Identity Politics: Is It Only a Problem When Non-White People Do It?

Matthew Yglesias today notes the hypocritical—and ultimately racist—undercurrent just beneath Shout Radio Republicans’ objections to Sonia Sotomayor:

Qualifications like time at Princeton, Yale Law, and on the Circuit Court that work well for guys with Italian names suddenly don’t work if you have a Spanish name. Heaven forbid someone were to decide that there ought to be at least one Hispanic columnist at a major American newspaper.

Somehow, when George W. Bush affects a Texas accent, that’s not identity politics. When John Edwards gets a VP nomination, that’s not identity politics. But Sonia Sotomayor! Oh my heavens!

I think that Yglesias’s ironic and barbed observation here is a thoroughly valid one. Why aren’t white ethnic and regional appeals piously fretted over by Rush Limbaugh et. al. as the white identity politics that they so obviously are? Why are only black, Hispanic, and Asian displays of identity politics somehow problematic?

The answer is obvious. Shout Radio expressions of horror at “identity politics” are, ironically, coded racial gestures to whites who fear blacks, Hispanics, and Asians. It is a racist appeal that feigns alarm for creeping racism.

And, by the way, a recent Gallup poll tracks Republican Party affiliation at 89% white!

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to Identity Politics: Is It Only a Problem When Non-White People Do It?

  1. jonolan says:

    Actually the regional appeals are normally derided as identity politics, by whoever is running against the person doing it. 😉

    As for the rest, it was Obama’s White House who first put forth Sotomayor’s race and gender as her primary qualification. Even when they mentioned her real qualifications in the press release, they couched it in terms of it being exceptional given her “upbringing” and “history.”

    So yes, this is overt identity politics on the part of the Left, and it is in no way hypocritical for the GOP to call them on it.

  2. santitafarella says:


    Sooner or later, a female Hispanic would have been nominated to the Supreme Court. If Democrats do the nominating, it’s because they are engaging in Hispanic and feminist identity politics. But if Republicans oppose it, it’s not because of white male identity politics, is that right?

    Put another way: Republicans oppose this nomination strictly on principle, and without regard to its appeal (or lack of appeal) to their white male and Southern core constituency?

    Is that your position?

    And I take it that you regard Sotomayor to be unqualified for the Supreme Court, yes?


  3. jonolan says:


    Yes, presumably a Latina would eventually be nominate to the SCOTUS. Judge Sotomayor may even be a reasonable candidate based on her judicial merits.

    Obama and his Dems didn’t present her based on her judicial qualifications though. They presented her as the poor Latina who succeeded despite everything and who would be the first Hispanic SCOTUS Justice.

    That’s why it’s identity politics.

    Frankly, the GOP will fight her more because of how nasty the Dems were to Bush’s nominees than because of anything else. That’s sad and petty, but fairly accurate in my opinion at least.

    Do I think she’s qualified? No, from what I’ve seen so far, I don’t – but there’s been plenty of other SCOTUS Justice appointed over the years by both parties that I didn’t think were qualified either.

  4. santitafarella says:


    You said Obama “presented her as the poor Latina who succeeded despite everything and who would be the first Hispanic SCOTUS Justice. That’s why it’s identity politics.”

    Oh, I see. That’s not an American story, that’s a racist story. Obama and Sotomayor, at bottom, are racists. And Rush Limbaugh, who opposes Sotomayor’s nomination and fought Obama’s election tooth and nail, is not a racist. Is that right?


  5. jonolan says:

    By and large Rush Limbaugh, who holds no position within the GOP or the government at all, fought tooth and nail against Obama’s elections on the grounds of what little anyone knew of his policies,on the way his campaign and supporters behaved, and on how the MSM sided with him.

    And, yes – the way the White House and the MSM have presented Sotomayor is a racist story as opposed to an American story in my opinion.

  6. santitafarella says:


    I’m not trying to set you up. I’m just seeing how far you are willing to take the direction of your own syllogisms.

    I, personally, think that Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity are racists. Anyone who can express such bottomless cynicism toward America’s first African American president, given our history of slavery and segregation, is emotionally distorted at some level.

    And there’s something sick about a person who, in the teeth of all evidence, insists, for example, that Obama is dumb. I would almost say that the most authoritarian spokespersons of Shout Radio are, at some level, psychopathic. They have little or no empathy for others, and they are sadistic. Some sort of narcissistic wound has cut Limbaugh so deep that he seems to literally eat white racial resentment, to even chew on it as he speaks. The tone deafness with which conservatives embraced “Barack the Magic Negro” is an example. And the absurd rhetoric directed toward Obama, demonizing him, sets him up for serious danger from an assasin.

    Don’t you think, at least with Limbaugh, that something odd is going on there? That he is absorbed with hate?

    And if non-whites sometimes express resentment toward white racist priveledge, and sometimes express a pride in their own people against the drone of media images that demonize them and regularize and normalize white culture and white sensibilities, and marginalizes all others, why do you call such a reaction racist?

    It must be extraordinarily hard for any person of color to integrate their emotions in a healthy way in our country. Why do you set the bar so high for them, and insist that a range of emotions and expressions of ambivalence are not appropriate?


  7. santitafarella says:


    I will say that racial tensions in our country have been getting better, but this is without help from Republicans. They seem to be determined to carry on the racial and sexual politics of the 1990s. Obama’s election is an enormously hopeful event in bringing about a 21st century post-racial culture in America. Sotomayor, and the increasing integration of people of color into the centers of power, are steps in the direction of reducing racism, not aggrevating it.


  8. jonolan says:

    In the case of Limbaugh and Hannity, you’re conflating two issues for the sake of a racial agenda. It’s quite possible to be “emotionally distorted” without being racist – even when a non-White has been given the White House.

    As for the Magic Negro, that is exactly what Obama is. There’s no real racism or shame in enjoy a song that lampoons that fact, and the racism by Liberals inherent in the truth of Obama being such.

    And White Privilege? That would be a laughable concept if it weren’t repeatedly used for such evil ends.

    And integration? It’s amazing to me that it is only certain groups that have problems with that. People from culture after culture came to America and became American, but certain groups seem incapable or unwilling to do so – and complain about the ostracism.

  9. santitafarella says:


    Your life experience is clearly different from mine. I don’t know what part of the country you live in, or how old you are, but you clearly have had a different experience than I have.

    I really don’t think that you have a historic perspective on immigrant assimilation. It is typical of first generation immigrants to not pick up English quickly, or to leave their home cultures behind. But by the second and third generation, people are conventionally assimilated, and retain at least some of the cultural forms associated with their ethnic background.

    And I really don’t think that whites should glibly use the word “negro,” even to mock a black intellectual’s use of the term in an LA Times article. It shows a certain tone deafness and insensitivity to your fellow human beings.


  10. santitafarella says:


    As for white male advantage, historically, please recall that it was not until the 1960s that a black man had served on the Supreme Court, and not until the 1980s that a woman had served. There are still only two women on the Supreme Court, and the Bush picks for the court (that the Senate approved) were white men. Also, both Houses of Congress are occupied overwhelmingly by white men. The Republican Party, for example, has not a single black or Hispanic representative in the Senate. In other words, for most of the history of the Supreme Court, and the American government generally, it has been dominated by white males. That women and people of color should be making their way into positions of power is hardly a reflection of racism, but the reduction of racism.


  11. jonolan says:


    I’m in my mid 40s and currently live in the Bedford-Stuyvesant area of Brooklyn, NY. I’ve also lived in and around Tampa, FL, Sand Diego (Del Coronado), CA, The DC area of MD, Cairo, Riyadh, Kuwait City, an Kyoto.

    The above covers where I’ve bunked for at least a year at a stretch. If we went into shorter stays, the list would get ridiculous. 😉

    Yeah, I’m guessing our life experiences and perspective are a “bit” different.

    As for the assimilation, I’m afraid I didn’t make myself clear at all. I was speaking of long term immigrant cultures that still fail to fully assimilate. Blacks and many Hispanics, as well as some Asian enclaves, will serve as examples.

    As for the use of “negro” and your issues with it, we seem to disagree on how much credence should be lent to the ideas of “racial sensitivity” an “political correctness.”

  12. santitafarella says:


    As someone who grew up in the most diverse county in the United States (Los Angeles), I simply don’t have a clue what you mean by proper “assimilation.” Do the ethnic groups in Los Angeles (for example) live substantially different from, say, some of my maternal relatives in KY? Yes. Do they vote differently? Yes. Are they less “American” in their behavior for doing so? NO.

    My paternal grandfather, who came from Italy, was never a fluid English speaker, and spoke Italian in the home. His kids were more assimilated and spoke some Italian. And I, in generation 3, do not speak Italian. I’m like the Tony Soprano generation of non-Italian speaking “Italians.” I don’t think that this is a gain for the country or a victory for full assimilation that I don’t speak Italian. It’s a loss, not a gain for America (and me). I wish I had learned Italian. I want to emphasize that from my grandfather to me today is about 110 years.

    I think that you are being impatient with immigrant populations in the United States. The world will be different fifty years from now in ways that you and I would be thoroughly surprised at, but it won’t be because people didn’t “assimilate” as immigrants.


  13. jonolan says:

    Aren’t they less American? Do they think of themselves as American or as Latinos? In essence, how do your Hispanic relatives identify themselves?

    You keep speaking about relatively recent immigrants with language issues. I’m speaking of groups who hold a separate identity from “American.” That is the failure to assimilate that I’m talking about and it’s measured in generations not a few years.

  14. santitafarella says:


    I’ve lived with Latinos, and around Latino communities, all of my life (in the part of the country I’m from). I’ve had Latino girlfriends, and thus have been to Latino family gatherings at holidays. At one point in my life, I actually lived with a Latino woman for about three years.

    I assure you that Latinos are no less “American” than my maternal Southern grandparents or Italian paternal grandparents. They eat different foods at holidays (sometimes), but not substantially differently, and they speak English (mostly). Religiously, they’re mostly Protestant and Catholic. It’s going to take about a decade for the rest of the country to get what California has known for a long time. There’s absolutely nothing to fear. People are people.

    There is a scene in “It’s a Wonderful Life” in which ethnic Italians buy a home from Jimmy Stewart, and the ethnic stereotypes of Italians in that film are exactly the same ethnic stereotypes placed on Mexicans today. As I recall, the Italians unload a goat and a chicken and a brood of children out of their old car to put in their new house! Such stereotypes were inaccurate then; they’re inaccurate now.

    The politics of the early 90s that played out in California (a lot of Republican immigrant bashing) is being played out nationally today. The results, a decade or two from now, will be the same. The country will get used to the greater diversity, and the world will go on as it has always gone on. Republicans who are hysterical about this today are simply setting themselves up for a repeat of the marginalization that Republicans in California have experienced. I think that the same is true surrounding gays. Much of the fear is projection and not knowing many (or sometimes not knowing any) people from a particular ethnic group or sexual orientation.

    I spoke to cousins (near my age) in Kentucky a few years back who had grown up attending a high school where there was not a single black person. That completely blew me away. Having friends, relatives, and co-workers who are Hispanic, Jewish, gay, Muslim, Hindu, or black makes it much more difficult to regard them in “alienated” terms.

    Four of my closest friends in High School in Southern Ca. were a Jewish kid, a gay kid, a Bahai kid from Iran, and a black kid. The Jewish kid and the Iranian kid, by the way, were best friends. All of them (last time I heard from them) were doing well economically, and were productive people. The gay kid had gone into acting, and was actually doing pretty well with it last I heard from him a decade ago.

    If people would live together, and share their lives together, I believe that suspicion would die down.


  15. jonolan says:

    That’s all well and good – truly it is – but how do they identify themselves? American or Latino? Do they seem to see themselves as part of America or as being within America?

    That’s what I’m talking about, not a homogeneous nation, but the older “melting pot” idea as opposed to the newer “salad bowl” mentality.

    Face it, if there’s a “Black America” with its “Black Community,” a “Latino America” with its “Latino Community” and a “White America” who is blamed for all the ills of the land, this nation is going to self destruct at some point.

  16. santitafarella says:


    I really think that you’re oversimplifying. I don’t know where you’ve gotten the idea that Latinos and African Americans born in the United States don’t self identify as Americans. It’s bizaare that you would think that. There are, I would remind you, an awful lot of black and Latino soldiers in our military (as well as gay soldiers, I might add). Obviously, Americans are generally less overtly patriotic acting than immediately after WWII, but that’s almost certainly a good thing. Patriotism is a readily manipulable emotion by government officials—and can lead countries into unnecessary wars etc. If people are skeptical of traditional and naive nationalist and patriotic appeals by politicians, this is probably a sign of a healthy, not an unhealthy, patriotism. And ultimately, a deeper commitment to country.

    As for the salad v. the melting pot, this debate went on vigorously in California in the 1990s. California Republicans tended to get wound up over the idea that people aren’t “melting” but just “mixing.” Ultimately, however, it’s just a metaphor. And ultimately, I don’t want ethnic people melting away key elements of their identities. I don’t want conformity in thought, religion, and politics. Do you?

    California is so much more interesting, than, say Kentucky. When I last visited Kentucky to see maternal relatives I was struck by the cultural monotony and how uninteresting it was. I remember being so pleased to fly back to LAX and find that huge and interesting LA “salad” so vibrantly alive.

    Los Angeles too sings America.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s