Mistaken Identity: Race and Class in the Age of Trump


Whether class or race is the more important factor in modern politics is a question right at the heart of recent history’s most contentious debates. Among groups who should readily find common ground, there is little agreement. Asad Haider escapes this deadlock by turning to the rich legacies of the black freedom struggle. In Mistaken Identity, he argues that identity politics is not synonymous with anti-racism, but instead marks a retreat from the crucial passage of identity to solidarity, and from individual recognition to the collective struggle against an oppressive social structure. Mistaken Identity is a passionate call for a new practice of politics beyond colorblind chauvinism and “the ideology of race.” It is one of the core texts on our student reading lists and 50% off for the month of September as part of our Back to School sale. See all our Race and Ethnicity reading here.

Here we present an excerpt from Chapter 1.

For the CRC [Combahee River Collective], feminist political practice meant, for example, walking picket lines during strikes in the building trades during the 1970s. But the history that followed seemed to turn the whole thing upside down. As Salar Mohandesi writes, “What began as a promise to push beyond some of socialism’s limitations to build a richer, more diverse and inclusive socialist politics” ended up “exploited by those with politics diametrically opposed to those of the CRC.” The most recent and most striking example was the presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton, which adopted the language of “intersectionality” and “privilege” and used identity politics to combat the emergence of a left-wing challenge in the Democratic Party surrounding Bernie Sanders. Sanders’s supporters were condemned as “Bernie Bros,” despite his widespread support among women; they were accused of neglecting the concerns of black people, despite the devastating effect for many black Americans of the Democratic mainstream’s commitment to neoliberal policies. As Michelle Alexander wrote in the Nation, the legacy of the Clinton family was a Democratic capitulation “to the right-wing backlash against the civil rights movement” and “Ronald Reagan’s agenda on race, crime, welfare, and taxes.” The new brand of Clinton liberalism ended up “ultimately doing more harm to black communities than Reagan ever did.”

The communications director of Clinton’s campaign, Jennifer Palmieri, said during an MSNBC interview about the anti-Trump protests following the inauguration, “You are wrong to look at these crowds and think that means everyone wants fifteen dollars an hour. Don’t assume that the answer to big crowds is moving policy to the left . . . It’s all about identity on our side now.”

To be fair, Palmieri is not solely to blame for this error in judgment. In fact, she was really just expressing a classical and inescapable tenet of liberalism. Judith Butler has explained that “identities are formed within contemporary political arrangements in relation to certain requirements of the liberal state.” In liberal political discourse, power relations are equated with the law, but as Michel Foucault demonstrated, they are actually produced and exercised in a range of social practices: the division of labor in the factory, the spatial organization of the classroom, and, of course, the disciplinary procedures of the prison. In these institutions, collectivities of people are separated into individuals who are subordinated to a dominating power. But this “individualization” also constitutes them as political subjects—the basic political unit of liberalism, after all, is the individual. Within this framework, Butler argues, “the assertion of rights and claims to entitlement can only be made on the basis of a singular and injured identity.”

The word subject, Butler points out, has a peculiar double meaning: it means having agency, being able to exert power, but also being subordinated, under the control of an external power. The liberal form of politics is one in which we become subjects who participate in politics through our subjection to power. So Butler suggests that “what we call identity politics is produced by a state which can only allocate recognition and rights to subjects totalized by the particularity that constitutes their plaintiff status.” If we can claim to be somehow injured on the basis of our identity, as though presenting a grievance in a court of law, we can demand recognition from the state on that basis—and since identities are the condition of liberal politics, they become more and more totalizing and reductive. Our political agency through identity is exactly what locks us into the state, what ensures our continued subjection. The pressing task, then, as Butler puts it, is to come up with ways of “refusing the type of individuality correlated with the disciplinary apparatus of the modern state.”

But we can’t possibly achieve this if we take these forms of individuality for granted—if we accept them as the starting point of our analysis and our politics. Clearly “identity” is a real phenomenon: it corresponds to the way the state parcels us out into individuals, and the way we form our selfhood in response to a wide range of social relations. But it is nevertheless an abstraction, one that doesn’t tell us about the specific social relations that have constituted it. A materialist mode of investigation has to go from the abstract to the concrete—it has to bring this abstraction back to earth by moving through all the historical specificities and material relations that have put it in our heads.

In order to do that, we have to reject “identity” as a foundation for thinking about identity politics. For this reason, I don’t accept the Holy Trinity of “race, gender, and class” as identity categories. This idea of the Holy Spirit of Identity, which takes three consubstantial divine forms, has no place in materialist analysis. Race, gender, and class name entirely different social relations, and they themselves are abstractions that have to be explained in terms of specific material histories.

For precisely that reason, this book is entirely focused on race. That is partly because my own personal experience has forced me to think of race beyond the easy theological abstraction of identity. But it is also because the hypotheses presented here are based on research into the history of race, racism, and antiracist movements. Of course, studying any concrete history necessarily requires us to deal with all the relations constitutive of it, and thus we will encounter the effects of gender relations and movements against gender-related oppression. But I make no claim to offer a comprehensive analysis of gender as such; to do so would require a distinct course of research, and to simply treat gender as a subsidiary question to race would be entirely unacceptable. There is already much work along these lines to consider. Butler’s Gender Trouble is itself one of the most prescient and profound critiques of identity politics as it exists within the specific discourse of feminist theory. In Butler’s own words, her critique “brings into question the foundationalist frame in which feminism as an identity politics has been articulated. The internal paradox of this foundationalism is that it presumes, fixes, and constrains the very ‘subjects’ that it hopes to represent and liberate.”9 But here I focus on race, and I will be primarily concerned with the history of black movements, not only because I believe these movements have fundamentally shaped the political parameters of our current historical moment, but because the figures to whom these movements gave rise are at the apex of thinking on the concept of race. There is also the matter of my personal contact with black revolutionary theory, which first exposed me to Malcolm X and Huey Newton’s critiques of the precursors of identity politics. Following their practice, I define identity politics as the neutralization of movements against racial oppression. It is the ideology that emerged to appropriate this emancipatory legacy in service of the advancement of political and economic elites. In order to theorize and criticize it, it is necessary to apply the framework of the black revolutionary struggle, including the Combahee River Collective itself. These movements should not be considered deviations from a universal, but rather the basis for unsettling the category of identity and criticizing the contemporary forms of identity politics—a phenomenon whose specific historical form the black revolutionary struggle could not have predicted or anticipated, but whose precursors it identified and opposed.

Mistaken Identity is one of the core texts on our student reading lists and 50% off for the month of September as part of our Back to School sale. See all our Race and Ethnicity reading here.