Identity, Race and Electoral Politics

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

Ongoing protests against police violence raise the question— if the police could be made to either serve a constructive social role or disappear, would the objectives of the protests disappear with them? Racism, as it is being put forward, is certainly a larger issue than police violence. But as with the police, what would ending racism look like? Would it mean diversity, where the distribution of power remains the same, but exclusion on the basis of race is prohibited. Would it mean a redistribution of power to select groups only? Or would it mean the creation of a just society?

Similar questions arise regarding the police. Their function is to protect the property of people who have property to protect. This includes preventing rebellion by the property-less against the propertied. But how likely is it that the rich would leave their property unprotected? Private police forces that answer directly to the rich and capital have been around for decades. Therefore, is bringing the police to heel a piece of a larger political program that would preclude the creation or expansion of private police? Or would it further the realization of the neoliberal project of a privatized civil police force?

The purpose in asking these questions is to achieve analytical clarity around political objectives. A lot is being said, and animosities are growing, regarding issues that are likely quite different than imagined once they have been properly considered. For instance, there are at least three versions of identity politics being deployed at the moment. The first is implied through the existence of Black Lives Matter, that there is something called ‘black,’ and it has particular social meaning. The second is the operational version embedded in the political marketing of the political parties. And the third is the academic version that emerged from later iterations of postmodern social theory.

A base conceit of capitalism is competition between various social aggregations, e.g. individuals, companies and nations. This logic emerges from a particular conception of existence, Cartesian ontology. This ontology has an embedded dualism that is both categorical and oppositional. It is premised in the static thought-objects that support both identity politics and racism. Through it race and intersectional identity are ‘things’ in a particular conception of what that means. This leaves the logic of racism and anti-racism emerging from the same premises about the structure and nature of the world.

The back-and-forth over identity politics versus Marxist class analysis proceeds from the charge that class analysis doesn’t adequately account for racism. In the terms put forward, that there is something called race that constitutes real difference between people that racists are responding to with racism, this is certainly true. The analytical problem is that if racism and anti-racism emerge from the same ontological premises, anti-racism grants form and logic to racism. For example, when liberal political operatives use race, ‘black’ and ‘white,’ as categorical distinctions, they aren’t asking the question: is racial difference real? They are asserting that it is. In this same way, by challenging racists, rather than the concept of race, anti-racists affirm the premise that racial difference is real.

This isn’t to deny that racism and racists exist. It does and they do. And it and they have made life dangerous and miserable for millions of human beings for a few centuries. But just because racists insist that the difference is real doesn’t make it so. A recent Netflix documentary found an entire subculture of people who believe that the earth is flat. They developed involved geometrical theories to ‘explain’ how round is flat. Likewise, the qualities attributed by racists to racial difference can be numerous and involved. Here the process is important. Racists start with the premise of racial difference and then attributes qualities to the alleged difference. Similarly, identity politics isn’t simply to grant difference for which there is no empirical basis. It is to assert it.

Graph: the ratio of men to women killed by the police is about 20:1, versus the ratio of black to white of 3:1. Outside of the identity view, this difference has little bearing on the politics of police killings. A functioning politics isn’t based on ratios. But within the logic of IDPOL, the greatest injustices in police killings in descending order are 1) gender bias, 2) class bias and 3) racial bias. These are the relative disproportionalities in terms of categories of identity. If the categories are changed, so are the hierarchies. In this sense, identity politics is radically indeterminate. Source:

Identity politics isn’t a single theory. Academic IDPOL emerged from philosophical postmodernism, which itself is premised in Martin Heidegger’s critique of Cartesian ontology. However, along with the near entirety of the American left, in particular left critics of postmodernism, a majority of IDPOL proponents conspicuously haven’t read Heidegger. Intersectionality is the intersection of Cartesian categories. The IDPOL academic move is to declare them historically contingent. But historical contingency renders them indeterminate in the way they are put forward. This point is addressed in more detail below.

In 1991, George H.W. Bush weaponized the use of racial identity when he nominated Clarence Thomas to fill Thurgood Marshall’s position on the Supreme Court. Mr. Marshall, a civil rights activist who had successfully argued Brown v. Board of Education before being elevated to the Supreme Court, defined the liberal turn the Court took in response to the post-WWII re-conception of the U.S. as a liberal state. In nominating Clarence Thomas, a political reactionary who Ronald Reagan had appointed to the EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) to undermine its mission, Mr. Bush was daring liberals to oppose him because Mr. Thomas was black.

In fact, Thurgood Marshall was a lot of things— a civil rights activist, a lawyer who successfully used the law as a means of achieving political ends, and a fighter for social justice. He was also black. Reducing Mr. Marshall’s life to being black, as was implied by Bush’s assertion of equivalence with Clarence Thomas, was in a particular sense as racist as it gets. The subtext of racial difference that united liberals with active racists was the conception of a ‘black consciousness’ that was implied in the alleged unity of Marshall and Thomas. In fact, Mr. Bush was rolling liberals with the appointment. Bush knew that there was no ‘black consciousness,’ else his political goals couldn’t have been achieved by appointing Thomas.

The Reagan administration, in which Mr. Bush had served as Vice President, was rightly decried as reactionary in every sense of the term. Mr. Reagan launched his 1980 campaign in Neshoba County, near Philadelphia, MS where three civil rights workers had been murdered in 1964. Mr. Bush was patriarch of the Bush family, with ties to the Third Reich; he was the former head of the CIA, and he was planning a run for a second term as president when he nominated Clarence Thomas. Mr. Thomas’s background was as a political operative whose ideology made him sympathetic to Mr. Bush’s political program.

Mr. Thomas’s case is doubly relevant because in his role at the EEOC he opposed, and worked to undermine, Affirmative Action, a race-conscious effort to redress employment discrimination against designated groups in Federal hiring. Following Affirmative Action’s re-emergence as a strategy to redress racial discrimination in the early 1960s, the concept was endorsed and broadened by a majority of states. While employer groups and conservative ideologues led the propaganda effort against the program, its targeted nature undermined class unity with poor and working-class whites who perceived it as providing an unfair advantage to others.

In the narrow terms of identity, Thurgood Marshall— a giant of twentieth century jurisprudence and civil rights activism, and Clarence Thomas— a right-wing functionary chosen for his willingness to throw civil rights lawsuits out without review, are equivalent. One black man plus another black man equals two black men. Two black men minus one black man equals one black man. What Mr. Bush accomplished was to replace living politics— the civil rights movement, as its goals had been embedded in a powerful state institution, the Supreme Court, with a counting game whose success was measured in units of identity equivalence.

The goal of broadening the distribution of social, political and economic power to include blacks became the insertion of a representative proportion of blacks into the existing distribution of economic power. In this sense, identity politics is radically reactionary. In terms of a ‘black consciousness,’ black elected representatives and corporate functionaries have legislated and made corporate decisions much like their white counterparts. In terms of progress, now blacks can be the people firing water cannons at protesters, ginning up fake stories to start wars, bailing out the banks, and implementing austerity on the dispossessed and unemployed. Instead if redistributing power, identity was used to redistribute injustice.

Plenty of people are happy with this outcome. Three centuries of exclusion were turned into partial inclusion. That most blacks, like most whites, are still a paycheck away from being homeless in the midst of serial economic calamities is but a slight variation on the way that it has long been. My working-class black neighbors share 98% of their belief system with the working-class white neighbors. The liberals who come looking for victims of oppression don’t find many people who view their lives that way. However, through a lens of economic relations, the neighborhood is a plantation where people are the crop. But that is capitalism, not something else.

According to a 2015 survey by Pew Research, black voters support Democrats by the same disproportion that white voters support Republicans. The count is complicated a bit by different population sizes, etc. But the bottom line is that Democrats can’t win national elections without black voters. And Republicans can’t win without white voters. This would seem to explain the divergence in racial posturing. The symmetry of the disproportionality may seem odd outside of the quantitative models used in electoral marketing. As both fact and metaphor, the models are premised on dividing people into affinity groups, a.k.a. ‘identity.’

In these quantitative models, in order to count members of an identity group, identities must be conceived as timeless and unvarying. Otherwise, what is being counted in indeterminate. When counting members of one race or another, the first premise implied is that race is ‘real’— it has to be to be counted. The second premise is that it is invariant with respect to time and place. Black or white in 2020 was black or white in 1253. The concept of race needn’t have existed in 1253. But if it had, it would be the same as in 2020. Without the premises that race is ‘real,’ timeless and place invariant (universal), identity is indeterminate.

Graph: according to Pew, white voters are +9% for the Republicans and black voters are +69% for the Democrats. Adjusted for percent of the population, blacks are +9% for the Democrats and whites are +8% for the Republicans. This symmetrical disproportionality keeps race at the forefront of political sniping and the parties offering small-ball enticements around the contested middle rather than competing political programs. Given the political distribution by race and the premise that it is fixed, Republicans benefit from stoking white resentment and Democrats benefit from urging ‘tolerance.’ Note: this graph was edited for clarity. Full graph can be found here. Source:

Through structure and intent, the political marketing models aren’t asking if race reflects real differences between the races. They are asserting it. Through the categories of ‘black’ and ‘white,’ marketing schemes, ploys and appeals are launched. Posed as appealing to racial differences, what they do is create them. Qualitative differences in these models are found the same way that the KKK finds them. Begin with the premise of categorical difference and see what turns up. Intuitively, a list of qualitative differences appears to prove that categorical differences are real. However, with the example of the graph of police killings by gender, the categorical premises determine the nature of the results, not vice-versa.

While the academic theories that support IDPOL are often portrayed by right wing critics as ‘cultural Marxism,’ they are premised in the same Cartesian ontology that supports capitalism. Paradoxical in ways apparently not understood by proponents, identity is either essential, meaning Cartesian, or it is indeterminate. To function as identity, race must be rendered determinate in a specific way. Otherwise, members may have a sense of an object, say race, without knowing what it is that they have a sense of. In fact, IDPOL academics made this very theoretical move. Race might not be a thing, but whiteness and blackness are things.

Through the abandonment of grand theories of how the world works, ‘isms’ applied to political theories, and the truth generating capacity of science, postmodernism served to de-politicize social theory, as if doing so had bearing on the distribution and use of power outside of the academy. Identity through this lens is a personal or group possession without identifying what ‘it,’ the basis of identity, is. Quite remarkably, the individuation that IDPOL takes from postmodernism follows quite closely the view from capitalism. In capitalist theory, materialist theories of human needs are totalitarian, while psychic wants are the path to self-realization.

The move by academic proponents of IDPOL to get around Cartesian categories of identity is to posit them as sensibilities such as whiteness and blackness, rather than through the categorical differentiator of race. But if these aren’t premised in race, to whom do they apply? As sensibilities, they apply to people who self-identify as white or black. What is the basis of this self-identification? 1) Tautological— people self-identify as who they self-identify as, or 2) they self-identify by race. What then is race? Race is a sensibility. Needless to say, the activists with Black Lives Matters aren’t asserting that the police are shooting people based on their racial self-identification.

The same ontological challenges apply to the concepts of white supremacy and racial capital. White supremacy is a sensibility that is either universally held (by white people), making it categorical, or it is indeterminate. As a conscious or subconscious view from whiteness, implied is a white consciousness, in opposition to a not-white consciousness. The issue of determinacy— to whom does white supremacy apply, and to whom does it not apply, is answered with race. It applies to white people. Established now is that there are white people and that whiteness is an essential quality in the sense of being a categorical differentiator based on race. At this point it has been established that race is a real differentiator of human beings into the categories of ‘white’ and ‘not-white.’ The KKK most certainly agrees.

Racial capital is the argument that capitalism requires the categorical opposition of race to motivate the relationship between exploiter and exploited. Actually, logically, any categorical difference would do. Were it not for history, gender, weight, height, hair color, preference in foot care ointments, favorite Britney Spears song, etc. could serve the purpose. The relationship of oppositional reasoning to capitalism is a function of Cartesian dualism. The peculiar nature of the Cartesian individual, locked away ‘inside’ of the life of the mind, makes all interactions with the world oppositional in a structural sense. The profit motive and a starting power differential explain exploitation quite effectively.

These are all interesting ideas that, when framed in history, have particular logic and meaning, but when posed as categorical truths, are made into what they are intended to critique. I have no interest in either shutting other people up or in winning an argument with what I written here. Unless we collectively figure out the politics pretty quickly we— people and other livings things, are toast. Unless political and economic power are redistributed widely, reforms like defunding the police will be turned into something worse than currently exists.

Of course racism is a curse upon the land. The question is what to do about it? The subtext of all of the back-and-forth over IDPOL is that the political operatives for the establishment parties that are promoting it are cynical, lying, opportunistic, neoliberal sacks of shit who see it as a con, a scam, a dodge and an angle. PMC liberals are using it for emotional healing, as a cathartic release from the deep-suck of their lives and the existential misery of what they spend their time not doing. Analytical criticism serves a purpose by separating dubious motives from important issues. If the ideas are questionable as posed and they have been given quarter in the Bank of America boardroom and the executive suites at ExxonMobil, then maybe they aren’t that threatening to the interests that matter.


Rob Urie is an artist and political economist. His book Zen Economics is published by CounterPunch Books.