Identity Politics Takes an Awful Toll : Race: Group empowerment is a myth unless the group works with the majority.

Todd Gitlin, a professor of culture, journalism and sociology at New York University, is the author of "The Twilight of Common Dreams: Why America is Wracked by Culture Wars" (Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt, 1995)

There are some truths so obvious that they paradoxically fall through the cracks: In a democratic society, minorities need majorities. Politics in a multiracial society depends on alliance-making, and that's not accomplished by celebrating membership in a group--any group. No community, no ethnicity is an island. The jobs, housing, schools and health care that blacks and any other Americans need cannot be provided by one group alone.

Given the proposed Republicans cuts, then, where are the million parents marching in protest? True, in recent weeks and months, we've seen scattered protests against hospital closures and other savageries. Many of these demonstrations crossed race lines, yet they are exceptional glimmerings. The spirit of the Million Man March is more frequently taken to prove the virtues of self-reliance. Indeed, most social movements in recent years invoke the special interests of feminists, gays, blacks and other blocs. Identity, so the argument goes, is the only firm basis of political commitment. You think what you are, and who you are is stamped on your skin from birth. Allegiances that cross the categories of birth are as thin as crepe paper rainbows.

But advocates of identity politics claim to do more than satisfy the soul and defend embattled communities. They want to be practical. They maintain that minorities add up, or will shortly add up, to a majority. But misassessments run rife. According to a recent survey sponsored by the Washington Post, the Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University, white and black Americans alike drastically overestimate the size of minority populations, doubling the actual percentage of blacks.

Miscalculations of strength lead to a cavalier attitude about the need to compose electoral majorities. The gerrymandering of a handful of congressional districts in the South to ensure greater African American representation had the effect of leaving the rest of the South to white conservatives who had no need to build political bridges. Now, in the wake of the Republican sweep of Congress, at least two of those black districts are being invalidated, leaving Southern blacks and the Black Congressional Caucus with less clout than ever.

In the course of a generation, the Democrats, once the party that drew its strength from racial and ethnic bridge-building, have been fractured by their pursuit of identity politics. Meanwhile, Republicans were putting together electoral majorities in part by targeting ethnic, religious and income groups that could be turned against minorities. Throughout, what is hyperbolically called the left sits on the margins, imagining that there is such a thing as the Rainbow Coalition.

For minorities, it is absurdly shortsighted to cast all white men as a rival interest group. This caters to Newt Gingrich, eager to arouse and collect the anxious whites, to appeal to the salesclerk and convince him that he has more in common with the CEO than he does with the working poor.

Racial obsession is the national pastime. We think race, act race, march race, tabulate race, celebrate race, fear race. Despite more cross-racial socialization than anyone acknowledges, integration is the goal that dare not speak its name. Separatism thrives when the prospects for integrated progress look poor and then takes on a life of its own. It becomes hard to recall that race, gender and ethnicity have not always been decisive barriers to cooperation in common cause. The integrated civil rights movement? Ancient history.

Even today, the irony of the fight over affirmative action is that the consequences are exaggerated by advocates and opponents alike. When proposed in the late '60s, affirmative action was one of a package of reforms--anti-discrimination, job creation, and so forth--that together were to combat the consequences of slavery and white supremacy. Now, with other reforms largely dismantled, affirmative action, even where defensible, is a symbolic knife, dividing people who ought to be seeking a common interest.

How long will we hang separately before the insecure majority decides to hang together?

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