Identity Politics and the Radicalization of White Men

2020 -- When Bernie Sanders launched his 2020 presidential bid this week, a Vermont Public Radio interviewer asked him how his candidacy fit into a moment when the Democratic Party is looking more diverse than ever?

Sanders responded, “We have got to look at candidates, you know, not by the color of their skin, not by their sexual orientation or their gender and not by their age. We have got to move towards a nondiscriminatory society.” 

On the surface, Sanders’ comments seem reasonable enough; of course, we want candidates -- and all people, really – to be judged on their beliefs and actions over all else. But being “nondiscriminatory” isn’t about ignoring race and gender -- it’s the opposite. Moving towards justice requires us to pay very close attention to the relationships these identities have to power and privilege. 

After all, we didn’t get all male, all straight, and almost all white presidents by accident -- presidential candidates have always been judged by their race, gender, and sexual orientation. Yet, it’s only when there are female or nonwhite candidates that voters are told that gender and race shouldn’t matter.

These kinds of distinctions and nuances are becoming increasingly understood on the left. But we need our politicians to catch up. 

When Starbucks CEO and presidential candidate Howard Schultz claimed in a televised town hall, “I don’t see color,” for example, he was widely panned for repeating a well-known (and deservedly-mocked) statement by those who seem more interested in waving away issues of racism than dealing with them directly. People understood that Schultz wasn’t signaling a commitment to racial justice issues but claiming that he was above it all. 

Politicians can’t afford to brush off what’s happening in the U.S. around race and gender right now. In fact, “identity politics” may be the most urgent social issue of our time — it’s just not about the identities most people associate with the often-derided term. 

Right now, extremist hate groups and white supremacist terrorism are on the rise. A new report from the Southern Poverty Law Center showed a 50 percent increase in white nationalist groups last year, and just this week a Coast Guard lieutenant was arrested for planning a mass killing that targeted Democratic politicians and left-leaning journalists. 

Christopher Paul Hasson, who was found with 15 firearms and over 1000 rounds of ammunition, kept a list of “traitors” on his computer and conducted internet searches on whether or not Supreme Court justices had security protection. This comes in the wake of multiple mass killings over the last few years committed by young white men furious over women’s sexual rejection.  

Just this month, a man in Florida with a history of sexual misconduct and online misogynist rants-- he even invoked mass murderer Elliot Rodger  -- killed two women and injured five other people. 

There needs to be an interrogation into the young men becoming radicalized in the Trump era-- that’s the identity politics I want to hear about in 2020. At the very least, I want our leaders to understand that rejection killings or white supremacist extremism is an identity politic— that these are crimes motivated by backlash and fear in the same way that the election of Donald Trump was. 

There is no moving on from this divided, tense, and frankly horrible period in American history without focusing on the role that white male identity is playing. There will be no racial justice, no gender justice, no class justice, without a deep dive into the very topics so many politicians — on both the left and right — seem loathe to touch. 

This week, Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris both indicated that they would support reparations for black Americans, a welcome and proactive stance. We need more of this, and more of an understanding that race and gender issues are not just about people of color, and not just about women. 

America is way past “I don’t see color,” or “gender shouldn’t matter.” The stakes are too high, and we cannot afford superficial policies or platitudes on some of the most important issues facing Americans today.


(Jessica Valenti, a member of Medium.com, is a Feminist author and columnist. Prepped for CityWatch by Linda Abrams.