Born Inquisitive
A blog of independent thinking and evidence-based inquiry

Book Review: The Identity Trap

April 21, 2024
3,392 words (~16 minutes)
Tags: book, article, or podcast review first-person

Yascha Mounk gives a history of the ideas underlying identity politics and a story of how identity politics took over American culture, before arguing against its flaws.

Table of Contents


If you have been working in corporate America over the past ten or fifteen years, you have more than likely noticed a distinct change in work culture. It was once polite to keep politics out of the workplace, a kind of unwritten rule in order to avoid vitriolic conflict and keep the peace long enough to do what all of us who are not independently wealthy must do, i.e., make a living.

Now the new work culture is one in which we get email blasts from our C-level corporate overlords pontificating their social commentary in real-time on the news cycle. As part of our paid vocations, we are often required to attend classes in an identity politics ideology of the Ibram X. Kendi and Robin DiAngelo variety under the label of “diversity, equity, and inclusion.”

If you have noticed this, you may have wondered, “How did this all happen? And how so suddenly?”

The cover of the book The Identity Trap: A Story of Ideas and Power in Our Time

The Identity Trap: A Story of Ideas and Power in Our Time (2023) written by Yascha Mounk – Johns Hopkins University professor of international affairs and popular author of socio-political critiques – is one of the better answers I have discovered to these questions.

The Identity Trap tries to do three different things:

  1. to give a history of ideas that would later form the basis for the modern “identity synthesis,” as the author calls it,
  2. to give a story as to how the identity synthesis went from obscure academic circles to taking over our work culture, and
  3. to argue against the identity synthesis in favor of a philosophical liberalism that values free speech, desegregation, and nondiscrimination.

History of Ideas

The foundational ideas that The Identity Trap covers include:

  • the rejection of the grand narrative and fascination with the power structures of “discourses” attributed to Michel Foucault,
  • the criticism of “Orientalist” discourse attributed to Edward Said,
  • the tactic of “strategic essentialism” attributed to Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak,
  • the invention of critical race theory by Derrick Bell,
  • and the popularization of concepts of “intersectionality” attributed to Bell’s disciple Kimberlé Crenshaw.

These are just the ideas covered in Part I of The Identity Trap entitled “The Origins of the Identity Synthesis.” In addition, covered in later chapters are the standpoint epistemology of feminist philosophers Donna Haraway and Sandra Harding and the concept of “cultural appropriation” popularized by thinkers such as Stuart Hall and Robert S. Nelson.

I have written about essentialism and Kwame Anthony Appiah’s critique of “cultural appropriation” as a concept previously, so I was already familiar with a few of these concepts. However, two things struck me about the history of ideas sketched out in The Identity Trap. The first is that critical race theory is the rejection of the goals of the civil rights movement. The second is that while many of these ideas now manifest themselves as fallacies passed around social media to the detriment of society, some began as plausible if not good ideas in the minds of their original thinkers.

Derrick Bell and the Origins of Critical Race Theory

I remember one day, after critical race theory became salient in the news cycle, while spending time in an airport waiting for my flight to depart, I decided to do a web search of “critical race theory” to see what the fuss was about. The only thing I remember is that I could not actually make out what it actually was. Instead, I found a word salad of vagueness claiming to explain critical race theory. (This practice of making a theory inexplicable seems to be a feature of certain kinds of academics, such as the “critical theory” Frankfurt school of sociology from which critical race theory is derived.)

Yascha Mounk did a better job of explaining critical race theory in a few pages in his book The Identity Trap than all the word salad articles I read on my ill-fated enterprise in the airport. He does so by way of a biographical sketch of its founder Derrick Bell.

The biographical sketch begins with a brief encounter that a young Derrick Bell had with the great civil rights lawyer William H. Hastie, in which Bell expressed a desire to continue Hastie’s work and Hastie gave Bell a polite brush off, asserting that the work of the civil rights movement was mostly finished. The sketch continues with Bell’s life until his arrival as a lawyer for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Bell once wanted to follow in Hastie’s footsteps, but it was during his time as an NAACP lawyer that Bell appears to have turned against the civil rights movement. He grew frustrated with what he perceived to be an absolute and ideological commitment to desegregation, even in cases when desegregation was not benefiting Black schoolchildren.

Frustrated, Bell left active litigation and became an academic, learned the “critical theory” jargon popular in academia, and converted his frustration with the civil rights movement into a radical disapproval of the civil rights movement couched in such terms. He concluded that the civil rights movement had been a sham only allowed because it benefited White Americans to allow it, that the civil rights movement had done nothing to advance the status of Black Americans, and that racism was a permanent and unchanging part of American society. Thus, the aims of the civil rights movement, such as desegregation and colorblindness, were in the older Bell’s views actually tools of racist oppression.

When Good (or At Least Plausible) Ideas Go Bad

The evolution of Derrick Bell’s thinking is an example of a phenomenon I encountered a few times in my reading of The Identity Trap. I find most of the ideas of modern day identity politics (or “identity synthesis” to use Mounk’s phrase) to be counterproductive, as does Yascha Mounk, but it is a testament to Mounk’s veracity and scruples as a scholar that I found myself to be sympathetic to these ideas when reading his telling of the their origins.

The history of ideas in The Identity Trap is not a screed of misrepresentation, hyperbole, and defamation unleashed against one’s political opponents, as too often is the case with other works, but a sincere attempt to understand where ideas prominent in society today once came from and to grapple with what motivated those who first conceived of them.

There were specific historical cases in which desegregating schools was, at least in the short-term, worse for Black children than simply improving the schools they were already going to. One can imagine having to travel each and every day, back and forth, long distances to an historically White school, encountering some White teachers who do not actually you there, and having to deal with the bigotry that comes from those encounters.

Thus, one can see why the alternative of improving your local historically Black school might be a better option for you, even if that means continuing the “separate but equal” mantra of the Jim Crow era. It is, of course, a large leap to go from these specific cases to the rejection of desegregation as a matter of principle or to the conclusion that the entire civil rights movement is fraudulent – and fraudulent forever.

Standpoint Epistemology Corrupted

A more striking example of ideas going bad occurs with the transition from standpoint epistemology1 to what Yascha Mounk calls “standpoint theory.” Aficionados of identity politics will sometimes make the assertion that men cannot possibly understand what women experience, that White Americans cannot understand what Black Americans experience, that straight people cannot understand what queer people experience, etc. etc. This is typically cited as a kind of “standpoint epistemology.” However, this is not at all what the idea of standpoint epistemology actually proposed.

Standpoint epistemology is a theory from feminist philosophy that does not make the claim that men cannot possibly understand what women experience. Rather, it first separates out two kinds of knowledge: propositional knowledge versus experiential knowledge. Propositional knowledge consists of the sort that you can read in a book. Experiential knowledge, on the other hand, is knowledge you gather from your direct experiences. Neither kind of knowledge is entirely better than the other. They both have advantages and disadvantages. What is important for standpoint epistemology is that they are different paths to knowledge.

Standpoint epistemology then notes that in an entirely patriarchal society in which only men participate in public life and the domestic sphere is the exclusive domain of women, there is a knowledge gap between those who possess experiential knowledge of raising a child, who are entirely women, and those who make public policy that affects child-rearing, who are entirely men. Standpoint epistemology admits that men in this scenario can gain propositional knowledge of child-rearing, but that they will miss all the subtleties and details that come from experiential knowledge of raising children.

This is a point well taken, and it likely explains, at least in part, why human societies have often been so cruel by way of indifference paid to the plight of children. It is similar to the tragedy of war in which generals are briefed with report after report of the battlefield, but are nonetheless out of touch with what is actually going on among the common soldiers who have their boots on the ground.

Note that standpoint epistemology makes no claim that there are “identity” groups across which people cannot possibly understand each other. If anything, it makes the opposite claim, namely, that any given person only has the experiential knowledge that has come from that person’s actual experiences. Thus, a single father and a single mother, under standpoint epistemology, both have experiential knowledge of raising a child as a single parent and likely have much in common. Conversely, a woman who has never raised a child does not magically get the same experiential knowledge of the single mother just because they are both categorized in the same group. Experiences do not map one-to-one on to “identity” categories.

Furthermore, even if experiences did map one-to-one on to “identity” categories, standpoint epistemology never denied that human beings are capable of propositional knowledge. Even if we will never be a Black schoolchild in the United States during desegregation, we can read the words of those who did experience desegregation, use our powers of language and cognitive empathy, and understand why some Black Americans came to the conclusion that they were better off without desegregation. This is not by virtue of our membership in an “identity” group, but by virtue of our possession of a functioning human brain that is not that of a sociopath.

How Did We Get Here?

While the history of ideas that led to the modern-day identity synthesis is perhaps the strongest part of The Identity Trap, there have been many ideas passed around the ivory tower of academia that simply remain there, not permeating into the popular culture. Therefore, the next task that Yascha Mounk sets out to accomplish in The Identity Trap is to give an accounting of how this loosely associated set of ideas that would become the identity synthesis went from academic obscurity to corporate policy.

Yascha Mounk gives his version of this story, some of which involves the usual suspects. No doubt those who have grown up with social media such as Tumblr and TikTok have experienced new ways of exchanging ideas which in turn have likely affected what ideas (or misrepresentation of ideas) they have encountered during their formative years. The Identity Trap devotes all of its fifth chapter to the proliferation of social media.

The book goes on to observe that this younger generation that grew up with social media has gone on to university and to professional life, making demands on school administrators and employers in ways that previous generations did not, successfully using the power of social media campaigns to get their way. Yascha Mounk calls this the “short march through the institutions” and devotes the sixth chapter of his book to it.

These aspects of Yascha Mounk’s story of the ascendancy of the identity synthesis are a bit obvious and likely uncontroversial. The next two parts of his accounting are more provocative.

The first is that large swaths of Americans made their core defining political identity their opposition to Donald Trump’s campaign for President of the United States in 2015. When Donald Trump did win the Presidency in 2016, many of these individuals became apoplectic and took on a raison d’etre to “get Trump,” to borrow the title of a book by Alan Dershowitz. However, while it is beyond the actual ability of the vast majority of Americans to “get Trump,” as it were, it is within the ability of many Americans to “get Bill, who works in the cubicle down the hallway from me.”

Thus, Yascha Mounk proposes that one aspect of the popularity of the identity synthesis is its ability to be used to attack those around us, and because the “get Trump” crowd in the wake of the 2016 election has redirected its attacks from Donald Trump to more obtainable and nearby targets, there is a demand for such attacking ability.

The Identity Trap goes on to note that this weaponization of the identity synthesis in its current form is one of its defining characteristics by quoting liberally from Ibram X. Kendi’s book How to Be an Antiracist. “Antiracism” as defined therein takes a decidedly “you are either with us or against us” attitude. Firstly, Ibram X. Kendi takes “racist” not in the meaning that us common folk know and recognize in definitions such as “prejudice based on racial categorization, which is in turn based on skin color, etc.”

Instead, How to Be an Antiracist defines “racist” as anything (and anyone) who is not “antiracist,” asserting explicitly that the predicate “not racist” should no longer be valid. “Antiracist” in turn is defined (mostly) as having an overriding preoccupation with eliminating disparities in average outcomes between racial categories. Most people do not go about their lives preoccupied with eliminating disparities in average outcomes between racial categories. Thus, taken literally, How to Be an Antiracist defines the vast majority of people in the world as “racist.”

This is a powerful form of defamation because “racist” rightfully comes with it social stigma, given the history of the United States and, indeed, the world. Many people are understandably averse to the prospect of being branded “racist.” Thus, those who are predisposed to attack others – whether because of Trump derangement syndrome or some other reason – would find a lot of utility in the identity synthesis as told by Ibram X. Kendi and others.

Arguments Against

Once Yascha Mounk has given a history of the ideological origins of the identity synthesis in Part 1 of The Identity Trap and has given an account of how the identity synthesis went from academic obscurity to popular culture in Part 2, he spends all of Part 3 of the book giving an argument against it.

Chapter 10 of The Identity Trap is an argument in favor of free speech against the practice of labeling dissenting opinions as “dangerous” and banning them. Chapter 11 is an argument in favor of desegregation against the neo-segregationist policies that have come to be called “progressive separatism.” Chapter 12 is an argument against discrimation on race as popularized by “race conscious” policies. Chapter 13 is a defense of meritocracy against the presumption of bias in the idea of “structural” -isms such as “structural racism” or “structural sexism.”

In addition to arguing against key parts of the platform associated with identity politics, Mounk gives arguments in favor of liberal democracy (in the philosophical sense, not in the partisan-left sense) in Chapter 14 and Chapter 15.

While I generally agree with the points made by Yascha Mounk in these chapters, I cannot help but judge this to be the weakest part of the book. I come to that judgement because it is the part of the book in which I learned the least and, consequently, the part of the book I had the hardest time remembering afterward.

I fear that the arguments of the second half of The Identity Trap are afflicted with the same “preaching to the choir” phenomenon I discussed in my review of The Myth of Left and Right. For the audience of an older generation, such as myself, who are reading The Identity Trap because we are curious about a phenomenon that has quickly dominated public life, these arguments are part of the fabric of American culture that we grew up with. Free speech, desegregation, and the rejection of discrimination based on race or sex are familiar to us. They are the targets to which American culture aspires when it is at its best, and the principles American culture turns away from when it is at its worst.

On the other hand, the people who would stand the most to encounter and seriously grapple with these arguments are those who are firmly caught in the titular identity trap – those who will either not read the book or, if they do, dismiss the book’s arguments with such glib pronouncements as “those are just White people ideas,” as I have observed my one of my coworkers do in the past.2

Perhaps, then, the arguments in the second half of The Identity Trap are written for a very specific audience. The audience that would benefit from them are those who grew up in the age of Tumblr or TikTok, but have not been captured by the identity trap, and who have also not encountered arguments for classic liberal values such as free speech and nondiscrimination.


Ultimately, I found The Identity Trap to be both an enjoyable and an enlightening read.

The intellectual history in Part 1 (and to a lesser extent in Part 2) is the strongest part of the book. If you are curious about concepts on which identity politics is based, then this is definitely the book for you. Yascha Mounk gives a masterful example of how to summarize oftentimes obscure and intentionally difficult academic ideas at a level not too deep and not too shallow. He skillfully gives the reader a working understanding of one idea before moving on to the next. Here you can learn what “intersectionality” or “strategic essentialism” mean from someone who is not simultaneously proselytizing to you on their behalf.

The story about how these ideas have taken over our culture in Part 2 of The Identity Trap is, like all such accountings, ultimately just a story. We do not have the luxury of comparing alternative universes in search of a control group and can only examine the society we live in as it actually turned out, so our understanding of how such social phenomena came to be will never be exact science. The best that can be said about Yascha Mounk’s story – or indeed of any such story – is that it is a plausible one, and therefore it is worth considering.

While the argumentation of Part 3 of The Identity Trap is, in my estimation, the weakest part of the book, I may simply not be the target audience for these arguments. They are perhaps best appreciated by those who have been tempted, but not ensnared, by the eponymous identity trap.

I have tried to make sense of the proliferation of identity politics around me in various ways.3 I found The Identity Trap to be more enlightening than other attempts I have made, and if you are someone who is also trying to make sense of this conspicuous change in American culture, I would enthusiastically recommend Yascha Mounk’s The Identity Trap.


Mounk, Y. 2023. The Identity Trap: A Story of Ideas and Power in Our Time. Penguin Publishing Group.


  1. Epistemology is a theory of knowledge, i.e., what constitutes knowledge and how one can determine what one actually knows.↩︎

  2. Incidentally, this coworker of mine was himself a White American. He also had such illuminating comments as “White people are the problem,” and “I hate White people.”↩︎

  3. For instance, I once spent far too long reading social psychology papers on the phenomenon of “entitativity.”↩︎