Creating Space for Engagement with People from Different Groups
Fifty years ago, at the end of the turbulent 1960’s and the Civil Rights Movement, the United States was over 80% non-Hispanic White (as per the U.S. Census Bureau).
Today, the U.S. is about 60% non-Hispanic White.
By about 2045, the U.S. is projected to be about 48% non-Hispanic White.
This “browning of America” is transforming U.S. politics. “in 1976, whites made up 89 percent of the electorate, and that held fairly steady until 1992. After that, as Latino and Asian immigration increased, and the black population held steady, the white vote has been set on a steady decline…By 2012, whites were 72 percent of electorate,” with the downward trend continuing.
In her 2018 book Political Tribes, law professor Amy Chua attributes “identity politics” and the rise of political polarization to these shifting demographics.
She explains: “When groups feel persecuted, they retreat into tribalism.”
According to Chua, the rise of group awareness and group politics on the political left, especially of racial and ethnic groups, has triggered the rise of White racial identity politics on the political right.
She contrasts “identity politics” with a politics of inclusion such as that preached and practiced by Civil Rights Movement leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “King’s ideals – the ideals of the American Left that captured the imagination and hearts of the public and led to real change – transcended group divides.”
Chua is not alone in highlighting the need for a mainstream identity into which various groups seek to be included. Psychologist Jonathan Haidt and political scientists Mark Lilla and Sheri Berman – and others – also lament “identity politics” as divisive and seek instead to chart a path toward finding potential common ground.
Looking only at race (and not at other identities, such as gender, sexual orientation, and religion), the attack on “identity politics” overlooks – and in fact deflects attention from – key dynamics of current social conflict.
Political theorist Iris Marion Young, in Inclusion and Democracy, carefully unpacks the group experiences and claims that are so often dismissed or condemned as “identity politics.” She reveals the “structured inequalities” that underlie these group experiences and claims. African-Americans, Hispanics, Asian-Americans, Native Americans – members of these racial and ethnic groups have shared experiences of structural injustices in the United States.
These structural injustices are historical – slavery, genocide, Jim Crow, lynching, redlining, exclusion, internment, cultural annihilation, deportation. And they are also contemporary – mass incarceration, predatory lending, targeted policing, disinvestment, disrespect for treaty rights, cultural marginalization.
Chua acknowledges that tribalism operates in conjunction with growing levels of inequality. And yet inequality lies at the core of the experiences and claims that are flattened and dismissed as “identity politics.”
Historian Ibram Kendi, in Stamped from the Beginning, describes how race – the designation of people of African descent as different and inferior – was created to justify economic exploitation. Difference did not lead to exploitation; exploitation required difference. And that difference intentionally set up some people to get more and some people to get less.
So long as Whites were the overwhelming majority of the U.S. population, they – we – defined the mainstream. Dr. King’s quest for inclusion - not shared by, for example, his contemporary Malcolm X – was situated in an America that was over 80% White.
What does inclusion look like in a nation that is not 80% White? A nation that is 60% White and moving – in the lifetimes of many if not most of us – toward less than 50% White?
Perhaps “identity politics” is about redefining the mainstream. Perhaps “identity politics” is about challenging the structural inequalities that persist today. Perhaps “identity politics” is about seeking how we can be different without having difference create winners and losers.
Iris Marion Young brought difference and equity together in what she referred to as “differentiated solidarity.” She believed strongly in the value of difference, of respecting how group experiences gave rise to shared perspectives, all of which were important in politics. And she also believed strongly in solidarity, in the idea that everyone matters.
Creighton’s 2040 Initiative, located in the Negotiation and Conflict Resolution (NCR) Program, creates spaces for people from different groups - people with different experiences, identities, and beliefs- to engage with each other and to hear each others’ stories. In this shifting demographic landscape, we need opportunities to examine structural injustices, to explore the differences between us, and to discover the values we share. Genuine engagement opens a path toward justice.