Asad Haider is the founding editor of Viewpoint Magazine and a Mellon postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Philosophy at Pennsylvania State University. In July 2018, I arranged to interview him in the wake of his recently released book, Mistaken Identity: Anti-Racism and the Struggle Against White Supremacy (Verso, Spring 2018), which was generating attention for its critique of “identity politics” from the perspective of a committed leftist. Haider’s book is partly informed by his experience as an organizer and member of UAW-2865, the Student-Workers Union at the University of California Santa Cruz, where he completed his doctoral degree. But to a significant degree, it is also invested in claiming a central place for the black radical tradition, including figures like Huey Newton, the Combahee River Collective and Stuart Hall, and reviving their thinking within socialist and leftist political discourse.
I wanted to know more about how he came to hold these views, how he understood them to operate, and what importance they should have in renovating or reforming leftist thinking. Our conversation ranged from the origins of his political consciousness, to reconstructing the intellectual background and original reasoning behind many of today’s buzzwords, to the future of the Democratic Party and Stuart Hall’s prescient diagnosis of the authoritarian populism of Donald Trump.
Jesse McCarthy: You open this book by recounting a change in perception, or maybe we should say a change in self-perception, of the world around you, in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. That seems to form the basis for a kind of political awakening? I’ll let you frame it the way you think is best, but why don’t you tell us why you chose to begin your story there.
Asad Haider: I think my experience was that of a child of immigrants from a Muslim country, growing up in central Pennsylvania, and for my entire life my identity was something that was always in between, something that was changing: I couldn’t pin it down, it was something hybrid. On the one hand, hybridity is something that opens up new worlds to you, on the other hand, it means you don’t quite fit anywhere, you don’t quite feel at home. That was kind of what framed my experience for a long time. With 9/11, suddenly, this fluid character of my identity became fixed by the concerns of security and anti-terrorism. And that was unexpected, because after all this time people literally hadn’t heard of the country my parents came from, suddenly it was at the center of the news, it was a site of geopolitical-military significance and so on. I began the book by talking about this trajectory because it shows you the way that, within my own experience, identity is not only constantly in flux, but takes on different political meanings in different political contexts, and this led me to go beyond my particular identity, and find connections with other political movements, with people of different identities who were engaged in a common political struggle.
JM: There’s this really compelling way in which you make visceral and experiential something which is not always easy for us to articulate or understand, which is thinking about identity as anti-essentialist or anti-foundational, that it’s something subject to changes that are completely unforeseeable and also out of one’s control. One of your responses to this is a surprisingly eccentric intellectual formation, your syllabus as it were, one that includes everything from Malcolm X to Henry Miller. I love this anecdote you have of discovering Huey Newton’s “Revolutionary Suicide” almost by accident, because you had to do a high school paper on Isaac Newton.
AH: I certainly can’t refute the charge of being eccentric. I think what characterizes this kind of syllabus I found myself making was the search for some kind of underground current in American history and culture, something that went away from what I had come to understand was at the heart of the American identity. I was trapped between these various identities and the American identity was one of them. And so to find these writers and politicians and thinkers who were challenging American identity from within was very meaningful. And because of my own experience of racism, it was especially meaningful to encounter the tradition in the United States of opposing racism, which was the black revolutionary tradition. What was striking for me as I read these figures—you named Malcolm X and Huey P. Newton—who both saw themselves very much in solidarity with the other nations of what was called at the time the Third World. I could see the scale of global inequality that existed between the United States and Pakistan, and so it resonated that Malcolm X and Huey Newton also established a solidarity between their place in the U.S. and the position of people fighting against colonialism and neo-colonialism around the world.
JM: You also mention the experience of coming into contact with Hanif Kureishi’s work, in particular his screenplay for the film My Son the Fanatic (1997), which is a fabulous film. That work in a way is a little bit more specific, in the sense that it captures the experience of being a young Muslim in the West, in that case in London. Do you feel that there’s something about that particular experience that hasn’t yet appeared in the American context? Is there a Kureishi for the American experience that was there for you? Or did you turn in part to Kureishi’s because he was the only one conveying that slice of experience?
AH: It’s precisely that there was no equivalent to Kureishi in the U.S., and that meant having to go outside this geographic context to England, which I thought would be completely different kind of cultural experience to be there, where Indian and Pakistani culture was very much seen as something that was unavoidable—it was at the core, whereas here it was an oddity. We were a piece of exotica. But I think it’s really great that you pointed specifically to Kureishi. His other films that he wrote screenplays for, like My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) and Sammie and Rosie Get Laid (1987), these were also great films. I remember buying a VHS on eBay to be able to watch Sammie and Rosie Get Laid. And these are films that Stuart Hall wrote about in his famous article “New Ethnicities,” which is precisely about what you were talking about earlier, a kind of anti-essentialist anti-foundationalist conception of identity. And he saw these films as very much a part of understanding what that was. So I think they’re well worth watching now.
JM: Absolutely. Now I wanted to jump off the black tradition, but within this context where we’re thinking about identity and going beyond it. Speaking of Huey Newton, you write: “What mattered the most to me was that Newton did not stop with his own identity. His experience led him beyond himself, to take up a politics based on solidarity with Cuba, China, Palestine, and Vietnam.” I wanted to put the question to you, it’s something I’ve thought about a lot and a question that I think your book poses in a large way: Is it the case that leftist politics requires a kind of epiphany that comes from experiences that lead beyond the self?
AH: I think so, because I think that our selfhood is something that we have to constantly put into question. Our selfhood is something that derives from the languages and systems and norms of the society as it is. It’s not something that we can just get rid of or negate or pretend isn’t there. It’s in some sense our condition for even being able to speak and enter into dialogue with our society. But it’s also something that we have to constantly put into question, if we’re going to put into question the structures of the society as it exists. We have to understand that our selfhood can’t be the foundation of any kind of politics which is seeking to transform the society. It’ll always come back, we can’t just pretend it’s not there that we can refashion it wholesale but we also have to be engaged in this relentless and always unfinished process of putting our selves into question.
JM: That’s the perfect segue for me to get at one of the memorable phrases from this book: “the consolations of identity.” You’re concerned that as with a certain kind of turn to fundamentalism, which you pair it with, identity can become a stopping point rather than a pointing the way to further interrogations. And I think this leads us into the core of your book, which offers us closely considered contextual readings, and also micro-histories, of some of the key words or buzzwords that are all over the place right now, and fall under this constellation that we call “identity politics,” but that are not always well understood. One of your ways into this is through Judith Butler’s critique of the state—or I should say, the liberal state—and its granting concessions based on injury. I wonder if you could explain for folks a little bit why that’s an important critique and how it functions for you as you get into thinking about identity politics writ large.
AH: The argument that Butler makes, and that is very rich, is that the liberal state recognizes us on the basis of identities, and it recognizes identities as political only insofar as those identities claim to have been injured in some way, and can demand some kind of restitution for that injury. What this means is that, if we accept this model, we end up being more and more reduced to whatever particular identity category has been used to define us, even though every group that is defined according to one particular identity characteristic actually contains a multitude of other identity traits. We get more and more reduced to our group affiliation, if we accept that this kind of injured identity is the basis for us to become political, or have any kind of political agency. Butler extends this argument to point out that this is the way people start to become attached to their identities. Because these identities have made it possible for us to speak, for us to articulate a demand, even though those identities have been created through a process of injury. Even though those identities were created through a relationship of subordination or a hierarchy of some kind, we become attached to them. And that attachment is precisely what keeps us within that relation of subordination.
JM: You go back to the Combahee River Collective’s statement from 1977, and tell the story of how these concepts around identity came into being, a story that not everyone is familiar with. We receive words like “intersectionality” without really understanding how they were originally conceived, and how they were intended to be deployed in politics or just socially. So I wonder if you could talk about why you chose to go back to these key texts from black feminism, and how you’re reclaiming them from a certain kind of critique that says: the problem with people on the left is your obsession with these micro-identities or segmented, parceled-out demands, rather than a more robust, universalist liberalism that would be more politically effective.
AH: That’s always been an ignorant critique, and the problem with it is not only that it advances a form of politics that is not truly emancipatory, but that it takes up the space that could otherwise be occupied by a genuine self-criticism that could help us understand what kinds of languages and practices are adequate for genuinely emancipatory goals. This polarization, that’s a huge problem in our contemporary political discourse, because once you try to speak on any of these topics, you get parceled into one of these two opposing camps, whereas a valuable and productive position would lie outside of that opposition entirely. And actually, the origin of the term identity politics was one that was outside of that polarization. The black feminist statement of the Combahee River Collective was an argument about how various political movements that were based on group identities like the Black Power movement or the feminist movement had been exclusionary, because they had had a reductive conception of identities, and neglected differences within these groups. In the black liberation movement, black women were still subordinated to black men; and in the feminist movement, there was the assumption that the interests of women corresponded to the interests of white women. What the Combahee River Collective pointed out was that the identity of black woman was an identity that was at the intersection of all of these different forms of oppression in society, and one which had been excluded from the existing political movements. So asserting the autonomous politics of black women was a way of disrupting exclusionary identities and generating a real revolutionary vision, a vision they described at length as a socialist one. The fact that the term originated with that just shows you how the polarization that exists today in the political discourse is something historically specific, as opposed to something that’s just contained in the term—and we are not required to make some kind of choice between the abstract liberalism of abstract individual rights or an essentialist conception of identity. Those are not the two choices, and they weren’t the two choices when the term was introduced.
JM: Another flashpoint you tackle is the term “privilege,” or “white privilege.” You give a really interesting account of the emergence of that term in a historically specific context with Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), and also the way it was understood and interpreted by Theodore Allen and Noel Ignatiev. I wonder if you could give us a sense of what’s missing in our common sense deployment of the term “white privilege.”
AH: Both Allen and Ignatiev give an important basis for understanding what Allen called “the invention of the white race,” which is the title of his two-volume history, and Ignatiev has continued in that tradition with his book How the Irish Became White. The point is to look at whiteness as a social construction, not something that’s written into the genetic code. The white race is something that’s composed of people who come from all of these different ethnic groups that, in Europe, were part of various kinds of racial hierarchies. So the Irish, for example, were subjected to English colonial oppression, and were racialized for centuries. So how is it that in the United States all of these different groups get assembled into this thing called the “white race”? Well, the answer if we reflect on American history is that the white race is constructed as a means of excluding black people from citizenship. It begins with the construction of legal categories for slavery, and it continues as migration from Europe threatens the American identity categories that are being forged, so that identity becomes reconstituted by incorporating these other groups into the white race—hence, how the Irish became white.
Now, this process of producing a white race involved extending certain privileges to groups that were joining the club. And these privileges were real, material ones. But the point that Allen and Ignatiev both made was that even though these are short-term privileges—which represent real advantages for white people who were once oppressed as immigrants and are the reason they enthusiastically take up the label of white and participate in the oppression of black people—nevertheless, the privileges in the long run are bad for white people. For when the white worker, who is now encouraged to be separate from black workers, and to assume a position in the hierarchy above black workers, this means that the white worker has accepted a position in the hierarchy underneath the boss. That hierarchy will stay there, and it will disproportionately hurt both black and white workers. It will hurt them both. And it is not until the white worker realizes that white supremacy is a harmful force, and actively opposes it, that they will be able to realize their own interests. This meant not only that you couldn’t simply write off white workers, you had to recognize that they had to be part of a coalition that would fight against racism, that would fight against class exploitation—but at the same time, white workers had a responsibility to oppose white supremacy. Black people can’t be the ones who oppose white supremacy while white people do their own thing over there—no, white people have a responsibility to oppose white supremacy too.
JM: And an interest in doing so.
JM: I’m always surprised when people will say: How can it be that the U.S. is the only modern industrialized country that doesn’t have a working universal health-care system? Well, the poison of racial ideology goes a long way in explaining how something that is clearly in the interest of the demographic majority—that is, working and middle-class whites—who would benefit from having health care, in fact don’t get it.
AH: It’s a question for today’s left: Do you want to approach white workers and say, look, we have to fight for our health care together, and you’re going to need to oppose racism and overcome racial divisions in order to do this; or, do you just want to let Trump talk to them? And let Trump say, I’m going to work for your interests. He’ll tell every lie, and where will we be? There will be more racism, and none of us will have health care!
JM: This book is also interested in politics in a very pragmatic sense. You yourself are a political organizer, and one of the things I like about this book is that the thinking in part emerges from praxis, from doing politics in the real world with real people. You recount a very specific struggle, and a complicated one, of trying to organize at UC Santa Cruz, to oppose a tuition hike in 2014. What happened at UC Santa Cruz and what did you learn from that experience?
AH: There was basically a very promising moment, in which initially a small group had organized an occupation of a building, and managed to pull it off on a large scale—that is, managed to draw in a much greater than expected number of students to participate in this building occupation. Then it wasn’t entirely clear what the next step was. Discussions were starting about how to expand this local protest into one which was a general anti-austerity movement. But we didn’t get the opportunity for that to happen, because very quickly the idea emerged that the whole action was organized by white people, that it was a white-led action, and that it was not a safe space for people of color. I wasn’t one of the primary organizers—I was a participant—but for the people organizing who I spoke to and knew, it was hard to even understand how to respond to that because a great proportion of them were people of color, were women, who had organized something that brought in a very broad coalition of people across campus. So this was obviously not an actual question of the character of the action or of the organizers, but was something that was politically motivated in some way, was using this language of identity to advance a particular kind of agenda. Now the agenda—I don’t mean to get conspiratorial, the agenda may have been nothing more than self-interest and divisiveness, but the problem is that it was extremely effective in tearing apart the coalition, in undermining the reputation of the action and of the organizers, and of causing the movement to collapse.
When you talk about identity politics, it’s very hard to come up with any general phenomenon that would go under the name—but people who have participated in organizing, people who have been at college campuses, have encountered various phenomena that are now generally described under the umbrella category of identity politics, and it’s something we’re still trying to explain and to understand. I talked about this experience as a way of pointing to how so many of these particular phenomena came together in a way that was fundamentally depoliticizing. So some people asked, you talked about the Combahee River Collective, you pointed out that identity politics has emancipatory origins, so why are you then criticizing it? Well, the reason is that there’s also this other phenomenon going on, and it’s one that is depoliticizing, it’s one that doesn’t advance a revolutionary vision, and it’s something that we have to try to explain.
JM: I think that’s absolutely right, and I have a question that’s related to this. I think a lot of people try to point to identity politics as this new or somehow intrusive force, that is potentially crippling to left politics. But when I look at a longer history of left politics, it seems to me actually almost endemic to left political culture—that there’s this long tradition of its being intensely schismatic and fissile. If you go back and think about the 1930s, George Orwell’s depiction of the different factions in Barcelona, the anarchists fighting Trotskyites and the Trotskyites fighting the Stalinists. Is it possible that it’s just in a way intrinsic to left politics that precedes this question of identity?
AH: It’s a very dark question, and it’s one that I have thought about a lot lately. I think the reason it’s so striking—this tendency not just for division but for denunciation and persecution internal to a group that was supposed to have a common mission—is that the left’s vision is one of emancipation and equality and freedom. So the contrast and contradiction is so stark. But so far I don’t think it’s something that’s specific to the left, but rather something that’s characteristic of our society, which the left has not succeeded in successfully combating. I think that’s a big challenge for people who are organizing, to think about how to operate on the basis of solidarity, and to have functioning organizations that are genuinely democratic, rather than devolving into a group where everyone attacks each other.
Part II: Amiri Baraka, Rachel Dolezal, “Insurgent Universality,” and… Do we need to “break” the Democratic Party?