Yet another tactic was offered the Negro. He was encouraged to seek unity with the millions of disadvantaged whites of the South, whose basic need for social change paralleled his own. Theoretically, this proposal held a measure of logic, for it is undeniable that great masses of Southern whites exist in conditions scarcely better than those which afflict the Negro. But the rationale of this theory wilted under the heat of fact. The need for change was more urgently felt and more bitterly realized by the Negro than by the exploited white. As individuals, the whites could better their situation without the barrier that society places in front of the man whose racial identification by color is inescapable. Moreover, the underprivileged southern whites saw the color that separated them from Negroes more clearly than they saw the circumstances that bound them in mutual interest. Negroes were therefore forced to face the fact, in the South, they must move without allies; and yet the coiled power of state force made such a prospect appear both futile and quixotic. Martin Luther King, Jr. "The Sword That Heals" Why We Can't Wait
I picked up a cheap paperback re-publication of King's essay collection, Why We Can't Wait, in the bookstore the other day. It is sobering how apt its analysis and description still is: "even today there still exists in the South--and in certain areas of the North--the license that our society allows to unjust officials [clothed in uniform] who implement their authority in the name of justice to practice injustice against minorities" without punishment. (The whole passage is worth reading.) Black Lives Matter is unfinished business addressing a long-standing ill.
One notable feature of King's overall argument is that he claims that the American civil rights movement was re-animated and inspired, in no small part, by international affairs, especially "witnessing the drama of Negro progress elsewhere in the world." I do not mean to suggest that King claims that decolonization was more important than economic injustice amidst prosperity or a more significant trigger than the dashed expectations after a failure to fully implement Brown vs Board of Education. But King is powerful on the motivational significance -- as my generation witnessed anew in 1989 and the Arab Spring-- that emancipatory developments in distant countries can have on social movements.*
Be that as it may, I chose to quote the passage above because in recent years, there have been a whole number of self-described Lefty or Liberal intellectuals who argue that a focus on identity has undermined progressive and/or liberal causes. Such critics really come in two flavors: one claims that the focus needs to be returned to economic redistribution or class issues. (I responded to a version of that argument put forth by Nancy Fraser.)
The other claims that we should proclaim the American experiment of racial diversity an "extraordinary success story" and that now the focus needs to be "about commonality" and "shared destiny." The communitarian/civic minded quotes are from Mark Lilla's famous (2016) NYT editorial. Somewhat peculiarly, Lilla treats white identity politics both as an effect of a certain rhetoric in favor of disadvantaged groups, while recognizing that temporally such white identity politics precedes (say) the civil rights movement:
Finally, the whitelash thesis is convenient because it absolves liberals of not recognizing how their own obsession with diversity has encouraged white, rural, religious Americans to think of themselves as a disadvantaged group whose identity is being threatened or ignored. Such people are not actually reacting against the reality of our diverse America (they tend, after all, to live in homogeneous areas of the country). But they are reacting against the omnipresent rhetoric of identity, which is what they mean by “political correctness.” Liberals should bear in mind that the first identity movement in American politics was the Ku Klux Klan, which still exists. Those who play the identity game should be prepared to lose it.
Writing in 1963, King had no trouble recognizing that limiting oneself to an appeal to class solidarity or shared destiny was futile.+ In the quoted passage he offers two reasons for this. One reason is white racism ('the underprivileged southern whites saw the color that separated them from Negroes'). This racism is facilitated by the fact that the shared (class or national) interests are, in fact, not so easy discern to those in the working class that benefit (on the margin) from the status quo at the expense of those below them. King writes eloquently of "The Negro...[who] lived on a lonely island of economics insecurity in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity."
This epistemic challenge is caused by the second reason: whites have captured state power such that it benefits whites as a group. This group benefit means that working class whites get a leg up over their perceivable, direct economic rivals, the black working class.**
That is to say, King recognizes that a too-partial state structures the playing field in such a way as to prevent either class or national solidarity from benefiting all disadvantaged groups. In such a context it is futile to focus only on class or national solidarity if one cares about the truly disadvantaged. It does not follow from this fact that one should not talk about economic injustice -- all of King's writings do so -- or not about national aspirations (again King does so).
There is an anodyne conclusion one can reach for: the state should be impartial or (if one has libertarian sensibilities) should be removed from its meddling activities. I call it 'anodyne,' because it's clearly insufficient. It is insufficient because it does not address past injustices (which structure the present) nor does it really acknowledge that the meddling state seems rather robustly enduring.
I take it that one can be receptive to various forms of solidarity and communality that transcend particular interests--this much is right in the two critical camps of identity politics. But what they get wrong is their insistence that disadvantaged groups should subordinate and even be silent about their experience(s) of injustices in the name of some tactical or strategic political agenda. When class or nation can't allow the naming of particular injustices and the offering of actionable remedies against these, they reinforce injustice.
*In his famous editorial, Mark Lilla wrote that "However interesting it may be to read, say, about the fate of transgender people in Egypt, it contributes nothing to educating Americans about the powerful political and religious currents that will determine Egypt’s future, and indirectly, our own." Lilla treats this as a self-evident truth; but it is not obvious why the control of and attitudes toward sexuality and gender are not central to a country with scarce resources and growing population (with a politically potent religious movement).
+An the post I ignore the severe limits to religious solidarity he also diagnosed, especially in his very famous Letter From Birmingham Jail.
**The same dynamic plays out in contexts where the new migrant or refugee is the perceived rival.