Has Identity Politics Had Its Day?


We’ve adopted an “identitarian” mindset in America today. By that I mean everyone is viewed first and foremost through their racial, national, political, gender, or sexual identity. But events are confounding this narrative — and rightly so.

In Ukraine we have wanted to think that this war was a matter of good Ukrainians versus evil Russians. I have wanted to think that. But, as always, it is not that simple. President Zelensky recently fired 14 cabinet level officials, including the powerful minister of defense, for corruption. Corruption has long been a problem in Ukraine, and it’s no surprise that with so much money flowing into the country some Ukrainians have got their hands in the pot.

But the identitarian narrative has been buffeted by recent events here as well. Black officers, part of a majority black police force in Memphis, murdered Tyre Nichols. The idea has been that black police would not be caught up in police violence in the same way as have white officers. Not true. In a grosser form, the idea is that white police are bad, black or at least non-white police good.

We want to draw the moral line between nations, races, and genders. These are the good guys, those the bad guys. We see racial, national, ethnic, sexual and gender identity first and reach our conclusions.

But as the poet and Czech dissident who became President, Vaclav Havel, reminded us the line between good and evil does not run between nations, races, political parties or and other identity categories. It runs right through each human heart. Writing about the Central European regimes of the 1970s and ’80s Havel said, “The line between good and evil did not run between ‘them’ and ‘us,’ but through each person.”

Havel was drawing on Alexandr Solzhenitsyn who wrote in The Gulag Archipelago:

“The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained.”

This insight is very congruent with Christian faith. Scripture tells us that everyone’s hands are dirty. The apostle Paul puts it succinctly and brutally. “There is none righteous, no, not one . . . all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3). Under the right circumstances, we are all capable of murder.

Time and again in the Bible’s stories, it is the outsiders, the members of out-groups, foreigners and “bad” guys, who emerge as the ones who are doing God’s will and work. The overlooked catch in the famous “Good Samaritan” story is that there were no “good Samaritans.” For Jews, the Samaritans were a thoroughly despised group. And yet Jesus, a Jew, told a story in which Jewish leaders were indifferent to a man’s suffering. The one who stopped to aid a beaten man lying in a ditch was a no-good Samaritan. Reminds me of the time a pick-up-driving, gun-in-rack guy with a Trump/Pence sign helped me out of a ditch after a bicycle accident! The Subarus and BMW’s sped up and passed by on the other side.

We have inverted Dr. King’s plea to judge people by the content of their character, not the color of their skin. We see first, and often last, people’s racial, ethnic or other identity marker, and judge them among the righteous or the unrighteous. We judge and simplify by outward appearances and labels.

After the Monterey Park shootings in which an American man of Chinese ethnicity shot and killed other people of similar ethnic and racial background, our NPR station was full of stories of racial violence against “Asian Americans” (a category that many who are lumped into it protest as a non-existent media creation). Racism may not have been the best explanation for that mass shooting. But it is our go-to.

One might throw in the situation of boys in American society, who have for long now been on the wrong side of the identitarian equation, but that’s a topic for another day. Solzhenitsyn and Havel were right. The Bible too. The line between good and evil passes through each human heart.

Anthony B. Robinson
Anthony B. Robinsonhttps://www.anthonybrobinson.com/
Tony is a writer, teacher, speaker and ordained minister (United Church of Christ). He served as Senior Minister of Seattle’s Plymouth Congregational Church for fourteen years. His newest book is Useful Wisdom: Letters to Young (and not so young) Ministers. He divides his time between Seattle and a cabin in Wallowa County of northeastern Oregon. If you’d like to know more or receive his regular blogs in your email, go to his site listed above to sign-up.


  1. ” We’ve adopted an “identitarian” mindset in America today. By that I mean everyone is viewed first and foremost through their racial, national, political, gender, or sexual identity. ”

    Who’s “we”? Not you, I’m guessing. I rather suspect it comes down to two kinds of people: the kind that thinks there are two kinds of people, and the kind that doesn’t.

    If you thought all Ukrainians were noble and self sacrificing, OK, that was a kind of foolishness that we are all somewhat subject to, but any adult should be able to wrap their head around the reality of that situation with no real difficulty. If you want to know why the guy with the pickup truck was more helpful than the guy with the Mercedes, that could be as they say “a lively conversation.”

    Identity politics, which the title proposed that you were going to talk about, is the idea that you can only really be adequately represented by a member of your same minority, someone who lives with issues that the majority doesn’t understand or care about.

    The main focus in my lifetime has been to take this approach with America’s really entrenched, intractable racial minority problem. As a general principle, identity politics isn’t reliable or practical – there are too many overlapping minority factors – but in this particular case, it seems we need to try everything, and if Clarence Thomas et al. don’t do a damn bit of good, maybe something we try will work.

  2. Things are somewhat easier in Hawaii. Not perfect, but there is generally much more respect for the individual. Of course, you’re on an island.

  3. I like this apposite quote from Lincoln:
    “The true rule in determining to embrace or reject anything, is not whether it have any evil in it; but whether it have more of evil, than of good. There are few things wholly evil, or wholly good. Almost everything, especially of governmental policy, is an inseparable compound of the two, so that our best judgment of the preponderance between them is continually demanded.”


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