Identity politics is having a moment. As the Democratic party struggles to unite around a vision for its future, activists are targeting disengaged young people and members of minority communities, offering them something to belong to that’s more important than themselves — an especially tall order these days.
But even as it appears to bind multiple factions into a cohesive interest group and voting bloc, the logic of intersectionality — the idea that various inequalities and injustices stem from and reinforce interwoven, identity-based oppressions — is quietly undermining their burgeoning movement. No uprising based on group coherence can hold together when its fundamental philosophy glorifies victimhood, pitting allies against one another in a quest to be crowned the biggest victim of them all.
Look no further than the progressive Women’s March, which skyrocketed to prominence in late 2016 and now appears to be slowly unraveling. A lengthy piece published on Monday by Tablet magazine revealed that, even as the group’s grassroots motivated women to vote against Republicans in last month’s midterms, a handful of the organization’s spokeswomen have allowed the leadership to sink into bigotry, anti-Semitism, and financial corruption.
According to the report, several of the women who now formally lead the Women’s March met for the first time in November 2016 in New York City. At that meeting, two of them, Carmen Perez and Tamika Mallory, “allegedly first asserted that Jewish people bore a special collective responsibility as exploiters of black and brown people — and even, according to a close secondhand source, claimed that Jews were proven to have been leaders of the American slave trade.”
Meanwhile, former Women’s March co-chair Evvie Harmon told Tablet that a meeting of the group’s leadership after the successful January 2017 March on Washington quickly turned in a similar direction:
Tamika told us that the problem was that there were five white women in the room and only three women of color, and that she didn’t trust white women. Especially white women from the South. At that point, I kind of tuned out because I was so used to hearing this type of talk from Tamika. . . . I suddenly realized that Tamika and Carmen were facing Vanessa [Wruble, another co-chair], who was sitting on a couch, and berating her — but it wasn’t about her being white. It was about her being Jewish. “Your people this, your people that.” I was raised in the South and the language that was used is language that I’m very used to hearing in rural South Carolina. Just instead of against black people, against Jewish people. They even said to her “your people hold all the wealth.” You could hear a pin drop. It was awful.”
Tablet’s reporting on the identity-based clashes among the group’s leaders sheds new light on the involvement of several of the co-chairs with Louis Farrakhan and his virulently anti-Semitic group Nation of Islam (NOI). Mercy Morganfield, a former Women’s March spokeswoman, told Tablet that NOI has done all of the security for the Women’s March. Meanwhile, Perez, Mallory, and their fellow co-chair Linda Sarsour have all been present at events organized by or featuring Farrakhan himself. When challenged on their association with Farrakhan, they’ve offered little more than lip service to the importance of understanding and diversity. Only recently and under pressure did their national organization issue a statement saying NOI’s ethos doesn’t align with the Women’s March “unity principles.”
Last month, Teresa Shook, who was the first to float the idea of a women’s march on Washington, called on the group’s organizers to step down for having allowed anti-Semitism to proliferate among them. In response, Sarsour issued a largely unapologetic statement in which she departed from the substance of the criticism and alleged that she and Mallory were being attacked because of their identities (Sarsour is Palestinian-American and Mallory is black).
Racial and ethnic identity appears to be all these women can comprehend. Consider the Women’s March’s unity principles, which call for
a society in which all women — including Black women, Indigenous women, poor women, immigrant women, disabled women, Muslim women, lesbian, queer and trans women — are free and able to care for and nurture themselves and their families, however they are formed, in safe and healthy environments free from structural impediments.
Critics have noted the absence of Jewish women on this list of identities singled out for special support. Here, again, is a fundamental problem with the politics of intersectionality: If you compose a laundry list of subjugated groups, excluding one subset looks, at best, like an oversight and, at worst, like an attack. Given the evidence of anti-Semitism in the Women’s March’s upper echelons, there seems to be a case that this exclusion qualifies as the latter.
In her comments to Tablet, Morganfield seemed to acknowledge the perils of where the Left is headed:
I think we still have an opportunity to pull this together. But it can’t be the Jewish women’s movement or Black women’s or White women’s or the Spanish women’s movement. We just need women voting together.
Unfortunately for her, the movement shows no signs of going in this direction. The apparent bigotry of women such as Sarsour and Mallory seems to be a feature, not a bug, of their identity-based ideology and their insistence on intersectionality. A narrative of historical, society-wide victimization is at the heart of their vision of progress. And any such story requires a hierarchy of grievances, which naturally separates the interest groups supposedly tied together by their shared victim status.
At the same time, every story of victimization requires a victimizer. Intersectionality and its accompanying goal of privileging the powerless necessarily requires identifying and attacking the powerful oppressors — whether it be the specter of capitalism, the ogre of white male privilege, or a figurehead such as Donald Trump. In the case of Women’s March leaders, the search for a villain has taken a sinister turn into anti-Semitism.
Of course, most left-wing agitators drawn to identity politics as a means of motivating the alienated will not go so far as to vilify or hate Jewish people. But the devolution of the Women’s March serves as a cautionary tale about what can happen to political movements that idolize victimhood and invent useful enemies to energize the oppressed.