In the mid-1970s, a group of black feminist scholars and activists began meeting in Boston to form an organization that would address the political concerns of black women, which they felt had been ignored by the larger feminist movement. The group included renowned poet Audre Lorde, celebrated scholar/activist Barbara Smith, and future First Lady of New York City Chirlane McCray, among others. They called themselves the Combahee River Collective, taking their name from the South Carolina site where the abolitionist Harriet Tubman led a military campaign that freed more than 750 enslaved people in 1863.
In 1977, the group issued “A Black Feminist Statement,” the culmination of their work to clarify their politics, “while at the same time doing political work within our own group and in coalition with other progressive organizations and movements.” They made clear that they were “actively committed to struggling against racial, sexual, heterosexual, and class oppression” and that they saw “Black feminism as the logical political movement to combat the manifold and simultaneous oppressions that all women of color face.” Having found that other groups—including the civil rights, black power, and feminist movements—were lacking in their approach to ending the oppression of black women and women of color, the collective wrote: “We realize that the only people who care enough about us to work consistently for our liberation is us. ... This focusing on our own oppression is embodied in the concept of identity politics. We believe that the most profound and potentially the most radical politics come directly out of our own identity, as opposed to working to end somebody else’s oppression.”
That term, identity politics, has been hotly debated in recent years, most notably in reaction to the 2016 election. For some, the Democratic Party’s insistence on focusing on identity politics—or at least, a certain definition of identity politics—is what cost them the election. The most prominent and vocal critic of identity politics has been Columbia University professor Mark Lilla, who declared in a New York Times op-ed published ten days after the election “that the age of identity liberalism must be brought to an end,” because it had been “disastrous as a foundation for democratic politics in our ideological age.” Lilla expanded this argument into a book-length polemic entitled The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics, released in August of this year. His main complaint is that identity politics is having a pernicious effect on the Democratic Party’s ability to win votes from “the demos living between the coasts.” He finds that a focus on identity politics at the university level is to blame, since young people are not being taught that “they share a destiny with all their fellow citizens and have duties toward them.”
Except Lilla’s argument has nothing to do with identity politics. At least, not as the Combahee River Collective, which coined the term and theorized its meaning, originally laid out. In fact, Lilla spends very little time engaging the collective’s meaning of the term, instead devoting his energy to his own interpretation of identity politics. The one time he does mention their work he is dismissive. In the book he writes: “With the rise of identity consciousness, engagement in issue-based movements began to diminish somewhat and the conviction got rooted that the movements most meaningful to the self are, unsurprisingly, about the self. As the feminist authors of the Combahee River Collective put it baldly in their influential 1977 manifesto, ‘the most profound and potentially most radical politics come directly out of our own identity, as opposed to working to end somebody else’s oppression.’”
Lilla’s spin on this statement would make identity politics sound like a selfish political theory. But his bad interpretation is not the same as a bad theory. When the collective writes that the “most radical politics come directly out of our own identity,” Lilla reads this as applying to each individual group’s identity when the Combahee River Collective meant “our own” to apply specifically to black women. It is a result of their belief, as they write later in the statement, that, “If Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression.” The original intent of identity politics was articulating black women’s struggle at the nexus of race, gender, sexual, and class oppressions, and then forming strategies for dismantling each of these, both in black feminist spaces and in coalition with other groups.
How Lilla misses this is beyond me, since if he read the collective’s statement in full he would have to challenge his own definition of a selfish identity politics against the group’s statements. For example, that they are socialist because “we believe that work must be organized for the collective benefit of those who do the work and create the products and not for the profit of the bosses,” and that they believe in “collective process and a nonhierarchical distribution of power within our own group and in our vision of a revolutionary society.” He makes a lengthy argument against the notion of identity politics without ever engaging the context in which the theory was developed. He sees only a focus on identities that are not his own, not the political forces that shapes those identities and that the collective sought to engage.
Even removed from its original context, identity politics applied more broadly would not be as Lilla sees it. Identity is the place to understand what forms of oppression are operating within your own life. From here, coalitions can be built with others who face similar forms of oppression, so long as it is also understood that oppression is not experienced the same across identities. This is where intersectionality, the theory developed by black feminist scholar and activist Kimberlé Crenshaw, is useful. It helps us to understand that class oppression will look different for those who also exist at the intersection of marginalized race, gender, and sexual identities. Any coalition worth forming has to take stock of those differences or suffer an agenda that is insufficient to liberating all people.
Lilla’s failure (and he is not alone) is zeroing in on the part of this theory that acknowledges we all have varied identities, and then ignoring the rest. While the terms identity politics and intersectionality have taken hold of our discourse, the substance of these theories has been left behind. We haven’t taken the intellectual contributions of black women seriously enough to engage them beyond empty sloganeering. And since these concepts have been reduced to catchphrases, everyone has been free to fill in their own meanings. Not only does this make for a poorer debate, it replicates the circumstances which made the Combahee River Collective and their theory of identity politics necessary in the first place.
The Combahee River Collective was assembled to define a radical vision for black women’s freedom—and thus, as they believed, all people’s freedom. They did this through an antisexist, antiracist, socialist political strategy. It remains to be seen whether the Democratic Party is prepared to fully embrace this strategy, but liberals undermine it by coopting its revolutionary language, which only dilutes the impact of actual identity politics and its ability to challenge systems of power. Lilla seems to think Democrats are at fault for embracing identity politics, but the true crime is that it has been taken out of the revolutionary hands to which it belongs.