To most, identity politics are known as a garnering of support for a political figure or platform that represents specific demographics, whether that be race, religion, gender, etc. In recent years, the relevancy of identity politics has increased as diversity in government has become much more important now than ever before. For example, the pool of 2020 Democratic presidential nominees was the most diverse the party has ever had. We have gotten to a point where identity markers have started to be seen as a form of virtue signaling. More often than not, someone is assumed to be a good person just because they belong to one or more marginalized groups. This strips the nuances of an individual and automatically assigns them a certain amount of morality based upon a few characteristics. While uplifting members of minority groups in politics is beneficial for representation, it can be harmful when it’s done without knowing a politician’s background and platform. Representation alone isn’t enough if a politician’s policies are harmful to their constituents.
Take Lori Lightfoot, mayor of Chicago, for example. Her campaign was groundbreaking because she was a frontrunner to be the first gay, Black mayor of Chicago. However, while she was making headlines and gaining popularity because of this, many overlooked her background as a federal prosecutor and voted for her solely because of the facets of her identity, rather than the specific policies that she stands for. Consequently, her missteps as mayor have not been condemned nearly enough. In the most recent poll taken of her approval rating by Wirepoints last October, her approval still stands at over 60%. In February 2021, she spent $281.5 million in federal COVID-19 relief funds on the Chicago Police Department payroll, even though she had proposed a reduction in their budget back in 2020. In addition to this, she also refused to reduce the funding of the police force within Chicago Public Schools despite calls for her to disinvest in the CPD. While Lightfoot continues to maintain that she is only trying to do what is best for Chicagoans, her actions do anything but. After violent clashes between the police and Black Lives Matter protesters last summer in Chicago, it seemed to me and others that a positive step towards reconciling the tension between civilians and the police force would be to reduce their ability to inflict harm on citizens by defunding their operations and reallocating funds to social services and community programs. Instead, Lightfoot put even more money into the CPD, enabling them to continue their aggressive tactics.
Another example of the harms of identity politics is current Vice President Kamala Harris. While it may be groundbreaking that she is our first female, Black and South Asian Vice President, her faults in her past as a “tough-on-crime” prosecutor are often ignored. In 2010, she sponsored a state truancy law as a part of her Truancy Project, which was designed to promote consistent attendance for young people in grade school. While the intent to reduce truancy in schools may have been well placed, the execution in the form of criminalization was extremely harmful. The implementation of this law led to the arrests of several parents, most of them being Black mothers, because their children were consistently absent from school due to outside circumstances like lack of access to food, resources or safe housing. Rather than focusing on combating the factors that may contribute to a lack of attendance in school, Harris resorted to unnecessarily severe punishment. Parents were unjustly arrested with little to no consideration for their domestic situations. Approximately two in five children ages two years and older whose parents have been arrested endure significant emotional and behavioral problems, which is roughly twice the rate when compared to children in the general population. From announcing her campaign for presidency on Martin Luther King Jr. Day to playing Tupac at her book signings, Harris seemed to publicly align herself with her Blackness through not-so-subtle cultural cues all throughout her presidential campaign. This comes across as highly performative because of her past in facilitating mass incarceration within Black communities. Despite her obvious pandering, Harris still garnered support from Black Americans after joining Biden’s campaign as the vice presidential nominee, which surely helped in their election in Nov. 2020. Even as vice president, she is still inflicting harm on entire communities. Since Inauguration Day in January, the Biden-Harris administration has been issuing drone strikes in Syria, physically harming countless civilians. It is important to not assume such high morality of politicians — or anyone for that matter — just because of the marginalized groups that they fall into.
On a personal level, I had to take a step back and figure out when heavily relying on identity politics was clouding my political alliances. I, like many others, would love to have more representation in government from people who look like me, especially considering that the abilities of highly competent politicians like Stacey Abrams are often overlooked because they belong to minority identities. However, we have to keep reminding ourselves that not all representation is good representation and that research into a politician’s platform and background should always be done before giving them our full support.
MiC Columnist Udoka Nwansi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.