The Appeal to Identity: Bad Politics and the Fallacy of Standpoint Epistemology

Standpoint epistemology has turned the anecdotal account and categories of demography into badges of truth. But anecdotes don’t stand in place of general facts. A lazy person doesn’t explain the rate of joblessness. It only tells us why that person may not be working. And demographic categories are abstractions that cannot represent particular concrete situations. As I have said before on this blog, my whiteness reveals nothing about me as a person. As a white person, I could be anything beyond that meaningless classification. Now, anecdotes and demographics are stand-ins for objective or reasoned accounts of situations or interpretations of information. Our culture is shot through with these fallacies.

Perhaps nothing illustrates the latter fallacy—what I am calling the “appeal to identity”—better than the confrontation between Nina Turner and Hilary Rosen on CNN’s Cuomo Prime Time. In an argument intended to paint Joe Biden as bad on civil rights (a truth that may be accomplished in a myriad of other ways), Turner, a surrogate for the Bernie Sanders’ campaign, alerted viewers to Martin Luther King Jr.’s “warning” about “white moderates,” who, in a 1963 letter written from a Birmingham jail cell, suggested were “more devoted to ‘order’ than justice.”

The relevant clip is embedded in this clip from the Karen Hunter Show, the commentary for which represents the common interpretation of the dispute between Turner and Rosen (dwelling in Blue-no-matter-who land).

Rosen, defending Biden, countered that she understood MLK Jr. to be saying that “we should worry about the silence of white moderates.” Turner insisted Rosen’s interpretation was wrong. But instead of carefully explaining why, she responded indignantly with “Don’t tell me about Martin Luther King Jr. Are you kidding me?” Rosen interrupted. “Don’t use Martin Luther King against Joe Biden.” Then she said, “You don’t have that standing.”

Rosen apparently knew who Turner was going in, knew of her methods and politics, and expected that she was likely to pull something like this. Nina Turner sits on the faculty of Cuyahoga Community College where she teaches, among other things, African American cultural and intellectual history. One can see Turner in action on The Nina Turner Show, hosted by The Real News Network. There, for example, she has interviewed and expressed solidarity with Linda Sarsour, an Islamist and ally of the Nation of Islam, who expressed on Twitter a wish to take away outspoken secularist Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s vagina (Ali is a victim of female genital mutilation), saying that Ali didn’t deserve to be a woman. Bizarrely, Sarsour, who (sometimes) claims to be a “woman of color” (she is Palestinian), who argues that “oppression of women is absolutely shunned in the Islamic faith” (she entered into an arranged marriage at the age of seventeen), was tapped to co-chair the Women’s March on Washington. Turner’s interview with Sarsour was not a critical one. Like Sarsour, Turner is a paradigm of identity demagoguery.

With this awareness in mind, Rosen’s argument essentially took this form: “You don’t own the definitive meaning of King’s words on the grounds that you are black.” That’s what she meant by “standing.” Indeed, Turner doesn’t have standing as a black woman in this regard. This is nothing against Turner; nobody has standing in this regard. One’s racial identity lends no validity to one’s arguments. It’s a fallacious appeal to authority. It’s like supposing I have a special right to interpret the United States Constitution because I am a white man. Who would accept this claim but a white supremacist? However awkwardly she put it, Rosen wasn’t going to let Turner use skin color as an authority on the meaning of a text. Turner’s response was essentially said, “Yes, I will.”

The point of Rosen’s defensiveness was affirmed by Turner’s response. Rosen’s dismissal of Turner’s tactic infuriated Turner. She shot back, “Don’t tell me what kind of standing I have as a black woman in America! How dare you!” Rosen responded, “You have a lot of standing as a black woman in America.” “You don’t have a standing to attack Joe Biden using Martin Luther King’s words. That’s my point.” Turner came back with “Listen, don’t dip into what I have to say about the Reverend Martin Luther King. How dare you, as a white woman….” I have italicized key phrases to make sure the reader recognizes that Rosen did not inject race into the dispute. Turner was the one who asserted her race and insisted that it leant her point validity. She did this while diminishing Rosen’s interpretation on the basis of Rosen’s white identity. The appeal to identity is rooted in standpoint epistemology. This error is the basis of identity politics.

Predictably, the response has been overwhelmingly anti-Rosen. She “disrespected” Turner as a black woman. She “whitesplained” MLK Jr. to a black woman. That the backlash was directed at Rosen and not Turner tells us how far we have gone down the identity politics path. Turner is making a claim that being black means her understanding of Dr. King’s words automatically superior to that of a white person’s. She became apoplectic at the notion that a white woman would say such a thing to her (I suspect this does not happen very often). The left applauded.

Not to beat a dead horse, but you really do have to ask yourself: What does skin color have to do with the accuracy of interpretation? What special standing does a black person have to interpret another black person’s words? Do people working at Wal-Mart have a better understanding of Marx’s arguments in Capital than the Waltons, their class enemy? Why would poverty make people better able to grasp the complex economic and sociological forces that create and reproduce their situation? What on earth could explain the lack of class struggle and consciousness among the poor? Wouldn’t they organize and rebel against their conditions if they grasped the truth? Why are capitalists so damn good as keeping capitalism in place? How are the rich so damn good at keeping people poor?

Nina was trying to win the argument on the basis of her skin color. That’s not just nonsense, it’s racist. Imagine if the white woman tried that angle. What would the audience think? They’d think her a racist, of course. And they’d be right. Yet, in this case, the white woman sounds racist to many ears for not letting Turner use race to win an argument. Turner’s claim makes it appear as if Rosen is trying to erase Turner as a black person. This is a classic mark of identity politics. You can’t win an argument by asserting race or sex privilege. At least not rationally. You win arguments with facts and reason. You have to work from a theory.

Consider the correct method for going about such arguments. Karl Marx theorizes that there’s an objective structure shaping our lives, that one’s relationship to that structure determines his class location. These are material relations. One’s social location in the relations of production is not an imagined community. The proletariat is a class-in-itself. Some recognize the social class they’re in (the role of theory) and organize politically to become a class-for-itself. The capitalist class is a class-for-itself; because of this, its intellectuals have obtained a clearer grasp of the system. The bourgeois sees better because of its material advantage in knowing how the system works and in controlling that system. It does not see better because of its identity. Many capitalists are falsely conscious of their social location. Indeed, very few capitalists would admit that their power and privilege is oppressive and exploitative—and not because they are lying.

The counter to my argument might go something like this: “That’s like saying women don’t have any more insight into women’s suffrage.” Indeed, this was actually said to me by a comrade. But why would women have special insight into this? Some do. Some don’t. I know women who don’t know very much about women’s suffrage. Some know nothing about it. There is nothing about woman’s sex that makes her any better at interpreting a historical document or moment. This same comrade wondered about Bernie Sander’s privilege position with respect to the Holocaust on account of his Jewish identity. I asked him, why would Sanders be better able to grasp the history of the Holocaust on this basis? Is this a religious argument wherein God has put in Jews a privileged insight to have special standing in interpretations of this history? I put it sarcastically, but I was seriously. There’s a real problem here: if only Jews can see the truth of the Holocaust, then how can the rest of us know it? Is this an exercise in faith? Just trust the Jew? The argument reduces knowledge to ethnicity or religion and then gives ethnicity and religion privileged standing with respect to interpretation.

All my life I have had to listen to Christians tell me that I cannot have an opinion or valid interpretation of the Bible because I’m atheist. “How dare you, as an atheist, tell me, a Christian, what the Bible says!” But it turns out that, if you engage them in discussion, Christians routinely reveal a profound ignorance of the Bible. Of course, there are Christians who express opinions about the Bible that are quite sophisticated. But whether Christians get their Bible wrong or right has nothing to do with them being Christian. I don’t find this “As a Christian,” “As a Muslim,” “As a black women,” “As a gay man,” tactic convincing in the least. I find it obnoxious. Of course, the righteous indignation embedded in the throat clearing is strategic. But why do we put up with it?

Concerning Dr. King’s letter. I greatly admire Martin Luther King, Jr. But no man’s claims are infallible or always relevant. The Letter from Birmingham Jail, as it is most famously known, an open letter to King’s fellow clergymen, was unknown to the vast majority of the population at the time of its writing, even among many of those who were following or involved in the civil right movement. Its publication in the Atlantic Monthly under the title “The Negro is Your Brother” elevated its profile. The letter is strident in tone, roiling in anger and frustration. King writes:

“I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’ Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

Powerfully written, but it must be remembered that the white moderate, the liberal, was an ally to the civil rights movement. Without the support of liberals, the civil rights movement would not have accomplished nearly as much as it did—and in such a short time. What the movement accomplished within a generation was nothing short of a Second Reconstruction of American society, with court decisions, legislative action, and administrative policies dismantling the system of racial segregation, a system that had grown up over the decades following Emancipation, and criminalizing racial discrimination targeting blacks and other minorities. The fact is that Blacks were not in power during that period. White moderates were. White leaders were pressured by King and the movement, to be sure, but all the same, white leaders fought to change law and policy. They won, and the United States is a much better place today.

In our pursuit of justice, we must take care not to erase the work that people—black and white—did during this period by wrenching a polemic from its context. We must, furthermore, take care in using this polemic against persons living today, as if it’s a magical incantation that makes one’s point for her. It’s not that Joe Biden isn’t a problematic figure (it’s remarkable that he is earning so much support from the black community). It’s that the current period in which we live is such that an argument from 1963, written from a dingy jail cell in Birmingham by a man who was alone and frustrated, at a time when Jim Crow was the law in many states, is given more rhetorical prowess than it actually possesses. Much more relevant for our period is King’s words concerning the content of our character and equal treatment before the law. His sacrifice should at least have yielded that opportunity. It’s folks like Nina Turner who are keeping alive racial antagonisms.

Which brings me to the current situation in which Bernie Sanders and his supporters find themselves. It’s not over, but why is Sanders blowing it? He is blowing it. The 2016 version of the Sanders was on-message. His campaign eschewed identitarian nonsense. He told Americans truths that matter to everybody, such as the fact that mass immigration hurts American workers. (See Bernie Sanders Gets it on Open Borders Rhetoric—At Least He Did in 2015.) The 2020 version of Sanders is surrounded by such deeply unpopular figures as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, Linda Sarsour, and Nina Turner. While he still advocates many of the same policies, his campaign has become corrupted by identity politics. These associations have compelled him to change one of his most pro-working class issues, his advocacy for restrictions on immigration. Indeed, he has taken it in the opposite direction (and this is still not extreme enough for Ocasio-Cortez, who has become a reluctant surrogate). The influence of identitarianism comes at an otherwise welcome moment in which people are rejecting progressivism and seeking to return the keys to the nation-state to the citizens. (See Bernie Sanders, Immigration, and Progressivism.) Working people don’t like people who run down their country. They want jobs and safe neighborhoods. They want their country to look out for them, to focus on their concerns. Tying socialism to identity politics kept working people home or casting their votes for Biden on Super Tuesday.

Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib holding Islamist Linda Sarsour’s book wearing a t-shirt erasing Israel.

The left will wander in the wilderness until it recognizes the meaning and importance of patriotism and sovereignty for working-class Americans. For example, the period of greatest progress and prosperity came after the nation restricted immigration and reduced the percentage of foreign-born from more than 13% of the population to less than 5%. During that period, it was the political right that wandered in the wilderness. Ever since those restrictions were removed (in 1965 by Democrats), working class fortunes have diminished and rightwing populism has flourished. Sanders could have represented a popular leftwing movement at a moment when populism is politics’ animating spirit. He could have made America American again. Instead his campaign has been hijacked by progressive identitarians, ideology extremists whose politics are quite useful to capitalism because they obscure class relations.

Nina Turner is not merely the surrogate for Sanders that she was in 2016. She is no less than the national co-chair of the Sanders’ 2020 presidential campaign. This means that Sanders has placed at the top of his leadership team a person who sees the world in racialist terms. Turner is part of a constellation of figures whom working-class Americans find profoundly alienating. Not because they are black or Muslim or whatever. But because this crowd doesn’t articulate the common interests of working-class America—at least not without smearing working class Americans as bigoted, nativist, and xenophobic. These cosmopolitan elites represent divisiveness when popular unity is needed. They speak ill of the very people with whom they claim solidarity. They call themselves socialists while disrupting class consciousness with identity politics. They’re misdirecting the left.

One cannot dismiss all this by claiming that identity politics are alienating to white working class folks because the latter are backwards and racist. All this is troubling to many blacks, as well, who are not going all in for Sanders. The immigration problem is particularly troubling for black Americans. Why do progressives defend mass immigration when so many black Americans are in need of work? It’s as if the power structure of America always wants black on the bottom. Foreign-born workers are desired more than black workers. Ocasio-Cortez and “the Squad” can get so exercised about immigration control. But why haven’t progressive cities established themselves as sanctuaries for members of the black community? Urban elites can’t allow ICE to find and remove criminal aliens from their cities, but the police kicking down doors and hauling black Americans to prison for drug possession is okay? No family separation there? The identitarian left seems to be all about immigrants. But not so much about citizens (black and white).

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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