Martin Luther King, Jr., famously prophesied a time in America when his children would “be judged not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” King’s dream foresaw a new era of civil rights for African-Americans, but it also hinted at a fundamental cultural transformation, one in which people were thought of foremost as responsible moral agents, not simply members of a racial, ethnic, or even national group. But has this transformation taken place?
Consider the continued discussion over “identity politics.” Identity politics, as many conservatives would use the term, denotes a social and political worldview that deemphasizes the individuality of the person in favor of the collective experience of that person’s represented group. A culture preoccupied with identity politics tends to think in terms of which group has been victimized by which group, or, which demographic deserves more than what they’re getting.
Election 2016 highlighted in jarring fashion just how accommodated many Americans are to identity politics. On the left, the Democratic Party nominated a candidate who continued a decades long trope about her opposing political party being engaged in a “war on women.” On the right, the Republican Party nominated a candidate who was buoyed by support from self-described “ethno-nationalists,” whose economic frustrations were often taken out against minorities, immigrants and the “elite.” Many media outlets have openly framed the results of the election as a victory for white males and a loss for just about everyone else.
The problem with identity politics isn’t that identity is irrelevant. Certainly categorical injustice against specific groups is possible and is part of American history. But acknowledging injustice does not require the kind of political demagogy that we often see today. The legalization of same-sex marriage, for example, was largely the culmination of an effort to make traditional marriage not about transcendent ideals or the family unity, but about categorical discrimination against LGBT Americans. Proposed legislation that would eliminate gender specific public restrooms almost always avoids mentioning specific examples of real injustice, and instead offers broad sweeping warnings of the “discrimination” and “intolerance” that would happen if males and females are directed into separate restrooms. It’s easy to see how identity politics are often weaponized in the culture war.
Instead of seeing people foremost as members of an oppressed (or privileged) group, we should see each other as first individuals, with human rights and responsibilities. Rather than obsessing over whether one political party is the “party of women” or the “party of people of color,” we should instead argue about which political party is the party of the people. Only by transcending the reductionism of identity politics can we truly fulfill Dr. King’s dream of a world where character, not identity, is the standard.