Beyond Identity

Aron Keller talks to Asad Haider about race, class and the fight for social justice in Trump's America.

October 11, 2018
7 min read

Photo by Annette Bernhardt (Flickr)

Is class or identity the most salient political category when it comes to building progressive social movements? Does such a division make sense?

This debate was brought into sharp focus during the 2016 Democratic Primary, which saw Hillary Clinton accuse her opponent Bernie Sanders of disregarding racism, sexism, and homophobia in favour of a myopic focus on economic inequality. The implication of this critique was that economic-based injustice and identity-based injustice were not only separate phenomena but mutually exclusive, and hence Sanders could not possibly incorporate both into his reformist agenda.

In his new book, Asad Haider sets out to dispel the myth that identity alone, unmoored from a broader critique of capitalism, can form the basis of a truly progressive politics. Mistaken Identity: Race and Class in the Age of Trump takes as its central theme the argument that identity politics has veered from its emancipatory origins to become an ideology which represents the “neutralization of movements against racial oppression”.

In making this case, Haider draws upon a diverse body of literature ranging from Judith Butler to Philp Roth. Yet it his engagement with the rich cannon of black revolutionary theory which truly animates the text by elucidating the complex ways in which racial oppression is bound up with capitalist exploitation. In this interview, Haider responds to some of the ideas contained in his book.

In the book, you describe growing up as a boy of Pakistani descent in a small, predominantly white, town in Central Pennsylvania. How did those early experiences – of being caught between two worlds – shape your own understanding of identity as it relates to politics?

I learned from this experience that any absolutist and essentialist conception of identity – identity as something pure and whole, which would be somehow contained within me – would necessarily be a fictitious construction. I learned this from being caught between two different national identities. National identity, I saw, was an extremely dangerous phenomenon, which was used to justify imperialism as well as responses to imperialism which were not in themselves liberatory. After the attacks of September 11, the militarist mobilization of the American national identity turned my identity – defined by skin color and presumed national and religious affiliation – into the object of racist aspersion and attack. It has been a difficult but in my opinion necessary task to balance an awareness of the instability of identity with an understanding of how identities are assigned to people as the result of real, material forms of domination.

You explain that ‘identity politics’ as a contemporary concept was first introduced by the Combahee River Collective in 1977. Who were they and what did they have in mind when they coined the term?

The Combahee River Collective was a group of black women who were feminist and socialist organizers. In their famous 1977 statement they argued that it was necessary “to articulate the real class situation of persons who are not merely raceless, sexless workers.” They advanced the term “identity politics” in service of this goal. However, the statement does not present the term in an abstract way. It is embedded within their concrete situation as black women, who had been marginalized in other movements they participated in. By asserting their autonomy, it became possible to counteract this marginalization and work in genuine coalitions with other movements. Fundamentally, the statement does not argue for separating their interests from others, but rather recognizing that since black women experience the totality of forms of oppression which exist in the society, their freedom would necessarily result in undermining that totality, and therefore everybody’s freedom.

What, in your view, has happened to the political tradition embodied by the Black Panther movement which viewed anti-capitalism and anti-racism as inseparable struggles?  

The perspective of the Black Panthers was a great threat to the existing power structure, which is why they murdered Fred Hampton and marshaled a vast apparatus of repression against the Black Panther Party in general. But we also have to blame the selective reading of the history of socialism in the United States, which assumes that black socialists and communists belong to a specifically black sectoral history, outside of a neutral, universal white history. From the very early stages of black socialists and communists like Hubert Harrison and the African Blood Brotherhood through the Black Panther Party to the various organizations of the New Communist Movement, black socialists and communists have been central. If we resist the white chauvinist reading which seeks to erase them, we may find that our discussions of “race and class” are better informed and more productive.

 Why do you think identity politics has become such a favoured target of right-wing fury, and do you see the phenomenon of the ‘Alt-Right’ as evidence of the right adopting a similar strategy?

I am very cautious about making unilinear causal claims, like the claim some people make that the alt-right is a reaction to liberal identity politics, or has adopted its strategies. We can’t even really test a claim of this kind, which presumes to know that one came before the other or that one influenced the other. Certainly it would be misleading to claim that the alt-right emerged in response to some recent discourse of identity, because they are carrying on a classical American tradition, represented by the Ku Klux Klan, Charles Murray, the police and prison system, and so on. The alt-right has translated this tradition into the language of internet trolling, but they didn’t invent it, and I have not seen anyone cite empirical data to suggest that they were drawn to it because of identity politics.

Having said that, I think a more defensible claim is that both liberal identity politics and the alt-right exist within a common political ecosystem. This is the neoliberal discourse which attempts to exclude socialism as a possible politics, and instead advances an individualistic model of politics, which reduces individuals to their group belonging, characterized by race, nation, and so on. When individuals can claim to be injured on the basis of their group belonging, they enter into politics, and can demand that the state redress their injuries. If the alt-right adopts language from identity politics to participate in this model of politics, they are doing so cynically; they know very well what they are doing. This does not explain why they have the politics they do – that is explained by the continuous persistence of racism in American society.

However, Trump has also tapped into a broader social sense of injury, experienced by white people whose conditions of life are declining and who believe that they have been injured by immigrants, black people, transgender people, and other marginalized groups. This is a minority of the population, and it is not representative of the working class in general, or white members of the working class in particular. But it is discursively real, and has been foundational in Trump’s rhetoric and strategy. Opposing it requires forming anticapitalist and antiracist coalitions, embracing and supporting the self-organization of people who experience racial oppression, and recruiting white people into the struggle against racism.

‘Mistaken Identity: Race and Class in the Age of Trump’ is available from Verso Books.