The code words of "identity politics" are meant to indicate someone who is of a minority status - woman, person of color, homosexual, and sometimes not Christian. It means that the person or group places the interest of "their" group above the "common" good. It means that the person or group has an "agenda" that does a disservice to, or detracts from, what is "right" or "good."
What is interesting about the charges of "identity politics" are they almost always arise from the same people - namely white conservatives. It is parroted by others in the ordinary conversations and discussions. Once again, those speakers are almost invariable white.
Interestingly, we can follow this same generation of conceptual flow with such code phrases as "political correctness" and "reverse discrimination." It starts with a trumpeting and repetition on the far conservative right, is played repeatedly within the mainstream media, enters into "common" conversation, and comes almost invariably out of "white" mouths.
This pattern should raise eyebrows and questions, but it rarely does. First, if "identity politics" is confined to nondominant groups, the "common" good/interest/gain must be that of the dominant group. Second, if there is a pattern of commonality of these charges and concerns that are coming from the dominant group, would not their perspective also represent "identity politics?"
What we have watched and experienced over the last 40 years is a deliberate and repetitive strategy to gain and hold political power. It is a strategy that employs stimulating the fears of whites that they will be usurped, their privileges stripped away, they will be "overrun" by "others" who are out to "get" them. The strategy has been expanded to cover homosexuals, humanists, Muslims and women. It is a strategy that has been deliberately employed, honed, and largely successful. It has allowed a relatively small portion of the population to successfully frame almost every issue, and present an impression of a constant threat of the "divided" America ready to break out in a "Civil War" - and that terminology is also generated from the same sources to stimulate the messages being sent.
This particular strategy was popularized during the Nixon Administration and it was known as "The Southern Strategy." (1) This "strategy" was aimed at consolidating the whites in the south who had been Democrats, but were (supposedly) angered by the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts.(1, 2) It was an ongoing attempt to motivate white voters to switch to and vote with the Republican Party. Over the years, the appeal expanded to include an activist Christian right with the party hammering on the issues of abortion and homosexuality. Alliances made to shape the power block of the Republican Party, and expanded by Ronald Reagan and those who followed him.
There are those who would argue that there was no such thing as the "Southern Strategy." However, in 2005 then Republican National Committee Chair Ken Mehlman made a statement to the NAACP stating that the Southern Strategy was wrong (3):
"By the '70s and into the '80s and '90s, the Democratic Party solidified its gains in the African American community, and we Republicans did not effectively reach out," Mehlman says in his prepared text. "Some Republicans gave up on winning the African American vote, looking the other way or trying to benefit politically from racial polarization. I am here today as the Republican chairman to tell you we were wrong."
One of the problems with the apology issued by Mehlman was that the Republican Party was not "exploiting racial tensions," but stimulating them. The mechanisms of the strategy were to increase a sense of threat from non-whites, and to create a sense of disenfranchisement among whites. This mechanism underlies the various formations of claims of "identity politics," "political correctness," and "reverse discrimination" among others.
However, there is much more going on here than even these rather blatant calls to white racial unification. Much more subtle, but no less racial, are calls to other "interests" that are predominantly shared by whites, but seem to be a broader appeal. These are appeals to class interests, community interests, and "national identity" interests.
Class interests are appeals such as: "They're taking our jobs," "They are a burden" (on our schools, our hospitals, and our social welfare system).
Community interests: "They are running the good people out"; "They are taking over".
National identity: "Pretty soon we'll all have to speak Spanish ;" "They are a threat to our community" (i.e. English Only movement); "Pretty soon whites will be a racial minority in the United States... "
National Security: "They are a threat to our national security" (crooks and criminals).
What is largely left out of the understanding of race formation and enforcement in the United States is that it is not just "prejudice in some people's heads." There is indeed "prejudice," but there is a larger bias of cultural ideology. Further the social structuring over the history of the United States has placed (and continues to place) different groups in different worlds. Some might refer to this as institutional discrimination; however, it is also structural inequality.
Racial qualifications were placed on citizenship in the United States for much of the history of the country. Both Native Americans and Black slaves were denied birthright citizenship in the United States . While that barrier was purportedly removed at the end of the Civil War for Black slaves, it was not removed for Native Americans until the passage of the Native American Citizenship Act of 1924.
Citizenship via naturalization had various racial limitations at a national level until 1965 (Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965). The first naturalization law in 1790 (Naturalization Act of 1790) restricted naturalization to "any alien, being a free white person, who shall have resided within the limits and under the jurisdiction of the United States for the term of two years." The issue of citizenship has always been an issue because of the rights and privileges of citizenship. Earlier in our history being excluded from citizenship limited one's ability to work, to own property, to access public services such as access to water and education, to testify against a citizen who had harmed you, and protections under the law. These are above and beyond whether one can vote.
While citizenship had racial restrictions, it was hardly the only structural process in place. Separate educational facilities were standard for a very long time (and de facto are becoming so again), as were radical inequities in the funding of education. Racial restrictions were in place for higher education, and entering a variety of trades and occupations. The occupational restrictions were extended in many areas by labor unions. All of which created a racially segregated labor force which is still all too prevalent today.
Housing issues also played a role, especially with the housing initiatives which decimated inner urban housing and created the suburbs after World War II. The government legalized an already existing segregation in housing practice by realtors and lenders with the national appraisal standards. This moved both tax dollars and mortgage lending to all white housing areas. Those who were non-white were almost totally excluded from this wealth opportunity.
What all of these various policies and practices across an array of social institutions did was to create a number of shared interests among whites. Many of those shared interests revolve around social class. In particular, the housing policies following World War II reinforced geographically racial segregation (and structural race inequalities) in U.S. society.
One of the consequences of this, is that frequently the rhetorical appeals and threats to social class interests are in effect a call for whites to unify to protect their shared interests. That call to white racial unity is indeed calling on white "racial identify" without ever mentioning the issue of race.
These constructed shared interests of whites are not shared equally by all whites, which are why there are a diversity of calls. This strategy effectively unifies many whites across both class and regional lines. It allows Lou Dobbs to disingenuously and stridently claim that his vehement rants against "illegal" immigration have "nothing to do with race."
The biggest lie of the accusations of "identity politics" is that those making that claim are engaging in identity politics. The attacks on Sotomayor are a thinly veiled attempt to stimulate white fear and enhance a feeling of dispossession and disenfranchisement. The fact that she is Latina only enhances the arguments around "the Latin threat" in its various manifestations. Overall, it is just another iteration of the same identity politics that have been utilized over the years.
1 Wikipedia "Southern Strategy: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Southern_strategy
2 Patrick Martin. World Socialist Web Site. 2002. "The Republican Party and Racism: from the "Southern Strategy" to Bush." http://www.wsws.org/articles/2002/dec2002/race-d24.shtml
3 Mike Allen. NY Times. 7/14/2005. "RNC Chief to Say It Was 'Wrong' to Exploit Racial Conflict for Votes" http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/07/13/AR2005071302342.html