In a letter to President Biden last month, United States Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer announced his intentions to step down and retire at the end of his term. His retirement leaves an open seat on the court, which President Biden must move to fill with his own nomination. During his campaign, Biden promised his supporters that his nomination to the Supreme Court would be a Black woman, “to make sure we in fact get everyone represented”. Following Justice Breyer’s announcement to retire, Biden revisited and reaffirmed his promise, saying that it was “long overdue”. He has kept true to his promise and announced his nomination of D.C.Circuit Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, the first Black woman nominated to the Supreme Court. But not everyone is happy.
Many civil rights groups and coalitions celebrate Biden’s move, agreeing that for too long the institution that governed American laws and therefore lives was an old boys’ club. It seems that Biden’s intention to nominate a Black woman specifically would be appreciated as a step towards more representative government. Yet, Biden is accused of attempting to corrupt and polarize the highest court in the country with identity politics.
In an opinion article by award-winning journalist Froma Harrop, she opens with “much of the good that Democrats do gets washed away in their tributes to identity politics”. She argues that too often, the public finds it much easier to be offered up someone’s race, ethnicity, or gender, instead of having to analyze their policy.
It is true that extremist identity politics haunt our government and politics today as a form of polarization.
Politicians have found over and over again that if they appeal to identity politics, they can more easily and firmly rally votes at the polls and gain support towards their policy. Like it or not, we are all too familiar with Trump’s preferred campaigning methods. And, as Harrop pointed out, the left is just as guilty as the right in giving into these approaches. It is also true that politicians can utilize identity politics to promote divisions. Partisan politics, fueled by tribalism, are continuously proving to be a threat to democracy.
But are identity politics necessary to create a more representative democracy? Are actions that center underrepresented groups not identity politics by definition?
For some, a prompt reaction to Biden’s nomination motivations is the much-to-often-used phrase “Why does everything have to be about race?” Concerns about identity politics are understandable, given how often they lead to polarized settings. But in a country where politics is pushed to be identity, and identity is made to mean race, the way to ensure a representative democracy is to make things about race.
A look at the Supreme Court’s diversity track record shows that there has been only two Black men and five women on the court. Meanwhile, there has been no shortage of white male justices – 108, to be exact. Perhaps there were more qualified candidates than Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson that were not black nor women. Or perhaps she is the most qualified candidate. But the fact remains that white men were the only Supreme Court Justices for much of American history – that intentional decision was identity politics within itself. The only way to create a representative court is to consciously play identity politics once more.
Princeton professor of politics and author Jan-Werner Muller says that democracy requires “the recognition that we need to find fair terms of living together as free, equal, but also irreducibly diverse citizens.”  Black women are only one minority group who have been consistently overlooked in American politics. We cannot be a democracy where every citizen is equal and free if we do not acknowledge our diversity and our roles, and take action driven by that knowledge. What is Populism, Jan-Werner Müller, 2016