Why identity politics is dangerous

The best thing the Democratic Party has going for it right now is President Donald Trump. Were he not running for re-election, I might vote for a Republican. It would be only the second time in my life - I once voted for John Lindsay as mayor of New York - but that sort of thing would be next to impossible now since liberal Republicans like him exist only in history books and PBS documentaries. I am stuck with the Democratic Party - marooned is more like it.

I am stuck with a party that would replace the segregation of the past with the segregation of the present. The latest version is called "diversity," which insists that you are ineffably and permanently little more than your identity at birth - black, white, Hispanic, Asian or whatever. The white executive director of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee recently stepped down amid the uproar that the group is not sufficiently diverse. Never mind that Democrats had done exceedingly well in last year's midterms. Identity apparently matters more than performance - and Allison Jaslow is out. Apparently for being white. Not a single Democratic presidential candidate objected.

In New York City, the school system is considering a proposal to do away with its programs for gifted and talented kids. Both the mayor, Bill de Blasio, and the schools chancellor, Richard A. Carranza, have never hid their antipathy toward such programs and, in particular, the admissions process for the city's elite high schools, Stuyvesant being the most famous. The indictment is entirely statistical: The elite schools disproportionately lack black and Hispanic students. Sixty-seven percent of the city's public school students are black or Hispanic, yet they only make up 10% of elite high school enrollment. At Stuyvesant, Asians predominate.

These numbers are unfortunate, but they are not the product of some racist school-system policy. The admittance tests are open to everyone. They are racially and ethnically blind. The enrollment outcomes are partly the result of income stratification among the ethnic and racial groups and the cultural consequences of that. But the secret to the success of those who do get in, including many first-generation Asian immigrants born and raised in poverty, is simple: study. Tell them about "privilege."

In his important new book, "The Assault on American Excellence," the former dean of Yale's law school, Anthony Kronman, uses the phrase "a reverence for human excellence." This was once the entirely noncontroversial ethic of American education. It powered New York's public schools and colleges and was the assumption by which generations of immigrants propelled themselves out of poverty. City College of New York, admission by excellence only, has produced 10 Nobel laureates, three in medicine. The world has benefited.

No doubt American society needs a course correction for the inequities of the past and, in some cases, the present. Non-monetary amends should be made for slavery and for the evils of racism. But it is wrong to think the injustice of racism and all the other "isms" can be righted with the injustice of identity politics. We have enough victims already.

My ideal political party would adhere to the principle of fairness. My political party would reject identity politics. My political party would extol excellence. My political party would embrace the uniqueness of every individual and not consider him or her (or any other pronoun) a member of a group first, an individual second and use the excuse of past prejudices to create a racial or ethnic patronage system. We had that once in many big cities, an appeal to tribalism, and the idea of a racially or religiously balanced ticket - a white and a black, an Italian and a Jew - need not be revived. Leave it dead.

In a stunning article in the current Atlantic magazine, George Packer details the difficulty of choosing to send his two children to public schools in New York - a Kafkaesque admissions gantlet of identity politics, incomprehensible classroom jargon, and political correctness taught at the expense of what used to be called civics. "It took me a long time to see that the new progressivism ... was actually hostile to principles without which I don't believe democracy can survive," he wrote. It has taken me just as long to come to the same conclusion. All I need is a political party that agrees.

Richard Cohen's email address is

© 2019, Washington Post Writers Group

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