THE BLOG
11/28/2016 03:58 pm ET Updated Nov 29, 2017

The Politics Of Identity -- Blessing Or Curse?

This week's New York Times Sunday Review includes a piece by Columbia Professor Mark Lilla titled, The End of Identity Liberalism. Therein he argues that a "fixation" on diversity has " . . . distorted liberalism's message and prevented it from becoming a unifying force capable of governing."

He harkened back sentimentally to a union convention where he and others sang the national anthem and then listened to FDR's famous 1941 Four Freedoms speech. As Lilla viewed the diverse group of union representatives in the hall from the podium, Roosevelt's stirring voice evoked memories of the righteous foundations of modern American liberalism.

Lilla partially attributes what he acknowledges as the "repugnant" outcome of the presidential election to so-called identity liberals being " . . . narcissistically unaware of conditions outside their self-defined groups, and indifferent to the task of reaching out to Americans in every walk of life."

That's it! The problem all along has been all the transgender, gay, black, Latino, Muslim and women folk who are narcissistically unaware of conditions outside their small bubble. It's about time white Americans, particularly straight men, get the attention they deserve. (I am, for the record, a straight, white, privileged man.)

Lilla's argument sounds so very reasonable. Even among supposedly progressive New York Times readers the collective response was, "Can I hear an amen!!!" Of course that collective is comprised almost entirely of white folks - well meaning liberal whites folks, of course.

I beg to disagree.

The so-called "identity liberalism" that Lilla believes problematic is the much needed, long awaited second phase of justice in America.

The first phase was aroused in part by Roosevelt, then nourished by women and men of conscience in the 60's and 70's. The civil rights movement, the emergence of women's rights through assertive feminism, and remarkable advances in gay rights were absolutely necessary, but sadly insufficient.

Attaining legal rights was an advance, to be sure, but full acceptance from a still racist, sexist and homophobic society is sorely lacking. So-called "identity liberalism" is the powerful expression of "Now that you've partially recognized our rights, recognize us!"

Lilla is right that the election turned on this issue, but not in the way he suggests. The election of Trump was not about stagnant wages or national security. It was the eruption of long simmering resentment over civil rights, women's rights, gay rights and other dimensions of social justice. A large swath of white America resents the continued pursuit of this second phase of justice.

One of the most dangerous consequences of this campaign and Trump's triumph has been the unleashing of racist, misogynist, Islamophobic and homophobic attacks, both physical and verbal. The number of such incidents has increased more than 400 percent in recent weeks. While Lilla meant no harm, his repudiation of identity liberalism invites a more subtle and insidious backlash. Even in comments from alleged liberals in the New York Times, palpable resentment of political correctness is apparent.

Lilla creates a false choice. Recognizing the specific grievances of people who have been historically marginalized does not diminish the unifying force of liberalism. Identity liberalism is not based on divisiveness or competition. It is based in empathy, solidarity, compassion and sensitivity. When we recognize and support Black Lives Matter or speak out for transgender dignity, we're not dividing America. We're speaking simple, empathic truth to toxic power. Safe spaces and trigger warnings are not "political correctness." They are expressions of kindness and understanding. A forceful, unified liberalism should fully embrace those who remain on the margins, not blame them for "distorting liberalism's message."

We have fallen prey to the unsupportable idea that the real feelings and experiences of others are ours to dismiss if we wish. When people of marginalized identities express a grievance or vulnerability, it is not for the comfortable, white, straight male majority to judge whether their grievances or vulnerabilities are legitimate.

Suggesting that we should end identity liberalism is an unfortunate expression of privilege.