In 2017, a white supremacist rally at the University of Virginia forced many to consider how much progress had been made in a country that, nine years prior, had elected its first Black president. Beyond these racial flashpoints, the increasingly polarized nature of US politics has reignited debates around the meaning of identity, citizenship, and acceptance in America today. In this pioneering book, Khalilah L. Brown-Dean moves beyond the headlines to examine how contemporary controversies emanate from longstanding struggles over power, access, and belonging. Using intersectionality as an organizing framework, she draws on current tensions such as voter suppression, the Me Too movement, the Standing Rock protests, marriage equality, military service, the rise of the Religious Right, protests by professional athletes, and battles over immigration to show how conflicts over group identity are an inescapable feature of American political development. Brown-Dean explores issues of citizenship, race, ethnicity, gender, sexual identity, and religion to argue that democracy in the United States is built upon the battle of ideas related to how we see ourselves, how we see others, and the mechanisms available to reinforce those distinctions. Identity Politics in the United States will be an essential resource for students and engaged citizens who want to understand the link between historical context, contemporary political challenges, and paths to move toward a stronger democracy.
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1 The Personal is Political
Why This Book?
Intersectionality as an Organizing Framework
Power and Politics
A Note about Terms
Different and Diverse
2 Identity Politics and the Boundaries of Belonging
Lessons from the 2016 Presidential Election
As American as Apple Pie
The Boundaries of Belonging
Social Constructions of Identity
The Substance of Citizenship
The Psychology of Attachment
The Dimensions of Group Identity
Identity, Democratic Theory, and Group Competition
Group Competition and Conflict
The Sense of Group Position Model
Conclusion: Group Identity as Intersectional Construction
Questions for Debate
3 The Substance of US Citizenship
Fighting to Belong
The Structure of American Government
Conceptions of Citizenship
Citizenship Based on Nationality
Indian Citizenship and Sovereignty
Citizenship as Inheritance
The Values of Citizenship
Citizenship and Intersectionality
Conclusion: Citizenship as Intersectional Construction
Questions for Debate
4 Racial Identity, Citizenship, and Voting
Whom Shall I Fear?
Pride or Prejudice
Remembrance versus Reverence
Race and Resistance in Charlottesville
Pride and Prejudice: The Context
Race and Political Institutions
Race and Citizenship
Federalism, Freedom, and the Franchise
Race, the Constitution, and the Courts
Race and Region
Violence as Political Instrument
Race, Class, and Disenfranchisement
Contemporary Controversies: Race and the Politics of Punishment
Prison Gerrymandering and Urban Political Representation
Conclusion: Racial Identity as Intersectional Construction
Questions for Debate
5 Ethnic Identity: Demography and Destiny
The Boundaries of Belonging
The Legacy of Conquest
Ethnic Identity: The Context
This is America
Immigration and the Making of Ethnic Group Identity
Ethnicity and Economic Fears
Shutting the Door to White Ethnics
Alien Enemies: Citizenship, Ethnicity, and National Security
Changing the Face of US Immigration and Political Presence
Ethnicity and Language Protection
The Political Consequences
Ethnicity and Political Incorporation
The Ongoing Underrepresentation of Communities of Color
Ethnicity and the Resurgence of Fear
Conclusion: Ethnic Identity as Intersectional Construction
Questions for Debate
6 Gender, Sexual Identity, and the Challenge of Inclusion
“I’m In”: What’s Next?
Mobilizing across Markers
Gender Identity and Sexual Orientation: The Context
Early Challenges to Exclusion
To Vote or Not to Vote
The Intersectional Gender Gap
Not Yet Just, Not Yet Free
Gender, Sexual Identity, and Civil Liberties Protections
Regulating Behavior, Stigmatizing Identity
Military Service and the Pursuit of Full Citizenship
Compromising on Exclusion
Three Steps Forward, Three Steps Back
Identity and Intersectional Feminism
Conclusion: Gender and Sexual Identity as Intersectional Constructions
Questions for Debate
7 Religious Identity and Political Presence
The Question Is: What Do You Believe?
Religious Identity in the United States: The Context
Beliefs versus Practices
Believing, Belonging, and Behaving
The Myth of Religious Freedom
Religious Identity as a Barrier to Democracy
The Case of Aaron Lopez
Defining and Protecting Religious Freedom
Different and Diverse: Contemporary Religious Identity in the United States
Believers and Nonbelievers
Racial Identity, Religious Identity, or Both?
Running on, Running from Religious Identity
Faith, Voting, and Election 2016
Counting on Division
The Rise of the Religious Right
Immigration and Contemporary Shifts in Religious Identity
The Past is Prologue
The East Haven Case
Similar but Different
Muslim Identity in a Changing US Context
Conclusion: Religious Identity as Intersectional Construction
Questions for Debate
8 Identity and Political Movements
Protecting the DREAM(ers)
Political Movements in the United States: The Context
The Mechanics of Political Movements
From Moment to Movement
Setting the Stage for the Civil Rights Movement
The Civil Rights Movement and Institutional Responses to Identity
Intersectionality as a Source of Conflict within Political Movements
From Protest to Politics: The Voting Rights Act of 1965
Mobilization and Countermobilization: The Legacy of Racially Polarized Voting
The Legacy of Protest
Black Lives Matter
Native American Lives Matter
Case and Context
Me Too, The Women’s March, and Modern Movements for Gender Equity
From Birmingham to Parkland: Political Movements and Youth Activism
Keepers of the Dream
The #NeverAgain Movement
Conclusion: Political Movements as Intersectional Constructions
Questions for Debate
9 The Inescapability of Identity Politics
Politics is in Everything – and Everything is in Politics
Shut Up and Dribble
Context and Controversy
Group Identity and the Never-Ending Pursuit of Freedom
End User License Agreement
Religious affiliation, 2000–2016
Presidential vote choice by religious affiliation, 2000–2016
US census race categories
Trump voters in 2016
Demographic profile of racial groups
White male voter turnout in selected states
Reported illegal lynchings by era and alleged offense, 1880–1960
Major disenfranchisement provisions and year of adoption
Are people born in Puerto Rico citizens of the United States or not?
Number of FEMA applications for assistance for selected states, 2017–2018
Immigration quotas for the 1924 Immigration Act
Major sources of immigrants to the United States since 1965
States with the greatest population diversity by total population and share of p…
Gender and sex disparities in governing (as of 4/2019)
Number of women candidates for elected office, 2016 and 2018
Gender gap in registration and voting based on race and ethnicity
Gaps in registration and voting based on gender, race, and citizenship, 2008
Number of women of color who have served in Congress, 1965–2019
Percentage of US adults identifying as LGBT by gender and race/ethnicity, 2012–2017
Percentage of US adults identifying as LGBT by annual household income and educa…
Support for gay and lesbian military service
Major religious traditions in the United States
Percentage of voters who would be more or less likely to support a presidential …
Racial and ethnic composition by religious group (percentages) (as of 12/2018)
Religious tradition by immigrant status (as of 12/2018)
US Muslims by ethnoracial identity
2016 presidential vote choice by religious group
Republican affiliation by religious identity (percentages) (as of 12/2018)
Race and reactions to the Zimmerman verdict
2016 election results by race and gender
2018 midterm election vote choice by race, gender, and education
Percentage of newlyweds in interracial marriages, 2015
Welfare recipients by race and ethnicity, 2016
Social constructions of target populations
Public impressions of Confederate symbols
Reported racially motivated hate crimes, 1996–2016
Black and white voter registration rates in Louisiana and former Confederate sta…
US immigrant population size and share, 1850–2016
Black and white presidential election voter turnout in former Confederate states…
Reported registration by race, Hispanic origin, November 1980 to 2012
Reported voting in presidential election by race, Hispanic origin, 1980 to 2012
Reported voting in midterm elections by race, Hispanic origin, 1978–2010
Increase in diversity in state legislatures, 1969–2015
The most important issues in 2016
Gender gap in voting, 1964–2016
Religious freedom laws by state
Active DACA recipients by country of origin
States with the highest number of DACA recipients
States that provide a free tuition pathway for community colleges (as of 2018)
Democratic Party identification over time
Rate of police killings per million by race/ethnicity, 2015–2016
Public support for deportation for DACA versus DAPA recipients
Key themes of identity politics
Gordon’s seven stages of assimilation
Promoting group solidarity on college campuses
Three conceptions of US citizenship
Civil War amendments
Naturalization Act of 1790
Three values associated with American citizenship
The price of justice
Lynching and racial violence
Major disenfranchisement tactics
Major US Supreme Court cases addressing race and discrimination
Race, gender, and Stand Your Ground
Push and pull factors prompting immigration to the United States
Public proclamations designating alien enemy status by country of origin
Section 203 coverage formula
Citizenship and the census
Disaggregating the model minority myth
Battles over the border
The spectrum of sexual identity
Mabel Ping-Hua Lee
The 2017 Alabama Senate race and intersectional voting
Connecticut statute at issue in
Key provisions of the Civil Rights Act of 1964
Two Spirit identity
Major religious traditions of Islam and Judaism
Two major origins of Jewish descent
Reviving the heart of democracy
Three key principles of political movements
Three lessons from the Civil Rights movement
The Red Power movement
Tarana Burke, founder of the Me Too movement
Movements to combat violence
Four waves of the Women’s movement
March for Our Lives preamble
Dr Maya Angelou
Signage at a Black Lives Matter rally in Minnesota
Participants gather for a naturalization ceremony held in 2018 at the Paterson G…
President Donald J. Trump at a campaign rally in Iowa, 2018
A protest by a Minnesota resident against the use of derogatory symbols
Military funeral honors for US Army Sergeant Chaturbhuj Gidwani
A participant in a Prairie Island Community Wacipi (pow wow)
Mourners paying tribute to those killed at the Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church in C…
Protesters clash at the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virgini…
The Hurricane Maria relief effort, Puerto Rico
Senator Tammy Duckworth
Supporters of Hillary Clinton gather for a rally at Arizona State University in …
Leonard Matlovich’s headstone
Senator Kamala Harris
Prayer vigil at Oak Creek, Wisconsin
An ecumenical prayer service in Boston
Congressman John Lewis, a civil rights icon
Erica Garner at a Black Lives Matter rally, New York
The 2017 Women’s March
The 2018 March for Our Lives rally
An installation in Washington, DC, honoring John Carlos and Tommie Smith
Karen Korematsu speaking out against a proposed travel ban
Table of Contents
For Haley Ann-HelenMay you always know impossible things are happening every day.
KHALILAH L. BROWN-DEAN
Copyright © Khalilah Brown-Dean 2019
The right of Khalilah Brown-Dean to be identified as Author of this Work has been asserted in accordance with the UK Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
First published in 2019 by Polity Press
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All rights reserved. Except for the quotation of short passages for the purpose of criticism and review, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publisher.
A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication DataNames: Brown-Dean, Khalilah L., author.Title: Identity politics in the United States / Khalilah Brown-Dean.Description: Cambridge, UK ; Medford, MA : Polity Press, 2019. | Includes bibliographical references and index.Identifiers: LCCN 2019008489 (print) | LCCN 2019019979 (ebook) | ISBN 9781509538829 (Epub) | ISBN 9780745654119 (hardback) | ISBN 9780745654126 (pbk.)Subjects: LCSH: Identity politics--United States. | Political participation--Social aspects--United States. | Race--Political aspects--United States. | Ethnicity--Political aspects--United States. | Gender identity--Political aspects--United States. | Identification (Religion)--Political aspects--United States.Classification: LCC JK1764 (ebook) | LCC JK1764 .B77 2019 (print) | DDC 320.97308--dc23LC record available at https://lccn.loc.gov/2019008489
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Fifty years after 600 peaceful protesters were brutally beaten during what would become known as Bloody Sunday, my family and I gathered at the base of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. We were there to honor brave visionaries who created political opportunities that many people take for granted. As we approached the bridge, my husband and I noticed our daughter’s hesitance. She was afraid of what was waiting for us on the other side. We reassured her, then paused to reflect on what those footsoldiers must have felt when they encountered a phalanx of people armed with billy clubs, dogs, tear gas, and a vicious disdain for their very existence. As we stood on the bridge, we heard a group of marchers singing “We Shall Overcome”: in that moment we questioned just how much had changed since 1965, when Jimmie Lee Jackson and Viola Liuzzo were shot to death simply for demanding access to democracy and equality.
We looked into the crowd and spotted the first two women to legally marry in the state of Alabama. We mouthed a silent “thank you” as Reverend William Barber II, architect of the Moral Monday movement, marched by. We watched as elders in wheelchairs were escorted by young people whose first introduction to Bloody Sunday happened via a movie screen. We listened as an interfaith group voiced their demands for immigration reform. We stood in solidarity with the formerly incarcerated whose banner advocated not for a second chance but for a viable first chance at achieving the American Dream. We looked back over the bridge and remembered that, less than twenty-four hours earlier, we had stood shoulder to shoulder with people from all over the world as the United States’ first Black president acknowledged John Lewis, a man who was savagely beaten by state troopers during that fateful march yet overcame permanent injuries to become a member of the United States Congress. We critiqued our own hubris as we listened to the stories of local veterans who had fought for democracy abroad, only to return home and be denied the vote. These men and women removed their hats, held their hands to their hearts, and closed their eyes in reverence as a choir sang the words to “Lift Ev’ry Voice.” There on that bridge we better understood that American democracy is cloaked in the blood, prayers, and sacrifices of elders who were willing to fight for a future more powerful than the present. That bridge is sacred ground.
The trip to Selma provided the fuel to write this book. Completing it would not have been possible without a legion of supporters. I am grateful to the many students I have taught at the Ohio State University, Yale University, and Quinnipiac University. Portions of this research have been presented at Texas A&M University, Claflin University, Northeastern University, Harvard University, DePauw University, the University of Connecticut Graduate School of Social Work, the College of William and Mary, and the University of North Carolina-Greensboro.
Many thanks to Brandee Blocker Anderson, Nisha Gandhi, Christopher Pagliarella, Corey Scott, and Danielle Tomlinson for research assistance. My colleagues at Quinnipiac have provided support and an overall sense of collegiality that gave me the confidence to embark on this ambitious project. This research has been supported by various grants from the Quinnipiac College of Arts and Sciences and the Provost’s Innovation Grants. A special thanks to the Eli’s Crew for end of semester debriefs and affirmations.
Being an academic is often a lonely enterprise, but my journey has been enriched by a number of colleagues and friends who challenge me, pray for me, inspire me, and, when necessary, laugh with me. Chief among them was the late Professor Mark Sawyer, who was at once my sharpest critic and fiercest advocate. Thanks for teaching me to listen for the sound of el coqui, my friend.
Saladin Ambar, Domonic Bearfield, Niambi Carter, Wartyna Davis, Michael Fauntroy, Jelani Favors, Christina Greer, L’Heureux Lewis-McCoy, Shayla Nunnally, D’Andra Orey, Ravi Perry, Clarissa Peterson, Kathy Powers, Melanye Price, Melynda Price, Gabe Sanchez, Valeria Sinclair Chapman, Wendy Smooth, James Taylor, Alvin Tillery, Derrick White, and David C. Wilson provided me with valuable feedback and critique on various parts of the project via drafts, affiliated articles, and conference presentations. They are exceptional scholars and even better friends. Thank you to the many people who provided a forum for me to debate and defend the core arguments of this text – especially the NCOBPS family. I owe a special debt of gratitude to the hardest working person I know, Jessica Lavariega Monforti, for her copious comments on the early chapters.
I am eternally grateful to Professors Matthew Holden, Paula McClain, and the late William E. Nelson, Jr, for setting the standard and convincing me to pursue a PhD instead of a JD.
Thank you to the anonymous reviewers for insightful critiques that challenged my thinking and helped make the final product much stronger. This book would not be possible without Polity Press, my gracious editor Louise Knight, and Sophie Wright. Thank you for your patience, your guidance, and your unwavering commitment to this project.
Jamal Watson, executive editor of Diverse: Issues in Higher Education, provided me with a weekly blog column to flesh out the ideas that form the intellectual heart of this book. Charles Ellison and WURD Radio gave me a weekly segment to address the historical context and contemporary controversies of identity politics. Jamal, Charles, and my friends at Connecticut Public and WTNH helped me develop a platform to make public scholarship relevant and accessible. Conversations with Tarana Burke, Danny Glover, Gary Winfield and Reginald Dwayne Betts made real the possibilities of bridging the gap between theory and practice. I remain inspired by the T.R.U.E. Unit at Cheshire CI. Thank you to the Mitchell Public Library (especially Mr Bostic) and Manjares Café for providing physical space for me to write and try out new ideas.
This is a book about identity politics, so I have to acknowledge those who have shaped my identity as a scholar and a citizen. Lynchburg, Virginia, will always be the place where I learned about democracy’s promise and the perils of ignoring rather than addressing difference. Chestnut Grove is where I return for spiritual refueling. The women of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated – especially Theta Kappa and Theta Epsilon Omega chapters – continue to be the women I seek to emulate. Thank you to my prayer team for their covering. Tuere McElroy and Stacyanne Headley astound me with their uncanny ability to send a much-needed text message or pop up to visit when things seem overwhelming. The Patton, Williams, Spearman, and Pegues families are a tremendous gift.
My amazing family – the Browns, Deans, Martins, and Pendletons – remind me who I am and whose I am. My mother JoAnn Brown Martin is my greatest cheerleader and the one who first showed me the value of civic education. She is a consummate public servant. My sisters, Megan and Courtney, provide life’s soundtrack, while conversations with my Aunts Veda, Wanda, and Vay have addressed nearly every controversy contained in this book. My nieces and nephews (JaBrille, John, Mikayla, Jacob, Jessica, Lennon, Dean, and Myles) are a constant reminder of life’s true purpose. I wish my grandparents, Ted Louis Brown and Helen Pendleton Brown, were here to read this book. So much of my interest in politics and identity is the result of their commitment to community.
My husband, William R. Dean, Jr, calmed my fears and refused to allow me to give up on this project. I thank him for believing in me even in the moments I couldn’t believe in myself. I am eternally grateful for every additional load of laundry, meal prep, schedule change, and school drop-off he took on so I could carve out more space to write.
Finally, I dedicate this book to our daughter, Haley Ann-Helen, who is named after her two grandmothers and a great-grandmother. She is the reason I refuse to give up on the hope that, someday, we will get this thing called American democracy right so that she can inherit a more just world. Thank you for every encouraging note you secretly tucked into my notebook, for every “Good job, Mommy,” and for never complaining about the extra trips to the library. May you always know that impossible things are happening every day.
For Fannie Lou, Sojourner, Carrie, MumBett, Ida B., Ethel, Nellie, Barbara, Coretta, Helen, Elizabeth, Maxine, Septima, Ella, Eunice, Marion, Shirley, Tiny, Louise, Mary, Amelia, Maya, and every elder who paved the way, I thank you.
I first discovered the work of poet and essayist Maya Angelou in middle school. Even though the themes in I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings were mature, I felt a deep connection to the story she told of growing up in Stamps, Arkansas. I flinched when she recounted being raped by her mother’s boyfriend. I cried when Uncle Willie hid in the potato bin to avoid the Ku Klux Klan. Klan leaders throughout the United States included sheriffs, judges, prosecutors, and ministers. It seemed ominous that the very people responsible for protecting vulnerable communities routinely engaged in terrorizing them.
Maya Angelou’s voice let me know that it was OK to be a little brown girl with a big Arabic name in a place called Lynchburg, Virginia, with the audacity to imagine possibilities unbound by geography. I vowed to someday thank Dr Angelou in person for inspiring me. At seventeen I finally had the chance – or so I thought. That year Angelou arrived at my high school as part of a citywide Black History Month observance. I was selected as one of the students who would get to speak with her. Being a nerd has its perks. I rehearsed what I would say to her a thousand times. I was determined not to come across as some naïve kid in search of an autograph. With dog-eared copy of my notebook in hand I patiently waited for my turn. But I was awe-struck. The words simply wouldn’t come. Angelou looked at me and said with that beautiful, commanding lilt, “Would you like to say hello?” I eagerly shook my head and squeaked out, “Hello?!” She smiled and took the time to nod her reassurance. I knew in that moment she realized the impact she had on me. Angelou was my intellectual rock star.
Quite literally, Angelou made it possible for me to be the first person in my immediate family to earn a four-year degree. I competed in oratorical competitions in high school and earned college scholarships using a number of her poems and essays. I discovered the poem “Our Grandmothers” while trying to understand why the contributions of women were so overlooked in the retelling of American freedom movements. I knew about Harriett Tubman and could recite Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman” line by line. But “Our Grandmothers” highlighted the ways that everyday acts of resistance challenge exclusion. It is a beautifully complex poem that affirms the power of women who make personal sacrifices to inspire, protect, challenge, and build communities. I have always been struck by a line from it that reads “When you get, give. And when you learn, teach.”
Dr Maya Angelou was a poet, performer, and essayist. She delivered a poem at the 1993 inauguration of President Bill Clinton and received the 2011 Presidential Medal of Freedom.
I grew up in a town where the specter of Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority movement loomed large. The Moral Majority was a concentrated effort in the 1980s to raise the political voice of the Christian Right. Despite my Southern Baptist upbringing, it didn’t make sense that one minister could convince local government officials to change the day my friends and I would trick or treat when Halloween fell on a Sunday. I looked to Angelou’s prose to give me the strength to speak before our city council to protest moving a busy fire station to the heart of our working-class neighborhood. I wondered why the demands of our neighbors weren’t enough to convince the board to change its decisions. Where was our power?
When Maya Angelou passed in 2014, a reporter asked me to choose my favorite work. At first it seemed like an impossible task, and then I remembered her essay titled “The Graduation.” Angelou reflects on her 1940 graduation from high school and paints a clear picture of how separate education is inherently unequal. She talks about the tattered textbooks and outdated science equipment that she and her classmates shared, while students at white schools had more equipment than they could actually use. Black graduates were expected to bring honor to their communities by becoming athletes, janitors, and entertainers. White graduates were encouraged to become physicians, lawyers, and teachers. Even then, the lens of identity was incredibly narrow. It didn’t matter that Angelou and her classmates had memorized Shakespeare’s “The Rape of Lucrece” or could recite “Invictus” with great conviction. Their destiny was predetermined. The name of schools for Black children in the South reinforced a sense of inferiority: training schools. I remember seeing my maternal grandmother’s class ring inscribed with “Amherst County Training School” and wondering why it wasn’t called a “high school.” In the 1940s, Black students were trained to serve society. White students were educated to shape it. That one essay helped me understand the necessity of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision better than any legal or historical text I have ever read. Sixty years later we are still trying to figure out how to educate students equally.
I lacked the language of intersectionality at the time, but I knew these disparate experiences were bound together by a tradition of treating groups differently based on their perceived worth. In her seminal work “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence against Women of Color,” Kimberlé Crenshaw (1991) cautions that “the problem with identity politics is not that it fails to transcend difference, as some critics charge, but rather the opposite – that it frequently conflates or ignores intra group differences.” My neighborhood friends and I learned that lesson every morning as we passed three elementary schools en route to the suburban school we were chosen to integrate. We didn’t fully understand why we had to take the long bus ride to Paul Munro Elementary School instead of the short walk to Garland Rhodes. We dreaded the mandatory neighborhood walking tours with our teachers and classmates because it reminded us that we were perpetual interlopers. Our classmates would pass through familiar streets, pointing out their expansive homes and eagerly waving to neighbors heading to lunch at the country club, where people who looked like us were not allowed to join. Four years of field trips and the streets never felt familiar or welcoming to us. Those barriers, both real and imagined, made it clear that the meaning of our presence in multiple spaces was structured by interlocking systems related to education, religion, region, class, gender, and race. But it wasn’t just our personal experiences of being bussed to new schools or observing Halloween. It was a collective experience shared by various groups navigating identity politics in the United States.
This book grows out of that interest fueled decades ago in Virginia. Democracy in the United States is built upon the battle of ideas related to how we see ourselves, how we see others, and the mechanisms available to reinforce these distinctions. To some the term identity politics has become a pejorative term used to decry the tendency to promote group solidarity at the expense of mutual progress. I reject this description because it is often lobbed against groups whose relationship to traditional spheres of influence and inclusion remains tenuous. Understanding lived political experiences across multiple identity markers isn’t an attempt to create a hierarchy of oppression based on who has suffered the most or who is entitled to the greatest political rewards. That approach is both intellectually lazy and fundamentally uninteresting. The solution, however, isn’t to tell people to strip away the layers of their identity or to ignore how those layers structure opportunities. The notion that people should stop talking about or stop affirming the groups to which they belong is inconsistent with the longstanding political practice of creating and reinforcing identity-based cleavages in US politics.
Consider, for example, contemporary efforts to address the growing opioid crisis sweeping the United States. President Donald J. Trump has declared a public health crisis as advocates argue for a kinder, gentler approach to addiction that promotes rehabilitation and support over punishment and incarceration. Some question why this new approach to opioid addiction varies from the 1990s political response to the crack epidemic that mostly ensnared Blacks and Latinos in urban areas, who were demonized as morally reprehensible (Forman 2018; Alexander 2010; Fortner 2015; Muhammad 2011; Hinton 2016). Indeed, the former mayor of Baltimore (Kurt Schmoke) was ridiculed for suggesting that addiction should be treated as a public health crisis rather than simply a criminal justice problem.1 Since the War on Drugs was formally launched in the 1970s during the Nixon administration, over $50 billion has been spent to significantly increase the arrests, prosecutions, and incarceration of millions of people in the United States. The result hasn’t made the country safer, nor has it significantly reduced addiction (Mauer and King 2007; Hart 2013). Instead, this massive collection of public policies has had a disproportionate impact on certain groups, even if members of those groups don’t perceive it as “their problem.” That type of divide makes it important to address and understand identity politics rather than demonize its existence.
Over the last fifteen years as a university professor, I’ve taught thousands of students in both public and private university settings, from Ivy League institutions to large public universities. I’ve taught first-generation students and those whose family names are chiseled into the archways of university buildings. I’ve taught courses on US politics during contentious elections and debated the merits of the death penalty during high-profile court cases. Against the backdrop of new efforts to limit the movement of Muslims in the United States, my courses on race and ethnicity in US politics address the historical fear that Irish immigrants would “pollute” American society by importing their Catholic faith and the importance of military service to helping immigrants “belong.” I’ve taught a course on American political movements at the height of mass demonstrations to denounce violence and sexual assault while helping freshmen navigate the heightened tensions sparked by debates over freedom of speech on college campuses in the wake of violent clashes at schools such as the University of Missouri and UC Berkeley.
Without fail, some pressing political event will occur that forces me to help students make sense of our increasingly complex and contentious political world. It’s important to note, however, that the challenges of identity politics supersede any one election, political party, or public official. Understanding issues of identity, power, and conflict are central to understanding US politics for students and casual observers alike. Some might wonder why a country founded on the principle of revolutionary freedom periodically devolves into intense and at times violent clashes that deny the sense of personal liberty that rests at the heart of American democracy.
For example, the 2017 gathering of white supremacists on the campus of the University of Virginia forced important conversations about the defense of Southern heritage vis-à-vis the failure to protect Jewish Americans. It also raised the question of how exercising constitutionally protected rights to speech and assembly prompt judicial and extralegal efforts to reinforce the boundaries of belonging. Placing contemporary tensions into traditional frameworks of understanding rests as the central motivation for this book. These tensions aren’t bound by classrooms and shouldn’t be pondered just by students. The historic context sets the stage for contemporary controversies that affect all of us.
Politics is a battle over resources such as power, leadership, economic development, and legal standing. At times the battle over resources is an attempt to stave off perceived challenges to power. The quest for power has been marked by legal means to substantiate claims to authority. Likewise, extralegal methods to counter challenges inhibit group claims to representation. It follows then that political maneuvering that centers on group identities is an essential feature of US politics. Indeed, the very founding of this nation was forged as an attempt to craft a cohesive national identity distinct from the British Crown.
Identity politics is at its core, a persistent negotiation over the meaning, limits, requirements, and protections of citizenship. Even as individual members gain success, the tendency to effect boundaries to political inclusion based on group attributes has been a ubiquitous feature of American political development since its founding. Identity politics isn’t merely an effort to gain access to power. Rather, it shapes and is shaped by the very practice of governance that renders certain groups vulnerable to legal justifications of their subordinate status. Examples of the practical implications of this battle appear as groups fight to add an Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution that would protect gender equality in courtrooms where undocumented minors appeal for amnesty to stay in the only country they have known. And the practical implications are found in houses of worship where parishioners determine how to balance their faith with concerns about their safety. My hope is that this book will help elevate conversations for those who are at once fascinated or disgusted by the enterprise of US politics.
In a 2018 address celebrating the twenty-fifth anniversary of Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy, former President Barack Obama reflected on the tensions surrounding identity in the United States:
When I hear people say they don’t like identity politics I think it’s important to remember that identity politics doesn’t just apply to when it’s white people or gay people or women. The folks that really originated identity politics were folks who said the three-fifths clause and all that stuff. That’s identity politics … Jim Crow was identity politics. Part of what’s happened is that when people find their status is being jostled and threatened, they react.
Individuals perceive their identities, and those of others, in complex ways that define their political preferences. The tendency of governments and the political process, however, is to lump people together and treat them as group members regardless of individual differences (Shaw et al. 2015). This institutional treatment triggers the individual-level responses referenced in Obama’s remarks based on perceived threats to status and well-being. At times various government actors, institutions, and choices work to construct group identities (Hawkesworth 2003; Simien 2007). At other points, the practice of politics structures which groups have access to political power and representation vis-à-vis policy-making, voting behavior, legislative decision-making, and judicial rulings. The political meaning of identity is shaped by interlocking structures of power that define the meaning of multiple statuses at once.
Consider, for example, the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Act was intended to strike down laws and practices that justified denying African Americans access to transportation, water fountains, jobs, and schools. Although the bill had the support of President Lyndon B. Johnson, it faced fierce opposition within Congress. Opponents of the bill, such as Representative Howard W. Smith (R-VA), included sex-based discrimination in an effort to kill it. Ironically, the bill successfully passed and ended up extending federal protection to women in the workplace. The Civil Rights Act was a monumental piece of legislation because it demonstrated that the federal government could play a role in safeguarding the rights of citizens at the state and local levels. What began as an effort to protect Black citizens against discrimination has over time been used to protect all Americans from race- and gender-based discrimination in employment.
In 2009, the US Supreme Court presided over a groundbreaking case, Ricci v. DeStefano, which involved nineteen white firefighters and one Hispanic firefighter who were denied promotions. After a series of oral and written exams, the city of New Haven, Connecticut, scrapped the final promotion list out of fear that people of color would file a racial discrimination lawsuit because the highest scoring applicants were all white. The Court ruled in favor of the twenty firefighters and, in turn, upheld the view that the Civil Rights Act guarded against racial discrimination in all forms.
Patricia Hill Collins (1989) cautions us to consider how systems mutually construct one another: “As opposed to examining gender, race, class, and nation as separate systems of oppression, intersectionality explores how these systems mutually construct one another … across multiple systems of oppression and serve as focal points or privileged social locations for those intersecting systems.” Given this, it is useful to consider how institutional structures shape exclusion and how political actors react to/reason through this exclusion.
It may seem contradictory to employ the lens of intersectionality in a book whose chapters reference particular categories of difference. However, my approach is to examine the complex ways the political process defines political incorporation within and across categories. For example, a number of pundits, journalists, and activists declared 2018 the Year of the Woman, citing the record number of women running for office. While those numbers are promising, a proper intersectional account of those trends must account for the structural challenges wrought by issues such as fundraising that limit the number of women of color able to pursue elected office. Similarly, policies such as the California Voting Rights Act were originally meant to protect the ability of communities of color to elect candidates of their choice. However, these provisions rarely increase the number of elected officials from underrepresented communities. Dismantling at-large districts must be done in tandem with broader efforts to limit the institutional barriers to office-holding.
Intersectionality as an organizing framework recognizes that no one group possesses absolute privilege or absolute disadvantage. While some individuals from marginalized groups may be able to transcend categories in some instances, they are not completely inoculated from broader social negotiations (Purdie-Vaughns and Eibach 2008; Alexander-Floyd 2012). In short, individual political experiences are inextricably bound by broader notions of belonging that shape differences within and between groups. This book examines the interlocking political experiences derived from categories of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, and sexual orientation to explore the quest for power in the United States. Although there are a number of texts that deal with identity politics by focusing on a singular racial/ethnic group, this book evaluates political power through the lens of multiple group identities.
In a seminal work, Robert Dahl (1957) defines power as follows: “A has power over B to the extent that he can get B to do something that B would not otherwise do.” Clarissa Hayward (2000), drawing on Michel Foucault, criticizes Dahl and his interlocutors for seeing power as an instrument exercised by individuals rather than as existing in networks that restrain action. In this book I adopt a more nuanced emphasis on what Khalilah L. Brown-Dean and Benjamin Jones (2017) term authentic power. Specifically, authentic power refers to the extent to which a group harmed by a policy can get policy-makers and other government officials to acknowledge this harm and, ultimately, to change the policy to the group’s benefit.
This definition emphasizes that authentic power, rather than becoming observable only with a policy change, can reveal itself beforehand through shifts in the public debate that force officials to admit previously ignored problems with a policy. This definition also is intentionally broad and encompasses a wide range of political phenomena. Policies can detrimentally impact well-established groups with significant power – for example, new gun-control legislation hurting gun owners – so the exercise of authentic power is by no means limited to underrepresented groups. In many instances of authentic power, it remains largely static: an already powerful group responds to a harmful policy or push for political inclusion by mobilizing existing resources to oppose it. Some of the more interesting instances of authentic power, however, involve a more dynamic process: policies are detrimental to already underrepresented groups, creating further barriers to their ability to influence the political process; yet, over time, the harm caused by these policies becomes a galvanizing force for groups to become politically engaged in ways not seen before. In turn, the value of US citizenship is politicized to shape political power, access, participation, and representation.
Names and labels are important for conveying notions of power, worth, and inclusion. I purposely avoid using the terms “minority” or “marginalized” to refer to underrepresented groups in the United States because it implies a sense of inferiority and subordinate status. The term underrepresented applies to groups whose political presence within decision-making arenas does not mirror their statistical share of the US population. For example, women comprise 51 percent of the total population and only 24 percent of the 535 members serving in the US Congress. They are therefore numerically underrepresented in these influential halls of power (Dolan et al. 2016). Women of color make up about 36 percent of women in Congress.2
Signage at a Black Lives Matter rally in Minnesota: the death of unarmed motorist Philando Castile mobilized communities around the nation to demand change.
The concept of race that I employ in this text applies to social definitions of race rather than biological differences. For the purpose of this book, race refers to socially constructed groupings of individuals based on common traits such as skin tone, hair texture, and other phenotypical attributes. These designations have changed over time and have been codified by law and practice to bestow differences in social, political, legal, and economic standing. To say that race is a social construct is to acknowledge that the meaning and substance of racial categorizations have changed over time. As a result, defining who is entitled to lay claim to or preside over racial identities varies across space, place, and context. Consider, for example, champion golfer Tiger Woods, who drew tremendous criticism during a 1997 interview on The Oprah Winfrey Show. Winfrey asked the mixed-race, multiethnic golfer whether it offended him to be called “African American.” Woods responded that he preferred to be called “Cablinasian” to capture fully his African American, Thai, Chinese, Dutch, and American Indian ancestry: “I’m just who I am, whoever you see in front of you.”3
To some, Woods’s new term was a fitting homage to his parents, and it wasn’t confined by narrow definitions of race that forced him to choose a singular category. Others countered that he had deployed a sense of social distancing or the calculated assessment of the relative costs and benefits of affiliating with a particular group. Regardless of how Woods identified himself, to many of his fellow players his racial identity was predetermined. That same year Tiger Woods became the youngest golfer ever to play in the prestigious US Masters, with analysts deeming him the first Black player to win. His fellow competitor Fuzzy Zoeller urged Tiger not to order collard greens and fried chicken at the Augusta National Club – a nod to racial stereotypes about African American food preferences.
In my courses on race and ethnicity in US politics, I play a game I created with students called “Who Is/Who Isn’t?” It involves showing photos of various public figures and allowing students to guess their racial identity. Most of them are shocked to learn, for example, that South African-born actress Charlize Theron could be considered African American or that rapper Drake could be classified as Jewish on account of his mother’s heritage. These examples highlight the variable nature of racial categories codified by law, practice, and perception. Politically, the assumptions and judgements that we attach to these perceptions reference what scholars call racial categorization as the product of intense battles over which groups we belong to, the meaning of those assignments, and changing contexts for altering outcomes. The challenge of social categorization occurs because of a lack of consensus – or unified sense of belonging.
For example, the 1992 Los Angeles riots erupted after the acquittal of four white police officers in the beating of Black motorist Rodney King. The rioting and looting led to the deaths of fifty people and over $1 billion in property damage. The aftermath of the acquittal highlighted tensions between groups under the umbrella of Asian American identity. Some shopkeepers posted signs that read “Not Korean,” hoping to distance themselves from decades of conflict between residents and store owners ignited by the shooting death of Black teen Latasha Harlins by Korean store owner Soon Ja Du (Kim 2000).
In many cases the appropriateness of terminology shifts in response to changing political realities and nodes of understanding. I employ the terms LGBTQI and LGBT based on the time period and context of discussion. LGBTQI references those who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, or intersexed.4 I do not make distinctions in the text between cisgendered (those whose current gender identity matches their sex assignment at birth) and those who transition to their current gender identity. Where appropriate, however, I do reference policy debates over inclusion that rest on distinguishing between biological sex and gender identity.
I use the terms Latinx, Latino/a, and Hispanic interchangeably. I concede that the use of these common labels may oversimplify the experiences, histories, and preferences of various subgroups, and I also acknowledge that much of US politics rests on reducing groups to the lowest common denominator with little input from those being defined. It is easier, for example, to pass “English only” legislation that affects “Latinos” without examining the differential impact of these policies based on country of origin and racial identity. Similarly, political candidates find it easier and more cost-effective to deploy Latino outreach efforts without adequately capturing how and why the interests of Puerto Rican voters may differ from those of Cuban Americans. Further complicating this choice is considering how generational status, age, citizenship, and gender identity may shape group labels.
For example, various scholars have criticized the use of the term Hispanic because it privileges groups who trace their ancestry to Spain and masks the internal diversity of these communities (Gonzalez 1992; Flores and Yudice 1990; Alcoff 2005). Others see the term as having no internal significance because it was imposed by governmental agencies such as the Census Bureau to classify communities more easily. The term Latino is often preferable to those who want to acknowledge the non-European aspects of ancestry and historical experiences. Here, Latinos reference residents of the United States who trace their ancestry to Spanish-speaking regions of Latin America and the Caribbean (Garcia Bedolla 2003). In accordance with the intersectionality lens, at times I use Latinx as a gender-neutral term of reference for individuals and groups commonly referred to as Latino/a and Hispanic. All of these appellations come with their own sets of preferences and critiques while highlighting the social and political structuring of identity. I rely on context when choosing which to employ.5
I use the term ethnicity to refer to distinctions based on culture, language, or common descent that shape political standing. The notion of what Yen Le Espiritu (1992) calls panethnicity reflects a sense of group identity based on political opportunities and threats. At times subordinate groups may embrace a broader shared identity in order to reap political advantages or in response to wider threats. In other cases, groups will emphasize their differences to reject negative connotations and behaviors that target “a collectivity within the larger society having a real or putative common ancestry, memories of a shared historical past, or a cultural focus on one or more symbolic elements defined as the epitome of their peoplehood” (Schermerhorn 1970).
In this text, race and ethnicity are relational but not oppositional. Their meaning is shaped by factors external to the group, such as legal decrees (e.g. Plessy v. Ferguson), government agencies (e.g. the Bureau of Indian Affairs), and actors (e.g. police officers). Group standing can be shaped by both racial and ethnic notions based on the question of interest. This view was codified into law by the 1987 Supreme Court decision in St Francis College v. Al-Khazraji. Al-Khazraji was an Iraqi-born US citizen and professor at St Francis College in Pennsylvania who argued that he had been discriminated against based on his “Arabian race.” After being denied tenure, he sued the school for violating the Civil Rights Act of 1964. His attorneys argued that the protections should be extended to people who were not considered Black or white. The justices ruled in his favor and decided that the protections should apply to people of Arab descent and whites as well. Justice Brennan wrote in his concurrence with the opinion, “Pernicious distinctions among individuals based solely on their ancestry are antithetical to the doctrine of equality upon which this nation is founded” (481 US 604).
It’s necessary to acknowledge the unique political standing of American Indians and people of African descent within US politics. Enslaved Africans were used to create wealth that permanently structured US institutions. The experiences of enslaved Africans and their descendants don’t neatly fit into the narratives of immigrant groups who had the opportunity to pursue citizenship from their arrival on American shores. Throughout this book I use the terms African American and Black interchangeably to reference people of African descent now living in the United States.
The use of the seemingly innocuous term “Native American” implies a sense of acceptance and full citizenship standing that many tribal nations have never enjoyed. The rejection of Indian citizenship created nations within a nation who continue to demand recognition and respect of ancestral ties. Indeed, the 2016 protests of the Dakota Pipeline Access project highlight tensions over cultural preservation and its impact on public policy. For example, bills to limit or criminalize protests have been introduced in thirty states since the protests at Standing Rock (Carpenter and Williams 2018). According to political scientist David Wilkins, “the terms Indian and American Indian remain the most common appellations used by indigenous and nonindigenous persons and institutions” (2002: xvii). To be sure, most members refer to themselves based on their tribal affiliation (e.g. Blackfoot or Lakota), just as many immigrants identify based on their country of origin (e.g. Trinidadian or Laotian) rather than a global identifier. However, the political differences for American Indians and African Americans were codified into law and reinforced by political practice.
Acknowledging this reality is not an attempt to situate American Indian and African American experiences as more painful than those of other groups. Nor is it an attempt to elevate their political identities as more important. Rather, it is a recognition of the failure of traditional treatments of identity to adequately capture efforts to permanently define certain groups as beyond the scope of belonging. This oversight is reflected in the longstanding battle to determine the practical meaning of federal recognition for American Indians:
Federal recognition has historically had two distinctive meanings. Before the 1870s, “recognize” or “recognition” was used in the cognitive sense. In other words, federal officials simply acknowledged that a tribe existed, usually by negotiating treaties with them or enacting specific laws to fulfill specific treaty pledges. During the 1870s however, “recognition” or more accurately, “acknowledgement” began to be used in a formal jurisdictional sense. It is this later usage that the federal government most often employs to describe its relationship to tribes. In short, federal acknowledgement is a formal act that establishes a political relationship between a tribe and the United States. It affirms a tribe’s sovereign status. Simultaneously, it outlines the federal government’s responsibilities to the tribe. More specifically, federal acknowledgement meant that a tribe is not only entitled to the immunities and privileges available to other tribes, but is also subject to the same federal powers, limitations, and other obligations of recognized tribes. (Wilkins 2002)
Understanding identity politics requires acknowledging the divergent opportunities for groups to navigate and derive benefits from the political system. These benefits may be material, such as a tax break or a grant to help fund education. Political incorporation may also promote purposive benefits such as the sense of accomplishment you feel after voting. Finally, the political process provides instrumental benefits that help us do things we could not do on our own, such as creating civilian review boards to enhance public safety.
Battles over the meaning and scope of group membership play out on NFL football fields as players kneel in protest at the deaths of unarmed civilians. These challenges occur at school board meetings when educators debate whether to provide gender-neutral bathrooms to accommodate students whose gender identity doesn’t fit with the designations on their birth certificates. Group identity matters in boardrooms, where the lines between harassment and compliment are drawn, in legislative chambers, where opportunities to express political beliefs are crafted, and in courtrooms, where decisions are made to determine against whom we are allowed to discriminate. The United States, like many other nations, is becoming increasingly polarized. Too often allegations of “alternative facts” in response to things we don’t like or with which we disagree limit opportunities to have meaningful conversations about our differences. The proliferation of social media outlets creates echo chambers that allow us to filter out things that make us uncomfortable. It is those moments of discomfort, however, that force us to reflect on what we believe and why we believe it.
The decline of civility and dialogue weakens democracy and our opportunities to engage one another on matters of mutual interest and benefit. My vision is that this book will help spark discussion and debate while prompting each of us to consider the requirements and limits of democracy. I don’t expect readers always to agree with me or with each other. What I do hope is that the discussions stimulated by this book will be guided by a commitment to intellectual curiosity that helps each of us better navigate the fault lines embedded in political life. Be willing to be uncomfortable.
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