Identity Politics in Education Research Paper Starter

Identity Politics in Education

(Research Starters)

This paper takes a closer look at identity politics in the educational arena. Reviewing two major social issues, homosexuality and illegal immigration, as a backdrop, the reader gleans a better understanding of the conditions that give rise to school-based activism on behalf of those who lack a voice.

Keywords GLBT; Identity Politics; Illegal Immigrant; In-state Tuition; Plyer v. Doe; Public School


The SNCC: An example of Identity Politics

In 1960, an organization formed that would make an indelible mark on American society. In the face of a segregated South, the nation already had several prominent anti-segregation and civil rights organizations. Among them were the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which had scored a major litigation victory with the Supreme Court ruling on Brown v. Board of Education, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), which was led by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and formed after Rosa Parks' historic act of civil disobedience. However, whereas the NAACP's preferred venue was the courtroom and the SCLC was adept at high-profile protests, another group worked on a much broader scale. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) targeted multiple communities in multiple states at one time, organizing protests, fostering black electoral races and even generating international attention to the issues facing southern America. In only its first few years, the SNCC had grown into an extensive, formidable nationwide network. Former President Jimmy Carter once cited the difference between the SNCC and SCLC's tactics and rate of success. "If you wanted to scare white people in southwest Georgia, Martin Luther King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference wouldn't do it," he said. "All you had to say is one word: SNCC" (Bond, 2000).

What is one of the most interesting points about the SNCC's success are the organization's origins. The group was not founded by prominent civil rights activists, politicians or celebrities. Rather, the SNCC's foundation occurred shortly after a series of sit-in protests conducted by students enrolled in North Carolina and Tennessee. Theirs was a single-minded purpose - to highlight the injustices of segregation not by legal means or grand protest venues, but at their local stores and restaurants and finding roots in their schools. For too long, the SNCC's founders professed, the laws of segregation kept down people of color, creating two unequal playing fields and thus preventing any real social growth. The SNCC was founded inside academic walls - a dynamic example of what is known as "identity politics."

Identity politics was hardly a new concept in 1960. The academic arena, after all, gave air to countless social issues across the globe, including slavery, religious freedom, class disparity and women's suffrage. Academia and identity politics seem closely linked, likely due to the fact that school is not an environment in which people are told how to think - they are simply encouraged to think for themselves.

This paper takes a closer look at identity politics in the educational arena. Reviewing two major social issues, homosexuality and illegal immigration, as a backdrop, the reader gleans a better understanding of the conditions that give rise to school-based activism on behalf of those who lack a voice.


Wherever there has been "somebody" in society, there is always "somebody else," an individual or group who operates at a higher, lower or equal sociological level. The fundamental goal of "diversity" movements is to create an environment in which each of these "somebodies," regardless of race, economic status, gender, ethnicity, creed or orientation, coexist on an equal plane.

Unfortunately, however, such a "perfect world" environment is extremely rare, for humanity has a tendency to organize its social systems in hierarchical fashion. In some cases, majority rules - groups who outnumber others hold the higher positions in society. In others, socio-economics is a major factor - those who are more financially solvent hold more clout than those with little money. Even those who rest on the same plane but who represent different groupings often hold fast as a single segment of the population rather than mix in with others on that plane. Humanity, one can argue, is not necessarily a "melting pot," but rather a "tossed salad."

The basic theme of "diversity," that different samplings of the population live and work together with mutual respect, can still be achieved in this environment. A CEO of a major multinational corporation and a pizza delivery person may operate on a different economic plane, for example, but both play an important role as part of a larger body politic and economy. It is when the CEO uses his or her social standing or income bracket to prevent the pizza delivery person from moving upward that marginalization and conflict arise. Prejudice, racism, ethnocentrism and chauvinism are all factors that isolate other groups and, if economic and/or political power is held by those who espouse these attitudes, can create interclass conflict.


Given the multitude of social groupings that exist on varying economic class levels in each country, it comes as no surprise that, rather than "blend in," most of these individual groups hold on to their identity. A study in Great Britain analyzed the aftermath of ethnic and racial violence in that country's northern regions. Investigators in that situation recommended afterward not that the Caribbean and Asian combatants in those incidents find a way to integrate under the Union Jack. Rather, they concluded, it was necessary for them to find a way to coexist. What was once a policy of "integration" transformed into a new way of unifying ethnicities: Cohesion (Shukra, 2004).

In academia, the notion of cohesion rather than integration seems prevalent as well. Educational institutions, which are microcosms of any society, seem to naturally compartmentalize much as the rest of the culture does. And, as is the case in overall human society, it is when power is exerted to isolate, marginalize or intimidate lower-class or minority groups that conflict occurs. In some ways, as was the case in the South, the degree to which differentiation occurs necessitates a strong response from the marginalized group - some act through litigation, others demonstrate civil disobedience and protests. In other situations, however, the exertion and/or acceptance of identity may be manifest more subtly in the form of awareness campaigns and educational programming.

It should be no surprise, therefore, that identity politics, which can be defined as political activity that is used to advance disenfranchised groups and highlights the experiences of these segments of the population, is so closely linked to the world of academia (Hayes, 2007). After all, these institutions, as stated earlier, are themselves microcosms of the "tossed salad" of society, yet also contain the will to appreciate the diversity this motif creates. In doing so, academics will likely develop an interest in highlighting the plight of disadvantaged social groups.

Coming Out in a Scholastic Setting

Among the most salient of social issues facing the United States today is the increased call for tolerance toward gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) individuals. The work toward equality is of ongoing concern. LGBT youths face their own challenges regarding their identity and perception among their peers and adults it their lives. In early 2007, for example, one student's written call for tolerance of homosexuals not only echoed the rest of the nation's divided attitudes on the subject of being gay in 21st century America; it set off a political firestorm over the right to free speech and freedom of the press.

The incident in question was an op-ed piece written by a sophomore student at a Midwestern high school. She opined that for one to accept his or her homosexual orientation (and allow others to know about it) must be challenging in society. The teacher who oversaw the student paper in which the story was run was immediately warned by the school principal not to allow "contentious" materials to appear in the publication. Not long after the story was printed, the teacher was suspended. The students who served on the paper's staff came quickly to her defense - a few months...

(The entire section is 3731 words.)