The relief was great when CNN actually announced on Saturday that Donald Trump had lost the US election. We are finally getting rid of a president who has made identity politics and discrimination against minorities his trademark. In his victory speech, Joe Biden made fighting systematic racism one of his top priorities. There is every reason to do so. For example, one third of the African-American population under the age of 35 has already been in prison without a higher education. Researchers speak of a government policy of mass confinement.
However, my disappointment was also great when I heard that Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are continuing on the old footing of identity politics, sowing the seeds of discrimination themselves. Biden on Saturday appealed to all Americans to reconcile and unite in one common American nation and identity. So, like Trump, he too strikes a nationalist tone. That is bad news for current and future migrants.
In her speech, Harris emphasized her origins and gender identity. Her personal words appealed to me, but I also thought, “Here we go again.” At the time, Obama was co-celebrated as the first president of color. Alleged ‘white’ people could not identify with or identify with it. Trump was able to take advantage of that denial eight years later.
Politicians play with fire when they invoke identities of subgroups. Others then feel forgotten to say the least and form a breeding ground for political entrepreneurs to stir up their resentment against those subgroups. The latter in turn feel attacked and support political entrepreneurs who articulate their identity. Escalation and polarization are the result. In the former Yugoslavia these led to a civil war, in America there is a society divided to the bone.
Such developments also occur here. For decades we have dealt with politicians à la Trump making political capital out of insulting and provoking other groups. Think of Muslims in the case of Geert Wilders or of migrants in the case of Thierry Baudet. Islamists strike back with threats, such as last week against a teacher at a Rotterdam school. Activists of Kick Out Zwarte Piet take up the gauntlet by blackening people who celebrate the Sinterklaas party.
Dutch identity politicians share a number of disturbing characteristics. They try to gain support within their own alleged group through group insult from others. They do this by appealing to hurt people from their own group and for the sake of convenience forget that they themselves are responsible for it. They point their finger at others without acknowledging that they themselves provoked those others to hostile behavior. Facts and arguments don’t matter, all the more suspicions.
Biden and Harris do not contribute with their identity politics in their speech to tackling systematic racism and discrimination. Unfortunately, this also applies to the Dutch anti-racism movement. Committed activists are not concerned about the discrimination experienced by people with a migrant background in Dutch society. They refer to it to substantiate their claims of institutional racism, but fail to seriously investigate discrimination.
Nor do they come up with proposals to tackle discrimination. Protesting against statues, Zwarte Piet, the slavery past of Amsterdam and Rotterdam or calling for even more attention to slavery and racism in education: their actions are irrelevant to the reality of discrimination in, for example, education or on the labor market. There is a real risk that they themselves are more likely to instigate that discrimination.
We can only tackle discrimination if we stop identity politics, also on their part. There is no point in taking a party in identity politics, this form of politics itself is the problem.
Hans Siebers is associate professor at Tilburg University.