As a psychiatrist, I understand identity as a crucial part of every person’s self-concept. Each person’s identity is cobbled together from multiple identity fragments: for example, gender, race, religion, nation, family, and ideology. These fragments can include their opposites, a negative identity fragment that represents something that person absolutely is not and defines themselves against. They might include someone’s love or hatred of flowers, sports, or the ballet. Over a person’s lifetime, these fragments may conflict with each other and get reordered and revalued in ways big and small, many times.
In the political and other societal realms, identity conflicts play out in an analogous way to how they play out within individuals. The key conflicts are over the prioritization of identities, particularly which comes first. In a totalitarian society, one identity is required to be the primary focus of all public and private action. This directive can serve as a definition of totalitarianism.
In the Soviet Union, the overwhelmingly prominent state-enforced identity was socioeconomic class. In Nazi Germany, definitions of race were enforced by the state. Both the Soviets and the Nazis presented their systems of classification as being backed by “science” and by history and as necessary to the moral and social health of society.
In the contemporary United States, state-defined gender and racial identities are becoming overwhelmingly important, to the point where one may be rightly concerned about a totalitarian trend. Adoption of this imperative has been especially swift within institutions that are linked to cultural and political power. One example would be the president of Harvard’s campaign to “Reimagine Harvard” by giving overarching priority to the mantra of diversity, equity, and inclusion. This imperative is applied almost exclusively to newly minted “identity categories” like Latinx, BIPOC, and LGBTQ+ and is supported by a crazy quilt of administrative rulings, scattered case law, and social pressure.
What seems to be overlooked in the rush toward “equity, diversity, and inclusion” is the fact that when one identity fragment within a population is selected for benefits, or favored for whatever reason, the other fragments are penalized. This has been proven mathematically for Darwinian selection and applies to any other selection within a finite environment. Currently in the United States, government-mandated and voluntary institutional policies are selecting individuals for favorable treatment based on a doctrinal formulation of racial and gender identities, while penalizing others—such as the Asian students who are routinely rejected from Harvard and other elite institutions despite having higher grades and test scores and more impressive extracurricular accomplishments than many of the students who are admitted.
Identity-based regimes, like the one taking hold in the United States, do not necessarily consider the extent to which people agree with or give importance to the race or gender to which they are assigned. Based on my skin color, I might appear to be white, but I never think of myself as white. My grandfather and other family members were murdered in the Holocaust because they were not white, according to the identity-based regime of the time. So am I white? Not according to me.
Doctrinal identity assignments routinely disregard voluntary identity choices, limit transitions, accentuate distinctions, and generate very severe reactions among those who are assigned to favored and unfavored groups. Persons assigned to one identity are encouraged to see other identities as enemies or oppressors. Identity-based entitlements can therefore generate resentment and even violence, which can become routine, and can be used to justify the continuation of entitlements ad infinitum, even as the institutionalization of entitlements based on state-assigned identity groups creates its own devastatingly destructive forms of exclusion and corruption.
Thomas Sowell elucidated the societal costs of identity entitlements over three decades ago in his 1989 Commentary magazine review article, “‘Affirmative Action’: A Worldwide Disaster.” He describes outcomes largely from the Indian subcontinent and Africa, some of them dating back to the 19th century:
1. Preferential programs, even when explicitly and repeatedly defined as “temporary,” have tended not only to persist but also to expand in scope, either embracing more groups or spreading to wider realms for the same groups, or both. Even preferential programs established with legally mandated cut-off dates, as in India and Pakistan, have continued far past those dates by subsequent extensions.
2. Within the groups designated by government as recipients of preferential treatment, the benefits have usually gone disproportionately to those members already more fortunate.
3. Group polarization has tended to increase in the wake of preferential programs, with non-preferred groups reacting adversely, in ways ranging from political backlash to mob violence and civil war.
4. Fraudulent claims of belonging to the designated beneficiary groups have been widespread and have taken many forms in various countries.
Currently in the United States, corporations, universities, government, and learned societies have introduced rules for guided representation of gender and race in every choice of individuals for benefits and honors. One prominent result, as the recent lawsuit over admission of Asian-ancestry students to Harvard College shows, is that other measurements of worth suffer.
Harvard’s argument is that there are considerations that override test scores. Others would argue that tests are necessarily biased if they do not give equal results by gender and race. In this context, demonstrations of competence and meritocratic achievement are devalued. One Asian student was quoted as saying, “I wish that it didn’t mean that my work didn’t count in the same way as other people’s work.” Furthermore, as noted by Sowell and others, the number of applicants who are passed over in the name of affirmative action is far greater than the number of applicants who benefit, which leads to widespread resentment—exacerbating the divisions that identity-based means of distributing benefits are supposed to ameliorate.
Gender identity is widely accepted as a matter of choice for everyone. But gender fluidity is a doctrine, and it generates resentments. Many parents of young children resent fluid-gender-identity education programs; they have their own understanding that children in those ages should be encouraged to integrate and solidify the gender identity of their natal sex. Gender transition has also led to widespread resentment when male-to-female transgender athletes win prizes competing against girls and women who are born female. Yet in the same political and social context where gender is held to be a matter of choice, race is considered immutable. Any person can be accused of having “white privilege” or “unconscious bias,” regardless of their actual ancestry or beliefs.
Although there is a case to be made for gender transitions, there is a stronger case to be made for racial transitions. Gender as a social construct is very closely related to biological sex, an unambiguous characteristic of the vast majority of humans. Race is also a social construct, associated with statistical differences among population groups. Race, however, does not have a rational or scientific definition unambiguously applicable to all individuals, and for many people it is impossible to determine—leading to casually racist assumptions based on skin pigmentation or “one drop” theories that lack any legal or scientific currency.
The historic Supreme Court opinion of Plessy vs. Ferguson, which upheld racial segregation in 1896, involved Homer Plessy, an “octoroon” (a person of seven-eighths white and one-eighth Black ancestry) who was found riding in a whites-only railroad car. The popular and accepted concept at the time was that any amount of Black ancestry made a person Black, and this definition persists until this day. But how is it rational to call a person with Plessy’s ancestry Black rather than white?
There is nothing pure about race. As a category, it is remarkably fluid. In a modern American urban population, we statistical geneticists frequently find people who self-classify as white or Black but whose genotypes are ambiguous. People with the same amount of “white” or “Black” ancestry may identity with either race, or with neither race. Many people who are identified as “Latinx” by Harvard would identify themselves as “white,” while many “whites” would identify themselves as something else, based on ancestry, upbringing, culture, or personal affinity. Why should the state or private elite institutions be empowered to impose these slippery and often poorly framed identities on individuals without their consent, especially when the social cost to the society of doing so is real?
One way out of our current identity conflicts is to permit individuals to freely choose their own racial and gender identities and at the same time to forbid any societal rewards or penalties based on these identities. Chief Justice John Roberts famously opined in the 2007 Parents Involved in Community Schools (PICS) case, “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” This does not fit the current sociopolitical milieu, but it would avoid the unwarranted beneficiaries and casualties of this milieu. Pursuing race- and gender-blindness under the law is preferable to enforced alternatives that have consistently failed for more than a century.
Elliot S. Gershon is a professor of psychiatry and human genetics at the University of Chicago.