As an example, Hillary Clinton's gender was mentioned on every corner during the 2016 campaign and she was touted as the "first female candidate for President". Likewise Obama was consistently hailed as the "first black President". At the same time we are taught all the time that gender, sexual orientation, race, ethnicity, etc, are supposed to be completely irrelevant and we should all treat each other equally.

What's the reason behind this conflict? What prevents politics from being completely neutral and not taking the person's physical characteristics into account?

  • 5
    You're asking about identity politics. A good starting point for an answer to your question is the Wikipedia article: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Identity_politics Oct 30, 2018 at 3:23
  • 13
    Examine your assumption that this is a progressive society :-)
    – jamesqf
    Oct 30, 2018 at 4:45
  • 1
    @JonathanReez - "first {something} ..." - people like this type of information and here it just happens to be based on gender or race.
    – Alexei
    Oct 30, 2018 at 5:34

4 Answers 4


The simplest answer is that your question is not correct in fact: you do not live in a “progressive” society.

are supposed to be completely irrelevant and we should

Should statements are usually indicative that whatever “ought” to be, isn’t.

What's the reason behind this conflict?

For hundreds of years within capitalism and protocapitalism there were immediate material rewards to the reproduction of “race” and “gender” as socially oppressive structures. These included latifundia slavery and the family as reproducer of wage labour, for example.

However long run processes of mechanisation and skill dilution, alongside struggle by workers and bourgeois who opposed these oppressions, have resulted in a situation where cultural lip service must be paid to the principle that all persons are created equal in liberal democratic states with high levels of mechanisation. The risk of missing out on a particularly skilled worker due to her race is too great to afford. The risk of union or media ire for discriminating too obviously against a woman for her gender is unaffordable. Moreover, with changes to the labour force, a household is now expected to supply 1.6 workers or more (both parents, one part time).

These changes can’t and don’t erase history or culture. And they don’t erase economic incentives towards racism such as the prison labour complex.

What prevents politics from being completely neutral and not taking the person's physical characteristics into account?

Because people aren’t neutral. People’s cultures aren’t neutral. Gender and race are deeply embedded categories and relationships that exist overtly and covertly and which are continuously reinforced (in old and new ways) by economic incentives.

“Oughts” don’t cause “is” without time, effort and energy. And the expenditure so far hasn’t overcome hundreds of years of economic and cultural reinforcement. Debate amongst scholars shows significant doubt that these relationships can be eliminated, as opposed to ameliorated, within a wage labour society.


Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy covers the matter pretty well with this article. Gender and race are just a part of identity politics (which cover many aspects from age and religion to veteran status).

It seems identity politics come to offer protection for a specific constituency within the general population:

identity political formations typically aim to secure the political freedom of a specific constituency marginalized within its larger context. Members of that constituency assert or reclaim ways of understanding their distinctiveness that challenge dominant oppressive characterizations, with the goal of greater self-determination.

To have criteria such as gender and race not being mentioned in politics, people should not perceive that they have some insecurities based on these criteria. Not only that this does not seem to happen in "real world" (society as a whole), but it seems to happen in a much more simpler and controlled community like StackOverflow:

Too many people experience Stack Overflow as a hostile or elitist place, especially newer coders, women, people of color, and others in marginalized groups.

  • 10
    Gonna be honest, it seems pretty unlikely an anonymous coding Q&A site is especially hostile to women and "people of color". How would you even know who to be hostile to? Oct 30, 2018 at 5:45
  • 10
    @eyeballfrog SE admins have consistently failed to explain that aspect of their blog post despite repeated calls for clarity. Most likely they've invented the problem out of thin air. Oct 30, 2018 at 6:53
  • 6
    In online environment where rest of the site has no way of knowing details about you apart from what you tell about yourself (and in asking question only coding inexperience is relevant enough to be stated or shown through the problem samples) it's most likely that survey doesn't find actual racism or sexism, it finds people who might receive hostility due to inexperience but automatically assume any hostility is always because of their race or gender.
    – M i ech
    Oct 30, 2018 at 9:58
  • 4
    @tim: But what fraction of users have profile pictures, or user names that would reflect gender/race? I see an awful lot of posts from Usernnnn...
    – jamesqf
    Oct 30, 2018 at 18:05
  • 5
    @jonathanreez it started by someone in a Twitter post and therefore must be 100% true and immediate action to change became required.
    – Andy
    Oct 31, 2018 at 1:30

We all live in an historical context. History moves through stages that are often emerging out of their past. In the US past, politics was mostly just for men; indeed, white men. As these conditions change, they are "progressive," and they still seem unusual and even amazing in our historic context.

  • 3
    This is an interesting idea, but it is a comment rather than a real answer. Can you develop it a little (e.g. add some references to sustain the content)?
    – Alexei
    Oct 30, 2018 at 5:51
  • ie, u can't comprehend a solid social science explanation
    – DrWJK
    Nov 4, 2018 at 4:57

I don't think it's really a point of being neutral or not. In your examples about presidents or presidential candidates it's about something new.

In case of the female gender or African American background, large groups also fall into that category. It would be different with other things, like the first president to be born in Rhode Island. Sure, that's an interesting piece of trivia, but not a lot of people can relate to being from Rhode Island.

With regard to the current president (D. Trump), one of the things he was first at as president is not having served in the military or government before becoming president (of the U.S.). That's not bad per se, in fact has base might like it because it shows he's an outsider when it comes to government hierarchies (or establishment).

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