In a year filled with debates about racism in law enforcement, attacks on women’s reproductive rights, and even fights over equal access to clean water, I’ve grown increasingly weary of election post-mortems that attribute Donald Trump’s victory to so-called “identity politics.”
Some now argue that if we stopped focusing so much on racism, sexism, LGBT issues, and other forms of bigotry, then maybe we could get traction on issues of economic justice. Many politicians and writers, including Mark Lilla at the New York Times, have beseeched audiences to focus on the “white working class,” the group believed to have handed Donald Trump the presidency.
In other words, they argue, the struggles of people of color and other marginalized groups are secondary to the struggles of poor whites.
But this is a false dichotomy. We can’t divorce issues of identity from conversations about class. Especially for people living at the intersection of multiple struggles, it’s impossible to separate issues of race, gender, and sexual orientation from discussions about the economy.
For example, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, unemployment remains twice as high for black people as it does for their white counterparts. The disproportionate rate of black unemployment has held true for decades, recession or not. And in Illinois, recent analysis from the Economic Policy Institute suggests that the state has the highest black unemployment rate in the country, at 14.2 percent.
This reality becomes even grimmer when layered with another form of marginalization: the unemployment rate for trans workers of color is as high as four times the national unemployment rate. (This and other disturbing statistics were highlighted in Black Youth Project 100’s “Agenda to Build Black Futures,” which was released in February.) This disparity is as much about racism and transphobia as it is about the economy—race and gender identity are key touch points for discrimination in the workplace.
But you don’t have to look to statistics for insight into the overlap of economic justice and various forms of oppression. Chicago in 2016 was full of political struggles that underscore just how interconnected these issues are.
Take for example the $13 minimum wage increase passed by the Cook County Board in October. (It isn’t the $15 wage that groups like Fight for 15 have pushed for, but it’s a start.) The majority of low-income service workers affected by the increase are black and brown people, and mostly women, raising their families on that income.
Then there’s the Equal Access Ordinance, passed by the City Council in June, which protects the ability to use public accommodations—including restrooms—consistent with an individual’s gender identity. It’s a crucial step in conferring more legal protections to transgender and gender non-conforming people, who remain legally vulnerable in many areas of life, including work. In November, the Chicago-based Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals heard arguments in the case of Hively vs. Ivy Tech, in which a northwest Indiana professor claims she was fired for being gay. Clearly anti-LGBT stigma is also an issue of economic inequality, especially since most states don’t protect LGBT people from being fired because of who they are.
Even the “Blue Lives Matter” bill—which has yet to see the light of day in the City Council—has an economic dimension. The bill, proposed by Alderman Ed Burke in June, would have covered police officers and first responders under hate crimes laws.
The bill contained provisions that seemed to target and intimidate protesters, many of whom are people of color. When you consider the time, lost wages, legal expenses, bail funds, and strains on other resources that come into play when people get thrown in jail, it’s clear that fighting against the ordinance is also an economic issue.
So when people like University of Illinois at Chicago professor Walter Benn Michaels, who, in an interview with the Reader suggested that we do away with being “committed to a vision of inequality anchored to identity,” I have to call that logic what it is: Bull.
Remember: “identity politics” exist because, from the nation’s founding, white, landowning males were the only people allowed to fully participate in civic life. Remember: the 1963 March on Washington was a march for “Jobs and Freedom.”
Instead of an approach that siloes off identity issues from economic issues, we must acknowledge that they go hand in hand. And with Trump soon to take the White House, it’s more important than ever. v