Oy vey: The excesses of identity politics

J. Martin Rochester, Curators’ Distinguished Teaching Professor of Political Science Emeritus at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, is the author of 10 books on international and American politics.

J. Martin Rochester, Curators’ Distinguished Teaching Professor of Political Science Emeritus at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, is the author of 10 books on international and American politics.

Marty Rochester

I enjoy stories about Jewish celebrities in the Jewish Light. However, in a recent issue, the author of a “Jewish Guide to the 2021 Golden Globes” irritated me when he wrote about the film “Mank,” “(which) is about a ‘real’ Jew. … There are eight important, real-life Jewish characters in the film, and no Jewish actors or actresses play them. (Oy, you say? I agree.)”

I say, “Oy vey. Enough already with identity politics.” Diversity is wonderful. It enriches our lives. The problem is it has become the new god. It trumps all other values.

One of the main distinctions between garden-variety liberals and left-wing extremists has been the extent to which one fully embraces identity politics; that is, treats people not as individual human beings but rather as group members, thus inviting racial, gender and other such stereotypes.

Sadly, increasingly, identity politics has become a core element of liberalism generally.

Professor Mark Lilla of Columbia University, a self-described liberal, in a Nov. 18, 2016, New York Times op-ed, lamented that “American liberalism has slipped into a kind of moral panic about racial, gender, and sexual identity that has distorted liberalism’s message and prevented it from becoming a unifying force capable of governing.”

Things have only gotten worse over the past four years.

On the one hand, it is understandable why we should be concerned about group discrimination, given the clear racism and sexism that has marred American history over centuries. Still, liberals refuse to concede the substantial progress that has been made lately that challenges the progressive narrative that American society is suffused with misogyny and racism.

As one commentator (Rav Arora, “A Peculiar Kind of Racist Patriarchy,” Quillette, Dec. 22, 2020) notes: “Newly released statistics from the U.S. Department of Labor … undermine this narrative. Asian women have now surpassed white men in weekly earnings. … Furthermore, the income gap between both Black and Latino men and Asian women is wider than it has ever been. … Copious research finds that ethnic minorities and women frequently eclipse their white and male counterparts, even when these identities intersect. Several ethnic minority groups consistently outperform whites in a variety of categories – higher test scores, lower incarceration rates and longer life expectancies.”

Arora adds: “According to the latest data from the U.S. Census Bureau … the median household incomes of Syrian Americans ($74,047), Korean Americans ($76,674), Indonesian Americans ($93,501), Taiwanese Americans ($102,405) and Filipino Americans ($100,273) are all significantly higher than whites ($69,823). The report also finds substantial economic gains among minority groups.”

Another author writes: “For every 100 women enrolled in U.S. colleges at any level, there were 75 men enrolled. … For every 100 women who were homeless, there were 232 men. … For every 100 females in state or federal prisons, there were 1,314 men.” (George LaNoue, “Title IX for Men,” Feb. 23)

Granted, a significant degree of racism and sexism still exists. However, we risk exacerbating discrimination, albeit in reversed form, when we, first, constantly obsess today over “white privilege,” “toxic masculinity” and other group characteristics that oversimplify reality and amount to profiling and, secondly, engage in mindless categorical bean counting in attributing “disparate outcomes” (in school suspensions, etc.) to injustice rather than complex contextual factors.

As Lilla suggests, aside from undermining traditional liberal principles of individual freedom, identity politics is also highly divisive of the body politic.

In an earlier op-ed, I noted how I once participated in a diversity workshop at the University of Missouri-St. Louis in which I said, “I try as much as possible to be colorblind,” whereupon I was called a “racist.” I was stunned by the reaction to my comment, but I should not have been. After all, this is what identity politics has become, as all whites are now profiled as racists, thanks to liberal acceptance of Ibram Kendi’s “How to Be An Anti-Racist,” Robin DiAngelo’s “White Fragility,” and other critical race theorists whose writings are now assigned readings in universities and corporate diversity sensitivity training programs across America.

In the aforementioned op-ed, I went on to insist that “until we accept that colorblindness is an empirical possibility and a normative imperative, the race conversation is going nowhere.”

John Staddon, distinguished professor emeritus of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University, likewise states, “If colorblindness, the MLK ideal, is itself racist, we are in an Alice in Wonderland world, and racial strife is without end.” (Wall Street Journal, Feb. 20).

At the very least, identity politics advocates should acknowledge the special preferences now often given to minorities in the name of promoting diversity. In Campus Diversity and Student Discontent, Althea Nagai, a research fellow at the Center for Equal Opportunity, documents how “many colleges and universities pass over white and Asian American applicants with better academic preparation, favoring Blacks and (to a lesser extent) Hispanics.” In the past, college admission officers were concerned about “too many Jews.” Today it is “too many Asians.” Such group quotas are never OK, are they?

Universities have always been vulnerable to criticism that their admissions are not entirely merit-based, with legacies and donors getting favorable treatment. Today, identity politics has rendered the very concept of merit a four-letter word.

There is no better example of how deeply identity politics has taken hold in America than the compulsive way in which President Joe Biden has committed himself to diversity-based bias in his Cabinet selection.

Following his election, he stated, “I’m going to keep my commitment that the administration … is going to look like the country” (Kathryn Tenpas, Brookings, Jan. 13). If you were going to undergo a heart operation or board a jet plane, would you want a surgical team or cockpit crew that was rainbowlike, that “looked like America” or, instead, would you want the very best – all Black or all white, all male or all female, or whatever? The answer should be obvious, but apparently not to Joe.

Consumed by identity politics, Biden has picked the most diverse Cabinet in history, with no regard necessarily for who would be the most able. If we look at the top 15 appointments to the Cabinet, Biden tied with Barack Obama in terms of nonwhite nominees (40% of the total), exceeded only slightly by Bill Clinton. In terms of gender, Biden has nominated more women than any predecessor (a third).

In addition to the 15 top-level Cabinet posts, Biden has more than 1,000 other administrative positions to fill, which no doubt will also be guided at least as much, if not more so, by political correctness rather than strict review of credentials and ability.

The bottom line is all lives matter, all matter equally and all should be treated as individuals, not as rival political constituencies with competing claims to victimhood. The more we stray from this belief, the more we encourage bigotry and tribalism.