization and involvement. Cruz concludes that the view that identity politics balkanizes the political landscape and threatens the viability of the political order is more in tune with simplistic and misinformed apprehensions about the role of conflict in politics than with the more reasoned and well-established political science axiom that societal integration and political power are inextricably bound. As Philip Gourevitch suggests, the threat of conflict often lies in the inability of those who feel threatened to ascertain what the conflict is exactly about. This is, in no small measure, true of identity politics and the feelings of distress that it causes among those who see only chaos and instability in its wake.(19)

 

Cruz's study provides further support for the argument of "cultural citizenship" advanced by anthropologist Renato Rosaldo and developed by the interdisciplinary group of scholars involved in the Latino Cultural Studies Working Group, who have led research teams in California, Texas, and New York (see Flores and Benmayor 1997). The concept of cultural citizenship is meant to counter a model of the abstract individual citizen who participates in civil society as a rational agent imagined to have no gender, race, or cultural background. Rosaldo argued that this model is ineffective in addressing the prejudices that beset white women and people of color when they enter the public arena, such as the interrupting of their speech, dismissal of arguments, and peremptory rejections. In actuality, the public arena is a space where women and men of various races and cultures negotiate with one another, and the concept of the cultural citizen allows us to understand those specific identities as an integral part of one's activity as a citizen, the basis, in some cases, of the knowledge they bring and very rights they are claiming, rather than that which must be "left at the door." Rosaldo points out that part of the problem here has been a view that "regards culture as a relic, an inert heirloom handed down wholecloth from time immemorial" rather than as a kind of social practice always involving "innovation and change" (Rosaldo 1985, 2). A more accurate understanding of what cultures are will yield a more realistic account of cultural identity and its impact on politics.

 

Another relevant study is being conducted by Omar Encarnacion on civil society and the impact of identity-based organizing in South America.(Encarnacion 2000) Encarnacion argues that in Brazil, where since the 1960's there has been a virtual explosion of identity politics in the form of the Black consciousness movement, the result of this explosion has been an expansion of popular participation in politics, of notions of citizenship, of the boundaries of the policy arena, and a flourishing of political associations. This has visibly empowered civil society vis-a-vis the state. Rather than crippling the progressive movement, then, identity politics has expanded its base, its agenda, and its effectivity.10

 

Encarnacion has hypothesized that identity politics had these effects in Brazil---which has not been the case in every country where identity politics has emerged in South America---because of the existence of what he calls a "progressive left" in the form of the Brazilian Worker's Party, which has consistently emphasized classic concerns of social liberalism such as women's equality, environmental protection, and an end to racial discrimination. Thus, the critical factor for an effective left was not whether there were identity-based political movements, but whether the left labor organizations understood these movements as a diversion from or an integral part of their own struggle for a better society.

 

These empirical findings clearly suggest that we need a better account of the nature of identity itself than the sorts of accounts one finds among the critics. Strongly felt identities in reality do not uniformly lead to the political disasters the critics portend because identities in reality are not what the critics understand them to be. What we need to understand, then, is how it is possible that identities that are strongly felt and considered to have political relevance can be such that they do not lead to separatism.

 

The notion that identities lead to separatism or mutually exclusive political agendas seems to be based on the idea that identities represent discrete and specifiable sets of interests. Identities, it is assumed, must therefore operate on the model of interest group politics: a specific set of interests is represented by lobbyists or movement leaders in order to advance that specific agenda. That agenda may, naturally, come into conflict with other agendas put forward, or even with the "majority's interests," and thus there will be a conflict that can be addressed through compromise but never completely resolved. The notion of interest groups has gotten a very bad reputation in U.S. political discourse, where "special interest groups" are viewed as single-mindedly advancing one agenda and as incapable of considering other points of view or a larger frame of reference in which the "common good" is considered. "Special interest groups" have particular pre-set agendas for the promotion of which reason becomes attenuated to the instrumental calculation of advancing that cause, without the possibility of calling the cause into question or of modifying it in light of larger public concerns. Minority constituencies have often been characterized as like special interest groups in these ways.

 

Social identities can and sometimes do operate as interest groups, but that is not what identities essentially are. On the basis of analyzing a wide sample of identity based movements, sociologist Manuel Castells' describes identity as a generative source of meaning, necessarily collective rather than wholly individual, and useful as a source of agency as well as a meaningful narrative.(Castells 1997, 7). This account accords with the research by Cruz, Encarnacion, and Rosaldo as well. In analyzing identity based political movements, Castells offers a typology of identity constructions corresponding to a variety of political agendas and historical contexts. His work provides a model for the kind of contextual analysis I called for earlier that would analyze the operation of concepts within contexts rather than assuming that concepts operate uniformly across contexts. I will turn to Castells later on for more help in developing an empirically adequate description of identity, but here it is enough to note that Castells' work also strongly counters the view that identity politics always tends toward the same political forms or that the political relevance of identity always is cashed out in similar fashion.

 

In a more philosophical account based more in his readings of contemporary literature, Satya Mohanty argues that identity constructions provide narratives that explain the links between group historical memory and individual contemporary experience, that they create unifying frames for rendering experience intelligible, and thus they help to map the social world.(Mohanty 1997) To the extent that identities involve meaning-making, there will always be alternative interpretations of the meanings associated with identity, Mohanty explains, but he insists that identities refer to real experiences.

 

Of course, identities can be imposed on people from the outside. But that is more of a brand than a true identity, or more of an ascription than a meaningful characterization of self. Identities must resonate with and unify lived experience, and they must provide a meaning that has some purchase, however partial, on the subject's own daily reality. Supporting Mohanty's realism about identity, Anuradha Dingwaney and Lawrence Needham explain identity's lived experience as that which "signifies affective, even intuitive, ways of being in, or inhabiting, specific cultures....it is perceived as experience that proceeds from identity that is given or inherited...but it is also, and more significantly, mediated by what Satya Mohanty calls Ôsocial narratives, paradigms, even ideologies.'"(Dingwaney and Needham 1996, 21) In other words, although experience is sometimes group-related (and thus identity-related), its meaning is not unambiguous. Dingwaney and Needham go on to say, following Stuart Hall, that: What we have are events, interactions, political and other identifications, made available at certain historical conjunctures, that are then worked through in the process of constructing, and/or affiliating with, an identity. However, to say that identity is constructed is not to say that it is available to any and every person or group who wishes to inhabit it. The voluntarism that inheres in certain elaborations of the constructedness of identity ignores, as Hall also notes... Ôcertain conditions of existence, real histories in the contemporary world, which are not exclusively psychical, not simply journeys of the mind'; thus it is incumbent upon us to recognize that Ôevery identity is placed, positioned, in a culture, a language, a history.' It is for this reason that claims about Ôlived experience' resonate with such force in conflicts over what does or does not constitute an appropriate interpretation of culturally different phenomena.(Dingwaney and Needham 20-21; Quoted from Hall 1987, 44-45).

 

This is an account of identity that holds both that identity makes an epistemic difference and that identity is the product of a complex mediation involving individual agency in which its meaning is produced rather than merely perceived or experienced. In other words, identity is not merely that which is given to an individual or group, but is also a way of inhabiting, interpreting, and working through, both collectively and individually, an objective social location and group history.

 

We might, then, more insightfully define identities as positioned or located lived experiences in which both individuals and groups work to construct meaning in relation to historical experience and historical narratives. Given this view, one might hold that, when I am identified, it is my horizon of agency which is identified. Thus, identities are not lived as a discrete and stable set of interests, but as a site from which one must engage in the process of meaning-making and thus from which one is open to the world. The hermeneutic insight is that the self operates in a situated plane, always culturally located with great specificity even as it is open onto an indeterminate future and a reinterpretable past, not of its own creation. The self carries with it always this horizon as a specific location, with substantive contentÑas, for example, a specifiable relation to the holocaust, to slavery, to the encuentro, and so on---but whose content only exists in interpretation and in constant motion. The holocaust is one dramatic example that not only exists as an aspect of every contemporary Jewish person's horizon but also of every Christian European. But there will be a difference in the way that these two groups are situated vis-a-vis this narrative: the one as knowing that he or she could have been the target of the "final solution," and the other as knowing that this event occurred within the broad category of their culture. Each must react to or deal with this event in some way, but to say this does not presuppose any pre- given interpretation either to the event or to its degree of significance in forming a contemporary identity. There is even a vibrant debate over the degree of significance the holocaust holds for Jewish identity today. But, obviously, for some time to come, it will remain a central feature of the map of our collective Jewish and Gentile horizons.

 

In what sense are identities grouped then, if they are to be a meaningful political category, if not by mutual interests and shared experiences which must form each individual at least to some extent in the same way? Although meanings are made and remade, the "internal" agency of the individual to judge, to choose, or to act operates within and in relation to a specific horizon, and thus one is open to an indeterminacy but from a specifiable position. Recognizing the openness of identity and historical experience to interpretation must be tempered, however. There remains a certain amount of uniformity of experience within an identity group, though only in regard to a more or less small sector of their experience, for example, that sector involving being treated in the society as a certain identity, or having a common relationship to social power and specific historical events.

 

There is also an important epistemic implication of identity, which Mohanty describes as follows: "...social locations facilitate or inhibit knowledge by predisposing us to register and interpret information in certain ways. Our relation to social power produces forms of blindness just as it enables degrees of lucidity."(Mohanty 1997, 234) On this account, identity does not determine one's interpretation of the facts, nor does it constitute fully formed perspectives, but rather, to use the hermeneutic terminology once again, identities operate as horizons from which certain aspects or layers of reality can be made visible. In stratified societies, differently identified individuals do not always have the same access to points of view or perceptual planes of observation. Two individuals may participate in the same event, but have perceptual access to different aspects of that event. Social identity is relevant to epistemic judgement, then, not because identity determines judgement but because identity can in some instances yield access to perceptual facts that themselves may be relevant to the formulation of various knowledge claims or theoretical analyses. As Mohanty and others have also argued, social location can be correlated with certain highly specific forms of blindness as well as lucidity. This would make sense if we interpret his account as correlating social identity to a kind of access to perceptual facts: to claim that some perceptual facts are visible from some locations is correlatively to claim that they are hard to see from others. Social identity operates then as a rough and fallible but useful indicator of differences in perceptual access.

 

This kind of hermeneutic descriptive account of social identities is more true to lived experience and more helpful in illuminating their real epistemic and political implications. As a located opening out onto the world, different identities have no a priori conflict. Aspects of horizons are naturally shared across different positions, and no aspect comes with a stable ready-made set of political views. What is shared is having to address in some way, even if it is by flight, the historical situatedness and accompanying historical experiences of a given identity group to which one has some concrete attachment. Because of this, and because identities mark social position, the epistemic differences between identities are not best understood as correlated to differences of knowledge, since knowledge is always the product in part of background assumptions and values that are not always grouped by identity categories. Rather, the epistemic difference is in, so to speak, what one can see, from one's vantage point. What one can see underdetermines knowledge or the articulation of interests, but the correlation between possibilities of perception and identity mandates the necessity of taking identity into account in formulating decision making bodies or knowledge producing institutions. Such an idea is implicit in the concept of representative government. The second assumption at work in the identity critique that I listed in the last section was the idea that social identity is inherently constraining on individual freedom because it is imposed from the outside. Judith Butler makes this point in The Psychic Life of Power: "Vulnerable to terms that one never made, one persists [i.e. continues as a subject] always, to some degree, through categories, names, terms, and classifications that mark a primary alienation in sociality."(Butler 1997, 28)

 

Western thought has developed two sharply conflicting lines of argument over the last 200 years. On the one hand, the enlightenment calls on individuals to think for themselves, and holds that autonomy and thus the capacity of reason (which requires autonomy) necessitates that the individual be able to separate from all that is externally imposed on it in order to evaluate and consider these imposed ideas. To the extent that one has features that are dependent on others, in the way Butler describes for example, this is necessarily a weakening of the self and a loss of freedom. On the other hand, since Hegel every major psychological account of the self has placed its dependence on the other at the center of self-formation. For Hegel, one needs the Other to recognize one's status as a self-directing subject in order to create the conditions for the self-directing activity; one's self image is mediated through the self-other relation not only in terms of its substantive content but also in terms of the self as bare capacity. For Freud, the other is internalized to become a central organizing principle for one's desire, one's needs, and one's life plans. Feminist and postcolonial theories have emphasized the deformations of the self in hostile environments. Thus, on the one hand freedom requires reason which requires the ability to separate from the other, while on the other hand, the self is ineluctably dependent on the other's interpellations. If both of these traditions are broadly correct, it would seem that we are doomed to unfreedom, because freedom is defined as precisely that which we cannot have. I will look at these traditions in some detail in the next chapter.

 

A hermeneutic account again has advantages here. The Other is internal to the self's substantive content, a part of its own horizon, and thus a part of its own identity. The mediations performed by individuals in processes of self-interpretation, the mediations by which individual experience comes to have specific meanings, are produced through a fore-knowledge or historical a priori that is cultural, historical, politically situated, and collective. In this sense, it is less true to say that I am dependent on the Other---as if we are clearly distinguishable---than that the Other is a part of myself. Moreover, one's relation to this foreknowledge is not primarily one of negation; it makes possible the articulation of meanings and the formulation of judgement and action. One's relation is better characterized precisely as absorption, generation, and expansion, a building from rather than an imposition that curtails preferred possibilities.

 

Whether this fact about the self necessarily limits our capacity for reason brings us to the final assumption I listed, that the capacity of reason requires a transcendence of identity. One way to approach this would be to say that transcendence is simply impossible, and there is abundant evidence that because reasoning in all but deductive arguments (and even those have to start with a premise) involves phronesis or a judgement call which invokes background assumptions and values, identity is always operative in reasoning. The wholesale repudiation of identity attachments is often itself a form of tribalism under cover, as in Schlesinger's argument against multiculturalist "cults of ethnicity" on the grounds of Europe's unique cultural values. When Teddy Roosevelt painted a contrast between "Americanness" on the one hand, and polyglot hyphenated ethnic associations on the other, he failed to realize that his view of "Americanness" was just as ethnic as those he opposed.

 

However, the very notion that transcendence of identity is necessary for reason is itself a mistake. Elshtain argues that social identities are and should be private, even though they are obviously constructed largely through social relations. And she assumes that private identities cannot follow rules of civility or pursue public ends but are reduced to narrow self-interest group calculations. For Elshtain, the importance that Lieberman attaches to his identity might well render him a problematic political candidate.

 

But the reason why identity is argued to be in conflict with reason is because identity is conceptualized as coherent, uniform, and essentially singular, as if what it means to be Mexican American is a coherent set of attributes and dispositions shared by all members of the group and essentially closed or stable. If this were the case, and to the extent there are people who believe this to be the case and who act on that belief, there is indeed a conflict, since the closed nature of such an identity will close one off to the new possibilities that rational deliberation can make evident. But once one understands identity as horizon, an opening out, a point from which to see, there is no conflict. How could there be reason without sight, without a starting place, without some background from which critical questions are intelligible?

 

The mistake made by Richard Rorty and some others like him, who do accept the importance of cultural identity in setting out background for thought, is to think that, because horizons can be mapped onto identities, we are bereft of communication across the expanse, doomed to incommensurable paradigms; in short, we will never be able to understand one another, and therefore we will never be able to resolve conflict through dialogue. This is simply a profound mis-characterization of culture and of identity, as if they were closed systems with no intersections. Of course there will always exist some common ground from which to chart a disagreement. Of course understanding across wide differences will never be complete, but of course it will always be partially possible. Moreover, given the dynamic nature of identity, existing gulfs are not likely to remain forever. The true route to understanding across difference is a literal movement of place, which will require a change of social institutions and structures.

 

I have endeavored to make a case in this chapter that there is yet a case to be made about the nature of identity and its political and epistemic implications. It is certainly not the case that the work we need to do is finished; there are numerous "authentic" problems of identity that need attending, but we don't need to overcome as much as to more deeply understand identity.

 

Let me end with another example that illustrates the practical implications of my claim that the recognition of the political relevance of identities is required for, rather than opposed to, unity and effective class struggle. The attempt to form a Labor Party in the U.S. in the 1990's was heralded by many of us who maintain hopes in deconstructing the two-party bloc on U.S. electoral politics. But I decided not to work for the party for the following reason. The national leadership organization of the party was being organized exclusively through union membership. Thus, it would be composed only of representatives from unions.11 This might appear to make sense for a party calling itself a Labor Party. But in reality, not only is it the case that less than twenty per cent of U.S. workers are organized, but also, a number of nonwhite workers do not necessarily see their union as the most reliable spokesperson for their needs. They may see the local NAACP chapter, their church or other community organization based around a shared ethnic identity as more reliable and also as a place where they have more of a voice. By refusing to seat such groups at the top, the Labor Party was not effective in breaking from the traditional white dominance of the Labor movement. By refusing to recognize the salience of social identities like race and gender, they undermined the possibility of unity and weakened class struggle in the United States.