Is Identity Politics Offensive — or Defensive?

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Kids Flaunting Identity Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash

Like most presidential years, 2020 will present rampant pandering,

appealing to voters by race, ethnicity, or sex.

The pejorative understanding of identity politics is that voters are being asked to elevate the accident of their genetic heritage over competence of candidates or, in most exaggerated form, the interests of some subset of Americans over the national interest.

I hesitated in that last sentence over whether “interest” was singular or plural. I’m not as certain that the country has a panoply of interests as I am that individuals do. In the case of the nation, it is built of many blocks of philosophical principle. The American experiment is whether a political construction built of ideas can be made seamless, and it is that goal that defines the national interest.

I am certain that “experiment” is the proper term to describe the nation defended by oceans on the East-West axis and friendly neighbors on the North-South axis. At least Mexico and Canada have a recent history of friendship that made Donald John Trump’s aggressiveness toward those nations jarringly inappropriate.

Mr. Trump’s meanness toward Mexico, which he claims “does not send its best people” northward seems attributable to the racism that permeates everything from immigration policy involving the nations south of Mexico to disaster relief for Puerto Rico. My dual citizenship in the Cherokee Nation makes it probable I will be sideswiped by public policies engineered to keep racism institutionalized.

I don’t hate white people — -my mother is white, for crying out loud — and I have no interest in seeing them disadvantaged by law or policy. I do, however, have reason to make demands for parity with white people and to support others who make similar demands. My support for women’s issues is just as simple. I have two daughters.

I was once a little late to a meeting where I was to address a group of archaeologists — -running on Indian time, I suppose — and from outside the room I heard one of the leaders talking about me:

I was not offended then and I’m not offended now. I’ve told the story many times. In the context, I was a lawyer making arguments on behalf of an organization called the American Indian Research and Education Coalition.

AIREC welcomed non-Indian members and while it had serious interest in that word “education,” it had a reputation as a civil rights organization focused on the rights of Indians. The archaeologist who made that remark was an adversary to AIREC in the matter of Indians demanding that their dead be treated with the same respect as dead white people.

I’m pretty sure the remark was taken by his audience as a backhanded compliment and I think he meant it that way in part. My immediate reaction was to be amused and to wonder whether he knew that I owed AIREC zealous representation even though I was not being paid.

The other lawyer who was my tag-team partner certainly understood our professional duty, but I’m thinking my Pawnee friend Paul Shunatona did not have the choice to work hard at being white because he isn’t. He is a citizen of the Otoe-Missouria Nation, which has different citizenship rules than the Pawnee Nation, but the big deal is that he’s stuck with the complexion of an Indian. I should not say “stuck with” because sometimes I envy him; other times, I’m forced to admit my ability to pass can be useful.

I’m sure many of our archaeologist adversaries are ignorant of the choices Indians have to make. When we lobbied for the Texas Indian Bar Association, several of the legislative staff referred to Paul and me as “federal Indians.” Seeking a Certificate of Degree of Indian Blood from the U.S. Department of the Interior, Bureau of Indian Affairs, was our choice.

Turning toward the other sovereign nations involved, acquiring or maintaining dual citizenship in an Indian nation is our choice. Some of us may, by accidents of heredity and history, carry the blood of more than one Indian nation. Paul has three potential tribal identities. Most tribal laws provide for dual citizenship with the United States but not with another Indian nation, so we have to pick one.

None of these ins and outs have a thing to do with who Paul Shunatona is or who I am. Our relatives are our relatives. Some Indians see no reason to become “federal” and they, too, know who they are.

Because so few of us survive, many non-Indians look at our complexion and decide we are “Hispanic.” That description has become common within my lifetime, and it describes Indians who intermarried with colonists from the Iberian Peninsula and often — but not always — speak Portuguese or Spanish as a first language.

Hispanic voters are more numerous every year. When he was a candidate, Mr. Trump’s idea of appealing to Hispanics was to have himself photographed consuming a taco salad. Since becoming president, he has taken up more sophisticated Hispandering.

Speaking at a political rally in New Mexico recently, Mr. Trump gave an odd shout-out to Steve Cortes, who is a member of Trump’s Hispanic Advisory Council and is or is not a commentator for CNN, depending on who is opining. Trump began by observing that Cortes “looks more like a WASP than I do” and then he went on to discourse about Hispanics in the United States having divided loyalties. He asked Cortes:

It would appear that Mr. Trump is trying to reprise and repurpose an old anti-Semitic canard to attack Hispanics, should they decide to vote Democratic. Jews, Mr. Hitler maintained in Mein Kampf and in his policies when he gained power, could never be loyal citizens of any nation (Israel not existing at the time) because they would always be Jews first and Germans or French or British or Americans a distant second. Therefore, Jews must be expelled from every nation until enough patriotic citizens catch on to the necessary implication that Jews — having no country — must be exterminated. To be Jewish, the argument went, was to be disloyal.

At least one and a half million Jews must not have gotten Mr. Hitler’s memo about their loyalties, because they took up arms against the Nazis while wearing the uniforms of their countries of residence. About a third of them served in the United States armed forces. These numbers do not count Jewish civilians fighting with partisans in occupied Europe. This is not the first time Mr. Trump appeared history-challenged and it’s unlikely to be the last.

Those of us who inhabit the southwestern U.S. borderlands can hardly keep a straight face on hearing this nonsense directed at Hispanics. It is true that those of us who are not Mexican citizens often attend Cinco de Mayo or Diez y Seis de Septiembre celebrations. We have also been known to throw a Quinceañera for our daughters north of the Rio Bravo.

Mr. Trump, I do not understand why you object to stacking traditional Mexican celebrations on top of the celebrations we already had. How can you have too many parties? Would it change your mind if I pointed out that many parties down here in the borderlands feature piñatas that look just like you? Quite an honor, don’t you think?

Down here where I’ve lived most of my adult life, I’ve been unable to observe identity politics working against the public interest. The primary reason identity politics appear benign is they are only deployed in self-defense.

Hispanics, African-Americans, and women are the groups that catch the most criticism for allegedly practicing identity politics. I had to run for election in my first career, and I can say that a candidate from a group historically underrepresented might affect turnout. When the underrepresentation goes away, so does the increased turnout.

I didn’t mention Jews or Indians because there are so few in the voting population, but a bloc vote is something a candidate can cause by presenting as a raving anti-Semite or what we call an “Indian fighter.”

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Woman Flaunting Identity Photo by Blanche Peulot on Unsplash

Women vote for male candidates all the time, but the assaultive behavior toward women that Mr. Trump normalized on the Access Hollywood tape risks a female bloc vote, as would policies that threaten the power of women to control how many children they have and when.

To the extent there are “African-American seats” or “Hispanic seats,” those not caused by housing patterns are the result of gerrymandering to dump all the black or brown votes in one area so as to limit the influence of those votes.

Everywhere I look for the evils of “identity politics” what I see are people pushed into a defensive crouch by public policies that disadvantage them. When they serve notice of seeking remedial policies, candidates are forced to choose a side.

I have written elsewhere that the 2020 presidential election is sizing up as a national referendum on “race,” the mythical classification that the United States has invested with so much meaning. If we are about to have a referendum on racial justice, candidates will be forced to take a position for or against. It still does not appear that non-white voters chose to have a national referendum on race. They will, however, defend themselves.

Written by

Steve Russell is enrolled Cherokee, a 9th grade dropout, retired judge, associate professor emeritus of criminal justice, and (so far) a cancer survivor.

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