Identity politics is a double-edged sword. That’s the lesson to be learned from one of this year’s District of Columbia Council elections. The race pits incumbent D.C. Councilmember Elissa Silverman (I-At Large) against third-generation Washingtonian (and Democrat) Dionne Reeder. Both are women and both are liberal. Yet one is white and Jewish, while the other is black. And that, unfortunately, is making all the difference in this increasingly bitter race. The peculiar acrimony of this campaign should be a reminder to voters of all political persuasions that identity politics is a worrisome trend, an ineffective way of promoting the common good.
Though Silverman is running as an independent, she is by most measures a liberal and proponent of policies that conform to the Democratic Party platform. As The Washington Post has noted: “Silverman has largely run a conventional campaign, touting her record of aggressive government oversight and legislation that has boosted benefits for the working poor.” Her biography on the D.C. Council website notes her promotion of inclusivity and her political support from labor unions, environmental advocacy groups, and women’s rights organizations, among others. Her campaign has refused all corporate contributions. She previously won an award for social justice activism named after prominent Jewish theologian Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.
Perhaps because she and Silverman have so much in common, Reeder and her supporters have focused their campaign less on issues of substance and more on identity politics. According to the Post, they’ve argued that the council “needs the voice of an African-American woman,” and have claimed that Silverman has a history of behaving rudely towards blacks and Latinos. Reeder in a recent Facebook post addressed black girls in the District, telling them “it is imperative that you see yourself in your elected legislators”—in other words, blacks should vote for fellow blacks. She also accused Silverman of sarcastically calling her an “eloquent speaker” at a recent campaign forum. “When you make sneers like that, as an African-American woman, to me that’s uncomfortable,” said Reeder. Silverman has insisted the remark was an honest compliment.
A former political appointee in the District, Joshua Lopez, has in turn accused Silverman of stirring up “religious animosity and racial animosity to benefit her politically.” Yet Lopez’s ire stems from the fact that the incumbent had demanded his removal after he organized an event at which Nation of Islam representative Abdul Khadir Muhammad took the microphone and called Silverman a “fake Jew” and referred to Jews as “termites.” Lopez did apologize for his role in this controversy.
That the District should provide our nation with such a bizarre optic into identity politics is fitting, given the significant demographic changes of the city over the last two decades. There has been a significant influx of wealthier non-black residents to the District, and this gentrification, in many respects, has hurt the historic black community. The most recent headline grabbing example has been the debate over Airbnb rentals in the city. Largely non-black technocrats have called for loosening restrictions on these rentals, while representatives of the minority community have claimed that doing so would limit affordable housing options. They’ve also claimed that corporations eager to buy up District properties, rather than individual homeowners, will benefit most from increased Airbnb access.
As I’ve noted elsewhere, many blacks with generations of history in the city can no longer afford to live there, and have moved to the Maryland suburbs. Many of them now commute into the city for work, spending hours on public transportation, frequently doing work for the technocratic elite that now inhabits their old haunts. In a similar vein, the Post has noted that few restaurants in the city offer food delivery to the poor, predominantly black Ward 7 and Ward 8. The battle between bicycle commuters and historic black churches is another example. As D.C. transplant and TAC writer Addison del Mastro has observed, few of the young technocratic elites now populating the city attend church, preferring indulgent Sunday brunch bacchanalias. Whatever the goods of gentrification, many are not making their way to those who would benefit from them the most.
It is one thing to recognize how largely non-black gentrification has hurt D.C.’s historic black community. It is quite another for the District, which has never had anything but a Democrat for a mayor and votes overwhelmingly for Democratic representatives at all levels of government, to suffer under leaders who attack one of their own on the basis of race. This is especially the case when the evidence of alleged racism is so flimsy, and when the accusers are themselves guilty of prejudice-tinged rhetoric. Such a dirty political play within the left’s establishment demonstrates why identity politics is so problematic—it misplaces and mis-prioritizes identity.
One of life’s greatest challenges is to properly understand the place and priorities of one’s identity. Sometimes, as appears to be the case with Dionne Reeder’s political campaign, one is tempted to place one’s racial identity as the ultimate arbiter of meaning or place. The same Joshua Lopez mentioned above, for example, suggested in a Facebook post in September that Silverman, who grew up in Maryland before moving to the District in the 1990s, should “return home to Baltimore.” One wonders how long Lopez’s family has been in D.C., and how long one must live in a place before it can be considered home.
Identity politics is misguided because prioritizing race or ethnicity above all else artificially bloats it with meaning, until it ceases to be a true and measured pride in one’s given identity. This is why German Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, as well as many other Germans of his day, viewed the Nazis as an aberration from true German identity, which for a millennium had viewed Christ and Christianity, rather than “blood and soil,” as the true origin and telos of Germanness. Elevating race or ethnicity cannot support the full weight of the human person. This is just as true of white nationalists as it is of those, like New York Times tech writer Sarah Jeong, who claimed that “white men are bullshit” and “oh man it’s kind of sick how much joy I get out of being cruel to old white men.”
Racial or ethnic identity should not be the main impulse behind our votes or participation in the public square. It does not mean enough, it is not substantive enough, and it creates a fundamental animus towards those different from us.
One of the greatest socio-cultural accomplishments of Christian missionaries across two millennia has been to help various people groups transcend their primary allegiances to tribe in favor of a transcendent universal being and order. Now, in a nation increasingly torn by identity politics, some, including those in the supposedly tolerant and inclusive Democratic Party, want to undo that unprecedented historical achievement. Yet as critics of identity politics have warned for years, such a strategy contains within it an inherent tension. The same tribalism employed for short-term political gains will be used later against those perceived to be enemies within the ranks. As is the case in the District, animus towards wealthy white males has morphed into animus towards a Jewish woman. We should be fearful where this ugly rhetoric will turn next.
Casey Chalk is a student at the Notre Dame Graduate School of Theology at Christendom College. He covers religion and other issues for TAC.
This article includes contributions from Mark L. Earley Jr., a graduate of Virginia Tech and the University of Virginia School of Law. He practices law in Richmond.