February 11, 2016
Identity Politics: A Zero-Sum Game

The following articles appears courtesy of the New Labor Forum (November 6, 2010).

The current hard times have been harder on some people than on others, harder on the poor—obviously—than on the rich; but harder also on blacks and Hispanics than on whites. As of this writing, the unemployment rate for blacks is at 15.6 percent, and for Hispanics it’s at 12.7 percent. For white people, it’s 9.3 percent.

Of course, the vast majority of the unemployed are white. But it’s the disparity in rates, not in absolute numbers, that tends to get foregrounded, since that disparity functions not only as a measure of suffering but also, in William A. Garity’s concise summary, as “an index of discrimination in our society.”

And it’s the ongoing fact of discrimination that motivates our ongoing interest in identity politics. As long as inequality is apportioned by identity, we will be concerned with identity.

This is obviously both inevitable and appropriate. But it is also—and almost as obviously—irrelevant to a left politics, or even to the goal of reducing unemployment, as we can see just by imagining what it would be like if we finally did manage to get rid of discrimination. Suppose, for example, that unemployment for whites and for Asian-Americans were to rise to 10 percent while for blacks and Hispanics it fell to 10 percent. Or suppose that unemployment for everyone went to 15 percent. In both cases, we would have eliminated the racial disparity in unemployment rates, but in neither case would we have eliminated any unemployment. And we don’t even need hypotheticals to make the point. About three quarters of the job losers in the current recession have been men, which means that the numbers of men and women in the workforce are now roughly equal. So, from the standpoint of gender equity, the recession has actually been a good thing. It’s as if, unable to create more jobs for women, we’d hit upon the strategy of eliminating lots of the jobs for men—another victory for feminism and for anti-discrimination since, from the standpoint of anti-discrimination, the question of how many people are unemployed is completely irrelevant. What matters is only that, however many there are, their unemployment is properly proportioned.

This is, in part, a logical point: there’s no contradiction between inequality of class and equality of race and gender. It is also, however, a political point. The influential Think Progress blogger, Matt Yglesias, has recently written that, although “straight white intellectuals” might tend to think of the increasing economic inequality of the last thirty years “as a period of relentless defeat for left-wing politics,” we ought to remember that the same period has also seen “enormous advances in the practical opportunities available to women, a major decline in the level of racism paired with a major increase in the level of actual racial and ethnic diversity,” and “wildly more public and legal acceptance of gays and lesbians.”

“These aren’t just incidental add-ons to a program that’s ‘really’ about comparing income-percentile ratios,” he goes on to say, because “it all fundamentally goes back to the same core belief in human equality.”

But it doesn’t. In fact, the belief in human equality that has cheered on anti-racism and anti-sexism has not only been compatible with—it’s been supported by—a belief in human inequality that has been happy to accept the fact that 10 percent of the U.S. population now earns just under 50 percent of total U.S. income. This is what it means for the most eminent of the living Chicago economists (Gary Becker, whose first book was The Economics of Discrimination) to praise globalization and “the increasing market orientation of different economies” by noting that, although they may “raise rather than lower income inequality,” they also make that inequality “more dependent on differences in human and other capital, and less directly on skin color, gender, religion, caste, and other roots of discrimination.”

Why? Because discrimination is costly to the employer: you have to pay not just for the labor but also for the laborer’s skin color or gender which, in a truly competitive market, you can’t afford to do. Hence employers who discriminate—like employers forced by unions to pay expensive benefits and higher wages—are doomed. Indeed, from this standpoint, the problem with discriminatory hiring practices is the same as the problem with unions: they both make labor costs higher, and a company less competitive.

Thus the commitment to competitive markets intensifies economic inequality, but diminishes the inequality produced by racial and gender discrimination. Or—to put it the other way around—if markets are good for producing an ethic of anti-discrimination, antidiscrimination is good for producing success in markets. So does this mean that Chicago economists believe in human equality? Well, when it comes to the inequalities produced by discrimination, they do—discrimination is bad for business. But when it comes to the inequalities produced by the market itself—inequalities of wealth and income—they don’t. And why should they? The belief that people shouldn’t be discriminated against in no way entails the belief that they shouldn’t be exploited. That’s why even very straight, very white, very old, and very conservative intellectuals can be just as happy about, say, gay marriage as Matt Yglesias is. Indeed, the only kind of unions Gary Becker approves of are the ones he hopes to see created by “a private contract,” allowing consenting adults of any sex to marry whomever they choose, and thus eliminating what he regards as the arbitrary and unjust exclusion of gays from all the rights available to straights.

This doesn’t mean that gay marriage isn’t a good thing, and it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be vigilant in fighting all kinds of discrimination. It just means that fighting discrimination has nothing to do with fighting economic inequality, and that the commitment to identity politics has been more an expression of our enthusiasm for the free market than a form of resistance to it. You can, for example, be a feminist committed to equal pay for men and women and also be committed to equality between management and labor but, as the example of everyone who’s ever campaigned against the glass ceiling shows, you don’t have to be and aren’t likely to be. After all, it’s one thing to worry about the fact that the average CEO now makes in one day what the average worker makes in one year; it’s a completely different thing to worry about the fact that there aren’t enough women CEOs. And what the identity in identity politics requires is only that we worry about the second.

So, for example, while the overwhelming fact about students at elite colleges and universities today is how wealthy they are—three quarters of them, as Richard Kahlenberg has been admirably relentless in reminding us, “come from the richest socioeconomic quarter of the population, and just 3 percent from the bottom quarter, a roughly 25:1 ratio”—what we worry about is not their wealth but their color. The advantages of wealth are something neither the proponents of affirmative action nor most of those “at the forefront” of what Richard Kim has called “the affirmative action backlash” want to fight about. Indeed, when Kim himself wonders where the opposition to affirmative action—what he calls the “seething, misplaced, amnesiac resentment, so often masquerading as class-consciousness (see Walter Benn Michaels)”—comes from, he can only imagine the commitment to economic equality as a cover-up for the real motive: racism, in the form of white people’s supposed fear of “the unnerving, inevitable end of the white republic.”

But you don’t need to be a racist to notice that his paean to the campus as a “space” for “the yellow . . . the brown, the red and the black” leaves out the poor, just as the universities themselves have done.

And, for that matter, you don’t need to be a racist to notice that most of the anti-affirmative action arguments have nothing to do with class either—it’s reverse racism that they carry on about. In fact, Americans today are never happier than when we’re calling each other racists—just think of Glenn Beck complaining about President Obama’s “deep-seated hatred for white people.” At least when we worry about anti-black racism, we have the advantage that our worries are rooted in reality. But white people (and Asians and Jews) just look (and are) delusional when they cast themselves as victims of prejudice in contemporary America. It may, for example, be true that over 60 percent of the people in the bottom quintile of American wage-earners are white. But it is not true that they are the victims of racism. They are the victims of capitalism.

Furthermore, so are most of the African-Americans and Hispanics who fill out the rest of that quintile. Our focus on identity obscures the fact that while equality between the races would enable some blacks and Hispanics to escape the bottom (their places taken by newly recruited whites and Asians), equality between classes would enable all of them to escape it—there wouldn’t be any bottom. Which is a more progressive goal—a world in which only 13 percent of black people (instead of 24 percent) live below the poverty line or a world in which none of them do? And if that sounds too utopian, it’s worth pointing out that even a very little and entirely race-blind progress in alleviating American poverty would nevertheless disproportionately benefit minorities, precisely because minorities are disproportionately poor. So not only is identity politics a bad idea, it’s a bad idea for the very identities it’s supposed to protect.

Identity politics is a bad idea for the very identities it’s supposed to protect.

Or at least it’s a bad idea for some of them, for poor blacks and poor Hispanics. For although real progress in the direction of greater economic equality would be more beneficial to poor blacks and Hispanics than would complete economic parity with white people, the goal of economic parity with whites works a lot better for black and Hispanic elites. Indeed it works pretty well for white elites too: which would you rather do—welcome some women and minorities to your board of directors, or not have a board of directors at all? Of course we haven’t yet achieved an America in which women and minorities are proportionately represented on the boards of the Fortune 500. But, as the still-burgeoning diversity industry suggests, the effort is one that rich people themselves have been and should be happy to embrace since it doesn’t reduce economic inequality—it endorses it.

You know you’re in a world that loves neoliberalism when the fact that some people of color are rich and powerful is regarded as a victory for all the people of color who aren’t.

It would thus be a mistake to understand this debate as a choice between a politics of identity and a politics of class—the politics of identity already is a politics of class. It has no quarrel with economic inequality and it brilliantly represents the interests of those who benefit from that inequality, providing them with a model of social justice in which their success is supposed to count as good news not just for them, but for all the people who supposedly share their identity. You definitely know you’re in a world that loves neoliberalism when the fact that some people of color are rich and powerful is regarded as a victory for all the people of color who aren’t (and when this, indeed, is regarded as a victory for justice itself).

But why should the fact that some people are rich count as good news for the poor? Racism is wrong, sexism and heterosexism are wrong; discrimination of any kind is wrong, and it’s a good thing to oppose it. But it isn’t discrimination that has produced the growing economic inequality in the U.S., and identity politics today—with its irreducibly proportional vision of social justice, its defining goal of equality between identities—does more to legitimate that inequality than to oppose it.

1. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Employment Status of the Civilian Population by Race, Sex, and Age (Washington, D.C., December 2009).
2. Quoted in Clea Benson, “Race Gap: Still Hard at Work,” Congressional Quarterly, July 26, 2009, available www.cqpolitics.com/wmspage.cfm?docID=weeklyreport-000003177528.
3. Matt Yglesias, “Ideology from the Bottom Up,” Think Progress, December 1, 2009, available yglesias.thinkprogress.org/archives/2009/12/ideology-from-the-bottom-up.
4. Gary Becker, “Competitive Markets and Discrimination against Minorities,” Becker-Posner Blog, September 7, 2008, available uchicagolaw.typepad.com/beckerposner.
5. Gary Becker, “Should Gay Marriages Be Allowed?” Becker-Posner Blog, August 10, 2008, available at http://chronicle.com/article/Reactions-Is-It-Time-for/62615.
6. Richard D. Kahlenberg, http://chronicle.com/article/reactions-is-it-time-for/62615.
7. Richard Kim, “Asian-Americans for Affirmative Action,” Nation, January 9, 2007, available at www.thenation.com/blogs/notion/155512. I cite Richard Kim here because he was originally supposed to take part in this discussion but, of course, the enthusiasm for rich kids of color is not his alone.
About the Author

Walter Benn Michaels recently published The Beauty of a Social Problem (Chicago, 2016). His other books include The Gold Standard and the Logic of Naturalism: American Literature at the Turn of the Century; Our America: Nativism, Modernism, and Pluralism; The Shape of the Signifier: 1967 to the End of History; and The Trouble with Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality. Recent articles—some on literature, some on photography, and some on politics—have appeared in such journals as PMLA, New Labor Forum, and Le Monde diplomatique.


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