The Failure Of An Identity Warrior

By Kwesi P. Dean

June 20, 2020

At a BLM demo recently, a young woman had a sign that said “I’m proud of being in a generation that stands up”. It made me think about my generation and wonder what do we have to be proud of? Members of Gen X, born between 1965 and 1980, are in positions of power throughout global systems and I wonder, what have we done to bend the arc toward justice?

My conclusion is, not much. More personally, I haven’t done much . . . certainly not enough.

My personal reality is one of relative comfort marked by the individual pursuit of success because, though black, my family provided that privilege. My dad served twice in Vietnam, and in the course of his military career moved our immediate family from its working class origin to a solidly middle class status. I started in private, predominantly black grade schools where believing I could be most anything was practical because we were surrounded by people like us who were doing most of the things we could imagine.

According to US census bureau data, black income increased by 28% between 1965 and 1970. With unprecedented growth and opportunity, it was easy for my parents and their circle to imagine that it would go on, “the rising tide“ and all of that.

We faced racism by living in places where some people didn’t think we should live and doing things others thought we shouldn’t. Those incidents, painful as they were, were mostly seen as inconvenient as they didn’t prevent our access to safe spaces. There was so much good happening in our lives that the bad couldn’t outweigh it.

Growing up in the 70’s meant multiple black “firsts” were a part of my life…I watched Arthur Ashe win Wimbledon, Dr. J become a sports icon, and I could read Black Panther, Falcon and Power Man comics. Tom Bradley’s election as Mayor in Los Angeles was a political first and he was the exact opposite of a 60’s protest veteran turned politician. Bradley’s rise to power seemed to indicate a certain acceptance because he was simply good enough in a multiracial environment. Black trail blazers used access forged by civil rights and affirmative action victories to create a false sense of confidence in the coming merit based society.

On the other side of the coin, I remember watching the Watergate hearings and Nixon being held accountable for lying. If the most powerful man in the country could be punished for not following the rules, anyone could.

Falling into the individualistic trap of the 80’s was easy. Pursuing the good life while black seemed to bring about the promise for which so many had sacrificed. Moving to a small town in the Midwest meant leaving the protective circle of a vibrant black middle class. That brought more slights, subtle limitations and missed opportunities explained away for one reason or another. The explanations felt like lies and excuses, but those explanations didn’t register. I was taught my success was in my own hands. Like so many others in my generation, working twice as hard was the formula to overcome set-backs and road blocks.

Focusing on the successful, near superhuman black exceptions as the rule meant that my failures were personal responsibilities, signs of a lack of character or persistence. We were only getting part of the picture as we didn’t see the communities that supported our heroes. We didn’t know who picked them up when they fell. Believing the “by your own bootstraps“ fairytale meant there was no need to see what was happening to others like me or to care much about those whose failures weren’t my responsibility. Life is what it is but we still get what we work for, no matter how unequal the system.

Despite living in a small, predominantly white town, I grew up in the mostly working class black church scene. In high school, I followed my mother’s social justice work in the NAACP, I read Baldwin, Ellison and Malcolm X, and I started to acknowledge that I may not be crazy in having the feeling that things were unfair. No matter, I was still privileged, “living in the lap of luxury” as one church mother put it. My mother never had to clean white peoples’ houses like her mother to make ends meet. No matter the problem, I should just put my head down and keep pushing. With all of my advantages, personally advancing was a duty to the race.

While at the university and after moving to Chicago, I connected with black professionals who, like me, wanted as much of the good life as we could afford. We worked hard, made our social bubble of house parties, tennis dates and skiing trips while moving up the ladder. We treated the Rodney King incident as something tragic, enraging, and remote…not likely to happen to us. All the while it was happening around us regularly with Chicago police earning a reputation for harassment stops and coerced confessions.

As someone black who made white people comfortable, I fell into diversity work at a small, mostly white, community college. I started teaching classes to low income adults returning to school for GEDs and job training and then as an advisor to a small number of minority students. The biggest part of my job was keeping the black basketball players eligible to play and out of trouble. A promotion to being the Equal Opportunity officer of the college system put me in the position to investigate violations of the same laws that made my life possible, but only on a case-by-case basis.

I was good enough at playing the honest broker to get hired in HR by a local plant for a Fortune 500 company. It was a lawsuit mandated position forced by black employees to address systemic racism in the plant’s HR processes. No one told me that in the interviews. Named a “change agent” by the business unit president, I was aware enough to know the ghetto I was confined to. Authoritarian cultures rarely reward change agents.

I did enough in good faith to keep the company out of court while noticing that most of its zero tolerance policies and pronouncements about fairness were just things they were saying. There was no intention to lead the community toward a more equitable future. Working in the system for change wasn’t really changing anything. I was providing cover for making money. I was making money too so why should I complain?

The foundational lie of identity politics and policies in the US is simple. They are based on a hierarchical, positivist framework created by the most privileged group to maintain that very privilege without looking like assholes to the market. Note that it was the Nixon Administration that first implemented Affirmative Action at the Federal level.

I think back about that time as a diversity manager, leader of the “get-a-long” school as it was called on the plant floor, and how hollow it all was. . . . how hollow much of my equality work was in an inherently unequal system. Progress was subject to the personal commitment of leaders with no skin in the game. Equality work was largely PR, window dressing, with box ticking activities that just needed to be under budget and not too progressive. Placating those who would judge that we had done enough was enough. Most of those who judged really didn’t care.

At best, I whispered truth to power in inoffensive language to try to guide leaders to the self realization that openness and equity were the right things to promote and that they were profitable. Little did I know that businesses have other goals besides making profits Maintaining a social order leaders can support is part of their motivation too.

My job was to create programs and systems for awareness and fairness so people of color could justify their existence to those in power and the white majority through affinity groups, banquets and minority awareness month celebrations. All the while, people were dying in the streets at the hands of the very system in which I was working. Though my job was directly in the identity industry, I wasn’t alone. Many like me invested in attempting to change the system from the inside through personal achievement to prove black people are worthy of inclusion.

The foundational lie of identity politics and policies in the US is simple. They are based on a hierarchical, positivist framework created by the most privileged group to maintain that very privilege without looking like assholes to the market. Note that it was the Nixon Administration that first implemented Affirmative Action at the Federal level.

Each non-white male group was tacitly pitted against each other, measuring progress against the relative attainment of success as defined by the group at the top of the pyramid. Class issues and differences could be sublimated and enhanced at the same time in a so-called merit system. “If one could make it, it is possible for all” became an ideological club to beat down talk of general inequality in social power and distribution of wealth. Absurd conversations involving choosing an identity category if one could identify as more than one or companies getting “two-fer” credit by hiring a Hispanic female somehow made sense. Tolerance was the goal and the person showing the least amount of tolerance was the starting point.

Angela Davis noted in a speech to the Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelonain 2018 that “if we stand up against racism, we want much more than inclusion. Inclusion is not enough. Diversity is not enough…We do not wish to be included in a racist society.” She concluded by indicating that true change will require a broad series of revolutions, both personal and systemic, in all of our social relationships, including economic relationships. (1)

I spent years of appealing to the better angels of the nature of others by being good. Later I used identity statistics for exposing the gaps of fairness, all to have a seat at the table where oppressive decisions were made. It was no more than placing band-aids on an open wound as the body count of destroyed lives mounted.


1. – Angela Davis address to CCCB

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