The Bible and Race in the USA: the Redundancy of Identity Politics

Hilary Clinton’s failed presidential campaign has prompted a number of post-mortem pieces on the state of the Democratic Party. Not too long ago, pundits had predicted that Donald Trump’s nativism spelled the end of the Grand Ole Party. Now the question is where did Hilary Clinton go wrong, with many writers choosing to indict Democrats for being out of touch with “real” Americans.

Talk about flip flop.

Current arguments question liberal’s dependence on rhetorics of diversity–frequently termed “political correctness” or “identity politics.” The Nation features a four-person panel wondering “What is the Left Without Identity Politics?” Nicholas Kristof has tried to make heads and tails of it in recent pieces. And The Washington Post’s  Christine Emba did a guest spot on NPR’s Weekend Edition, coming “In Defense of ‘Identity Politics.'”

This last piece is the one that has sit with me the most, albeit uneasily.

NPR reporter Ailsa Chang asked Elba to discuss the backlash (or “white-lash”) Clinton received on election day and the Democrat’s avid appeals to historically minoritized groups–namely African Americans, Muslims, Latinx populations, the LGBTQIA community, and women.

CHANG: Do Democrats have to be consciously more unifying during a campaign season in order to win an election even if the goal is to help certain groups of voters in certain kinds of ways? Do they have to be self-consciously unifying during a campaign season for messaging purposes and for the purpose of winning?

EMBA: Yeah, I think that’s another question that we’re going to see more and more of as we go forward in campaigns like this and as America becomes more diverse. It’s kind of a seesaw between idealism and practicality. Yes, we want to win. And maybe that does mean that we spend more time talking about the concerns of one group over the concerns of another. At the same time, though, it really does seem like a shame to ask groups to wait their turn.

Say what you will of Clinton’s strategy, but I take umbrage at the signifiers of “idealism” and “practicality.” I presume that Emba is likening idealism to diversity and practicality to  those with sociological trump cards (i.e. white people, men, heterosexuals, Christians). The problem with reading identity this way is that it buys into the illusion that    normativity equals practicality despite its constant need to be re-in-forced.

The international scholarly working group, Culture on the Edge caught the irony.

Culture on the Edge’s Facebook Stub for NPR’s “In Defense of Identity Politics”

The question isn’t whether Democrats need to be more unifying but why identity politics seems not only divisive, but also mystifying. I’m currently of the mind that so many opining about racial identity politics fail to recognize that the discourse is two-pronged.

First, there’s the problem of the color line that distinguishes whiteness as rightness. This is white supremacy in all its grotesque glory. In Marxist terms, it’s the base and its the superstructure.  It’s the capital amassed and inherited by successfully claiming a position of racial dominance. It’s also all the considerable work that goes into making whiteness a thing.

Alyxr, “Diagram Explaining The Base-Superstructure Dialectic in Marxist Theory ,” Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0.

Then there’s the related (and often overlooked) aspect of the discourse which I call the hegemony of the prodigal other. This is the insidious logic in which the minoritized are defined against each other intraracially and interracially. It’s habitus is what Monica R. Miller discusses as the American “obsession” with establishing proximity to “whiteness”–the “all too simplistic descriptor of skin color as proxy for the modern invention of race and the conglomerate of processes that maintain its structural salience.”

Until the prodigal other manages to pass for white (again, the color line), the minoritized can only access the capital to which white people are accustomed if they work in an exceptional manner. If you’re asking in comparison to whom, it’s in relation to those with the desired capital and the ability to write the rules for assessing it. Given the purposeful elusiveness of the term, the minoritized are engaged in a futile contest to earn “second best” in the eyes of a paper champion. My Bible and Race in the USA seminar has seen testimony to this point in the vernacular scripts of the groups we studied thus far.

I think of how Luther Standing Bear read between the lines of the “civilizing” work of the Carlisle Indian Industrial School. It’s peculiar, federally-funded mission was to save the declining indigenous population by Americanizing its remnants.

“The civilizing process at Carlisle began with clothes. Whites believed the Indian children could not be civilized while wearing moccasins and blankets. Their hair was cut because in some mysterious way long hair stood in the path of our development. They were issued the cloths of white men. High collar stiff-bosomed shirts and suspenders fully three inches in width were uncomfortable. White leather boots caused actual suffering.” Luther Standing Bear, “Carlisle Industrial Indian School,” Wikimedia Commons

African Americans have a folk sayings about the grading curve for learning these lessons.

Twice as good as them to get talk of what they have.

The hope is that the “talented tenth” who manage to work their way out of the deficit will be “a credit to their race.”

Then I think of the way Latinx people get stigmatized as lazy (like black people) and /or slighted as naturally hard workers and suited for manual labor.

The Model Minority myth similarly places an expectation of exceptionalism upon the shoulders of the Asian-American community so long as they stand on the backs of the aforementioned groups.

One might argue that the (White Anglo-Saxon) Protestant Work Ethic is similarly deployed. This is a fine comparison so far as it provides a context for stratification. But race adds not only another factor, but an additional dimension to the matrix for difference-making. Part of  claiming whiteness is the ability to lord over the terms of comparison and election. A few weeks back, my students surfaced this distinction in this clip from Gilmore Girls.

The point of these examples is to show that saying the right word or being careful about how we talk about race hardly belabors the integrity of our well-worn labels. With its redundancies, the structure of whiteness is far too robust  to allow such surface critiques cut through. In fact, that we’re this on edge about simply discussing whiteness when we don’t hesitate to parse out non-dominant groups suggests that America’s racial center is intact.

Perhaps the country is only at the beginning of analyzing its identity politics.

This week’s blog posts take the risky steps of looking at the stories of people (specifically  Asians and Asian Americans) who’ve traversed the ins and outs of US identity politics. Each case study demonstrates how minoritized persons must be as nimble in naming themselves as the nation’s institutions are in categorizing them. And engaging the Bible and race together has helped some Asian Americans find success–even as both have served against them. Vanderbilt PhD-candidate, Ekapatra Tupamahu responds to each post with insights from critical theory and biblical studies.

Maya Aphornsuvan, “The Bible and Rap”

Ekaputra Tupamahu, “Reimagining America: Continuing to Travel with MC Jin,”

Marlee Schwalm, “Incarcerated in ‘the Land of the Free,'”

Ekaputra Tupamahu, “Locations of Interpretation: Scriptures and Fear in America.”

Click here to see the first (Native Americans), second (African Americans),  and third (Hispanic Americans) volumes in our series on the Bible and Race in the USA.

Richard-Newton PictureRichard Newton, PhD is curator of Sowing the Seed and Assistant Professor of Religious Studies at  Elizabethtown College. His scholarship focuses on the anthropology of scriptures. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @seedpods.

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