Image by Gage Skidmore
Joe Biden is no stranger to controversy, and an awkward comment during a recent interview has thrust him once again into the spotlight for the wrong reasons. On a Zoom call with African-American political commentator Charlamagne Tha God, he stated, “If you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t black.” Immediately, furious Twitter users took to their keyboards to decry the statement: how dare a white man declare who is and is not black?
To many casual observers, Biden’s gaffe was silly and thoughtless at worst. But to those of us who have made the ill-advised decision to immerse ourselves in the internet culture wars, the outrage that ensued left us scratching our heads. Biden’s comments were perfectly in line with an increasingly mainstream ideology among the progressive left, known as identity politics. It was strange, then, that these same left-wingers who advocate identity politics were angry at Biden for seemingly doing the same.
According to the doctrine of identity politics, which many mainstream, left-wing media bodies have spent several years propagating, there is a white and a non-white perspective on politics. The white perspective is clouded by racial privilege. Those who have historically dominated other groups of people—in particular, European men—have produced a narrative about history that flatters them and sanitizes the crimes of their empires. For example, the white perspective on history is that Christopher Columbus was a hero for taking a risky journey across the Atlantic and discovering the New World. The non-white perspective is that he was a genocidal conqueror and a slave owner. By celebrating Columbus Day, American society remembers Columbus only as white people experienced him. We are told, then, that the ability to remember Columbus as heroic is a privilege only afforded to those whose ancestors did not suffer under him. Proponents of this ideology cite several other examples, such as celebrating Independence Day and wearing support our troops ribbons, as expressions of a white understanding of American history, which marginalizes the perspectives of non-white peoples.
It is precisely that racial privilege, we are told, that allowed so many white Americans to vote for Donald Trump: white Republicans could ignore the president’s racism, knowing it would never affect them. This fits comfortably into the intersectional framework, which posits that white people’s perspective on the world is clouded by their privilege. Donald Trump, in other words, is yet another expression of the comforting lies white America continues to tell itself.
In identity politics, there are white ideas and non-white ideas. The white ideas—the dominant narrative—are false and the non-white ideas are the subordinated truths that America’s deeply-entrenched system of white dominance works tirelessly to conceal. By claiming that black people who were considering voting for Trump are not properly black, Biden was expressing a similar sentiment: that black people who vote against their racial interests are espousing a white politics, which disadvantages them. It was confusing to see people who normally agree with this sentiment grow furious at Biden for expressing it.
Several commentators who are sympathetic to identitarian leftism have attempted to explain why the statement elicited such outrage. Bernie Sanders’ former press secretary Briahna Joy Gray argues that people’s anger is due to Biden’s past betrayals of black voters. African-American ESPN commentator Jemele Hill, who was once put on temporary leave for calling Trump supporters “white supremacists,” said that Biden’s statement was true—but it was offensive that a white man had said it. New York Times journalist and creator of the 1619 Project, Nikole Hannah-Jones, agreed that, “there is a difference between being politically black and being racially black,” but added that she wasn’t actually defending Biden. But the prevailing view—especially among black critics—was that the Democrats are not entitled to the black vote. They will have to earn it, and many commentators, including Charlamagne himself, have questioned whether they have made sufficient efforts to do so.
This is a valid point. In the 1990s, Democrats overwhelmingly supported the crime bill that established mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent drug offenses: a bill that devastated black communities and led to the unjust incarceration of thousands of low-income black men. There are legitimate reasons to criticize both parties’ records on race, and the onus should be on the Democrats to earn the votes of black Americans, who have always been the party’s most loyal supporters, but often feel short-changed and taken for granted.
But the controversy has highlighted the flaws in identity politics. Proponents of this ideology have long asserted that to do anything other than prioritize defeating Donald Trump, who has been widely criticized for his racist comments and possible sympathy with white nationalists, is an option only available to the racially privileged. It was confounding to hear the same people change their minds when Joe Biden agreed with them.
This isn’t the first time that one of Biden’s awkward gaffes has accidentally revealed a crack in the left-wing identity politics façade. At an event hosted by the Asian and Latino Coalition, Biden said, “Poor kids are just as bright and just as talented as white kids,” which seemed to suggest that poor and non-white were synonymous. Though the comment was met with thunderous applause, he seemed to quickly realize his mistake and continued, “wealthy kids, black kids, Asian kids.” Predictably, the internet was ablaze with criticism of his blunder, and several articles immediately condemned it.
But, for the identitarian left, there are two groups: those with privilege and those without. Though privilege used to mean undue advantages—for example, being born into wealth—it now refers to a lack of disadvantage. For example, most men will never face outright discrimination for being male, and therefore automatically enjoy male privilege or the lack of sexism. White privilege works similarly: those who will probably never face overt discrimination due to their race enjoy the lack of racism known as white privilege. This is often claimed to supersede all other forms of privilege, including wealth: hence, low-income white men in MAGA hats have more advantages than, for example, wealthy Asian-Americans, who enjoy financial stability but not the privilege that enables one to vote for Donald Trump. Many critics of identity politics have pointed out that several non-white ethnic groups in the US, such as Indian-, Japanese- and Filipino-Americans, enjoy average household incomes that far surpass that of the average white family. However, left-wing identitarians claim that whiteness is the greatest advantage of all—and Biden’s comment seems to fit this framework. One of the objectives of identitarian leftism is to educate white people about their privilege: yet its adherents became enraged when a white politician seemingly did precisely that.
Unsurprisingly, Trump has capitalized on Biden’s controversy. He has purchased the domain name YouAintBlack.com, as a platform for his Black Voices for Trump outreach team. However, while Trump supporters have long decried leftist identity politics, they implicitly embrace it with movements like Blexit and Walk Away. They claim that black people have been brainwashed into voting for Democratic politicians, who do very little for black communities, and even that black Democrats need to escape from the Democratic plantation and the mental slavery of continuing to vote for a party that doesn’t care about them.
Both groups are missing the point. The problem with identity politics is that it just doesn’t work. There will always be members of historically disadvantaged groups who disagree with the identitarian position, and there will always be members of the majority who reject so-called white ideas (in fact, statistically, white Americans, particularly white women, are the primary believers in anti-white identitarianism). Similarly, black conservatives can insist that they are freethinkers, who have “escaped the Democratic plantation”—a vile phrase—but eventually they will have to grapple with the question of why so few black Americans agree with them. Black voters know what’s best for them and it’s condescending to claim that they vote Democrat because they’ve been brainwashed. The same is true of anyone’s voting behavior. Americans who vote Republican or who reject identity politics in favor of universal humanism haven’t necessarily been brainwashed by white supremacist patriarchy. Some people’s voting preferences are inextricably linked to their ethnic, religious or sexual identities, while, for others, those issues are tangential at best. We should encourage ideological diversity as much as any other form—perhaps more so.
What we shouldn’t do is tell others that their racial identities are not real or valid, on the basis of their politics alone.