You could sense a disturbance in the force on Tuesday, as center-left identitarian social-justice activists awoke to the news that former President Barack Obama had set fire to the exclusionary identity politics at the heart of what it means to be “woke.”
“This is hard,” Obama told the audience at the Nelson Mandela Annual Lecture in South Africa. For participatory republican democracy to work, the president added, pluralism was a non-negotiable prerequisite. Toxic identity politics that segregate based on race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, or any other demographic signifier is the enemy of that kind of pluralism. “You can’t do this if you just out-of-hand disregard what your opponents have to say from the start,” he said. “You can’t do it if you insist that those who aren’t like you because they’re white or because they’re male, that somehow there’s no way they can understand what I’m feeling, that somehow they lack standing to speak on certain matters.”
Now, Obama was speaking about the context of political life in South Africa, where ethnic whites make up less than 10 percent of the population. South Africa’s complicated history, persistent racial disparities, and the associated violence render the problem Obama was addressing an urgent one, and it is not directly applicable to civic life in the United States. And yet, stripped of its regional context, you could be forgiven for thinking that Obama was taking a swipe at his compatriots.
Washington State’s Evergreen State College exploded last year when biology professor Bret Weinstein objected to a student-led initiative called the “day of absence,” in which white students were asked to voluntarily leave campus. Weinstein called it a form of racial segregation. In turn, he was called a racist by students, whose ensuing protests managed to close down the school for three days. Weinstein and his wife resigned and later cost the school a half-million dollars in a settlement over their treatment.
As New York Times columnist Frank Bruni observed, people like Mark Lilla, a Democrat and opponent of identity politics, come under attack from progressive activists who take issue, not with their ideas, but with their race and gender. “White men: stop telling me about my experiences!” read the graffiti that Bruni recalled seeing deface an advertisement for a campus talk Lilla was prepared to deliver in 2017.
It only seems to become difficult for liberals to find evidence of the left’s efforts to silence those with perceived majoritarian traits when they are called to account for this separatism. It is not hard to substantiate the accusation that liberals have made a habit of demanding that straights, whites, males, or any combination thereof, stifle themselves in favor of women and minorities. The impulse to define individuals by their accidents of birth is by definition exclusionary, and it is one that any pluralist society cannot abide. Obama’s admonishment was as welcome as it was universally applicable. It’s a shame that his commitment to it is entirely cosmetic.
Hours had not passed before Obama was again paying homage to the diktats of liberal identity politics. “Women in particular, by the way, I want you to get more involved,” the former president told an audience in Johannesburg. “Because men have been getting on my nerves lately.” He added that men have been “violent,” “bullying,” and “just not handling our business.” Again, the context of these remarks was supposedly limited to affairs in sub-Saharan Africa, but they are hard to divorce from the abuses uncovered by a handful of men almost exclusively occupying positions of power and status in the United States uncovered as a result of the #MeToo movement.
This contradictory behavior is standard fare for America’s 44th president. He has at times eloquently attacked the “crude” identity politics that pits Americans against one another, but these flashes of brilliance were few and far between. Barack Obama was a politician catering to a constituency, and that constituency took to divisive identitarianism like fish in water.
It was Barack Obama who pledged to “punish” the “enemies” of America’s Latino population, and it was his vice president who insisted that Mitt Romney, of all people, wanted to reinstate black slavery. When the president only called on women at a 2014 press conference, his White House made sure to call around to reporters after the fact to make sure they noticed. It was the Obama administration who spent years promoting the pernicious idea that American employers systematically discriminated against women even though his own Bureau of Labor Statistics insisted that the 77 cents myth was almost entirely the product of individual choices. It was Barack Obama’s attorney general who implied that Republican opposition to Obama (and himself) was a product of their racial animus.
“The Obama family’s tenure in the White House has overlapped a revolution in the way Americans deal with identity,” read an NPR retrospective on the Obama years. “From race to religion, from gender to sexual orientation and beyond, marginalized groups that historically worked and waited for ‘a seat at the table’ increasingly demanded their share of cultural power.” What’s more, demographics that were once the locus of American cultural power “were called on to defend their ideas and ‘check their privilege.’”
Latent hostility toward African Americans even among outwardly non-discriminatory Americans deserves as much blame for this phenomenon as any acts of agitation by Obama and his fellow Democrats. The racial provocateurs and hucksters on the right who leveraged white anxiety to their financial benefits played as much of a role in establishing the sorry state of affairs that typifies our present. But a fair reading of Obama’s time in office must concede that the president liked to condemn the theory of identity politics more than he eschewed it in practice. The aspirations that led a whopping 70 percent to say in 2009 that Obama’s presidency would improve race relations had all but evaporated by 2014, well before Donald Trump descended down the escalator.
Divisive identity politics is now how both political parties approach the electorate. As a tool, it has proven too effective for any competent political operation to abjure. Barack Obama appears to recognize that this is a tragedy, but he is not yet willing to take responsibility for the role he played in our lamentable condition.