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Identity and inequality, a US perspective

A critical take on identity politics by the American think tank New Labor Forum provides a sober debunking of the myths surrounding this pernicious ideology and shows how focusing on inter-ethnic income differences, at the expense of class income differences, only serves the neo-liberal preference for greater overall inequalities.

In Identity Politics – A Zero Sum Game Walter Benn Michaels argues that as well as helping to justify an unequal society, this type of multiculturalist thinking is a bad idea for the very minorities it purports to protect.

The IWCA has consistently challenged the mainstream political consensus that promotes multiculturalism (see, for example, Multiculturalism & identity politics – the reactionary consequences and how they can be challenged and National Equality Panel confirms that class is the main issue).

A Zero Sum Game looks at the issue from a more theoretical perspective, demolishing the notion, beloved amongst large sections of the left, that identity politics can be in any way progressive.

But it is also – and almost as obviously – irrelevant to a left politics, or even to the goal of reducing unemployment, as we can see just by imagining what it would be like if we finally did manage to get rid of discrimination. Suppose, for example, that unemployment for whites and for Asian-Americans were to rise to 10 percent while for blacks and Hispanics it fell to 10 percent. Or suppose that unemployment for everyone went to 15 percent. In both cases, we would have eliminated the racial disparity in unemployment rates, but in neither case would we have eliminated any unemployment.

It also raises the interesting point that three-quarters of the students at elite US colleges and universities come from the richest socioeconomic quarter of the population, while just 3 percent come from the bottom quarter – about a 25:1 ratio. This telling statistic demonstrates how existing inequalities will only be reinforced over time. Yet the main debate, particularly in the US but here as well, is not students’ income background but their colour.

Read the full article: Identity Politics – A Zero Sum Game by Walter Benn Michaels on the New Labor Forum website.

2 Responses to “Identity and inequality, a US perspective”

  1. ally Says:

    Cheers for the link, I liked this part-

    “After all, it’s one thing to worry about the fact that the average CEO now makes in one day what the average worker makes in one year; it’s a completely different thing to worry about the fact that there aren’t enough women CEOs. And what the identity in identity politics requires is only that we worry about the second.”

  2. Ross Says:

    Saw a review of a book today by Gary Younge called ‘Who Are We – and Should It Matter in the 21st Century?’

    Although he doesn’t have much of a class approach/perspective, it makes some pretty good points

    “At the last US presidential election, Democratic party members could have chosen as their candidate a 5ft 6in Methodist graduate of Wellesley College or a 6ft 1in member of the United Church of Christ from Columbia University. These differences may strike you as insignificant compared to the fact that one candidate was a black man and the other a white woman.

    Yet race and gender surely were significant factors in the race for the White House. Clinton’s décolletage even became a campaign news story, when she was accused of showing too much of it. However, according to a study cited by Gary Younge in his absorbing and thoughtful discussion of identity, a 6in height difference on average means the taller person earns $166,000 more over 30 years, making a greater difference than gender. And since 1900, taller candidates have won presidential elections 19 out of 28 times. So why are gender and race politically important, but shortness is not? Why is height not a major marker of identity?”

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