Identity canards

There is nothing inherent in any racial category or gender that makes it necessarily more radical - or reactionary - than another. But difference does make a difference, argues Gary Younge, and the left needs to re-examine its approach to issues of diversity, equal opportunities and representation

July 25, 2010 · 14 min read

At the Republican convention that nominated George W Bush as its US presidential candidate in 2000, the party’s leadership felt the need to transform its image, which many Americans regarded as backward-looking, narrow and elitist. To counter that impression, the three co-chairs for the convention were an African-American, an Hispanic and a white single mother. The headline speaker on the first day was Colin Powell. The primetime news slot the next day went to Condoleeza Rice. On the opening night the pledge of allegiance was delivered by a blind mountaineer, while a black woman sang ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’. On a later night of the convention the entertainment come from Harold Melvin (black) and Jon Secada (Cuban). The convention was closed by Chaka Khan.

But while the emphasis was on race and ethnicity, the message was not directed at minority voters (whom the Bush camp would have to effectively disenfranchise in order eventually to steal the election). ‘What the Republicans are doing is aimed more at white Americans,’ said David Bositis, a political analyst at the Joint Centre for Political and Economic Studies in Washington. ‘Moderates do not want someone who’s negative on race. It says something very significant about America as a whole.’ Race had simply become a signifier of their desire to look like they were not mean-spirited.

They call this ‘diversity’. A decent idea – that an institution should look like the people it serves and the world in which it operates – that has spawned an industry of consultants, advisers, quangos and departments that between them have corporatised identity beyond all meaning. Having eviscerated the issue of representation from all notions of fairness, equality and justice, equal opportunities morphs effortlessly into photo opportunities – a way of making things look different and act the same. It is what the radical black activist Angela Davis once described to me as ‘the difference that brings no difference, the change that brings no change’.

‘The Republican administration is the most diverse in history. But when the inclusion of black people into the machine of oppression is designed to make that machine work more efficiently, then it does not represent progress at all,’ Davis told me. ‘We have more black people in more visible and powerful positions. But then we have far more black people who have been pushed down to the bottom of the ladder.’

When it comes to issues of identity and politics we have a serious discursive problem. Put bluntly we have failed to find a way to talk intelligently, honestly and progressively about how human diversity, and the experiences that come with it, relate to our politics.

Labour’s token contest

In few places has this been clearer recently than in the battle for the Labour leadership. Faced with the prospect of four white men duking it out, in the final days before nominations closed the party resolved that a black woman, Diane Abbott, should be allowed to compete. This was neither presented nor understood as an attempt to combat racism or sexism in the party but openly conceded as a desire to appear less racist and less sexist. Not to act different but to look different. Not equal opportunities but photo opportunities.

This kind of tokenism inevitably creates cynicism. When the Labour hierarchy conceded Abbott’s inclusion they were keen to look different even as they carry on acting the same. This alienates many white people who feel someone has gained advancement on purely racial grounds that would not be open to them, even as it gives nothing to black people.

This is not the fault of Diane Abbott. She had every right to stand, to get nominations where she could and to set out whatever stall she pleases. She cannot be held responsible for the patronising motivations for those who backed her for poor reasons, any more than any other leadership candidate. I am glad she is there. She is as capable, intelligent and talented as any of those she is up against and her reception at many of the hustings suggests her views are more in tune with mainstream Labour Party members than her challengers.

Unfortunately, however, Abbott has occasionally played up to it, pointing at her challengers and saying: ‘Look at my running mates. If you vote for them it will be the same old same old.’ It gets some laughs. But it also offers hostage to fortune, for it works just as well for Sarah Palin or Condoleeza Rice. There is nothing inherent in any racial category or gender that makes it necessarily more radical than another and no intrinsic link between black and female advancement and black and female electoral representation.

Widening gap

Since Barack Obama was elected in the US the gap between black and white has widened. Unemployment is still rising among African Americans and stands at almost twice that of white people. For black teens, unemployment is 43.8 per cent. Meanwhile, home foreclosures among African Americans are increasing almost 50 per cent faster than for whites.

Six of the countries that rank in the top 20 for women’s representation are also in the top 20 for per capita rapes. Meanwhile, a global gender gap index, compiled by the World Economic Forum, which assesses how countries distribute resources and opportunities between the sexes, reveals glaring discrepancies. Angola and Nepal, which stand 10th and 17th respectively in terms of representation, are 106th and 110th in terms of equality. Ireland and Sri Lanka, which rank eighth and 16th respectively for equality, are 87th and 125th for representation. In 2008, two female party leaders locked horns in elections in Bangladesh, producing the country’s second female prime minster in a decade. Yet according to the WEF, gender inequality in Bangladesh is bad (it is 94th) and getting relatively worse (in 2008 it was 90th).

This does not undermine the campaigns for more diverse political representation but should sharpen the arguments that support them. Representative democracies that exclude large sections of the population are not worthy of the adjective.

Nor should the power of symbolism be underrated. Black Americans may have fared worst under Obama, but they are also the most likely to approve of his presidency. A Pew survey released in January showed the highest ever number of African Americans believing they are better off now than they were five years ago – even though economically they are not.

The fact that five of the 10 countries with the highest female representation are in the top 10 for gender equality is also no mere coincidence. Since the push for parliamentary parity is often part of a larger effort surrounding equal rights, greater representation is more likely to be the product of progressive social change than a precursor to it. The relationship between identity, representation and equality is neither inevitable nor irrelevant, but occasionally contradictory and always complex.

Where Abbott is concerned, the problem is a Labour Party that did manage to recruit and stand large numbers of women and black people over the past 25 years but then singularly failed to promote any of them to the point where they might be broadly considered for a leadership role without condescension.

These two trends were not accidental. During the mid-1980s there was a concerted political push from the left and the then Labour Party Black Sections to get black MPs into parliament. This resulted in the election of four in 1987 – one of whom was Abbott. That trend continued, albeit slowly, to the point where we now have 15 non-white MPs. A similar push from the left to ensure greater female representation included all-women shortlists, which helped propel a significant number of women into parliament.

Both of these initiatives were opposed at the time by the Labour leadership, although they were happy to take credit for the achievements once they had happened. And when they were there, both black people and women found it very difficult to penetrate an incredibly white and macho leadership culture. This was not simply a matter of looking different. Since the campaign to get more black and female MPs had originated on the left, many of the MPs those campaigns produced came from the left. As Labour drifted to the right there was little scope for advancement within its ranks.

This internal stasis left Labour drawing not only from a demographic gene puddle but an ideological one as well. The problem of ideological diversity and gender and racial diversity did not just coincide – they were intimately interlinked. Where Abbott is concerned this is particularly ironic because her primary contribution to the debate has not been her melanin content or hormonal composition but her anti-war, anti-racist stance that has forced the consideration of a far more progressive agenda onto the contest.

Critical mass

This makes sense. Notwithstanding Angela Davis’s comments, the fact is that our differences do often make a difference. While there may be no singular, definitive black or female experience, evidence suggests that a critical mass of certain groups can have an effect on outcomes. A 2008 study in the Colombia Law Review discovered that ‘when a white judge sits on a panel with at least one African American judge, she becomes roughly 20 percentage points more likely to find [a voting rights violation]’. A 2005 Yale Law Journal study revealed not only that women judges were more likely to find for plaintiffs in sexual harassment cases than men but that the presence of female judges increased the likelihood that men would find for the plaintiff too.

One doesn’t need a overly fertile imagination to appreciate how different our race and immigration policies might have been if parliament had not been all white for almost 60 years between 1929 and 1987, or how gender equality issues might have been dealt with if the Commons had ever been more than 10 per cent female before 1997.

One would expect that the importance of such perspectives would be readily recognised on the left. After all, it is there that great strides were made from the 1960s onwards thanks to the advances of civil rights, gay rights, feminism and anti-colonialism. But by the early 1990s large parts of the left had come to regard the politics of identity as an obstacle to further progress rather than an opportunity for it. ‘Identity politics’ – which after a while began to mean whatever you wanted it to mean so long as you didn’t like it – was blamed for having created an atomised, sectarian culture on the left that had simultaneously elevated individuals who traded on guilt while relegating the possibilities for real solidarity and electoral victory.

‘The vanguard, without question, is the identity movements; people are identified and described as representatives of this or that community, and these are the categories in which people reflexively think,’ argued Michael Tomasky in Left for Dead. ‘With tiny constituencies come tiny ideas. Very little has emerged from today’s left except agendas pursued mainly on the basis of group membership and mainly through the law and the courts, rather than through the broad-based moral suasion of the public.’ 

In Europe, in particular, Enlightenment values have been evoked as a bulwark against multiculturalism in general and political Islam in particular. Communist deputies in France called for the banning of the burqa; Labour politicians in England called for an end to multiculturalism; anti-immigrant rhetoric and Islamophobia were deployed in defence of gay rights and feminism with considerable force.

In Holland a government video showing gay men kissing and topless bathers, introduced with the specific aim of testing Muslim attitudes, was made compulsory viewing for all would-be immigrants. ‘We have lots of homo-discrimination,’ explained Dutch Labour MP Jeroen Dijsselbloem, who sits on the parliament’s immigration committee. ‘Especially by Muslim youngsters who harass gay men and women on the streets. It is an issue here.’ 

Given that almost all religions have a reactionary attitude towards women’s equality and gay rights, efforts to draw attention to the tension between protecting religious freedom and defending human rights should be welcomed. But to single out Islam alone, at a time when the Church of England was bitterly divided over gay clergy and the Catholic church was reeling over child sex abuse, seemed perverse.

The audience for these broadsides against the Muslim community was anything but universal and the effect was not more equality but less. Far from encouraging greater integration – the professed aim of this rhetoric and the politics it embraces – these attacks further bolstered nationalism and xenophobia, thereby isolating a relatively small, poor minority during a time of war, terrorism and escalating racism. And as the hostility increases so does the currency of fundamentalists, who are given the opportunity to present themselves as the staunch defenders not of dogma but community. After a Labour minister criticised his Muslim constituents for coming into his office wearing the niqab both racial attacks against Muslim women and sales of the niqab rose.

Identity and class

For others on the left the journey into the more vague area of identity marks so great a departure from the hallowed class struggle that they are simply unable to take it seriously. Orthodox Marxists believe anyone who has been distracted by the fickle matters of gender, ethnicity, race, religion – basically anything that cannot be reduced to the relations of production – has essentially been duped.

They have half a point. To the extent to which class is about the distribution of resources, there is very little in politics that makes sense without understanding its class dimension. But similarly there is very little that makes sense when viewed only through the prism of class.

So while it might be true that the powerful exploit difference in order to divide the powerless and thereby strengthen their grip, it is no less true that the powerful did not invent difference and oftentimes need do little to keep it alive. Otherwise the only way to explain poor white Republicans or Hindu nationalists is as people who don’t understand what’s best for them.

‘The anguish and disorientation which finds expression in this hunger to belong, and hence in “the politics of identity” … is no more a moving force of history than the hunger for “law and order”, which is an equally understandable response to another aspect of social disorganisation,’ writes Eric Hobsbawm in Nations and Nationalism. ‘Both are symptoms of sickness rather diagnoses, let alone therapy.’ This would be news to Zimbabwe’s Shona, Serbian nationalists and British jihadis – to mention but a few – who have ‘moved history’ in ways that have little connection to the therapeutic.

None of us comes to politics from a vacuum – we each arrive with affiliations that mould our worldviews. ‘Every human being at every stage of history is born into a society and from his earliest years is moulded by that society,’ argues E H Carr in What is History. ‘Both language and environment help to determine the character of his thought; his earliest ideas come to him from others. His earliest words come to him from others. The individual apart from society would be both speechless and mindless.’

But we are not bound by those worldviews and have the capacity to make connections and effect solidarity beyond our own experience. ‘To be attached to the subdivision, to love the little platoon we belong to in society, is the first principle of public affections,’ wrote Edmund Burke in Reflections on the French Revolution. ‘It is the first link in the series by which we proceed towards a love to our country and to mankind. The interest of that portion of social arrangement is a trust in the hands of all those who compose it; and as none but bad men would justify it in abuse, none but traitors would barter it away for their own personal advantage.’

Gary Younge’s latest book Who Are We? is published by Viking

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