What’s identity politics?

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Identity politics is when marginalized or oppressed groups come together to influence political or social change. It started in the 1960s and extends to various groups such as women, homosexuals, legal Hispanic immigrants, and Native Americans. While it has positive aspects, it can also be exclusionary and hinder compromise. Many minority organized political groups have moved towards a more ecumenical approach.

When members of a specific subgroup come together to influence political or social change, the result is often called identity politics. This phenomenon is not limited to the major racial or gender divisions of our time, but extends to sexual orientation, ethnicity, citizenship status and other instances where a specific group feels marginalized or oppressed.

The sometimes derisive phenomenon termed “identity politics” appeared primarily during the politically tumultuous years following the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1965. While much attention was focused on the plight of underprivileged African Americans, other groups also sought recognition and acceptance through political activism and collective awareness.

The success of desegregation efforts for marginalized African Americans has spurred other groups to take political action of their own. Under the concept of identity politics, women could unite to promote the passage of an equal rights amendment. Homosexuals could organize political rallies or start grassroots campaigns to get tougher hate crime laws or allow same-sex partners to enjoy spousal benefits.

Other groups such as legal Hispanic immigrants or Native Americans have also been empowered through identity politics. The idea was that marginalized or oppressed groups were recognized for their differences, not in spite of them. By identifying as African American, gay, or feminist, a person could focus all of their energies on a specific political cause. This singularity of purpose seems to be the most positive aspect of this phenomenon.

However, there are those who see identity politics in a less positive light. By focusing so much energy on a specific political agenda, practitioners can seem just as closed or exclusionary as those they claim are oppressing or marginalizing their group. The idea that an outsider cannot understand the problems or needs of a specific group could create more problems in the political arena.

African Americans who felt oppressed by a majority-white government, for example, had to accept that passage of the Civil Rights Act required the votes of conservative white lawmakers. Under the focused umbrella of identity politics, such a compromise would have been much more difficult to achieve. This is why many minority organized political groups have largely abandoned this model for a more ecumenical approach to common goals.

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