11 Aug 2020 20:36 IST

America, thanks to identity politics, faces an identity crisis

In the US, qualifications and merit have always mattered more than identity; but that is changing today

In 1963, Martin Luther King, the giant of America's civil rights movement, said, "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the content of their character."

To the millions of Indians who immigrated to America immediately afterward, King's dream has been a reality. Americans ignored the brown/black skin, accents, and distinctive cultural traits of a diverse Indian diaspora. Three generations of Indians quietly gained America's respect, rising in the hallways of universities, hospitals, and offices, competing with America's best and brightest.

Skilled in small business, they flourished mostly out of sight − owning motels, commercial real estate, convenience stores, restaurant franchises, and fuel stations. Indian American children dominated spelling and geography bees and graduated from America's most elite colleges.

As Indians prospered, they fell in love with an imperfect America that was continually evolving. During the last several months, Indians have struggled to understand the media narrative that systemic racism exists in America against people of colour. Their own experience has been quite the opposite. The United States is the land of opportunity, where hard work and merit matter. Identity mattered little.

Defining every aspect of life

But in today's America, identity is everything. Any person who is not a white male is automatically considered to be a victim. In this view, women, Blacks, Latinos, Native Americans, and LGBT communities have been oppressed for decades by white men in positions of power in government and private enterprise. If people in these groups underperformed in school, work, or even politics, it's because they had to overcome racist or sexist opposition.

When identity defines life's every aspect, effort and context become crucial. Membership in a group becomes vastly more potent than individual performance. The feeling of entitlement of these groups is strengthened as they demand desired outcomes, even if individual performance is unsatisfactory.

During the gruelling Democratic primary battle for the presidential nomination, 50 states and three territories were in play. Six Democratic women competed, including two women of colour − Kamala Harris and Tulsi Gabbard. Not one of the women won a single primary election.

Ignoring that Democratic voters overwhelmingly rejected the six women candidates, the eventual nominee, Joe Biden, opted to make his campaign all about gender identity. Biden promised that he would choose a woman as his Vice-President. No other qualifications were relevant. Women cheered, overlooking the fact that such a selection would be the result of a single white man's largesse.

More important than performance?

Things didn't stop there. After African American voters rescued Biden's campaign, pressure began to build that he should choose a Black woman as his running mate. For people pushing this idea, two identity filters − women and Black − were clearly better than one.

So, Kamala Harris, who miserably failed in her campaign for the Democratic nomination and withdrew even before Iowa, the first primary state, is now considered the front-runner to be Biden's running mate. Other Blacks who could be selected are women most people have never heard of, including Karen Bass, Val Deming, Susan Rice, Keisha Lance Bottoms, and Stacey Abrams.

Given Biden's advanced age − at 78, he will be the oldest person ever to assume office if he wins − this VP nominee will likely become America's future president. In Biden's mind, identity trumps performance (no pun intended).

But the head-scratching truth is that, at least in the last 30 years, American voters have mostly not been opposed to women or people of colour. Qualifications have mattered a lot more than a candidate's identity. In 2018, 103 women were elected to Congress, nearly a quarter of the entire class. In 2016, Hillary Clinton easily won the Democratic nomination and in the general election, won more popular votes than Donald Trump. She also nearly won the Democratic nomination in 2008, losing to Barack Obama, America's first Black president, who went on to win a second term in 2012.

Not limited to politics

Identity politics is not limited to politics. In the aftermath of the brutal murder of George Floyd at the hands of the police, many in America have embraced the theory that systemic racism still exists. Black Lives Matter is now the most popular identity-based movement in America's history. But whether the campaign has genuinely won over American hearts or is being forced, through government, media, and corporate policy, will never be known.

City governments have encouraged the painting of Black Lives Matter murals on streets, even without permits, although applications for other public art projects are heavily scrutinised. Major League Baseball (MLB), America's pastime during the long days of summer, has its famous logo reversed to BLM at its ballparks.

When hundreds of Washington D.C. residents travelled to Atlanta for the funeral of John Lewis, a Black leader, and gathered in close proximity to each other in a church, they would ordinarily be quarantined on their return. But the D.C. mayor exempted them from all quarantine rules.

As identity politics firmly takes hold, America faces an identity crisis in the community of nations. For decades, the United States ridiculed other countries for criminalising speech. It attacked their blasphemy laws when people were punished for speaking sacrilegiously about God. America withheld aid from countries that enforced sedition statutes when citizens were jailed for speaking against the authority of a state.

Being cancelled, silence-shamed

In today's America, "offending" speech is punished just the same, not by government officials but by private entities. Anyone who questions any policy on race, gender, or sexual identity, even when legitimate or does not conform to speech that is considered acceptable − is quickly "cancelled."

One doesn't have to do something to be cancelled. A mere expression of thought − such as an offending video clip or social media post − is all that it takes. Companies react by instantly firing employees, universities respond by rescinding offers of admission to students, or groups organise to bring down decades-old small businesses.

Even silence, a form of speech in its own right, is not tolerated. "Silence shaming," when people are publicly criticised for not showing support for racial, gender, and social justice, is now one of America's most powerful weapons to bring people's behaviours meekly in line.

The outcome of the 2020 presidential election will determine if America embraces this focus on identity. A Biden win will cement identity politics forever. A Trump win may apply some brakes and help return America somewhat to its brand, as the world of opportunity and merit.