For conservatives and members of the right, identity politics is a way to demean and reject the struggles of people of color, women, gays and lesbians and other marginalized groups as somehow not being legitimate or “real” politics. By implication, only the concerns of white men over their maintaining power and affluence constitute real or “normal” politics. This logic is one of the most powerful examples of the social and political work done by white male privilege in American society.As fresh as this debate is at the moment, it's not new. It's been around in a recognizably similar form since at least the 19th century in the democratic-capitalist order that was then emerging.
For many liberals and progressives, identity politics are seen as a distraction from the real politics of class and the struggle to reduce income and wealth inequality. Here, racism, sexism, homophobia and other types of social and political inequality are just masks and symptoms of a deeper problem — the way that capitalism exploits workers in the service of big business.
These two perspectives ignore how identity politics are actually part of full and equal civil rights. The concerns of African-Americans and other people of color about racism reflect how white supremacy and other types of systemic racial inequality are a threat to their (in many cases, literal) life chances. When women struggle to protect their reproductive rights, it is an acknowledgment of how control over one’s body is a necessary prerequisite for being equal to men in all ways social, political and economic. The demands for marriage equality by gays and lesbians is a claim on justice and how certain rights and privileges are exclusive to those people whose relationships are given legal standing by the state.
On a fundamental level, most political questions are about identity. As such, to mark identity politics as something unique, different or perhaps even aberrant is to both misunderstand and misrepresent the nature of politics itself. This is a failure of language that does an immense amount of political work in American society. [my emphasis]
But it's not an either/or choice. It's a constantly evolving approach having to do with strategic framing and with practical implications. We could argue that Hillary Clinton's strategic messaging at the high level struck a reasonable balance. But that the campaign didn't communicate enough of the "identity" message in practice and organization to turn out adequate African-American votes in key areas of swing states. And that the I-understand-the-economic-distress message didn't get communicated clearly and consistently enough in those same swing states like Michigan, thus sacrificing the effect that might have had in both improving turnout among core constituencies and persuadable swing voters, including those from the much-discussed white working class.
There's a sad irony here. Bill Clinton got elected President in 1992 with his "it's the economy, stupid" approach that de-emphasized so-called "identity" politics in favor of a more traditional Democratic economic message. But in the subsequent years including his Presidency, the corporate liberal message identified with Hillary Clinton morphed into an emphasis on liberalism on "identity" issues accompanied by neoliberal privatization/deregulation economics.
Just to be clear on my answer to the question in the title: white supremacy is an integral part of white racism. And the reluctance of white "moderates" to confront it directly is also a chronic problem. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s famous "Letter From A Brimingham Jail" (1963) was a response to a communication to him from white clergy suggesting that he ease up on his civil rights demands:
I must make two honest confessions to you, my Christian and Jewish brothers. First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: "I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action"; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man's freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a "more convenient season." Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.
I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress. I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that the present tension in the South is a necessary phase of the transition from an obnoxious negative peace, in which the Negro passively accepted his unjust plight, to a substantive and positive peace, in which all men will respect the dignity and worth of human personality. Actually, we who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with all its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.
... I had also hoped that the white moderate would reject the myth concerning time in relation to the struggle for freedom. I have just received a letter from a white brother in Texas. He writes: "All Christians know that the colored people will receive equal rights eventually, but it is possible that you are in too great a religious hurry. It has taken Christianity almost two thousand years to accomplish what it has. The teachings of Christ take time to come to earth." Such an attitude stems from a tragic misconception of time, from the strangely irrational notion that there is something in the very flow of time that will inevitably cure all ills. Actually, time itself is neutral; it can be used either destructively or constructively. More and more I feel that the people of ill will have used time much more effectively than have the people of good will. We will have to repent in this generation not merely for the hateful words and actions of the bad people but for the appalling silence of the good people. Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co workers with God, and without this hard work, time itself becomes an ally of the forces of social stagnation. [my emphasis]