Bernie Sanders speaking at podium

The human rights of marginalized groups are more than just “identity politics”

Last month, Senator Bernie Sanders spoke in a notably all-white panel at a Sanders Institute conference, and reiterated a frequent talking point of his, as well as many in his sect of often white, male progressive thinkers who reject what they call “identity politics” and “social issues.”

According to Sanders, the experiences of rural Trump supporters remain widely misunderstood and ignored by the liberal mainstream. “Please understand this,” Sanders said, “Trump became president of the United States because there is a massive amount of pain in this country, which is not seen on television, which many of my Democratic colleagues do not know about … and often that is taking place in rural areas.”

Of course, this message is entirely valid in itself; the poverty and suffering in rural parts of the country—largely due to policies enacted or supported by President Trump and the Republican Party—can’t be erased. But nor should we erase the fact that 53 percent of Americans earning less than $30,000 annually voted for Hillary Clinton, compared to 41 percent for Trump. Or that the poorest demographic of Americans (black women) voted for Clinton at a rate of 94 percent. Or that 52 percent of voters who said the economy was their most important issue voted for Clinton, compared to 42 percent for Trump.

The ceaseless demand that we sympathize with voters who are often either active players or complicit in harmful and bigoted policies—that we imagine  the “working class” to be exclusively rural, white, and male—feels particularly dangerous with 2020 presidential candidacy announcements just around the corner.

To be clear, Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign relied on “identity politics”—specifically, the rage and insecurities of white men. In fact, he relied on “identity politics” substantially more than Clinton’s campaign, which offered in-depth economic proposals for affordable and accessible health care, housing, and job growth that would benefit wide swaths of the population. The reason we call Trump’s utilization of identity politics a “unifying message,” while addressing existential human rights issues like criminal justice reform, mass incarceration, immigration rights, and reproductive rights is considered “identity politics” is simple: White men remain regarded and respected as the default, standard identity in the United States—often, even by progressive leaders like Bernie Sanders.

Women, people of color, LGBTQ people and other groups whose human rights have been severely, systematically attacked by the Trump administration can’t afford for their experiences to be dismissed as “social issues.” The suffering and needs of marginalized groups in America are not a mere distraction; without sufficient attention from lawmakers, and certainly presidential candidates, people will die — in far too many cases, exacerbated by the ongoing war on reproductive rights, they already are. Nor can we afford for progressive leaders like Sanders to uphold the superior importance of a purportedly blameless white working class in their rhetoric, at the expense of literally everyone else.

It’s indisputable that Sanders’ policy proposals—such as tuition-free public education, universal health care, and redistributive taxation—would disproportionately benefit women, people or color, and all marginalized groups who are more likely to live in poverty. But it’s also indisputable that Sanders and other progressive politicians and thinkers’ dismissive comments about “identity politics” and “social issues” are harmful.

Specifically, while defending his decision to endorse and campaign for an anti-choice Democratic mayoral candidate in Nebraska, Sanders urged Democrats to “get off the social issue” of abortion. Months earlier, he said of a historic woman of color candidate who had offered wide-ranging policy proposals that it “wasn’t enough to say, ‘I’m a woman, vote for me’” — which, FYI, she never did. He added, “One of the struggles you’re going to be seeing is whether the Democratic Party can go beyond identity politics.” Speaking of a blameless white working class, after the midterms, Sanders could not even call white Georgia and Florida voters who did not vote for black gubernatorial candidates Stacey Abrams and Andrew Gillum solely because they were black, racists: “I think you know there are a lot of white folks out there who are not necessarily racist who felt uncomfortable for the first time in their lives about whether or not they wanted to vote for an African-American,” he said.

Progressive economic policies will certainly help to address some of the oppression marginalized people face. But a reality Sanders seems keen on erasing is that much of the oppression in this country remains identity-based; identity-neutral rhetoric and policies, however progressive these policies may be, are not going to fix everything. And the erasure of specific groups’ unique, identity-based experiences is not progress—it’s regression.

Daunting as it may sound, the 2020 presidential election cycle is just around the corner. It’s crucial that we fight the continuation of the white- and male-centric narratives that dominated the 2016 election cycle and its aftermath, skewing our understandings of which issues mattered, and which were merely “social issues.” These narratives have lead to erasure of the poverty, economic disenfranchisement, and human rights abuses disproportionately shouldered by women, people of color and immigrant communities, and LGBTQ folks.

The “massive amount of pain,” as Sanders put it, among rural, white communities, also exists in communities of color, and certainly in urban and coastal areas that continually struggle with homelessness, inaccessible housing, unemployment, and a host of other issues. The narrative of the out-of-touch, coastal, liberal elitist who refuses to recognize the pain of white, rural communities purposefully hides and dismisses these experiences. And it exposes whose experiences media outlets and politicians choose to sympathize with and prioritize.

From the plunder and incarceration of black and brown bodies within the current criminal justice system, to the death, injury, and disenfranchisement of disproportionately women of color who are barred from accessing birth control and safe abortion care; from families separated and ravaged by the Trump administration’s immigration policy, to survivors of sexual assault unable to receive support and justice, most human rights issues are inextricably bound to identity. They are also inextricably bound to economic justice. And they deserve to be respected as urgent concerns instead of being downgraded to the second-class status of the marginalized people who are disproportionately affected.

Image credit: Will Allen / The Sanders Institute

Kylie Cheung is the author of 'The Gaslit Diaries,' a book of essays exploring the gaslighting and politics that underlie American women's everyday experiences in the patriarchy. She writes about reproductive justice, women's/LGBTQ rights, and national politics. In her spare time, she enjoys volunteering for political campaigns and re-watching The Office. Learn more about her work at

Kylie Cheung is the author of the book, 'The Gaslit Diaries,' a series of essays exploring the gaslighting and politics that underlie American women's everyday experiences in the patriarchy.

Read more about Kylie

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