The Need for Identity Politics: The Black Lives Matter Movement

Identity politics is the most important phenomenon of our times: it demands us to focus on our personal beliefs and values and requires us to discourse with others. Although extreme forms of identity politics can be associated with violence and hatred, this past year, in the summer of 2020, the world witnessed the power of identity politics and its fruitfulness in conveying the wishes of groups of individuals. Famous Ethiopian American writer, Maaza Megiste, put it succinctly, “We must not be anything other than what we are.” The tragic death of George Floyd unleashed decades of built-up emotions while simultaneously opening the eyes of millions across North America and the world. Its aftermath forces political entities in America and worldwide to incorporate the minority groups of the political realm in their platforms. The protests and riots of the Black Lives Matter movement were representations of the power of protest and civil disobedience. As Michel Foucault argues, “The real political task … is to criticize the workings of institutions that appear to be both neutral and independent, to criticize and attack them in such a manner that… one can fight against them.” We can witness the crucial role identity plays in our contemporary political life through the Black Lives Matter movement. Our understanding of identity politics as a political instrument and the issues associated with identity politics will help us interpret this critical facet of politics.

Identity politics presents itself in many different shapes and forms. From violent separatist movements to peaceful civil disobedient movements, identity politics can differ between individuals; however, Dr. Howard Wiarda construes it as “Political attitudes or positions that focus on the concerns of sub-groups in the society.” (Wiarda, H. J. 2014) In other words, the political activism associated with identity politics is based around categories that emanate from the world’s self-identified societal groups. (Wiarda, H. J. 2014) Humans have been forming political activist groups based on similar paradigms since the beginning of time, yet the term “identity politics” has only been used in literature relatively recently. In the last two decades, economists, sociologists, and political scientists have focused on the study of identity politics. Where the general study of politics may review the beliefs and values of major political parties, identity politics tends to target the different values of groups.

Politicians’ maneuvering of identity politics has been at the focus of many election campaigns in the US as candidates attempt to persuade critical swing voters. Traditionally, the Republican party must present its platform to acquire the vote of the middle-class, businesspeople, religious groups and wealthy. However, the Democratic party in recent years has garnered the vote of a much more diverse set of identity groups such as immigrants, refugees, single women, the LGBTQ, and other ethnic minorities, most notably the African American vote, which consisted of almost 30 million people last election.1 As we shift our focus to the present day, there is almost an infinite number of active identity groups, including several extremist groups. However, recently, the impact made by the Black Lives Matter movement has aided the African American identity both politically and socially.

In modern times, it can be almost impossible for certain groups to voice their opinions without a pre-existing established platform. The Black Lives Matter movement has enabled many black minority groups, specifically the women and LGBTQ groups, to voice their concerns and needs to a larger audience. In turn, this form of mobilization and protesting has allowed these groups to use identity politics as a political instrument to push forward an acceptable agenda. The Black Lives Matter movement has served all corners of the Black community, but it has continuously expressed its support and encouragement for the Black women of society. In her book, Womanist ethical rhetoric: A call for liberation and social justice in Turbulent Times, Dr. Madlock Gatison illustrates the black woman’s struggle to gain a political platform and the discrimination that many women in the black community have faced since the 1960s Civil Rights Movement. Dr. Gatison analyzes Black Lives Matter’s “Anti-respectability politics” and how the group has used this approach as a tactic to garner attention in

1 It is important to note that the idea of “identity politics” was viewed as a liberal or progressive concept that frequently allowed marginalized groups to organize, whereas traditional and socially republican views dominated the conservative landscape in the early 90s. (Wiarda, H. J. 2014) In addition to the “traditional forms of protest” (Gatison, M & Glenn, C, 2021). Allissa Richardson, a professor at the University of Southern California, asserts that the purpose of anti-respectability politics was “to be a living contradiction to the crude stereotypes of black women” (Gatison, M & Glenn, C, 2021). In this way, the Black Lives Matter movement invites all women to express themselves freely as their true selves. Dr. Gatison affirms,

“Women are using their voices and their bodies to navigate the public sphere. Embodied discourse invites womanist activists to center their own experiences and to allow those representations of self to shape their activism.”

Since Jim Crow laws, African American women have been stereotyped and discriminated against politically and socially. The Black Lives Matter movement has chosen explicitly to prey on the insecurities of racists and bigots by using the very same perpetuated misrepresentations against them. By using their culture and personalities, Black women attest to the world that there are no set personalities to represent Black females. Similarly, Dr. Harris evaluates the historical importance of Black women in politics to support the growing movement of Black Lives Matter and their involvement with women’s rights. In her book, Black Feminist Politics from Kennedy to Trump, Dr. Duchess Harris advocates the importance of foundational support for women and how critical Black Lives Matter is to this work.

“The fundamental assumption and belief undergirding Black Lives Matter, [is] that grassroots action can have a significant impact and that women — Black women, specifically — are central to that action.” (Harris D, 2019)

Dr. Harris admires the leadership and charisma the women of Black Lives Matter have demonstrated throughout their campaigns. She states,

“[Their work] is driving and shaping the very conversation, identifying, and cementing action priorities, and determining the scope and nature of action and desired outcomes.” (Harris D, 2019)

As a result of more Black women entering positions of advocacy and politics, more than twice the number of women running for congress than in previous years, while the percentage of Black women running for office is also on the rise. (Kurtzleben D, 2018) (Toure M, 2018) Role models in places of high authority aid young aspiring women in realizing the possibilities of hard work and dedication. They no longer live in an era where women are limited and pressured into stereotypical lifestyles. Finally, Dr. Harris’ most vital remark is her evaluation of Black women’s attitudes towards change,

“It [Black women] is not asking for permission, but rather, setting the parameters for engagement and inclusion. The essential premise of this approach to Black feminism?… Every person is needed, and every person has the agency and resources to be involved in feminist responses to current conditions”.

Black females realize the strength and power they possess within themselves, and a cultural shift is occurring in our time as the young female population is not standing idle. Thanks to the Black Lives Matter movement, young women are now getting the recognition and opportunities they deserve through grant funding, networking opportunities and advocacy. As the recognition and awareness for the Black Lives Matter movement grow, so do the issues of countless black communities.

Although the head facilitators of the BLM movement characterize themselves as an extension of their predecessors’ Black rights movements, they assert the need for inclusivity for a wide range of intrapersonal identities. In their journal, #BlackLivesMatter: Innovative Black Resistance, Dr. Jozie Nummi dives into the re-inventive qualities of the modern-day BLM movement,

“They aim to avoid the harmful practices that excluded many in past movements for liberation. They assert that past movements have too often centered on “black heterosexual, cisgender men” and marginalized women, queer, and transgender people.” (Nummi J., 2019)

The previous 1960s civil rights movements were organized and led by African American churches who had a heavy influence in maintaining a homophobic and transphobic mentality. (Nummi J., 2019) Only until recently, Black LGBTQ adults have been misrepresented. Homophobia within the Black community has caused Black queer individuals to experience oppression from cisgender heterosexual Black individuals whose gender and sexual identities are normalized within the Black community. (Matthew S & Noor M, 2013) (Nummi J., 2019) 79% of Black LGBTQ adults experience verbal abuse, and another 60% have reported being physically threatened due to their sexuality or gender. 56% of Black LGBTQ adults live in a low-income household, and 36% report raising children. (Kyu Choi, 2021) These overlooked statistics are alarming, but with the resurgence of LGBTQ and Black rights movements, politicians and industry professionals are compelled to solve and address these growing issues. Dr. Nummi continues to state the potential impact the movement can have on the growing generation of Black LGBTQ members,

“The Black Lives Matter’s localized and adaptive network of chapters provides significant space for the development of new African American leaders of diverse gender and class backgrounds” (Nummi J., 2019)

This time around, the Black Lives Matter Movement prioritized their LGBTQ members. Major policing reforms, a complete review of the justice system and federal and state governments to revise healthcare and housing legislature are demanded by the Black Lives Matter movement. Reform over healthcare will undoubtedly affect the LGBTQ population suffering from AIDS and other health crises. These political reforms were yielded through the powerful protests and riots held by identity groups who felt threatened by specific actions taken by government officials. The people’s willingness to spread awareness and advocacy has enabled society to reach beyond the physical nature of “identity politics.” People of all races, ethnicities, sexualities, genders, and classes took the streets in the summer of 2020 with the common goal of exposing corruption and inequalities in our society. Although identity politics requires us to divide ourselves based on common identities, it unites us through compassion and courage for one another.

In all its beauty, the Black Lives Matter Movement, more broadly identity politics, has generated many socio-political issues. When reviewing its many breakthroughs, it is easy to justify identity politics. However, when one begins to analyze its transgressions, it becomes difficult to gauge the net benefit it brings to social groups. In his article, “Identity politics may divide us. but ultimately, we can’t unite without it”, Carlos Lozada argues both sides of identity politics by reviewing Francis Fukuyama’s book, “Identity,” which considers Francis Fukuyama’s fear about identity Politics. Dr. Fukuyama argues,

“It is easier to argue over cultural issues within the confines of elite institutions than it is to appropriate money or convince skeptical legislators to change policies” (Fukuyama F, 2018) (Lozada C, 2018).

Although Dr. Fukuyama commends contemporary groups like the Black Lives Matter Movement for “changing culture and behavior in a way that will have real benefits for the people involved,” he wishes to see the groups focus on “large-scale socio-economic problems” (Fukuyama F, 2018), that will have a positive effect for the generations after us. Fukuyama also believes that the recent “left-winged politics has stimulated [pre-existing] white-nationalist identity politics.” (Lozada C, 2018) In recent years, identity groups such as the Klu Klux Klan and the Black Lives Matter movement have competed against each other across the US. It is not uncommon for one group to hold a rally and another to host “counter-protests” to rectify any advocacy attempts. As a result, Fukuyama sees these rising hostilities as too detrimental and compromising for the movement to be effective on a large scale.

Fukuyama claims, “The right has adopted the language and framing of identity from the left: the idea that my particular group is being victimized.” (Fukuyama F, 2018) (Lozada C, 2018). Fukuyama’s view is not without evidence. Examples like Charlottesville’s 2017 incident, which took the life of a Black Lives Matter protestor and injured dozen more. Many Black rights movements had petitioned to remove confederate statues around the US, such as the Robert E Lee Statue in Virginia. In response to the city’s plan to remove the statue, many white-nationalist groups mobilized and planned a series of protests, including open-carry marches where protestors had both handguns and long guns. As a result, the University of Virginia’s Black rights and social groups planned to surround the statute and local area together. The rest, of course, is known. Following a few days of protests, a full-speed vehicle drove right into the middle of protestors, killing a young woman. (Keneally, 2018) Violent protests and the ongoing rhetoric of progressive liberalism versus social conservatism have grown very tiring to many, but they also fear the potential outcomes of identity politics. Many take the side of Fukuyama, who allege that identity politics, as it is presented in our present age, only divides already polarized nations more. Carlos Lozada offers a different view on Fukuyama’s argument, he writes,

“If the logic of identity politics is to divide us into smaller and smaller slivers, that sequence ends, inexorably, with the identity of one. And the only way to protect and uphold the individual — each individual — is through broad-based rights and principles.” (Lozada C, 2018)

He argues that we should move towards solidarity rather than identity politics, but he offers a relevant answer.

“We must move toward a politics of solidarity… But for that solidarity to endure, it must grapple with the politics of identity. The margins are never marginal to those who inhabit them. Identity politics, for all its faults, is not opposed to an encompassing national vision. It is a step toward its fulfillment.” (Lozada C, 2018)

For society to move past its differences, it must first consider the intersectionality and diversity between two groups. Mr. Lozada argues the need to celebrate one’s identity through solidarity and consideration for a group’s struggle. Lozada is not ignoring the apparent intuitional racism and systemic discrimination the group has faced, but he offers a diplomatic solution that entails justice for victims and, more importantly, progress for society. While our current form of identity politics may focus on cultural change and everyday life, Lozada argues that the slow and steady progression of identity politics will help lead the political sphere to an area of solidarity.

Given the above analysis, it is evident that the exclusion of identity politics from contemporary political rhetoric would be more damaging than beneficial to the millions of political minorities in the United States. The involvement of identity politics within the Black Lives Matter movement allows minorities across the United States to access the proper channels necessary for their voices to be heard; The advocacy and social awareness offered by the Black Lives Matter association is crucial in providing a platform for the individuals associated with the movement. Summer 2020 laid the foundation for the future generation of young advocates to establish equitable and inclusive policies. Consequently, officials and politicians must realize that with unprecedented times comes unprecedented changes. The essentiality of identity politics has never been greater; however, it is essential to remember Mr. Lozada’s words: Identity politics will only serve us if we transition towards solidarity. Regardless of its effects, identity politics will remain a necessary component of contemporary political discourse. That is until the underrepresented groups at the margins of our communities are equalized with our society. The responsibility falls on us to take the initiative in working towards a place where this is possible.

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Kurtzleben, D. (2018, February 20). More than twice as many women are running for Congress in 2018 compared with 2016. NPR. Retrieved November 16, 2021, from https://www.npr.org/2018/02/20/585542531/more-than-twice-as-many-women-are-running-for-congress-in-2018-compared-to-2016.

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Bachelor + Masters Student at UBC

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