In college my grades were directly dependent on how I performed relative to my peers. There were classes where I would routinely score in the 50s out of 100 and end up with the same “B” letter grade as a class where I scored 96 out of 100. And in some ways, it made sense. Educational institutions, even for those serving younger students, seem to be built on a foundation of competition. In the U.S., social institutions in general can tend to be competitive, from our labor markets, to our higher education admissions processes, and even the fabric of our country, our democratic elections. This competitive nature has simply become our understanding of the world. I don’t think of my successes as depriving others of something. And yet, in some ways it does. If I score highly on a test, that means others’ relative score gets pushed down. If I beat out a group to secure a job, I have a salary and healthcare that they possibly also needed for themselves and their family. And in the political sphere especially, if the candidate I was hoping for won I don’t necessarily see it as a loss for the other close to 50% of the population.
In his book, Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment, Francis Fukuyama explores how our competitive society, with our needs for individual recognition, can be held in tension with and balanced with a need for social solidarity. Specifically, he explores the role of identity in that tension.
It’s curious that when we think about the phrase “identity politics” we associate it with negative feelings. The phrase was first coined by Barbara Smith, a Black feminist, and the Combahee River collective in 1974. “Identity politics” was supposed to be a more profound because it would “come directly out of our own identity, as opposed to working to end somebody else’s oppression.” Understanding differences in experience: racial, economic, gender, and other oppressions that bound experiences and influenced their lives would help ensure no one would be forgotten or left behind.
That last part is key. It was meant to bring people along, not exclude. So what happened? Francis Fukuyama seemed to understand that there are forces at play that could turn the good that identity politics could do into a divisive and destructive tool. I would argue that perhaps the competitive nature of our society’s basic structures and institutions have distorted the good in identity politics. Competition is in itself not inherently bad. Again, society is rife with what philosopher Waheed Hussain would call “rivalry-defining arrangements”. These range from something as simple and trivial as a tennis match to my aforementioned grading system. The problem begins when the stakes are no longer trivial and include essential goods and services, and it seems in Fukuyama’s mind, one’s dignity. Somehow, politics doesn’t just mean one candidate is chosen along with their respective monetary, foreign, and whatever policy anymore. The goods and services that people need along with tenants core to their dignity and identity are seemingly threatened. Instead of bringing everyone along then, identity politics actively excludes.
Fukuyama’s plea for the nation then resounds: how do we distinguish who we are, fight for the ways in which we’ve been marginalized and oppressed and also maintain social unity in thinking of others? 
 Waheed Hussain, “Pitting People Against Each Other,” Philosophy and Public Affairs 48, no.1 (February 2020): 79-113, https://doi-org.georgefox.idm.oclc.org/10.1111/papa.12158
 Francis Fukuyama, Identity: The Demand for Dignity and the Politics of Resentment. (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2020), 11.
 Alicia Garza, “Identity Politics: Friend or Foe?,” UC Berkeley Othering and Belonging Institute, September 24, 2019, https://belonging.berkeley.edu/identity-politics-friend-or-foe.
 Fukuyama, Identity, 16.
 Hussain, “Pitting People Against Each Other”.
 Fukuyama, Identity, 39.
 Ibid, 244.