Introducing a New MINDSETTER™ Molina Flynn: Identity Politics Is Not a Four-Letter Word

Wednesday, July 25, 2018


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Joseph Molina Flynn

Identity politics is a term which has taken on a bad rap of late. Defined as the “tendency for people of a particular religion, race, social background, etc., to form exclusive political alliances, moving away from traditional broad-based party politics.” Part of what makes people uncomfortable with identity politics is the fact that the groups which are accused of participating in identity politics are groups which can be categorized as “others.” Latinos, Muslims, Immigrants, LGBTQI, are all communities which have been accused of using identity politics to pursue particularized political agendas.

But why is the idea of identity politics even a thing? People vote and participate in politics based on their lived experiences. While in the United States there is no such thing as one culture, many other cultures are more homogenous in their beliefs or the identities they embrace. For example, in Colombia, it is estimated that ninety percent of the population is Catholic. The percentage of Catholics in the United States is a mere 22% by comparison. Once these factors are taken into account, it becomes easier to understand why a group of Colombians living in Central Falls may all tend to vote a certain way.

Politicians in Rhode Island will be well-served to try and understand identity politics rather than decry them. The Latino population of Rhode Island is estimated somewhere around 14% or roughly 150,000 people. Of them, nearly two-thirds are U.S. Born and thus are or will be eligible to vote in the future. Newcomers into this group—mostly immigrants from Central America—are a large part of the reason Rhode Island has not yet lost one of its two Congressional seats.

Beware, however, that identity politics does not mean everyone in a particular group can be painted with a broad brush. The homogeneity of Latinos does not spread quite that far. Intersectionality is another term politicians will benefit from familiarizing themselves with. That is to say a young single mother from Guatemala who is indigenous and fled intercultural violence in Guatemala will not have the same priorities as a U.S. born woman of the same age who has grown up with access to political structures from an early age. Intersectionality is the theory that every single identity within one person (male, female, race, language, queer identity, marital status, etc.) influence the way that person views the world and thus politics.

Why are these things important? Because when politicians do not pay attention to intersectionality and the role it plays in identity politics, they run the risk of pandering. It is easy to make assumptions about the group being spoken to and talk to the preconceived assumptions about that group, rather than speaking with honesty about a platform which makes sense and hope people will follow along.

This year, Rhode Island Latinos have been activated politically. Following the release of a recent study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation which placed Rhode Islanders 50th out of 50 in the nation for educational outcomes for Latino students has angered a lot of the community. They seek answers, particularly around this issue, but also around issues of access, healthcare, economics, immigration, infrastructure, incarceration, etc. The Latino vote this year will be crucial for many candidates. Potentially, some elections can be won or lost based on the Latino vote. Candidates and incumbents alike should take some time to analyze an intersectional approach to courting Latino voters—one that understands that Latinos are not one-issue voters and that our priorities and needs are directly related to the experiences lived in our communities.

Joseph Molina Flynn is a family & immigration attorney with offices in Boston & Providence. He is the current president of the RI Latino Pac and the RI Latino Civic Fund. 


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