Saturday, June 6, 2009

“Identity is no museum piece sitting stock-still in a display case, but rather the endlessly astonishing synthesis of the contradictions of everyday life.” –Eduardo Galeano

I can barely stand to listen anymore: far-right conservatives and news correspondents alike embracing arguments steeped in identity politics when they’ve spent their lives (and mine) denying that such arguments carry weight. Between biracial and female presidential primary candidates; the first nonwhite president of the U.S.; the desperate nomination of RNC Chairman Michael Steele; and the debate over Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor, questions about identity (with absolutely no theory to back them up) have become the centerpiece of T.V. news debates, asked by everyone from Anderson Cooper to Glenn Beck.

I’m not going to delve into the abundant amount of frustrating--and occasionally amusing--criticisms of Sotomayor. They, like many arguments not steeped in actual knowledge or experience, lack texture and rely on black and white statements with no regard for logic. There is no way to counter silly speculations of Obama as a terrorist, the RNC trying to appear more “urban” with the appointment of Michael Steele, or the question—recently posed on Fox News--of whether or not Sotomayor “understands America” when she was born and raised here, except to laugh.

And laugh we should. These kinds of questions reveal the amount of power detractors have to lose when nonwhite minorities begin to gain power. Their quick embrace of the identity-based arguments they formerly despised reveals how much power is at stake.

For example, anyone who longs for the “good old days” of the 1950s is either rich, white or both. Most likely, they’re also male. I don’t know that anyone who is nonwhite, female, immigrant or gay who would wish to return to a decade where firehoses and lynchings, segregation, back-alley abortions, lack of career choices, discrimination for jobs or blind arrests for simply patronizing a bar were the norm. The “good old days” were only a reality for people who enjoyed power before it was wrested from them in the rights movements of the 1960s. I’d venture to say that most of the rest of us would run from it, screaming.

Today, the “good old days” refer to the days when the experience of anyone who isn’t white, wealthy and male didn’t enter into play because white men were the only ones up for the job. And the power they stand to lose now becomes even more transparent when pinned against their embrace of the very same questions once asked by minority groups about white, mostly male Supreme Court candidates and presidents. Considering that power impacts the oppressed more than anyone else, and taking into account the astounding incarceration rate of minorities and the poor in this country, questions of identity, when it came to wealthy white men, were asked with damn good reason: Will they uphold the law fairly? What’s their record on decisions around discrimination? Do they hate women, gays and/or brown people? Do they seem a fair judge? What’s their stand on non-Christian religions? How do they feel about poverty?

These questions were once asked by those under the thumb of power because it directly impacted their quality of life--with centuries of historical precedents to back them up. Now, they are being asked by those who, because of their privilege, traditionally treated such concerns as insignificant because it didn’t directly affect them. While identity-based criticisms of Obama and Sotomayor are foolish and such fear is irrational and xenophobic, it is the fright of the loss of power that poses them. While we might not want to listen to sweeping accusations on identity anymore, we should gleefully watch critics squirm as centuries-old power slips from their fingers.

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