Passing for politics - Asad Haider

Asad Haider of 'Viewpoint' magazine reflects on campus politics, race and identity.

Submitted by Craftwork on May 30, 2017

Today’s politics of identity — the epoch of trigger warnings, microaggressions, and privilege-checking — was already the subject of debate in a 1964 exchange between Amiri Baraka, then still known as LeRoi Jones, and Philip Roth. It began with Roth’s negative review of Jones’s The Dutchman, along with James Baldwin’s Blues for Mister Charlie, in The New York Review of Books. The Dutchman had presented a theatrical allegory of the failures of liberal integrationism, and the seductive treachery of the white world. Roth’s dismissive review displays no real understanding of the political critique at work in the play; nevertheless, the line that became the real point of contention contains a kernel of insight. This was Roth’s speculation that Baraka, then Jones, wrote The Dutchman for a white audience, “not so that they should be moved to pity or to fear, but to humiliation and self-hatred.” Jones retorted in a vicious letter that, “The main rot in the minds of ‘academic’ liberals like yourself, is that you take your own distortion of the world to be somehow more profound than the cracker’s.”

Roth’s The Human Stain, written during the reign of our first “first black president” (you have to wonder if Toni Morrison regrets saying that), illuminates the distance between 1964 and 2016. Here Roth presents a biography that moves from the personal costs of segregation to the contradictions of liberal multiculturalism. Coleman Silk, a light-skinned black professor of classics — like Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which provoked the trigger warning debate at Columbia — spends a lifetime passing for white. Yet in ’90s America it is not the black identity which destroys his life and reputation, but the somehow ontologically irrefutable accusation of anti-black racism.

Today, in a digitized culture where social media adrenalizes a growing industry of denunciation, we’ve seen an inversion of Roth’s Human Stain scenario: the bizarre case of Rachel Dolezal. A professor of African American Studies at Eastern Washington University and president of the Spokane NAACP, Dolezal, it turned out, is a white woman from Montana passing for black. Like Baraka and Coleman Silk, she even spent some time at Howard University.

Regardless of its strangeness, who can dispute her claim? “I identify as black,” she said; like it or not, it is her sovereign right as an individual working within the framework of identity to engage in this “singular act of invention,” as Roth put it.

Both Dolezal’s unmasking and the furor it provoked are an index of a specific kind of social change: the evolving and uncertain relationship between who we imagine ourselves to be, and how we choose to act. If these questions correspond in some rough sense, respectively, to “identity” and “politics,” the formulation “identity politics,” by equating the two terms, skips over the step of asking just what this troublesome and elusive relationship is, and how it responds to shifting material circumstances. The Dutchman, first performed just months before the passing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, situates the relation between identity and politics in this historical moment. Clay, a middle-class quasi-assimilated intellectual, is forced to come to terms with his black identity, and overcomes his aspirations to whiteness with a rebellious rage. Yet since his rebellion is individual, Baraka suggested, it cannot succeed; it ends with his murder.

Baraka’s own life represented a passage from individual rebellion to collective organization, moving through the identity-based politics of black nationalism to a Marxist universalism. It was a passage of this kind which proved exceedingly difficult to make in the social movements of last year — perhaps in part because we have failed to understand precisely how the relation between identity and politics has changed.

With scandals of identity proliferating on college campuses today, there is an almost axiomatic assumption that student activists, carried away by fantasies of social change, have used censorship and public shaming to assault the dignity of the public sphere. But one turbulent fall, I watched the ideology of identity destroy a burgeoning student movement itself.

Debates over trigger warnings tend to represent them as the primary threat to university pedagogy. But when it comes to incursions on the quality of education, trigger warnings are vastly overshadowed by financialization and budget cuts. Public university privatization is part of a general social trend of austerity, and the stakes are high — for faculty and teaching assistants overwhelmed by ballooning class sizes, adjuncts commuting between teaching gigs at three or four different colleges, and students working full time after class to pay rent.

When the University of California Board of Regents announced a 27% tuition hike in November 2014, the Santa Cruz campus erupted. I hadn’t expected much; I was sitting in my office grading, planning to make a quick appearance at the rally on the way home. Then I heard the crowd outside: the building next door had been occupied, the administration ejected. Change of plans.

The occupation lasted about a week, punctuated with visits by Cornel West, Chris Hedges, and the Teamsters. After an initial burst of inchoate energy, conversations finally started — analysis was hashed out, slogans printed onto fliers. It’s remarkable how at all of these actions the race question already dominated everything. It seemed to be most effective, in terms of rallying troops, to say that rising tuition “hits students of color the hardest.”

I tried in vain to find some basis, any basis, for this in the data, but upon further scrutiny it doesn’t bear out. There may have been reasons for claiming that students of color who grew up in economically segregated neighborhoods and went to similarly segregated public schools were most severely affected by the overall trends of privatization which tuition hikes represent, despite the fact that the poorest among them don’t pay tuition. But the insistence that the tuition hikes themselves must be somehow racially biased obscured the complicated mathematics underlying the UC’s policy vacillations, and forced the movement into a rhetorical corner — as though racially equitable university privatization would be somehow acceptable.

Alongside this fundamental lack of clarity sat the flabbergasting opposition to the very words “occupy” or “occupation,” which could have recalled self-managed factories in Argentina and Uruguay, but instead were accused of celebrating the genocide of indigenous people. In a stunning reversal of earlier academic fads, the signifier “occupy” was restricted to a single meaning traced back to Christopher Columbus, any suggestion of polysemy rejected as if it were a personal insult. A debate that should probably have happened in a semiotics seminar took up hours at meetings where we could have planned teach-ins and rallies and workshops, or allocated clean-up tasks. Instead, we had to pore over the activist thesaurus in search of synonyms like “takeover” or “seizure.”

But things got worse. It started with a debate over authoritarian practices at a disorganized general assembly. The crowd, the biggest yet, was full of excited newcomers who were ready to join in. But they were totally silenced, reduced to receiving instructions that had not been democratically discussed. Many people spoke up to criticize this practice, including me. But each of the facilitators was a “POC” — that’s “Person-of-Color” — and after the assembly completely unraveled, an almost hilariously unsubstantiated rumor began to spread that the facilitators had been attacked by racists. This rumor became nearly impossible to dispel; even some of the usual supporters heard that the occupation wasn’t a “safe space,” and stopped showing up.

Some people began to organize separatist POC meetings, united by their complexion against a fictional collection of white anarchists. My skin got me in the door. After listening to a bewildering array of political positions — one student read aloud an email from an administrator conspiratorially accusing student protesters of attempting to undermine campus diversity initiatives — I felt the need to intervene. I stood and tried to summon up some rhetorical demons the best I could; I thought about Malcolm X, and how he always spoke in the second person (“You don’t know what a revolution is!”). I dropped names like Frantz Fanon, and tried to convince a totally heterogeneous group to drop the POC act and help build a better movement. Some observers snapped their fingers with appreciation at the occasional oratorical flourish, and ignored what I said.

I guess those students showed up because they didn’t feel recognized — they didn’t feel recognized all through elementary school and middle school and high school and freshman year and now suddenly here it was, all about them. Here they were, making white kids feel guilty and locking them out of the clubhouse. Who could blame them? Ten years ago I would’ve done it myself.

That cathartic pleasure of lashing out against whites is usually most enjoyed by those who closely identify with them. In fact, LeRoi Jones — before he was renamed Ameer Barakat by the Muslim priest Hajj Heshaam Jaaber, who officiated the funeral of Malcolm X, and then had the name Swahilized into Amiri Baraka by Ron Karenga — was mired in identity crisis from the beginning.

His autobiography recalls a childhood marked by a kind of gradient of the black, brown, yellow, and white: “These are some basic colors of my life, in my life. A kind of personal, yet fairly objective class analysis that corresponds (check it) to some real shit out in the streets in these houses and in some people’s heads.” The “brown” existence of the Jones family in Newark wasn’t quite the “yellow” incorporation into white suburban professional life, nor was it the black life of “the damned, the left behind, the left out.” With parents who worked in offices, days spent with white students and teachers at school, he experienced class differentiation within the black community in ambivalent, color-coded terms.

It was Jones’s education, his training as an intellectual, that would push him towards the lighter end of the gradient. Leaving white and alienating Rutgers, he passed through the brown and yellow world of Howard University, where he came to know the future “black bourgeoisie,” both in his social life and in the courses of E. Franklin Frazier. After dropping out and starting an abortive stint in the Air Force, he read intensively, and began to develop an interest in becoming a writer. But it proved difficult for Jones to recognize himself in this role. As he recounted, “my reading was, in the main, white people… So that my ascent toward some ideal intellectual pose was at the same time a trip toward a white-out I couldn’t even understand.” “White people’s words” caught him in a “tangle of nonself”: “A nonself creation where you become other than you as you. Where the harnesses of black life are loosened and you free-float, you think, in the great sunkissed intellectual waygonesphere. Imbibing, gobbling, stuffing yourself with reflections of the other.”

When Jones finally wound up in Greenwich Village, the white-out reached its peak. In an introduction to his 1965 essay collection Home, he wrote: “Having been taught that art was ‘what white men do,’ I almost became one, to have a go at it.” Any personal success for Jones as an intellectual thus meant a kind of passing. His early, celebrated poetry is steeped in the experience of a divided self, caught between his experience of racism and his entirely white social circle.

But any ambitions for whiteness sat uneasily with his emerging political consciousness. Starting with his 1960 trip to postrevolutionary Cuba, through his arrest at a UN protest over the assassination of Patrice Lumumba, and finally bursting forth with the assassination of Malcolm X, Jones grew more and more unsatisfied with an apolitical art.

As the black political struggle grew in intensity, Jones could no longer maintain his divided self. He came to embrace black separatism, and attacked white people in his politics and poetry. In one particularly infamous instance, at an event in the Village after the 1964 Harlem riots, Jones was asked by an earnest audience member if there was a way for white people to help. He replied, “You can help by dying. You are a cancer.” When another questioner brought up two white civil rights activists who had recently been murdered by the Klan in Mississippi, Jones dismissed them, declaring, “Those white boys were only seeking to assuage their own leaking consciences.”

Baraka would later acknowledge in his autobiography that such remarks were fundamentally hypocritical, since these white activists “were out there on the front lines doing more than I was!” Troubled even then by his political hesitancy, Jones made a decisive break with white bohemia, moving uptown to Harlem in search of a black aesthetic and the black revolution. This search would ultimately lead to a return to a native land — the New Ark, as his hometown would be designated by the nationalist movement he joined there. Reflecting a growing rage against the white hipster New York culture that had absorbed him, the introduction to Home foreshadows his move back to Newark: “By the time this book appears, I will be even blacker.”

Roth, born in Newark just a year before Baraka, had an experience of the city which diverged from Baraka’s along predictable lines. Larry Schwartz points out in Cultural Logic that Roth’s youth in the Jewish neighborhood of Weequahic was part of the brief period of respite from the city’s long and early industrial decline — which resumed with a vengeance in the 1950s, alongside ongoing black in-migration and white flight. Roth’s nostalgia for this period leads to an uncharacteristically naive romanticization of the world, obscuring the racial and class inequalities of the city. As Schwartz puts it, “when imagining the racial politics of Newark, Roth the hard-edged, thoughtful, and ironical realist, becomes a conservative ‘utopian’ — too much caught up in the interplay between his liberal, civil rights conscience and his sentimentalizing of Weequahic.”

However, Roth’s own grappling with a New Jersey Jewish identity would subject him to the religious and cultural policing of that community — he was openly attacked as a “self-hating Jew” after the publication of Goodbye, Columbus, at a 1962 event alongside Ralph Ellison at Yeshiva University on “the crisis of conscience in minority writers of fiction.” He would later reflect in the preface to the 30th anniversary edition of Goodbye, Columbus on the “ambivalence that was to stimulate his imagination”: “the desire to repudiate and the desire to cling, a sense of allegiance and the need to rebel, the alluring dream of escaping into the challenging unknown and the counterdream of holding fast to the familiar.”

“It is part of morality not to be at home in one’s home,” said Adorno. In Roth’s case, an inclination toward the kind of moral critique that springs from estrangement did not lead in a politicizing direction, but it did lead to a sharp sensitivity to the ideologies of identity, one which fractures his nostalgic selfhood. What his review of The Dutchman had captured accurately, in spite of his political evasion, was its author’s peculiar relationship to his audience — the whiteness of his audience, the source of LeRoi Jones’s inner strife. The Dutchman was part of an aesthetic insurrection by Jones against his own white Village environment, and indeed his own internalization of its standards of identity.

But there is something beyond our individual experience in our forms of identity: they are imaginary representations of our real conditions, of structural transformations and the political practices that respond to them. Roth’s “Newark Trilogy,” as Michael Kimmage astutely describes it, which culminates in The Human Stain, shows the historical underpinnings of identity, as personal memories of history are recounted to and re-narrated by Roth’s alter ego, the fictional writer Nathan Zuckerman. The arc of the trilogy follows the rise and decline of the postwar economic boom, and the ideology of American self-making that serves as the foundation for the aspiration of white “ethnics” to mainstream assimilation. In I Married a Communist Roth traces the efforts of Jewish Communists and trade-unionists to introduce the ideal of social equality into the American dream — a personal expression of the Popular Front line that “Communism is Twentieth Century Americanism.” As a direct result of these efforts, Roth underscores, Communists played a leading role in the struggle for black civil rights. But the pursuit of American equality, which Roth admires, is undermined in his narration by obstinate fidelity to a political program, which troubles him; and it is totally wrecked by McCarthyism.

Then there was the ’60s. American Pastoral had already traced the life of an assimilated Jew, “Swede” Levov, who has achieved the American dream of personal success — and then watches as the Fordist economy which enabled that dream is splintered by urban conflict, the reverberations of segregation and racism, the social costs of extended imperialist war, and the precipitous decline of manufacturing employment. In the absence of the link to a national and popular will, to which the Communist Party had once aspired, Swede Levov’s daughter’s desperate grasp for a politics of social change ends in the dogmatic voluntarism and violence of Weather Underground-style terrorism.

The United States which emerges from this history frames the farcical, depoliticized climate of The Human Stain. With the possibility of integrating social equality into American culture destroyed, by both political repression and industrial decline, politics is reduced to the anxious performance of authenticity. The policing of personal identity now unites McCarthyism and the residues of the New Left. If the “personal is political,” it is in the sense we are left with no practice of politics outside of the fashioning of our own personal identities, and surveillance of the identities of others.

Roth’s ambivalence — his close attention to the historical reality of segregation and the broad social effects of US post-war economic history, combined with a cynical despair at the depoliticization which followed — leads him an to acute diagnosis of the experience of the present. It cannot, however, be substituted for the kind of historical analysis and political response that the present requires. The necessity of a renewal of politics, and the fidelity to a program that this implies, is abundantly confirmed by the repetition of segregation-era terrorism like massacres at black churches, and the steady growth of economic inequality on an utterly unprecedented scale. It was the possibility of such a renewal, in between the residual traces of Occupy Wall Street and the emergent formations of Black Lives Matter, that we tested in the microcosm of Santa Cruz.

I was too frustrated to keep attending the POC meetings. My mistake. There were real ideologues in the bunch, just about four or five of them, but they were vocal enough and fervent enough to drag along the young and uncertain newcomers. The self-appointed leadership decided that a few meetings weren’t enough; reborn as “The POC Caucus,” they called a special general assembly and announced, in a very unmusical performance, that they were splitting to oppose the racism of the white-led movement against the tuition hikes. A small multiracial crowd watched with some confusion. We couldn’t ask them questions or argue with them, because the splitters walked out of the door after speaking. I became convinced at this point that I had a personal responsibility to publicly declare, as a “POC,” that I opposed this kind of divisiveness and self-indulgence. I stood up again and ranted as I paced in circles, comparing them to the Nation of Islam.

In the unusual context of Santa Cruz, where the black power movement is invoked as part of a historical pantheon, the comparison to reactionary, cultural nationalism was surprisingly effective. For all the postmodern glitter of identity politics, its on-the-ground organizational effect had amounted to separatism and depoliticization, the defense of conservative politics in the name of racial unity. The line of demarcation that the Black Panthers drew between reactionary cultural nationalism and their own “revolutionary nationalism” seemed useful to recall. I wrote many angry emails to the activist listservs, and commented in one: “I am addressing fellow activists of color: we cannot let reactionary nationalists speak for us, and we need to start reclaiming the legacy of revolutionary anti-racist movements.”

Baraka himself was at one time a reactionary nationalist. It was instructive to me to understand both why he was once attracted to such an ideology, and how he came to reject it. The “blackness” Baraka pursued starting in the mid-‘60s was not in itself a political category; it was a disavowal of LeRoi Jones’s whiteness. But it also represented his turn towards a specific political practice: nationalist self-organization.

Baraka’s beating, arrest, and imprisonment during Newark’s 1967 riots, sparked by the police beating of a black cab driver, turned him into a symbol of black militancy. It also convinced him to turn radically toward cultural nationalism. In American Pastoral, the retired glove manufacturer Lou Levov tries to convince his son to move his factory out of Newark, complaining, “A whole business is going down the drain because that son of a bitch LeRoi Jones, that Peek-A-Boo-Boopy-Do, whatever the hell he calls himself in that goddamn hat.”

The urban rebellions, in Newark and beyond, were a political turning point on a national scale. They underscored the persistence of the oppression of black people after the legislative victories of the civil rights movement, and their exclusion from postwar affluence. They were an explosive indication that such conditions would not be accepted peacefully.

In this context the nationalist call for racial self-organization appeared to be a viable alternative to the disappointments of integration. In his classic Black Awakening in Capitalist America, Robert Allen noted that “racial integration offers middle-class Negroes the pleasurable prospect of shedding their blackness. But when white society, for whatever reasons, appears to shut the door on integration, the black bourgeoisie responds by adopting a nationalist stance.” Such a shift on the part of the black middle class intersected with the spontaneous inclinations towards group solidarity and hostility to white society displayed by the black workers and unemployed who participated in the rebellions. By adopting nationalism, the black middle class could legitimize not only its leadership over these lower economic strata, but also programs of economic advancement that would leave these strata behind.

When Baraka visited Ron Karenga’s US Organization during a 1967 stay in California, he was deeply impressed. The disciplined character of Karenga’s organization vastly outdid his own attempts at building institutions in Harlem and Newark. US’s ideology of “Kawaida” was grounded in a “black value system” supposedly derived from African tradition. It was a contrived performance, in essence an attempt at passing for African. Baraka would later criticize it as “the university of false blackness”: an incoherent amalgam of hippie counterculture and conservative semi-feudal traditions, both drastically distant from the real lives of African Americans. However, it was an ideological effect of material practices that resonated with the political situation. The nationalist organization which Baraka worked to build after the rebellion, the Congress of African People, tied cultural nationalist ideology to a broad and pragmatic political project. It revolved around constructing new, alternative institutions which could overcome the exclusion of black people from white society — institutions which ranged from schools to housing projects, centered on electoral campaigns that would put black people in positions of local political power.

However, the almost paradoxical result of nationalism’s political victories was the incorporation of its alternative institutions into a more multicolored mainstream. It’s a central part of our cultural memory of the ’70s: “We’ve got Newark, we’ve got Gary, somebody told me we got L.A., and we’re working on Atlanta,” said George Clinton, in Parliament’s 1975 single “Chocolate City.” This list of cities that had won black mayors starts, not coincidentally, with Baraka’s Newark, where he played a central role in Kenneth Gibson’s 1970 electoral victory, and Gary, Indiana, where his organization had steered the 1972 National Black Political Convention.

“They still call it the White House, but that’s a temporary condition,” George Clinton goes on to say. I heard “Chocolate City” in my mind the day Obama was elected; this was a culmination of the move from the margins to the center that began in the ’70s, and quite decisively marked the end of the period when the ambiguity of nationalist politics could still open towards an antagonism against the power structure. The ’70s represented a scrambling of the terms of black politics: the alternative institutions which nationalism had mobilized a grassroots base to build were now being incorporated into the state itself, facilitated by a black political leadership that used nationalism to its advantage.

Some years later Baraka would reflect on this experience in a New York Times article called “A Radical View of Newark,” recalling: “At that time I was a Black Nationalist, a cultural nationalist, who did not understand the reality of class struggle. I thought, and told thousands of people, that black people’s struggle was against white people, period.” The error, Baraka now recognized, was to have thought that by putting a black man in the place of a white politician, “we would truly be on the road to liberation.”

“It is a narrow nationalism that says the white man is the enemy,” Baraka told the Times in 1974. “We were guilty of that, but it’s not scientific at all.” His political work now turned towards organizing cab drivers’ strikes, rather than building a separatist culture. The nationalist experience had shown Baraka that no straight line could be drawn between identity and politics. At one time, that equation had seemed to make sense; black nationalism presented a political program for a demographic structurally marginalized on the basis of its identity. Grounded in material processes of institution-building, nationalist ideology exalted and affirmed this marginalized identity. But it was precisely the racial integration of the American elite, the diversification of the establishment, that made such an equation definitively impossible.

What could be more convenient for a newly elected black politician, eager to ingratiate himself with the owners of wealth, than the reduction of politics to identity? Neoliberal policies could be implemented with a nationalist stamp of approval, any criticism easily silenced as a capitulation to white racism. This dynamic dramatically undermined resistance in Mayor Gibson’s Newark, “a city where a Black Muslim is head of the Board of Education, and collaborates with the capitalists in mashing budget cuts on the people of all nationalities by trying to fire 20 percent of the city’s teachers, and cutting art, library services, music and home economics out of the curriculum and condemning the cafeteria workers, security guards and maintenance men, who are on strike now, to wages of $3,000 and $4,000 a year.”

The consequences are still with us. The now firmly entrenched reduction of politics to identity has left social movements defenseless against subordination to the multicultural elite. Many of the core organizers of the Santa Cruz occupation, themselves people of color, quickly recognized that the ideology at work in the split threatened to tie the activist culture to puppetry from above. They wrote a letter responding to the spreading accusation that the occupation, and by extension all organizing on campus, was a “white space.” Such rhetoric, the letter pointed out, not only rendered the activists of color who organized the occupation completely invisible, it objectively benefitted the administration, which is fond of giving itself exorbitant raises at the same time that it threatens to increase tuition. If this way of thinking spread, the movement would disintegrate into “collaboration with token POC administrators, who will smile to our faces and stab us in the back.” In furious all caps the letter declared: “WE CAN NO LONGER AFFORD TO LET THIS TOXIC CULTURE CHIP AWAY AT THE AUTONOMOUS MOVEMENTS AGAINST THE TUITION HIKES.”

Like some kind of world-historical prank, it was just as we were coming to terms with the split that everything came crashing down in Ferguson — when we heard the grand jury decision not to indict Darren Wilson, the white policeman who murdered Michael Brown. It was clear to us that any social movement in the United States, including our own, had to respond to this blatant display of the racism of the criminal justice system. But the latest trends of identity politics made a bridge between issues, like tuition and police brutality, functionally impossible.

In the ’90s we grew accustomed to the idea that every marginalized identity’s claim to recognition has to be recognized and respected — a form of discursive etiquette sometimes summed up in the buzzword “intersectionality,” a term originating in legal studies which now has an intellectual function comparable to “abracadabra,” or “dialectics.” However, the immediate reaction to the attempt by student radicals to organize around police violence was to question whether a group which was not black-identified should be even be permitted to address the issue. As a result, black-identified groups staged a couple ephemeral die-ins, while the radical coalition — which included black, white, Chicano, Puerto Rican, Dominican, Asian, Middle Eastern, and Jewish activists — dwindled in size.

This played out organizationally all over the country, with black separatism and exceptionalism as an assumed starting point. At marches many of us attended in Oakland, the rallies were led by the black political class, elsewhere most visibly represented by Al Sharpton — politicians and non-profit bureaucrats who warned of white “outside agitators” who might try to instigate violence. They said that only black people should take the mic; that only black people should take leadership roles; that black people should be at the front of the march, with white “allies” last and “brown” people allowed in the middle.

“Brown” in this context presumably refers to everyone excluded by the governing categories of “black” and “white,” but in practice, with our demographic terrain, it means mainly Latinos. Given that Latinos are now the largest ethnic group in federal prisons — as Marie Gottschalk writes in the Boston Review, “the carceral state… has dramatically expanded its capacity to apprehend, detain, punish, and deport immigrants” — it is hard not to react with some confusion to the suggestion that they can only play a literally secondary role in movements that target the criminal justice system.

In Santa Cruz, the ideology of identity took us further and further away from a genuinely emancipatory project. Its consequences were not only the demobilization of the movement, but also a degrading political parcelization. In the absence of a credible identitarian claim, anti-neoliberal struggles, like the movement against tuition hikes, were artificially separated from “race” issues. “POC” activists would focus on police brutality, ethnic studies, and postcolonial theory; the increasing cost of living, privatization of education, and job insecurity became “white” issues.

The greatest mistake would be to imagine that the ideology of identity is an extremist form of opposition to the status quo. In fact, identity politics is an integral part of the dominant ideology; it makes opposition impossible. We are susceptible to it when we fail to recognize that the racial integration of the ruling class and political elites has irrevocably changed the field of political action.

Perhaps it’s our nostalgia for the mass organizations of the 1960s and 1970s that prevents us facing our contemporary reality. For intellectuals seeking a way of being political in the absence of such organizations, passing is an understandable temptation. Strange as it may seem, Rachel Dolezal could actually be the typical case: she exemplifies the consequences of reducing politics to identity performances, in which positioning oneself as marginal is the recognized procedure of becoming-political. Contemporary intellectuals “of color” who substitute identity for politics are repeating LeRoi Jones’s initial disavowal of his white milieu and the white selfhood that it fostered. For first-generation college students who feel the daily ambivalence of leaving behind their neighborhoods in favor of upward mobility, or faculty who hide their class positions behind their skin tones, identity politics appears as a peculiar introjection of white guilt.

Passing, in this sense, is a universal condition. We are all Rachel Dolezal; the infinite regress of “checking your privilege” will eventually unmask everyone as inauthentic. No wonder, then, that we are so deeply disturbed by passing — it reveals too much to us about identity, the dirty secret of the equation of identity with politics.

This is why Baraka’s passage through cultural nationalism is worth studying today. As he experienced the growing class differentiation in the black community and the incorporation of the black political class, Baraka reached the conclusion that his ideology of identity would no longer suffice. As he reflected in his autobiography, that ideology too was situated within a particular class position; it was the predicament of black intellectuals “so long whited out, now frantically claiming a ‘blackness’ that in many ways was bogus, a kind of black bohemianism that put the middle class again in the position of carping at the black masses to follow the black middle class because this black middle class knew how to be black when the black workers did not.”

The universalism he came to embrace reached all the way to the white poor, so consistently left behind by race thinking. In “Why is We Americans,” he extends the call for reparations for slavery to everyone hurt by the underdevelopment of the South — “even them poor white people you show all the time as funny, all them abners and daisy maes, them beverly hill billies who never got no beverly hills. who never got to harvard on they grandfather’s wills.” Someone tell Azealia Banks.

As grassroots anti-racist movements continue to emerge, and continue to be threatened by a depoliticizing identitarian absorption, Baraka’s example will remain indispensable. Changing the real conditions under which people live requires us to overcome the impasse of identity, to arrive at a universalist anti-racist politics. As Baraka wrote in his poem “For the Revolutionary Outburst By Black People”:

The vibration that predicts the Black Explosion

describes the explosion of all the people

The outburst that creates the new system

Asad Haider, June 15th 2016