Identity politics demands the reduction of individual identity to collective census category identities. You are no longer an individual person with hopes and fears, talents and abilities, and motivations and opinions. The most important thing about you is your sex, or your race, or your sexuality, or your ethnicity. Each of these collective identities not only defines you, but defines your enemies: if you are female, your enemy is males; if you are black or brown, your enemy is whites; if you are LGBTQ, your enemies are heterosexuals; if you are Muslim, your enemies are Jews, Christians, and Hindus (but you already knew that). Universal values such as freedom, equality, solidarity, and human rights are set aside in favor of partisan favoritism, seen in the labels of identity politics movements, such as “feminism” and “black lives matter,” and seen in the feminist declarations that “men are toxic,” or the race activist assertions that statements such as “all lives matter” and “color-blind” are “racist.”
How exactly did this come about? Who decided that our identities must be transformed? The shock troops in this transformation from individual identities to census category identities were second wave feminists in the 1960s. Early on they claimed that their goal was gender equality, but as their self-proclaimed label indicates, they quickly became lobbyists for female interests in opposition to male interests, with a goal of replacing men in status and power. They reframed the nature of American, Canadian, and Western society generally, not as men and women working together to build families and businesses, but as hierarchical gender classes, with males forming the “patriarchy” which uniformly oppressed and exploited their helpless female victims.
There were several theoretical justifications for the gender class war advocated by the feminists. The first was that gender was entirely “socially constructed,” imbued by socialization, social norms, and laws, and that gender was not at all based in nature. As an anthropologist, I am of course acutely aware that different societies and cultures have different ideals, norms, and rules of gender. But, at the same time, ignoring the biological basis of sex is an ideologically driven misrepresentation and a denial of the most basic facts of sex. Men and women are genetically different, males with XY genes and females with XX genes, as well as different brain physiology. This is uncontested science. But the inbred differences go beyond that to biologically based skills and abilities (e.g. male spatial skills vs. female social skills), as well as to motivations and preferences (e.g. male work preferences vs. female family preferences). These genetically based differences are uniform across all cultures and societies. This should not be surprising, given the hundreds of thousands of years during which humans were hunters and gatherers, when men hunted and defended, and females gathered and raised children.
The opposition of feminists to all men, always a current in feminism, became explicit and virulent in fourth wave feminism, which denounced men as having “toxic masculinity.” Certainly it is true that men do the dirtiest and most dangerous jobs, suffer injury and death at a rate ten times higher than women, and are required to engage in military combat, to fight and die, in defense of the country. Apparently, the reward for men stepping up is vilification by feminists. But feminists are happy to specify how men are “toxic”: feminists claim that the West has a “rape culture.” This imaginary “rape culture” is not seen in how children and young people are socialized or taught, in how they are encouraged to act, or in what they are rewarded for. In fact, in Western culture rape is not encouraged, not taught, and not rewarded, but in fact is discouraged and punished. Feminist claims about rape culture are bolstered by tendentious surveys and redefinition of terms to put males in a bad light, and are nothing more than partisan propaganda without basis in fact. This propaganda has led to many false claims of rape, and to the illegal persecution of males on campuses under Title IX feminist officers, in many cases overturned by courts of law.
From the early days of second wave feminism, feminists shrewdly aimed at gaining a foothold in colleges and universities, from which they could devote themselves to refining feminist ideology and shaping students’ minds. Claiming to be “marginalized” by the patriarchy, feminists invoked the slogan of “diversity and inclusion” to demand preferences in admissions, funding, hiring, housing, ceremonies, and other unearned benefits, all of which were enthusiastically forthcoming from “progressive” academics and administrators. At first confined to women’ studies, feminist studies, and gender studies programs, feminists strove to strategically infiltrate the disciplines of sociology and anthropology, the faculties of education, social work, and law, and gained footholds throughout the administration. In this they succeeded brilliantly, with universities today dominated by females and by feminists. In my final seminar at McGill university, there were eighteen registered students, all female, most convinced by feminist propaganda.
The identity politics class struggle was also taken up by homosexuals, bisexuals, and transsexuals. Society was seen once again as a hierarchy in which heterosexuals oppressed LGBTQ++. Certainly it is true that until the latter part of the 20th century, cultural norms that were influenced by traditional religions as well as laws forbade or discouraged homosexual acts. Marriage was generally seen as appropriate only for a man and a woman. The LGBTQ++ movement was small in population, and demanded only freedom and equality, and “pride,” rather than the overthrow of heteronormativity and its replacement LGBTQ++. These goals were accepted by the majority relatively rapidly, leading to public “gay pride” parades and marriage between members of the same sex.
Transsexual identities were recognized in law, even to the point of requiring certain speech uses. The rationale used was one of denial of biology. Transsexuals claimed to be members of the other sex, even though carrying the genetics and often the genitalia of the birth sex. Biologically speaking, a man cannot become a woman, and a woman cannot become a man, whatever hormonal treatments and cosmetic surgery are done. Demands that biological male transsexuals be given entry into female spaces and activities have put feminists in something of a quandary.
For race activists, the neo-marxist, identity class conflict vision of American society was perfect. Seeing society as divided between racist white oppressors and their black victims fit perfectly with activists’ claims for reparations, preferences, and special benefits for blacks. White society was characterized by these activists as rotten from the beginning, slavery being the original sin of America and the disadvantage that required unending compensation. That slavery ended 150 years ago, and that no living American was a slave or owned a slave was of no interest to the activists. But, just to make sure, activists invoked ongoing “systemic racism,” an idea beloved of radical sociologists, to justify limitless claims, even in the near absence of actual human racists.
Prima facie, there is the immediate factual problem of the many successful African Americans. There is the 43% of all African Americans who fall into the middle, upper middle, and upper classes economically. That appears to be pretty remarkable for a society based on “systemic racism.” Then there are all of the African American doctors, lawyers, members of Congress, Cabinet members, and the two-term African American President. Are they too all victims of racism? The answer of race activists is that African Americans are “underrepresented” statistically in relation to their percentage of the general population (13%). For example, African Americans make up 5% of doctors and 5% of lawyers, rather than 13% or more. Race activists conclude that this discrepancy must be the result of discrimination, which proves that America is systemically racist.
Note that the race activists and their far-leftist supporters have invoked a new and questionable concept of equality: replacing equality of opportunity with equality of outcome, in which each demographic category must have the same representation in every institution, profession, organization, and activity as their percentage of the general population. I am not sure what activists’ views are about the professional sports leagues, such as the NFL and the NBA, where millionaire African Americans account for 70% of the players, and so are overrepresented by around 500%. But the more basic issue is whether underrepresentation is the result of discrimination or some other factors.
I live on Vancouver Island, where fishing and logging are major occupations. Now, I have noticed that Jews are highly underrepresented among commercial fishermen and loggers. Jews are equally underrepresented among forest rangers and oil rig roughnecks. Is this statistical underrepresentation the result of anti-Jewish discrimination? Or is it that Jews prefer to take up other occupations? Jews are also overrepresented in some occupations. Making up 2% of the American population, in 2010 Jews made up 14% of doctors. Jews are highly overrepresented among university students and professors. Is this overrepresentation the result of discrimination in favor of Jews? Who would be discriminating in favor of Jews? Not the American and Canadian officials that blocked Jews trying to escape from the Nazis, the Canadian top immigration official infamously saying “None is too many.” Not the Americans who posted “restricted to Christians” signs, or those who hunted Jews at Easter, believing that “the Jews killed Jesus.” Not the Americans who had clauses in their housing contracts forbidding them to sell to Jews. Guess which religious group, even today, is the subject of most hate crimes. Does anyone think that Jews are so loved that people would discriminate in their favor? The alternative explanation is that Jews earned their positions.
According to the 2010 Census, Asian Americans made up 5.6% of the population, yet were highly overrepresented among physicians, making up 17.1% of doctors, and also overrepresented in academic achievement, and among college graduates. Asian Americans also have the highest individual and family incomes of all demographic groups. Is their overrepresentation the result of discrimination in their favor? Were not Asians blocked from emigrating to America until recent times? Were not Japanese interned in concentration camps? Are Asian Americans so popular that people discriminate in their favor? There is no evidence of this. What there is evidence of is an extremely high level of achievement, which is the simplest and most transparent explanation of Asian American overrepresentation in professional fields.
The Jewish and Asian American cases do not provide support for the argument that different levels of representation are the result of discrimination. This throws doubt on the claim that African American underrepresentation in academic achievement and in prestigious professions is the result of discrimination. How would we explain Jewish and Asian American success? Strong families and a community culture that emphasizes education. If we wish to explain underrepresentation, we must also look to families and community cultures. It is not news that African American families are mainly (between two thirds and three quarters) single parent, usually led by mothers and without an adult male figure. Many black intellectuals—see for example Black Culture Matters and Taboo: 10 Facts You Can’t Talk About–including President Obama, have lamented the weakness of black families, and the consequences that fatherless boys are highly likely to become engaged with gangs, take drugs, commit crimes, and end up incarcerated. Nor has education ever been the obsession in the black community that it is in the Jewish and Asian American communities, although many African Americans have learned that education is a path to the middle class. (It is worth noting that the arguments presented in the books cited and in this article are condemned by the academic and media leftist, who make every effort to “cancel” anyone who makes them, thus exposing their despotic totalitarian tendencies.)
The most prominent example today of race activists and agitators is the Black Lives Matter organization, which, notwithstanding their excellent label, is a self-proclaimed radical marxist organization dedicated to abolishing the police, destroying the two-parent nuclear family, and subjugating whites under black power. BLM and their followers claim that every black man and boy risks death at the hands of the police every time they leave their home. The reality is that each year a dozen or so “unarmed” black men are killed by police, sometimes after they attack the police and attempt to take their weapon. But many African Americans are murdered: in 2018, 2,925 African Americans were murdered, of which 2,600 or 89% were murdered by other African Americans. BLM never comments on the vast challenge of black on black crime; BLM limits itself to blaming whites. But it is difficult to attribute black on black crime to white racism. Which is why the left proclaims any reference to black on black crime as “racist.”
And while in 2013, 189 African Americans were murdered by whites, 409 whites were murdered by African-Americans. In cross-race murders, more than twice as many whites have been murdered as African Americans. As for police-black encounters, according to the FBI, “In 2011, 72 law enforcement officers were feloniously killed in the line of duty. By race, 68 of the victim officers were white, 3 were black, and 1 was American Indian/Alaskan Native. Of the alleged offenders, 43 were white, 29 were black, 2 were American Indian/Alaskan Native, and 1 was Asian/Pacific Islander. The race was not reported for 2 offenders.” Between 2010 and 2019, of 511 police officers murdered, the offenders were 303 white and 199 black, a case of high overrepresentation of blacks in relation to their percentage of the population. The facts show that, contrary to the BLM claims, police are more in danger from blacks than blacks are from police.
During the spring and summer of 2020, BLM street mobs, with both black and white adherents, demonstrated peacefully for “racial justice,” until they began rioting, looting, burning, assaulting, and murdering. They required white people to bend a knee to BLM or make the clenched fist black power sign, saying that “white silence is violence.” Then they began invading suburbs and demanding that white families turn their houses over to black people. No fascist tactic has been overlooked, from Kristallnacht breaking of windows to threatening the lives of whites who stay in their homes. BLM mobs are not striving for “racial justice”; they are attempting to intimidate, overpower, and subject whites to their control.
Identity politics was born and nurtured in universities, in women’s and feminist studies, in gay and queer studies, in black and ethnic studies, Islamic studies, and in whiteness studies. Whiteness studies is the only one to take as its mandate the vilification of its subject population; the others frame their subject populations as victims of white and male oppression. Under the now official and exclusive university policy of “diversity and inclusion,” universities have jettisoned universalistic criteria such as achievement, merit, and potential, now regarded by “progressives” as “male supremacist talking points,” in favor of sex, race, and sexuality bases for selection, preferences, and benefits.
What “diversity and inclusion” means in practice is that females, African Americans, and Hispanics, and, in Canada, members of First Nations, are given preferences, funding, and special benefits, while better qualified males, Jews and other whites, and Asian Americans and Asian Canadians are excluded to make places for the preferred. This is the most prominent form of systemic racism that exists in North America today. Furthermore, what “diversity” never means is diversity of thought and opinion, for deviations from the far-left narratives are punished, those taking a critical view of identity politics are “cancelled,” marginalized and fired. Universities have entirely abandoned academic values in favor of so-called “social justice” identity politics.
Identity politics celebrates the idea that people should be judged, not as individuals, but on the basis of their sex and race, but also by their claimed identity, whether sexual, ethnic, or religious. What a marvelous formula for dividing people, and setting them at odds and in conflict with one another. This is a strategy by its advocates to gain power for their subgroup at the expense of others. Where groups are small, “intersectional” alliances are called for to strengthen their challenge to their target. Is the feminist strategy any more than anti-male sexism? Is the race activist strategy any more than anti-white racism? Treating people according to their census category rather than as individuals is deeply illiberal, a violation of equality before the law, and thus a violation of their human rights. Dividing the population according to their census categories rather than viewing others as fellow citizens is deeply antisocial and anti-American.
Philip Carl Salzman is Emeritus Professor of Anthropology at McGill University, where he taught from 1968 to 2018; Senior Fellow at the Frontier Centre for Public Policy, Fellow at the Middle East Forum, and a Director of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East. He is the author of Culture and Conflict in the Middle East; the founding chair of the Commission on Nomadic Peoples of the International Union of Anthropological and Ethnological Sciences; the founding editor of Nomadic Peoples; and the author of Black Tents of Baluchistan; Pastoralism: Equality, Hierarchy, and the State; Thinking Anthropologically, Culture and Conflict in the Middle East; and Understanding Culture.