How the identitarians revived racism
Yascha Mounk on how this regressive ideology threatens equality.
So much of what passes for ‘progressive’ politics these days would be totally alien to yesteryear’s leftists and liberals. While liberals and leftists once fought for all people to be treated equally, regardless of their skin colour, woke activists now want to practise race-based discrimination. While feminists once fought to abolish gender stereotypes, trans activists today insist that tomboyish girls and effeminate boys are born in the wrong body and should transition. We are constantly told that people of different races, sexual orientations or genders are so fundamentally different that they cannot possibly understand each other. Universalism is out and a new, regressive politics of identity is in.
As Yascha Mounk argues in his new book, The Identity Trap: A Story of Ideas and Power in Our Time, the West now places identity at the centre of everything. And this is stifling progress and turning back the clock on hard-won rights. Mounk joined Brendan O’Neill on the latest episode of The Brendan O’Neill Show to discuss all this and more. What follows is an edited extract from their conversation. Listen to the full thing here.
Brendan O’Neill: Your book opens with a shocking anecdote about a racially segregated elementary school in Atlanta, Georgia. Why did you choose this story and what does it tell us about where we are as a culture right now?
Yascha Mounk: While I was researching the book I spoke to Kila Posey, an African-American mother from Atlanta, who had asked an elementary school if she could request a particular classroom for her daughter. The school initially said yes, but when Posey followed up the principal kept stalling. Eventually, the principal gave in and told Posey that her daughter couldn’t go to that class, because it was not the ‘black class’.
This sounds like the sort of old-fashioned racial discrimination you’d get in the American South in the 1950s. But this happened in 2020. And the principal was herself a black woman. She had bought into a broader identitarian ideology that is attempting to reshape the norms of the West.
According to this worldview, we shouldn’t be teaching schoolkids that they have things in common. We shouldn’t be telling them to stand in solidarity with each other. We shouldn’t show them how to recognise injustice. Instead, students should define themselves as strongly as possible by the particular racial group to which they belong.
While this story about segregation is extreme, similar things are happening in schools across America. Most elite private schools in the US now have racially segregated affinity groups, often as early as third or second grade. I particularly worry about what happens to the white students, not because this might make them uncomfortable – I think it’s fine to be uncomfortable as part of your education – but because everything I’ve learned from history and social science teaches me that how we identify is incredibly fungible. It can and will change over time. But once you say ‘this is my group’, you become very prone to in-group bias.
This ideology that centres race, gender and sexual orientation has become incredibly influential in the past few years. Not only is it reshaping what we teach kids, but it’s also reshaping public policy. It is reshaping how corporations are running our daily lives. This is what I wanted to put the focus on.
O’Neill: In your book, you use the term ‘identity synthesis’. Why did you choose ‘identity synthesis’ instead of ‘identity politics’?
Mounk: ‘Identity politics’ is very difficult to actually define. It’s certainly distinct from what left-wing thinking used to be 50 or even 25 years ago. It’s also very distinct from liberalism. And it still perplexes me that we don’t have an official term for this phenomenon.
Some people might like socialism, others may not, but they can at least agree on what to call it. We don’t have a term for what we call ‘identity politics’ that is both precise and sufficiently neutral to serve as a basis for debate. And if you go on and on about ‘woke’, you start to sound like a crazy old man.
I came up with the term ‘identity synthesis’ because I am talking about a set of ideas that place identity categories like race, gender and sexual orientation at the very centre of societal analysis. And these ideas constitute a synthesis of different intellectual influences, like postmodernism, postcolonialism and critical race theory.
I realise it’s not particularly pithy and perhaps is not going to catch on, but having a precise term was necessary to write the book. I don’t really care what term we end up choosing. As Freddie deBoer has argued, just tell us what to call the damn thing so that we can have a conversation about it. We need a term that allows us to actually recognise these ideas as interesting, novel, worth engaging with and, in my opinion, ultimately damaging and wrong.
O’Neill: How do you think this ideology is impacting young people?
Mounk: One understandable instinct that a lot of people have is to believe that these young activists are just well-intentioned kids who have gone too far. After all, didn’t we all go a little bit too far when we were in college? Didn’t we all have silly beliefs?
I have genuine compassion for the people with seemingly noble motives who believe in this ideology. However, I don’t think it’s a matter of these young people going too far in the right direction. They’re actually going in completely the wrong direction.
I understand the concerns that motivate some of these practices, but doing things like separating kids by race does not make the world a better place. It makes it much, much worse.
Yascha Mounk was talking to Brendan O’Neill on The Brendan O’Neill Show. Listen to the full conversation here:
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