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The Moral Blindness of Identity Politics

Progressives can't embrace identity politics for certain groups without implicitly sanctioning them for others

Slate’s Jamelle Bouie analyzes the excellent “Black Jeopardy” skit in which Tom Hanks played “Doug,” a Trump supporter who, along with his two black opponents, discovers that they have a lot in common. Bouie:

Then comes the final punchline, “Lives That Matter.” Obviously, the answer to the question is “black.” But Doug has “a lot to say about this.” Which suggests that he doesn’t think the answer is that simple. Perhaps he thinks “all lives matter,” or that “blue lives matter,” the phrasing used by those who defend the status quo of policing and criminal justice. Either way, this puts him in direct conflict with the black people he’s befriended. As viewers, we know that “Black Lives Matter” is a movement against police violence, for the essential safety and security of black Americans. It’s a demand for fair and equal treatment as citizens, as opposed to a pervasive assumption of criminality.

Thompson, Zamata, and Jones might see a lot to like in Doug, but if he can’t sign on to the fact that black Americans face unique challenges and dangers, then that’s the end of the game. Tucked into this six-minute sketch is a subtle and sophisticated analysis of American politics. It’s not that working blacks and working whites are unable to see the things they have in common; it’s that the material interests of the former—freedom from unfair scrutiny, unfair detention, and unjust killings—are in direct tension with the identity politics of the latter (as represented in the sketch by the Trump hat). And in fact, if Hanks’ character is a Trump supporter, then all the personal goodwill in the world doesn’t change the fact that his political preferences are a direct threat to the lives and livelihoods of his new friends, a fact they recognize.

What Bouie doesn’t seem to get is that black identity politics and the preferences of those who espouse them are a direct threat to the livelihoods and interests of many whites — and even, at times, their lives (hello, Brian Ogle!).

Consider this insanity from Michigan State University, pointed out by a reader this morning. It’s the Facebook page of Which Side Are You On? , radical student organization whose stated purpose is:

Michigan State University has chosen to remain silent on the issue of racial injustice and police brutality. We demand that the administration release a statement in support of the Movement for Black Lives; and, in doing so, affirms the value of the lives of its students, alumni, and future Spartans of color while recognizing the alienation and oppression that they face on campus. In the absence of open support, MSU is taking the side of the oppressor.

Got that? Either 100 percent agree with them, or you are a racist oppressor. It’s fanatical, and it’s an example of bullying. But as we have seen over the past year, year and a half, Black Lives Matter and related identity politics movements (Which Side Are You On? says it is not affiliated with BLM) are by no means only about police brutality. If they were, this wouldn’t be a hard call. No decent person of any race supports police brutality. To use Bouie’s terms, the material interests of non-progressive white people are often in direct tension with the identity politics of many blacks and their progressive non-black allies. This is true beyond racial identity politics. It’s true of LGBT identity politics also. But progressives can’t see that, because to them, what they do is not identity politics; it’s just politics.

You cannot practice and extol identity politics for groups favored by progressives without implicitly legitimizing identity politics for groups disfavored by progressives.

Good luck getting anyone on the left to recognize the fallacy of special pleading when it’s right in front of their eyes.



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