The influence of different forms of identity politics has been a growing feature in social movements and movements against oppression across the world. This article focuses on new features in the U.S. where a section of the ruling class has sought to weaponize identity politics as part of defending its own interests. We recognize that the approach of the ruling class to this phenomenon is far from uniform internationally and that the U.S. example lies at one extreme. At the other extreme, the bourgeois establishment in France has attacked “American” ideas about race and gender as a threat to French culture as part of an attempt to whip up nationalism and hostility to “foreign” ideas. This is in reaction to the #MeToo movement, as well as mass anti-racist protests last year, inspired by BLM, that also took aim at the legacy of French colonialism. Nevertheless, the U.S. case is of major significance and could indicate a trend we may see in other countries.
2020 will be remembered as a year of extraordinary crisis for the capitalist system worldwide, the United States being no exception. The massive trauma of the pandemic, criminally mishandled by the Trump administration, was a devastating shock to working people as refrigerated trucks lined up outside hospitals and mile-long food bank lines became a fixture on the evening news. As the first wave of the virus subsided, what would become the biggest protest movement in U.S. history erupted in Minneapolis as millions of people, particularly young people, poured into the streets of cities, suburbs, and even rural towns to express their anger at racist police murders.
This is the immediate backdrop for a deeper development of “woke capitalism” among the biggest U.S. corporations and at the highest levels of state power. Corporations giving limited support to certain demands of oppressed groups isn’t entirely new. In 2016, corporations announced boycotts of North Carolina to show opposition to anti-trans “Bathroom Bills.” The #MeToo movement, in its initial stages, had the potential to develop into a mass movement against gender violence. Instead, forces aligned with the Democratic Party completely captured the lead in the absence of the development of mass organizations of struggle, and channeled energy mainly into raising money for legal funds. “Pinkwashing” revs up every year in June as corporations attempt to profit from inserting rainbows into their logos as part of their attempt to water down Pride.
However in 2020, the ruling class had to pivot more decisively when faced with severe crises on multiple fronts. Early one morning during the height of the uprising against the murder of George Floyd, protesters arrived at Brooklyn’s Barclay Center, the unofficial headquarters of protest in New York City, to find slogans painted in massive white letters across an entirely black three-story building. The slogans included “#Black Lives Matter,” and “Amplify Black Voices.” Near the bottom, in much smaller letters, was the Doritos logo. Corporate identity politics wasn’t born in 2020, but the Doritos-branded banner heralded a new ideological offensive by a major section of the ruling class. Not only are corporations attempting to appeal to youth markets by appropriating anti-racist slogans, but a whole section of the U.S. ruling elite is using a form of identity politics to navigate an environment that is becoming more hostile to the rule of the billionaire class.
Corporate identity politics, from advertising stunts like the Doritos mural, to well-funded “Diversity, Equity, Inclusion,” or “DEI” initiatives in corporations, is growing and is becoming a key ideological message disseminated by many local and state governments as well as many schools and universities. A significant section of corporations and the political establishment, along with the liberal corporate media and academia, are attempting to present themselves as leading voices in the fight against racism, sexism and oppression.
Major corporations are spending billions on DEI. The New York Stock Exchange and NASDAQ are instituting new rules requiring corporations that are listed on their exchanges to have a minimum number of “diverse” board members. In California, all registered corporations are now required by state law to have at least one “diverse” board member. Identity was a central basis on which the Biden administration was selected. Kamala Harris of course made history as the first woman, the first Black person, and the first South Asian to be vice president, but there are many more “firsts” in the administration.
While socialists favor the integration of workplaces and ending the domination of a white male elite in all spheres, we must be clear that the intent of the ruling class is not benevolent. It is first and foremost an attempt to cut across the development of the left and to ward off the threat of class struggle. Diversifying the ruling elite is part of an effort to convince working people, youth, and activists of the falsehood that capitalism can be made to work for the masses of people who are oppressed on the basis of race, gender, sexuality, and so on.
In addition to the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement, another factor in the rise of corporate wokeness was the surrender of Bernie Sanders to the Democratic establishment. With Sanders bending the knee to Joe Biden in April of 2020, there was no significant left force raising the radical program necessary to rapidly turn the economy toward fighting the virus and actively protecting the most vulnerable. It also meant that the idea of a multiracial, multi-gender working class movement to fight back against inequality and oppression lost its biggest spokesperson. This absence was especially acute during the BLM uprising itself.
The Lie of a “Post-Racial Society”
A united working class, conscious of itself as a class, poses a mortal threat to the domination of the ruling class. Capitalist rule has always relied on division, but it is fairly flexible as to what means it uses to divide people and what ideologies it uses to justify division. Overt promotion of white supremacy and male domination has been politically damaging and unusable for some time in the U.S., although Donald Trump traded in vicious xenophobia and endless dog whistles. Somewhat less overt racism and sexism are staples in advertising and corporate culture.
In the late 2000s, capitalist commentators put forward the idea that the election of Barack Obama signalled that racial oppression was largely over, and society was “colorblind.” On gender oppression, the heavily promoted Lean In, by Facebook executive Sheryl Sandberg, argued for a kind of post-feminism in which sexism was surmountable by relatively simple steps that individuals can take. These ideas are now too widely identified as fraudulent to be strategic for the ruling class. Now publications like the Harvard Business Review are running articles about “corporate social justice.” A significant section of the capitalist elite have adopted a form of identity politics that gives them a certain “progressive” veneer that can be useful for marketing their products especially to younger people whose consciousness has shifted significantly on these issues, while they promote ideas that emphasize not what working people have in common, but what divides them.
Corporate Identity Politics
Corporate identity politics are very well funded. The numbers are eye-popping. American Express rolled out a $1 billion plan to promote racial equity. Pepsi is spending $400 million to “dismantle the systemic racial barriers that block social and economic progress for Black people.” Apple is devoting $100 million to a racial justice equity initiative. New York Life, an insurance company, has announced a $1 billion impact investment fund. Netflix has promised to bank 2% of its cash reserves with Black-owned banks.
Given the deluge of funding for DEI initiatives, a veritable industry promoting these ideas has emerged. Corporate DEI spending was estimated to be $8 billion in 2003. In an April 2021 survey of finance executives of companies across different industries, Hanover Research found that 86% had increased or planned to increase DEI budgets. Prestigious universities like Stanford, Northwestern and Georgetown offer expensive online certificate programs in DEI. Corporate organizational charts now include DEI departments that are led by highly compensated executives.
Corporations are spending their social justice dollars on programs to recruit a more diverse management class and develop a more diverse supply chain for their products. A portion of the New York Life money will be invested with “diverse and emerging venture capital fund managers” supposedly to help close the racial wealth gap. A huge amount of corporate dollars go to DEI trainings, consultants, and donations to social justice organizations. A small handful of Black consultants, executives, and entrepreneurs as well as a section of the Black middle class will benefit from the money being handed out by corporations in the name of diversity. However, these dollars won’t make a dent in the big systemic injustices in housing, jobs, healthcare, education, policing and criminal justice that face Black workers in particular, but also people of color, women, and other oppressed sections of the working class.
The resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020, the biggest wave of mass protests against racism in U.S. history, profoundly alarmed the ruling class. It threatened to spiral into a general revolt against the system. This precipitated U.S. corporations wading much deeper into racial politics than ever before. Two thirds of S&P 500 companies made supportive statements for Black Lives Matter after the death of George Floyd, while 36% of S&P 500 corporations made contributions to racial justice organizations. This is an enormously significant infusion of corporate cash into social movement organizations, but the capitalist class that owns and runs the economy in its own interests doesn’t give out money expecting nothing in return. This is a blatant attempt to buy off the leaders of the BLM movement, and it is not the first time the U.S. capitalist class used this approach to undermine movements against oppression. As long as BLM leaders maintain their focus on the anti-racism that is acceptable to the elites, they can likely look forward to an ongoing financial relationship with corporate America.
Any organization of struggle that fights on the basis of a rounded-out anti-racist and anti-capitalist program and succeeds in fully engaging the Black working class will not have the benefit of corporate benefactors. Malcom X and the Black Panthers did not receive corporate funding. However, the Southern ruling class under Jim Crow supported Booker T. Washington and his Tuskegee Institute which promoted the development of a Black elite. Likewise during the upheavals of the late 60s and early 70s, the Ford Foundation gave money to anti-communist Black nationalists.
It is no accident that a key theme of “corporate social justice” today is to promote the idea that Black freedom means Black capitalism within the overall American framework. This is captured in the slogan “Black Wealth Matters” and the focus on the destruction of “Black Wall Street” in the Tulsa, Oklahoma massacre of 1921. The Black middle class has grown somewhat over the past 50 years, but the notion that Black capitalism is the road of advancement for the Black population as a whole is a cruel joke. To the extent there is a Black capitalist elite, its class interests are more aligned with those of the American ruling class as a whole rather than the Black working class who make up the majority of the Black population.
Why Are They Doing This?
All of this money and talk about racism, sexism, and other oppressions seems on its surface like a step forward in society, even if corporate identity politics aren’t aimed at major structural reforms that would benefit millions of people. But there are critical questions around the actual ideas that make up the bulk of DEI trainings that are rolled out by management in workplaces, universities, and other institutions. Are they the ideas that can lead to the liberation of oppressed people? And because the full liberation of oppressed people is not possible on the basis of capitalism, would it be possible for the capitalist class to put forward ideas that would lead to its own demise?
We argue that the answer to both of these questions is no. Not only do the shallow “anti-racist” rebrandings and token gestures by the ruling class not represent any viable way forward for the masses of working class people who face special oppression under capitalism, they don’t represent a significant concession to the Black Lives Matter uprising. The growing opposition to racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia especially among youth, combined with last year’s mass protests that were truly historic in scale helped to force the ruling class to change its presentation, but fundamentally, the ruling class under capitalism is unable to change its overall goal of keeping the working class divided. The capitalist elite, facing severe crises that increasingly undermine the viability of the system itself, will not play any positive role in alleviating oppression of working class people of color, women, LGBTQ people, etc, unless they are forced to by movements from below.
This is not to argue that the Black Lives Matter protest didn’t win anything. The protests were a potent radicalizing force for millions and they brought broad new layers of especially young people into active anti-racist action not just in the U.S., but all over the globe. The uprising was also a factor, though not the only one, in pushing the Biden administration and the Democratic establishment to pass a stimulus package that included relatively generous elements like $1,400 checks, a new unemployment top-up, and monthly payments to families with children. Biden has a history of being a deficit hawk who was tasked with finding a path to cutting Social Security under Obama. His rebirth as a second-rate New Dealer, untroubled by the spectre of inflation, is necessitated by the multiple crises faced by American imperialism including the threat of rising Chinese imperialism, looming climate catastrophe as well as growing internal unrest demonstrated by both BLM and the storming of the U.S. Capitol led by the far right on January 6.
But what they fear most of all is the reawakening of the class struggle. The union drive at Amazon’s Bessemer, Alabama plant earlier this year awakened enormous enthusiasm in the rest of Amazon’s giant workforce. A real organizing drive in the logistics sector would immediately highlight the key role of Black workers who have historically played a decisive role in the development of the labor movement.
How Anti-Racist Sentiment Is Misdirected
The ideas being disseminated by the capitalist class have much in common with those presented in a number of books including White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo. These books argue that white people cannot avoid being racist, they must strive to overcome their racism, and yet they can’t expect to not be unconsciously racist no matter how much they strive. They assert that racism is systemic, but the questions of what kind of system perpetuates racism, who benefits from the racist system, and what kind of system can achieve a society free from racist oppression–these questions are never the focus.
The idea of privilege based on race, gender, sexuality, etc., is a major feature of identity politics and is being disseminated much further than universities and NGOs by the ruling class taking up corporate identity politics. The most dramatic privilege in our highly unequal society is the privilege that the billionaire class wields to completely undemocratically control the economy, which they have done for their own gain and at the expense of working class people’s standard of living. Unsurprisingly, privilege based on class tends not to be a big feature of corporate DEI trainings, despite its outsize impact on people’s lives,
What identity politics proponents argue about privilege is that white people, regardless of their class, benefit from racism. Without any doubt, Black people in particular in our society, from cradle to grave and in virtually every aspect of society, are profoundly negatively impacted by racism. Anti-Black racism is built into U.S. society at every level with lethal results. White people are absolutely afforded opportunities that are denied to Black people, and they are much less likely to be killed at a traffic stop or sucked into the criminal justice system. But racism doesn’t do any favors to the vast majority of white people. Chattel slavery based on race was developed particularly to defeat the rebellion of slaves and indentured servants in the early U.S. colonial period and prevent further multiracial rebellions. The white supremacist Jim Crow regime saw its ideology as absolutely crucial to keeping the unions and socialists out of the South. Being divided from the working class of other races is not a privilege, it is a potent tool of the ruling class that must be fought with solidarity.
Far from being a privileged group, a large section of white working class people have experienced a decline in living standards and a rise in despair and alienation in the last four decades of neoliberal capitalism and its attack on stable well-paid blue collar jobs. This is most vividly illustrated by the statistics on mortality. Researchers Anne Case and Angus Deaton have shown that the unprecedented decline in recent years (pre-Covid) in life expectancy has been driven particularly by non-college-educated white people dying of suicide, drug overdoses and alcohol-related liver disease. The racial gap in mortality has significantly narrowed since the 1990s. In 2018, college-educated Black people’s adult life expectancy was closer to that of college-educated whites than it was to that of Black people who don’t have a college degree; this is a reversal compared to the 1990s. Neoliberalism set workers, and particularly workers without college degrees of all races back–a fact that the ruling class is attempting to obscure through its promotion of racial privilege theory.
The racism of individual people, from overtly racist acts and comments to what are sometimes unintentional expressions of bias, is a key element of how people of color experience racism. It’s also been a radicalizing factor for many young people in recent years. The Black Lives Matter movement, going back to 2014, has spurred white people, but also people of other races, to examine how living in a systemically racist society has shaped their views and reactions to Black people, even if they believe that people of all races should be treated equally. This is a positive development that contributes to increased solidarity between working class people of all races, and helps us build stronger movements against capitalist exploitation and oppression.
However, the emphasis within corporate identity politics on white people addressing racism on an individual level, without connecting this to the need for collective struggle, is not a strategy that will contribute to ending racist police violence, or desegregating housing and school systems, or providing free healthcare for all. White people “doing the work” to combat their own internal racism or racism among white people more generally has become something of a cliche. While there doesn’t seem to be a clear consensus on what anti racist “work” specifically consists of, a lot of the suggestions are actions to change one’s individual thinking, or how one individual can have an impact on systemic racism in one of society’s institutions like a school or business. While we agree that white people who have racist ideas should change their thinking, and racism needs to be confronted, individual action will never be enough. It will take mass collective action to successfully fight and end racist oppression in society.
Systematic racial oppression exists not because white people are racist on an individual level, but because, over the course of the history of the United States, racism has been an essential tool used to divide working people and ensure that a tiny capitalist class maintained control over the economy and the social order. It is that tiny capitalist class that has benefited from racism by forcing Black people into second class status with lower wages, poorer housing, healthcare and education. That second class status is and has been brutally enforced. Now the capitalist class wants to emphasize the culpability of individual white people without making any real changes to the massively racist and unequal system that benefits only the capitalists themselves. It is a giant scam to evade their own responsibility for the way things are.
A Dangerous Situation
The ruling class weaponization of identity politics poses a real danger for the struggle against oppression as well as for the left and the working class in general. Millions of working people are fairly clear on the fact that the system is rigged against ordinary people, and that the politicians are owned by the billionaire class. The mass appeal of Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaigns showed the hunger for an offensive, working class centered approach to politics, and Donald Trump’s election shows what can happen when right wing anti-establishment rhetoric, even if it’s fake, isn’t countered with class ideas. If the liberal political establishment, the liberal media, and a big section of employers are putting forward the idea that responsibility for systemic racism sits on the shoulders of individual white people, and the only major force in society decisively opposing that idea is the Trump-dominated Republican party and far right, all those whom the far right would target, including Black people, immigrants, LGBTQ people, women, trade unionists and the left generally face a real danger.
In the aftermath of the January 6 right wing insurrection at the Capitol, the far right is out of favor with the bulk of the ruling class, as the Biden administration takes aim at “extremism” as part of its campaign to shore up capitalist democracy. However, the ruling class has no real deep-seated attachment to identity politics, nor any principled objection to returning to the crude divide-and-rule approach of the past. There are various scenarios in which the ruling class might be spurred to abandon its supposed turn toward social justice and whip up racism, and particularly anti-immigrant sentiment.
The Origins of Identity Politics and Privilege Theory
The rejection of the derogation, subordination, and invisibility of non-dominant cultural experiences, as well as the brutality of police violence and other forms of violence directed against the oppressed, has played an important role in the radicalization of young people in the past period. But the ideas that are associated with identity politics in their current form, including privilege theory and intersectional theory, pose a real challenge for Marxists.
The immediate roots of these ideas lie in the emergence of “postmodern” philosophy in western universities beginning in the 1970s. The postmodern philosophers were frequently demoralized ex-leftists who then rejected Marxism.
However, these ideas also have antecedents in the “New Left” of the late 60s and 70s. Many New Left activists believed the Western working class (or the white working class specifically) was completely “bought off” and could not play a role in achieving revolutionary change. This section of the left also focused on “white skin privilege.”
The course of the class struggle, the violent response of the ruling elite to working-class politics and socialist ideas, and also the serious mistakes of the “old left” over a longer period, opened the way for these ideas. The pioneering work of the Communist Party (CP) in the broader workers’ movement in tying economic justice to racial justice in the 1930s educated a whole generation of workers and youth in the struggle to challenge capitalism. But tragically, the disastrous policy of the Popular Front in the late 1930s and early 40s subordinated the party’s groundbreaking work in the labor movement and campaigns against racial oppression to support for the Democratic Party.
The response by the ruling elite to the development of socialist ideas and mass organizing was Joe McCarthy’s Red Scare of the late 40s and early 50s which led to Communists and socialists being driven out of many unions. These witch-hunts were used to neutralize social movements and struggle by the working class, poor, and oppressed, with the CP and the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party being the prime targets. These attacks by the government had a profound effect on the consciousness and organizing capacity of the socialist movement and militant workers, made much worse by the approach of the CP especially. This contributed to isolating the “old left” from the wider working class.
The radicalizing youth and workers movement of the late 60s and early 70s was inspired both by the powerful examples of social struggle in the U.S., including the Civil Rights movement, as well as victories against capitalism in the neo-colonial world. Still, for many, the wrong lessons were learned and this pointed away from the role of the multiracial working class. This was at a time when the class struggle was at a height not seen since immediately after World War II.
The “New Left” was an outgrowth of the fragmentation and decline of of a working class-oriented, anti-racist left, despite heroic examples set by the radical Black freedom movement to challenge racism and capitalism. The failure to build a new political force oriented to the broader working class from the hundreds of thousands of revolutionary-minded Black and white youth of that period opened the door to the right and ultimately to neoliberalism. In 1980, Ronald Reagan was elected and set out to brutally reverse the gains of social movements and the working class. All of this further isolated leftists with a working-class orientation and opened the door to ideas that were seemingly radical but did not point a way forward to defeat oppression and capitalism. While we must take inspiration from the struggles of the past, this is part of our legacy which the left must overcome in this new period when millions are looking for the way to end racism and sexism.
Identity Politics in U.S. Culture
There is now a semi-permanent “debate” in U.S. society on racism and anti-racism, fueled particularly by the Republican Party, whose establishment is searching for issues on which it can connect with the party base. Republican politicians and right-wing media keep up a regular critique of Black Lives Matter, “critical race theory,” cancel culture, and “cultural Marxism.” A full discussion of the culture wars being promoted particularly by the right wing media is beyond the scope of this article. Socialists have to stake out an independent position on these fights. We have nothing in common with the right wing who want to impose a vision of the U.S. as an idealized bastion of freedom on our schools and cultural life. We agree with those who assert that the subjugation of Black people has been a key feature of U.S. capitalism for 400 years. However, it is in the interest of both the liberal and conservative wings of the political establishments to deny the central conflict in society as being along class lines.
The major ideological priorities of the ruling class inevitably seep into the cultural life of society, and identity politics are no exception. A New York City public school sent home material that encouraged families to “reflect” on their “whiteness” with a chart on the “Eight White Identities.” The “privilege walk” exercise used in schools has participants line up and step forward if they experience a particular privilege and back if they do not. This exercise can cause students real distress whether it’s because they feel pressured to disclose information about themselves like their family experiencing financial hardship by stepping backward, or by feeling shamed because they’ve stepped forward many more times than their classmates. These divisive approaches reinforce the idea that working class people of different races have little in common with one another.
It is becoming a trend for people influenced by identity politics to identify ordinary white people themselves as the central problem, rather than racist systems that oppress people of color. New York City psychiatrist, Dr. Aruna Khilanani, recently gave a talk entitled “The Psychopathic Problem of the White Mind,” which was offered for continuing education credit for doctors at Yale’s Child Study Center. Dr. Khilanani described in her speech the vivid fantasies she had of shooting and killing white people. She makes a case that white people are worthless in the fight against racism, asserting, “There are no good apples.”
Race 2 Dinner is another example of the entrance of identity politics into culture. The concept is unique: for a fee of $5,000, groups of white women can meet with Regina Jackson and Saira Rao, two professional women of color and Race 2 Dinner’s founders. Over dinner, Jackson and Rao proceed to spur the participants to “do the work” of “deconstruct[ing] the thing within you: whiteness.” In one success story cited by Jackson and Rao a past participant reported that she called out a racist comment in a social situation. Rao responded, “If even one woman from one of these dinners makes life slightly less toxic, even one day at work or at one dinner party, then our work is done.” Thankfully, the Black Lives Matter uprising of 2020 showed that youth and working class people of color have far greater ambition in attacking our lethally racist U.S. society than “making life slightly less toxic.”
Working class people of all races share a key experience: they are workers whose labor is exploited by a capitalist class amassing unimaginable wealth while driving down the living standards of the working class. The fight against capitalism cannot be won without unity of the multiracial working class. Racial oppression won’t be defeated without white people and the multiracial, multi-gender labor movement participating in mass movements against it, and the exploitation of the white working class won’t end without people of color and white people fighting together to end capitalism. To write off the white working class as pathologically, incurably racist is to either embrace the lie that racial oppression can be eliminated under capitalism, or a profoundly pessimistic outlook that excludes the possibility of fundamental change driven by social movements of working people.
Capitalism, a system that is structured to prioritize massive profit-taking for a tiny fraction of society while the masses in their millions lack basic human rights, has instability baked into it. The capitalist class was forced to adjust its approach in the face of a new series of crises. The millions of youth of all races in the streets of U.S. cities during 2020’s Black Lives Matter uprising was deeply threatening to the capitalist class. The weaponizing of identity politics by major sections of the ruling class and the move towards a more diverse ruling class is, in essence, an attempt to undermine the idea of a multiracial working class movement against racist oppression. The anti-racism of the elites will be exposed for its duplicity to millions as the class struggle explodes in the next period, and when another mass movement against oppression develops at a higher level of organization and class consciousness than the uprising of 2020.