The XX Factor

What Does It Mean to Oppose Identity Politics?

I’ve been reading a lot of headlines to the effect that “Identity politics are condescending,” and I’ve come to the conclusion that I have no idea what identity politics are. To me, the phrase has always referred to the dated assumption that the interests of any particular subgroup are best represented by other members of that subgroup. So the expectation is that Sotomayor will represent “Latina interests” or somesuch, an idea she explicitly rejects when she says “No one person, judge or nominee will speak in a female or people of color voice.” But in today’s Seattle Times I am informed that identity politics involve “political payback for an ethnic group or gender.” And elsewhere it just seems to mean diversity for the sake of diversity, or perhaps for the sake of bleeding heart liberalism.

I don’t generally see members of minority groups as vehicles for the interests of some specific class. The reason I care about diversity is that I care about the “expansion of identity creation,” a phrase I think I stole from Reason’ s Nick Gillespie. It’s not symbolism I care about; it’s the material way perceptions change when the word “judge” does not automatically call to mind a wrinkled white male, the way unconscious bias fades, stereotype threat loses its grip, and alternative lives become easier to contemplate. It’s the obliteration of subtle, silent constraints on behavior, something any libertarian ought to care about.

Of course, when I make this argument publicly , I am accused of playing identity politics. So it’d be super helpful if people would spell out what they mean and what it is they are opposing.