Every citizen fatality in the custody of a government official—like George Floyd’s excruciating death in Minneapolis—deserves a solemn response and ultimate accounting, including both criminal investigation and broader assessment. The fear and fury flowing from recent law-enforcement casualties, however, have been inflamed and manipulated by opportunists to produce something much more sweeping.

Hard facts and data about our systems of law and policing are being ignored. Emotional hysteria is increasingly substituted for reasoned problem-solving. There is enormous pressure to conform to approved ideological assertions, and people expressing alternate views are often railroaded. Broad attacks on social order, widespread destruction of public and private property, and new waves of street crime have unfolded. There is open hostility toward the fundamentals of American justice and governance. It is now routinely claimed that “the United States government was founded on racist intellectual premises and economic practices that institutionalized oppression of people of color that continues to the present day” (to quote the Seattle Public Schools). U.S. society as a whole is characterized as a “system of oppression.”

In consequence, our classical liberal traditions of fierce competition of ideas, mutual tolerance, political compromise, and individual freedom are visibly withering. Yet there is scant resistance to any of this among elites. Journalists, social leaders, academics, clergy, businesspeople, and many politicians show little awareness that essential American principles are being washed away. Liberal leaders and liberalism itself are being superseded by forces much more inflexible and despotic.

At the root of our current crisis lies the dogma of identity politics. Created on university campuses and incubated among the young for more than a generation, this ideology now surges through the media, commerce, the nonprofit sector, and government. Identity politics asserts that civilization is a battle among groups, with dominant forces ruling by oppressing and manipulating the disempowered. It “atomizes society into different interest groups according to sex, race, sexual preference,” as author Douglas Murray summarizes in The Madness of Crowds, and “presumes that such characteristics are the main, or only, relevant attributes of their holders.” Once they have adopted a worldview defined by color, sexuality, and economic grievance and have built up levels of offense and outrage sufficient to justify a radical reorganizing of American society, proponents of identity politics are said to be “woke.”

Thanks to years of hectoring during college and strong pressures toward groupthink within urban culture, identity politics has become fashionable even among people with little experience of dispossession—like the couple I know who decorated one of their two yachts in support of this summer’s street protests. The identity-politics division of society into oppressors and oppressed now suffuses news stories, entertainment, school lessons, corporate policies, religious proclamations, and municipal rules. The movement demands redistribution of resources and power by group membership, using the language of “diversity, equity, and inclusion,” enforced by a “cancel culture” that attacks those who resist the woke agenda.

The diversity demanded by identity politics, though, is a strangely limited one. It is built on crude biological criteria like skin color or sexual practice. There is no tolerance for philosophical diversity, alternative principles, or heterodox beliefs. The stark categorization of people into “the privileged” and “the subjugated” must not be questioned. Resist a remaking of society that elevates certain identities and pulls down others, and you will be attacked as a bigot.

Identity politics is thus an aggressive marshaling of human divisions. It’s not interested in things we all share. It has no place for universal experiences, national harmony, or gratitude. Nor does it care for the wondrous idiosyncrasies and distinct variations of individuals. It draws its energy from factional resentments and fractures. The speed at which this radical, impersonal mode of thinking has been mainstreamed is astonishing.

It was sexual liberationists who first crusaded on behalf of identity politics. “In the latter half of the twentieth century there was a fight for gay equality which was tremendously successful,” notes Murray (who is himself gay). “Then just as the train appeared to be reaching its desired destination it suddenly picked up steam and went crashing off down the tracks.”

The movement to ratify unconventional sexual identities expanded to cover more and more categories. The acronym for new sexual rights has already bloated to LGBTQIA+ and continues to expand. Almost any “gender identity” can now be declared by assertion. Universities, corporations, doctors, nonprofits, and governments regularly ask people to proclaim predilections that until recently would have been considered wholly personal information, not germane to public life.

Most Americans have no interest in prying into the self-image of their neighbors or preventing them from pursuing life as they see fit. The problem arises from the fact that increasingly exotic “gender identities,” once personally decreed, can now be enforced by social and legal compulsion on employers, work colleagues, merchants, schools, charities, faith communities, health-care providers, athletic competitors, bathroom users, prison administrators, lawmakers, and taxpayers. These are no longer private dispositions but political claims; failure to acknowledge them can lead to public excoriation, lawsuits, fines, and the destruction of careers.

Identity claims extend all the way to fundamental concepts of reality. In the “transgender” movement, we see nothing less than an attempt to abolish man and woman, to replace science with ideological declarations, to censor factual truths of sex. George Orwell’s reaction to overweening claims of a similar nature was that there are some things “one has to belong to the intelligentsia to believe. . . . No ordinary man could be such a fool.”

There’s no foolery, though, in how transgender rights are now asserted. They are demanded with unprecedented ferocity. Among other surreal effects, women who suggest that biological sexuality is real, that girls need inviolable locker rooms, that female athletes must have their own sports leagues, that women have a particular legal status, are now (as Murray puts it) “hounded by people who used to be men.”

Even left-feminists like Meghan Murphy and J. K. Rowling are condemned. Rowling has been labeled “transphobic” for scorning language that distinguishes “people who menstruate” from “women” and for expressing concerns about social-media encouragement of young people to “transition” their sex. Staffers at her publisher said that they would refuse to work on her next book.

Decrying the extremism of sexual identity politics in his New York Times column, Ross Douthat notes that “the movement’s vanguard increasingly rejects debate entirely, expanding its definition of a ‘transphobe’ to encompass anyone with doubts about the widespread use of puberty blockers” (drugs and surgeries that doctors use to alter the sexual states of confused children). As biologists Colin Wright and Emma Hilton have similarly warned, trendy “affirmation therapies” now pushed by activists among even the very young insist that “a child’s cross-sex identity must never be questioned” by parents, schools, or others.

“The speed at which this radical, impersonal mode of thinking has been mainstreamed is astonishing.”

While sexual radicals were the vanguard in creating identity politics, the movement has attracted its widest sympathy on matters of race. Though enormous progress has been made in racial fairness, most Americans are quite open to further improvements. They recognize that race is where we have most often fallen short of our national, religious, and individual ideals of individual dignity and common brotherhood.

Of course, there have always been voices opposing the elevation of universal humanity over race differences. Prior to the Civil War, John Calhoun and other slavery apologists promulgated the idea that race was a deep, unignorable identity, more significant than class, nationality, religion, or individual character, necessitating societal sorting by skin color. This remained the position of white racists for decades. Strangely, their heirs today are the scions of identity politics—who likewise elevate race above qualities of character or personality, who say that whiteness and blackness are deeper than any commonalities, and who insist that racial sorting must be enshrined in law, social practice, and all decisions of everyday life.

Slavery defender John Calhoun was an early practitioner of identity politics, arguing that race was more essential than class, nationality, religion, or individual character. (PICTORIAL PRESS LTD/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO)
Slavery defender John Calhoun was an early practitioner of identity politics, arguing that race was more essential than class, nationality, religion, or individual character. (PICTORIAL PRESS LTD/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO)

The color-transcending idealism of Martin Luther King, Jr. has given way to a prickly race consciousness, elaborate mechanisms of protection to make people feel “safe,” and government interventions that categorize people by skin tone. Relentless new concepts of collective guilt insist that “white identity is inherently racist,” as celebrated diversity trainer Robin DiAngelo puts it, and that “white people do not exist outside the system of white supremacy.” The only acceptable approach is to admit one’s deep “implicit racism” and the nation’s “systemic racism,” leading to “white deference.”

The old liberal argument was that integration of whites and blacks would erode fears and resentments, just as bigotry toward Irish and Italian citizens evaporated as they mixed into American society. Today, that approach is said to betray a genocidal desire to erase the cultures of people of color. Prescribing education, self-improvement, and upward mobility as tools of life improvement is “the racism of assimilationism,” says Ibram X. Kendi, today’s favorite woke author.

The venerable proposition that it is wrong to categorize persons by their racial or ethnic group and that instead, people must be treated as individuals, is also now said to be a hateful notion promoted only by “the privileged.” City Journal’s Coleman Hughes points out that “the modern antiracist movement is not against discrimination.” To the contrary, it embraces racial discrimination as a means of remaking society. “The only remedy to present discrimination is future discrimination,” writes Kendi. “If discrimination is creating equity, it is antiracist.”

The theoreticians of identity politics now promote what one might call “romantic racism.” In this framework, someone black or gay or female possesses an inherent moral superiority, while members of other groups can just as automatically be assumed to be insensitive and imperious. A crude separation of people into worthy and wicked, oppressed and oppressors—with the moral categorizations determined by historical and biological exigencies beyond any individual’s control—weighs heavily on our social relations.

A shocking amount of stereotyping by race is now promulgated by progressives. Entities like the New York City Public Schools, the City of Seattle, the Smithsonian’s Museum of African American History and Culture, and many universities have fallen into repeatedly characterizing as “white traits” qualities such as “being on time,” “perfectionism,” “objectivity,” “work before play,” “rational, linear thinking,” “a sense of urgency,” “worship of the written word,” “individualism,” “delayed gratification,” and “politeness.”

Having slandered blacks with their backhand, identity politics manifestos then caricature whites with their forehand. The Smithsonian exhibit declared that white food is “steak and potatoes; ‘bland is best’ ”; that white wives are “subordinate to the husband”; and that “must always ‘do something’ about a situation” is a central hang-up of “white culture.”

The arguments of the romantic racists are often embarrassingly crude. A training program for municipal employees called “Interrupting Internalized Racial Superiority and Whiteness” casually lumps together Arab, Irish, Spanish, Armenian, and other backgrounds as “white people” and informs them that they have “complicity in the system of white supremacy,” so they must in the future be held “accountable to Black, Indigenous, and People of Color.” A report created to launch ethnic studies throughout the Seattle Public Schools contends that “Western” math is used to “disenfranchise people and communities of color.” Complaining that “we view ourselves as mathematicians and members of broader mathematical communities,” these woke educators ask, “Who gets to say if an answer is right?”

The cartoon of uptight wicked whites versus good easygoing people of color has rooted itself so deeply that proponents of identity politics have no qualms about casually wielding racist stereotypes like today’s “Karen” and “Becky” caricatures that disparage white women who seem to have unwoke or otherwise inconvenient worldviews. Washington Post editor Karen Attiah tweeted a list of alleged outrages over the last century that “the lies and tears of White women hath wrought,” and then concluded: “White women are lucky that we are just calling them ‘Karens.’ And not calling for revenge.”

The rise of romantic racism has validated many varieties of selective bigotry. Asians, Jews, Hispanics, and Middle Easterners are sometimes criticized as “white-adjacent.” And among blacks themselves, the woke frequently label individuals “inauthentic” if they fail to support identity politics. ESPN anchor Sage Steele, for instance, reports that she was excluded from a network special on racial injustice because two fellow African-American colleagues insisted that her views “wouldn’t be accepted by what they considered the Black community.” (The daughter of a West Point grad who is a retired army colonel, Steele is no fan of national anthem protests.) From Thomas Chatterton Williams to Thomas Sowell, blacks encounter censure whenever they stray from progressive orthodoxies on race.

Williams warns that it’s “a very dangerous thing” to let enforcers say that there is a certain way to be black. His own epiphany came when he was interviewing unabashed bigots for a 2017 New Yorker article and realized that “we’re not going to actually transcend racism so long as we believe in these categories.” He concluded that the only reliable way to improve the social status, prosperity, and happiness of African-Americans was to oppose approaches that pigeonhole individuals by arbitrary factors like skin color.

That makes him an outlier today. Rather than “unlearning” and “transcending” race, as Williams urges, many Americans—intimidated by the career-ending power of identity-politics mobs—are putting race at the center of everything. In particular, U.S. elites are resorting to increasingly heavy-handed applications of racial categorization, as well as stringent controls on the way race is thought about and acted upon. By constantly putting race above other life experiences, the wizards of woke are ironically fueling racial determinism.

The most worrisome quality on display today among practitioners of identity politics is their attraction to totalizing solutions.

Take, for example, Ibram Kendi’s book How to Be an Antiracist, which enjoyed wide adulation throughout 2020. Asserting that racism is endemic in America, the author calls for autocratic responses, including “an antiracist amendment to the U.S. Constitution” that would establish a new Department of Antiracism. This cabinet agency would be manned solely by “formally trained experts,” with no elected or appointed officials or other means of democratic accountability. It would be given absolute power either to clear or invalidate “all local, state, and federal public policies to ensure they won’t yield racial inequity.” It would have a writ to “investigate private racist policies when racial inequity surfaces and monitor public officials for expressions of racist ideas.” It would be “empowered with disciplinary tools to wield over and against policymakers and public officials who do not voluntarily change their racist policy and ideas.”

Here is a proposal to tear up the checks and balances among our executive, legislative, and judicial branches, to impose federal dominion over state and local self-government, to strip individuals of due-process rights embedded in our Constitution. And not only did liberal elites acquiesce to these ideas; they also fawned on Kendi in places like the Washington Post, NPR, Harvard, and Columbia. Twitter founder Jack Dorsey gave $10 million to put Kendi’s ideas into practice.

Somehow, the woke have convinced themselves that the end justifies the means. Authoritarian proposals have become common. Evidence of this new totalitarian temptation within American politics can be seen in many places.

The very language of group dominance and oppression at the heart of identity politics is, of course, taken directly from Marxism, as is the rhetorical emphasis on revolution rather than reform. Today’s social-justice warriors don’t want to fix police, prisons, and the courts; they want to defund and shut them down. In many of their statements and actions, there is a harsh lack of proportionality. Their favored graffiti spray tag is ACAB (“All Cops Are Bastards”).

If politics is the methodical organization of resentments, identity politics seems to run on the methodical organization of rage. Rage is a terrible fuel for the gradual give-and-take that produces social progress in a democratic system. The Americans under age 30 who most zealously man the barricades of identity politics, however, loathe give-and-take. They prefer, as columnist Bari Weiss has noted, to squash resisters.

There is a disturbing tendency to personalize disagreements. Protesters now regularly descend on the homes of people they disagree with. They hector them in restaurants. They harass family members. They release phone numbers and personal information online (known as “doxing”). They de-platform (get opponents disinvited from public events and dismissed from public posts). Employers, board members, donors, advertisers, and other partners of disfavored individuals, organizations, or causes are targeted as pressure points for personal attack.

Character assassination and purges are on the rise. When former Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg said that poor people can benefit from positive role models, he was denounced as racist. A University of Chicago economist argued on June 8, 2020 (the most murderous day ever recorded in Chicago), that “we need more police, we need to pay them more, we need to train them better.” For those words, activists forced him to resign his position at the Journal of Political Economy.

Black Lives Matter protesters got Philadelphia Inquirer editor Stan Wischnowski sacked this summer, after his paper ran a story defending historic structures under the headline “Buildings Matter, Too.” Activists engineered the dismissal of the opinion editor at the New York Times for printing an op-ed by a U.S. senator that they found offensive. (See “Slouching Toward Post-Journalism.”) Other demands for media purification spurred publications ranging from Bon Appétit to Refinery29 to Sportsnet to defenestrate insufficiently woke editors and writers.

In July, Weiss was driven from the New York Times by what she called the “civil war” raging inside that paper. The letter that she sent to her publisher describes a pattern of browbeating and bullying of centrists by progressive colleagues that has become common across the major media. “A new consensus has emerged in the press,” she cautions, “that truth isn’t a process of collective discovery, but an orthodoxy already known to an enlightened few whose job is to inform everyone else.”

Even the arts have become a war zone. A whole cohort of museum directors, curators, and creators were dethroned this summer for seemingly not being progressive enough. In June, the Getty Museum put out an Instagram statement: “At this deeply disturbing time, our hearts go out to our beloved Los Angeles community and all those around the nation feeling the pain of this moment. We stand for equity and fairness, and we share your hope for justice and peace for all.” Critics savaged the institution for failing to refer to white supremacy, systemic racism, and other broad indictments of America.

“Intersectionality is a method for ranking grievances—something the woke must do constantly.”

We are long past the moment where identity politics was just a quirk of the humanities and university social-science departments. It is now intruding vigorously on medicine, math, biology, physics, and other “hard” fields as well. The scientist serving as Michigan State University’s vice president for research had to resign in June for allowing a multiple-regression study that ended up finding no evidence of racial bias in rates of police shootings. Under mob pressure, the peer-reviewed research was retracted by the panicked authors and the journal that published it.

Hundreds of Princeton professors and students hounded their university in 2020 to create a committee for exacting “discipline of racist behaviors, incidents, research, and publication on the part of faculty.” Not waiting for an official inquisition, counterparts at Harvard sought to get psychologist Steven Pinker stripped of his positions for tweeting a New York Times summary of data on police shootings that they found insensitive.

Another indicator of totalizing politics is the heavy manipulation, suppression, and standardization of language. Searches on Lexis-Nexis have documented an explosion in just the last few years of identity-politics jargon in media stories. Terms like “systemic racism,” “transphobia,” “white supremacy,” “implicit bias,” “cultural appropriation,” “marginalization,” “micro-aggressions,” “safe space,” “patriarchy,” “toxic masculinity,” “white privilege,” “hate speech,” “queer rights,” “ableism,” and so forth have become de rigueur.

It’s fascinating to observe how fast and far the control of language is expanding, even amid aggressive claims of tolerance. Michigan State University asked employees to stop saying, “No problem!” because that phrase is a “trigger” that could lead people “to believe that they could be a problem.” The even more sensitive editors at EverydayFeminism.com pointed out that, since it’s part of a gun, the word “trigger” itself should be shunned for fear of “retraumatizing folks who have suffered military, police, and other forms of violence.” Use “content warning” instead, they said.

The fashionable language mutates so fast that you almost need a special app to keep up. In an eye blink, “Hispanic” and “Latino” were deemed reactionary and pushed aside in favor of “Latinx.” Training documents from corporate “diversity, equity, and inclusion” departments now inform employers that workers may “identify as disabled” even if they aren’t actually disabled.

To keep things straight as they navigate their increasingly byzantine thought-mazes, the woke have developed a pseudoscientific concept they call “intersectionality.” It’s a kind of unified field theory for identity radicals, a catchall almost guaranteed to destroy clear thinking. Intersectionality is a method for ranking grievances—something the woke must do constantly. Thus: when queer theorists, black-power protesters, anti-patriarchal feminists, indigenous decolonizers, and other victims find their agendas banging into one another, they use intersectionality like a rock/paper/scissors game to break ties. Who’s needier: Black women? Gay Arabs? Mexican transgendered? As scissors cut paper, blackness precedes Muslim identity. As rocks break scissors, transgender concerns override white feminist worries. As paper covers a rock, someone bearing two or three grievances at the same time can trump almost anyone else. “Intersectionality is the buzzword to end all buzzwords,” writes a columnist in the Guardian, a “sinkhole where political disputes go to die.”

A final hint of the absolutist tendencies within today’s identity politics is the righteousness and quasi-religious certainty of many practitioners. Columbia professor John McWhorter notes that identity-politics “preachers” like Kendi, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and Robin DiAngelo deliver “sermons,” lay out “antiracist scripture,” and drink in the “reverence.” He writes that “white privilege is the secular white person’s Original Sin, present at birth and ultimately ineradicable. One does one’s penance by endlessly attesting to this privilege in hope of some kind of forgiveness. . . . Treat logic as optional and simply have faith. . . . This, ladies and gentlemen, is worship, pure and simple.”

Wokeness, however, is a kind of upside-down spiritual quest. Traditional religion focuses on helping people reform themselves and repair their souls. But wokeness inverts the concepts of sin, repentance, and reform. It focuses ferociously on “the sins of others—especially the perceived sins of institutions and social structures—losing the sense of sin that infects every human being,” Patrick Henry College professor Mark Mitchell points out.

“The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either—but right through every human heart,” warned Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. But instead of peering into their own breasts and cultivating good within themselves, as traditional religion and philosophy have long encouraged, woke crusaders judge and spotlight the faults of others, with an avenging spirit. Leo Tolstoy noticed the same moral error while observing the rise of totalistic revolutionaries in Russia. Instead of treating ethical problems as “me/us” dilemmas, the creators of Bolshevism presented them as the failings of opponents. “Everybody thinks of changing humanity, and nobody thinks of changing himself,” Tolstoy warned.

The methods that American social reformers have traditionally used to improve society—moral suasion, direct assistance to individuals, and cultural evolution—have little appeal for today’s impatient insurrectionists. They demand a total makeover of society and human nature. Wouldn’t it be simpler, Marxist poet Bertolt Brecht once satirized, “For the government / To dissolve the people / And elect another?”

The danger stalking us through identity politics is the death of classical liberalism—America’s traditions of free speech, toleration for a wide range of viewpoints, a marketplace of ideas in the press and public debate, and recognition that one’s opponents are not criminals or miscreants.

“What if half the country begins to feel that the other half is eager to deprive them of their rights, has set them beyond the pale?” asks social anthropologist Stanley Kurtz. He notes that liberalism “arose to prevent murderous civil strife between those who could not agree on ultimate things.” Throw aside those conventions, and “it won’t take long for the social fabric to tear. Once half the country sees itself made out to be bigots without rights . . . civil peace will slip away.” Then we will be “back to the days before liberty and civil peace, the crowning achievements of our history, the history we’ve stopped celebrating.”

The crucial truth is that very few Americans want to be on the path that we are now racing down. A major study of national opinion published in 2018 as Hidden Tribes identified the portion of the U.S. population who are strongly committed to the identity-politics agenda. These true believers, whom the study designated “progressive activists,” stand out for their pessimism: 60 percent say, “I’m not proud of my country’s history”; 70 percent agree that “racism is very common in the U.S. today”; 76 percent believe that acts of sexism are pervasive; and 86 percent conclude that individuals don’t have control over the outcomes of their lives.

Now here’s the good news: only 8 percent of Americans fall into that “progressive activist” category. So how is that slender tail wagging the big American dog? Because liberals are too scared to stand up and be counted. One can hardly blame radicals for trying to turn the country upside-down; that’s what radicals do. It’s our liberal elites who must be blamed for failing to defend the vital habits and disciplines of tolerance and freedom.

Author Ayaan Hirsi Ali has mourned “the haste with which academic, media, and business leaders abase themselves” before the demands of the woke. The best remedy for cancel culture, former Time journalist Lance Morrow suggests, “would be resistance by strong adult leaders.” University presidents, newspaper publishers, heads of corporations, major philanthropists—men and women ensconced in powerful citadels and counted on by the rest of society to dispense the wise nudges that leadership implies—should be putting the brakes on today’s worrisome drift toward woke totalitarianism. Yet almost all liberal leaders are currently in racing retreat, panicked by the pterodactyls that swoop down from Twitter to devour dissenters.

“Time was, Americans were renowned for their can-do, problem-solving attitude,” writes Ali. At present, though, prominent figures throughout our society have a “political incentive not to solve social problems—because social problems are the basis of their power.” Every historian of national upheaval knows that it is conflict that gives openings to revolutionaries. That’s why the old radical saying when it comes to public life is: “The worse, the better.”

America’s previous leaps forward on racial reconciliation were animated by a much more humane spirit and a very different practical philosophy. Janice Rogers Brown, the eminent African-American judge who was a leader in the civil rights advancements of the last generation, points out that her reformist colleagues of that era were tolerant of varying viewpoints. They “accepted that the stresses and strains of our differences as Americans, like the balanced engineering of a Gothic cathedral, opened sacred spaces that epitomize our nation’s beautiful architecture.”

Today’s identity politicians don’t appreciate the feats of balance and counterpoise that go into building a structure both lovely to look upon and strong enough to stand for centuries. They have little appreciation for the towers and cathedrals crafted by previous Americans. After three centuries of remarkable building, they see only the sidewalk cracks, not the soaring buttresses. This lack of appreciation for the American civil experiment is no accident, says Brown. It’s fundamental to identity politics.

“Today’s self-appointed social-justice warriors are not requesting admission,” she concludes. “They are demanding submission.”

Top Photo: A series of high-profile killings of blacks by police has transformed Black Lives Matter into a potent political force—and made criticism of its agenda risky in many settings. (DAVID GROSSMAN/ALAMY LIVE NEWS)


City Journal is a publication of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (MI), a leading free-market think tank. Are you interested in supporting the magazine? As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, donations in support of MI and City Journal are fully tax-deductible as provided by law (EIN #13-2912529).

Further Reading

Up Next