In an Intercept essay from last year, Briahna Joy Gray defined weaponized identity politics as “the cynical emphasis on personal identity over political beliefs in order to advance candidates whose interests are inapposite to the needs of the groups they’re presumed to represent.”
Whether or not the term is, the thing should be plenty familiar by now, with an entire presidency, that of Barack Obama, serving as an object lesson in how policies which directly attack the lives of particular groups, in his case African Americans, are most effectively advanced by those having membership within those very groups.
Obama was famously described by Adolph Reed as “a smooth talking lawyer” with “vacuous to repressive neoliberal politics.” It is not surprising therefore, that the campaign of the candidate who comes closest to this description, namely Kamala Harris, is weaponizing her African American identity to vanquish her rivals.
A textbook example of Harris doing exactly that was recently provided by one of her supporters who noted in a Facebook comment that Harris’s African American identity “makes the old white guys squirm.”
Of course, politicians have always traded on their life experience, cultural, religious, or ethnic background to establish their credibility with different constituencies.
What makes Harris tactic “cynical” is that it is precisely African Americans to whom Harris has done the most damage to over the course of her career.
As should be well known by now, in her capacity as a prosecutor, Harris was responsible for the incarceration of many thousands of young African American males for low level drug offenses. That’s not to mention her enforcement of truancy statutes which attempted to criminalize families, mostly African American and Latino, whose economic circumstances made it impossible to monitor their children’s school attendance. She also defended in court the death penalty, well known to be racially discriminatory, and fought to release fewer prisoners, even when the Supreme Court found California’s overcrowded prison conditions in violation of the 14th amendment.
Just as Harris has done harm to “the groups (she is) presumed to represent” in the past, the policies she advancing in the present campaign suggests that she has little interest in benefitting them in the future.
Most notable of these is her walking back of her debate pledge to support Medicare for All the day after the event. The provision of medical care as a right would disproportionately benefit African Americans who suffer the high rates of infant mortality and lower life expectancy due to lack of access to affordable treatment. Her continuation of a dysfunctional system, even slightly mitigated with a public option, would continue to result in thousands of unnecessary deaths of African Americans.
The same can be said of student debt which is disproportionately incurred by African American women. Harris, unlike the progressive candidates in the race, has not indicated any interest in supporting proposals calling for its reduction or abolition. This will exacerbate existing racial inequities with the majority of African Americans continuing to have little to no accumulated intergenerational wealth.
Finally, given Harris’s longstanding ties to banking and finance, African American victims of the foreclosure crisis probably won’t see much relief under a Harris administration. Taxes on the wealthy and major corporations are likely to be slightly increased, as they have been under previous neoliberal Democratic administrations. But the increase will be insufficient to fund programs which African Americans are in desperate need of, fiscal austerity being fundamental to the neoliberal program. Nor will the increased marginal rates be sufficient to shift the balance of hegemonic class power away from economic elites exercised at the expense of the most disadvantaged members of society.
Harris’s weaponizing of identity politics is a central tactic in the neoliberal arsenal, as I’ve discussed many times. Her defeat, and that of the others who are competing to curry the favor of elites would be the most profound repudiation their agenda which has occurred in my lifetime.
As a practical matter, as all of us should know, this means the nomination and election of Bernie Sanders.
It is far from certain but by no means impossible that we can make this a reality.