Come to Kenosha. Create Hope. APPLY NOW to attend the Braver Angels 2024 National Convention

Identity Politics: Should We Just Call It Fairness?


The ever-present debate about “identity politics” continues to rage. It’s a conversation that gained strength during the civil rights activism of the latter 20th century, but it truly became a cultural touchstone amid what many have come to see as the “culture war” that has culminated in the horrifically divisive 2016 election, and the current state of politics that persists today.

And indeed, as Americans who have chosen to wrestle directly with the problem of affective political polarization—whereby we’re gripped by feelings of contempt for our political opposites, rather than mere disagreement—the question of whether identity politics contributes to this cleavage is certainly relevant to our work at Braver Angels.

A new era of prominence for the term kicked off, in fact, with the publication of The Disuniting of America by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., a prominent liberal thinker and former aide to President John F. Kennedy. While he valued the embrace of our country’s multicultural tradition, he argued that the emphasis on our differences can go too far, especially when writing off our Western foundations as purely sinful in its victimization of less powerful cultures, leading to the fracturing of civil society.

Some have lamented that this approach to politics returns us to a less-evolved tribal mindset, which we had, to some extent, transcended with the modern development of the nation-state. With it, we have been able to join together varying ethnic and other cultural groups under a shared identity that helps us to advance our collective interest more effectively.

For nations to hold together, it is argued that there must be an emphasis on cultural assimilation and integration, and that we’ve somehow lost sight of this goal, with the former image of our country as a “melting pot” giving way to that of a “salad bowl”—though the food metaphor continues to sprout more variants, and I most recently heard the suggestion of “chili bowl” as more of a middle ground, which does seem apropos given chili’s cross-cultural roots and endless geographically-based variants.  

But I digress, and make myself hungry. The issue of assimilation is vital to address, given how differently it’s seen by various stakeholders.

At last year’s Braver Angels Convention in St. Louis, I got to co-chair a debate on “immigration and social cohesion,” where the word assimilation was on the lips of many of the speakers. As the debate progressed, I was a bit disappointed by the lack of viewpoint diversity, with most people arguing that assimilation should be one of our top goals for those who are new to our country. Many of the speakers seemed to emphasize that those groups that had embraced American culture most fully were the ones that were most successful, with the highest incomes and the safest, most stable communities.

As the descendant of Jewish immigrants, I found myself frustrated not only with this attitude, but with the seeming lack of probing that was happening around the idea. It cast my thoughts back to conversations about the different waves of immigrants that this country has seen throughout its history, and how my ancestors fit into that story. Not only were Jews subject to immigration quotas in the U.S., even as they were being slaughtered by the millions in Europe, but when we got here we were cruelly otherized, treated as undesirables by an American public that sought to welcome Northern and Western Europeans, but had little patience for, or desire to employ, those from other places.  

Forefront in my mind was the idea that Jews, like many other groups that have experienced cultural discrimination, were expected to accept the burdens of assimilation—learning a new language, conforming to different dietary patterns, dressing differently—but missed out on many of the benefits, like acceptance into civic life and expanded employment opportunities.

That eventually changed, as it did for other immigrant groups, like the Irish and Italians, who just as often had been asked not to reply to job postings. That change was made much easier by the fact that they shared their race with the majority of Americans, but it took a significant span of time for them to be fully accepted as white, and I’ve heard these groups characterized as “recently white.”

A conservative friend of mine pointed out that this was a major theme in The Godfather films, and indeed this analysis of those films from the Italian-American perspective indicates that elements of this still remain: “Italians have always been considered something other than ordinary Americans: we’re European, but not exactly white.”

Looking around the room at the debate, I considered voicing this thought, introducing the idea that cultural assimilation is a two-way street. It’s not always enough that members of a group may want to assimilate; it can feel highly unfair if they still feel the sting of exclusion regardless of their efforts. But I hesitated, considering that I’m a member of a group that has largely achieved cultural parity, and I can go through life as a white person. I have yet to experience that kind of struggle still felt by many people of color.

The concept was only introduced by the very last speaker, a black woman who rose to voice her own frustration at what she was hearing. For some of us, she said, assimilation isn’t even a choice. And to demand it is to ignore that fact and to belittle the hardships of the countless Americans who have faced stereotyping and discrimination based on their appearance.

It hit the room like a bolt of electricity, instantly cranking up the tension, just in time for the final question period of the debate. Inquisitors in the room challenged her in a way that conveyed their irritation, particularly one man who seemed to feel that the cultural influence that black people enjoyed in the realms of entertainment and sports, as well as the election of a black president, invalidated her criticism.

The debate ended on a sour note, never offering a fuller examination of the issue due to time constraints. Which I think is unfortunate, because this is a conversation that will likely continue indefinitely, probing at a core question of what it means to be an American. In a nation as diverse as ours, what does assimilation even mean?

Many people cite the adoption of English as a prime indicator of integration into our society, but let us not forget that there is no official language of the United States. Walk down the street in many of our cities, and you might hear several different languages spoken. Why is this an issue? Those who need to interact with a government agency, for example, will often find someone there who speaks their language, since the government is indeed composed of people from the community. And if they don’t, they can often find help from a relative or friend. Is there a particular reason that two people conducting official business in Spanish or Tagalog offends the sensibilities of some?

In my mind, the vast variety of languages, foods, fashion and even core values is what makes this country so incredible. Some cultures, for example, place more emphasis on individualism, versus those with more of a collectivist streak, and this variety, among many others, is a strength for our amalgamated culture just as much as genetic variations are a strength for the health of a population.

When it comes to “identity politics,” members of some identity groups are criticized for seeking to hold on to their cultures, and then for complaining when those differences lead to unequal treatment. Somehow the conclusion is that a national identity is seen as a threat to cultural identity, when there seems to be little evidence of this.

I can only speak from personal experience when I say that the immigrants I know place intense pride in both their initial cultural identity and their newfound role in the American story. That, in fact, is a crucial part of the story itself.

Blues often feel that they’re smeared with a label of anti-American, and they respond by emphasizing that their patriotism includes a healthy dose of self-reflection and therefore some self-criticism. My fellow blues believe strongly that the impulse to improve upon our country is a fiercely patriotic one.

And talking about the systemic disadvantages that align against certain groups, while necessarily reliant on identity, is a necessary precursor to our striving for a more perfect union. As an organization, Braver Angels is highly focused on our common ground, and that often means recognizing that our differences, whether they be ideological or cultural, are not as large as we tend to perceive.

But deemphasizing our differences doesn’t mean ignoring the consequences those differences have already had. It’s not harping to point out that the white-black wealth gap has not budged—it remains a 7:1 ratio—in the past six decades.

From a progressive perspective, critics of identity politics fundamentally misunderstand our position. I’ve heard several times from reds that they’re frustrated that blues emphasize equality of outcomes over equality of opportunity. In fact, the emphasis on the left is not on equality at all, but equity.

Image Credit: CAWI Ottawa

 This image is one of the clearest explanations I’ve seen of the difference, illustrating that an equal approach—the first panel—doesn’t take into account disparities in need, most arising through no fault of the affected. The second panel is a more equitable approach, but it can still be improved upon by removing the systemic barriers that handicap certain populations in unique ways, as is done in the third.

We can only fully understand how different groups experience life if we’re willing to talk about those groups, and the differences that may create that experience. While singling out one group as more deserving of respect than another can certainly lead to a fracturing of our civic unity, emphasizing that the respect that every human is worthy of might come in different forms based on different needs does no such thing.

More to explore

Help us build a movement

Our 2024 National Convention, taking place in Kenosha, WI this June 27-29, will be a launching pad for better, more hopeful politics. We’re going to Kenosha to create hope – American Hope – and we need your help.

Read More »

4 thoughts on “Identity Politics: Should We Just Call It Fairness?”

    1. Sure. I see equality as treating everyone the same, regardless of circumstance. I think this is appropriate in certain situations, like a sports competition, in which we just accept that people’s bodies are built differently and the genetic lottery keeps life from being totally fair. We don’t make those with longer legs run further distances to win a race.

      But equity is an approach that can address some of the differences in circumstance that result in injustice. When kids from underserved communities and difficult home situations need more time and attention in school because they don’t have support at home, we see this as equitable, especially since not only is that situation not their fault, but it can be traced back to systemic factors that put them at a disadvantage before they even get started.

  1. This essay expresses well the views of two crucial issues that divide our politics and our society: assimilation and inequity. It also perfectly encapsulates Jonathan Haidt’s research on moral values as they differ across the ideological spectrum.

    The issue of fairness is one that Haidt singles out particularly because fairness can easily become a subjective criterion. As Haidt argues, everyone cares about fairness, but there are two competing definitions: “On the left, fairness often implies equality (or better, equity, as Randy argues here), but on the right it means proportionality—people should be rewarded in proportion to what they contribute, even if that guarantees unequal outcomes.”

    The problem we run into this argument that equity is better definition of fairness is that equity then also becomes a subjective concept open to different interpretations. This leads us into a circular argument where one man’s ceiling in another man’s floor (as Paul Simon put it in gender-specific terms). So identity politics cannot really be reduced to fairness, because it tries to equate fairness with identity, where fairness, or equity, is subjective while identity is largely objective. (We have really waded into the weeds when we try to establish that biological identity is subjective as well. We lose all standard reference points for deciding what’s fair and what’s not.)

    From the ideological viewpoint of the right, all this becomes unnecessarily confusing and obscure. But fairness by measuring people’s objective “contributions” can also be problematic. In business enterprise or social progress, it’s almost impossible to discern exactly what constitutes each participant’s contribution to the final result. So we resort to rough proxies – labor contracts, ownership contracts, debt contracts, social contracts – that approximate. In economic exchanges these can be made fairly concrete through contract law, but in the social and political realm there is wide scope for subjective, self-interested interpretation.

    This gets to the point of assimilation and multiculturalism. Cultural diversity is no doubt an asset for society’s art and culture, but it can be problematic for democratic politics. Homogeneity helps us converge more easily on the social and political contract implied by a free society, while heterogeneity makes such convergence and agreement much more difficult. This is the view that shapes the desire for a dominant cultural identity as defined by the nation-state. It is the view the reinforces the idea of the United States as a melting pot. Randy makes the point here that the melting pot is not always fair. No, it’s not, but every immigrant group that has graced these shores has faced that same hurdle, some higher than others. It is incumbent on a free democracy that welcomes immigration to help those immigrants to assimilate into the dominant culture, which in the case of the United States has never required immigrants to abandon their previous cultural identity, but to blend it into the soup of the American melting pot. Somewhere along the way we lost the potency of this idea in favor of multiculturalism and forgot that a political culture is not multicultural. For example, in European societies official documentation is not printed in dozens of languages, rather the state supports subsidized language programs for non-native speakers to quickly get up to speed on the lingua franca.

    I especially appreciated Randy’s illustration of equality and equity, but this needs some deeper exploration to capture the implications that divide red and blue ideology. In the two left images there is a private good-boxes-that must be provided by someone as a benefit to the 3 actors. In the first case, each actor has to buy and bring his own box. In the second, the tall actor has to contribute his box to the short one. Should that be voluntary or does the “state” tax away the box from the taller actor to give to the shortest one? How does the taller actor respond to that?

    In the last case we don’t need any boxes, instead implying a public good or a right paid for by everyone’s contribution accruing to everyone’s benefit. Reds would see the problem with the first two images as impractical for public policy, while the 3rd solution is not going to be viable for all social needs.

    The problem Reds see with this idea of social and economic “equity” is that it relies too much are forcing private goods provisions into the public goods realm, where the outcomes are far less favorable than anticipated. The economic theory view is that public goods are costly and wasteful and in many cases yield arbitrary results and thus should only be a default option when absolutely necessary. That view would also hold that that’s as “fair” or equitable as society can be from a macro-policy point of view and still be a free society.

    1. Michael, thanks so much for the really thoughtful critique of my article. I think it’s a great illustration of some of the fundamental differences between left and right in terms of how we think about these issues, and offers a great jumping-off point for weighing the pros and cons of policies that address them. It seems to me that we’re mostly in agreement about the trade-offs that are involved in our policy ideas, and that we exist on different points of the spectrum in terms of our beliefs about them.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Braver Angels Support