Rainbow City

09.11.13

New York City’s Identity Politics 2.0

WASPy male politicians, take note: the Big Apple’s mayoral primaries showed that a white dude who sympathizes with women and communities of color can win big.

The unusual rainbow-coalition-type cross-racial and cross-gender voting patterns that came to define—and upend—the New York City mayoral primaries and other races in the city do not, as some are claiming, mark an end to “identity politics,” but rather a new variation on the theme. Call it Identity Politics 2.0, the N.Y.C. edition.

When Barack Obama was elected president, the nattering nabobs of nonsense proclaimed that America had magically entered a post-racial era. This was, and remains, plainly stupid, as is obvious to anyone even remotely clued into the persistence of racial inequality in America. Identity politics—that is, political arguments asserted by members of a similar group, such as women or black folks or the LGBT community—remain alive and well in America today because discrimination against such groups remains vast and too often vicious. And this should be obvious to any New Yorker with a political pulse, from the vastly disparate biases of stop-and-frisk policing to the segregation and bias seen in New York City public schools. Notions of “woman” or “black” or “Latino” as not just categorical but political identities emerged in our nation’s history as a way to explain—and confront—a shared experience of discrimination. While certainly in some ways improved, that shared experience of struggle, and thus the shared identities, remain understandably relevant today.

Historically, then, voters tended to express such identity politics in the ballot box. Women voted for women candidates. Latinos voted for Latino candidates. And yes, white men voted for white male candidates. That’s still largely true today. In 2012 most white folks voted for the white candidate (Mitt Romney), and most black folks voted for the black candidate (Obama). But here comes New York City, blazing a path toward our collective cultural and political future—as is so often our city’s role. Much has been made of the fact that Bill de Blasio, a white guy, competed with Bill Thompson for black voters and, early polling suggests, may have even received a larger share of the black vote despite that Thompson is black. And while Christine Quinn is still projected to win a majority of both women and LGBT voters, the margin of that support was substantially cut into by both Thompson and de Blasio—including notable gay women crossing sides, like Cynthia Nixon stumping for de Blasio and Randi Weingarten backing Thompson.

Pale male politicians of America, take comfort in Bill de Blasio and Identity Politics 2.0.

Sure, some of de Blasio’s support from the black community may have to do with his black wife and son, the latter of whom was featured in perhaps the coolest campaign ad ever. But de Blasio was also more forceful in his condemnation of stop-and-frisk policies than Thompson was—a major issue for communities of color in this election. In other words, voters of color, especially black voters, may have shared an identity with Thompson, but they identified with de Blasio—and felt that de Blasio identified with them. And that, if it plays out, is the real news of this election.

As we all know, American electoral and cultural demographics are rapidly shifting. In the 2012 election, white men accounted for just 34 percent of voters. Yet they still managed to hold on to 67 percent of the seats in Congress. These white guys, while still holding plenty of power, are obviously fearful of their political future—both individually and as a group. This anxiety plays out within Republican Party efforts to “rebrand” and arguably is at least a significant factor in the extreme and irrational opposition of current Republican leaders to anything and everything President Obama proposes. But pale male politicians of America, take comfort in Bill de Blasio and Identity Politics 2.0. You don’t have to be Todd Akin or Ken Cuccinelli and repel women voters. You don’t have to be Newt Gingrich or even Romney and make thinly veiled appeals to racial divisiveness to attempt to win. You can be a white dude and be sympathetic to the issues facing women and people of color—and if you actually mean it and show it, you can win.

For straight white male politicians, the increasing diversity of the American electorate need not be an obstacle but an opportunity—to get with the times and acknowledge and identify with the very real and serious struggles that are unique to women, LGBT folks, immigrants, and voters of color. In the future of American politics, it doesn’t matter who you are—what matters is whom you stand with. Politicians, take note.

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A woman votes at a polling station in Chelsea in New York City on September 10. (Andrew Burton/Getty)