ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Political scientists say we're in the midst of an identity crisis. America's politics are increasingly tribal. NPR's Asma Khalid reports on how that trend is playing out in Georgia.
ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Stacey Abrams ran for governor of Georgia and lost, but she was the first black woman in the country to be a major party's nominee for governor. And so she says identity was absolutely a part of the conversation.
STACEY ABRAMS: Our campaign was both different and successful because we made certain that we did not ignore any identity.
KHALID: Abrams specifically reached out to Latino, Asian and rural communities that the Democratic Party has not always invested in. The goal was to create a big tent that recognized each group's micro-experiences. Some on the right say that strategy is divisive, but Abrams tells me she doesn't buy that criticism.
ABRAMS: Those who use identity politics as a pejorative to describe how we campaign, how we engage, how we decide policy are being deeply disingenuous. It is who we are as Americans.
KHALID: Democrats point out that Jim Crow laws enforcing segregation were identity politics. And they say the phrase only became loaded recently to discount the policy concerns of minority voters. To understand why identity politics feels so loaded here in Georgia, I traveled an hour north of Atlanta to the most affluent county in the state, Forsyth. It's a place with an explosive past. In the early 20th century, white mobs violently drove out most of the county's black residents. To be clear, people's attitudes have changed, but the county's reputation still lingers. Just 4 percent of Forsyth is black.
DANIEL BLACKMAN: So my name is Daniel Blackman. I was the first black person to ever run for office in Forsyth County.
KHALID: That was two years ago. Blackman points to a statue of a Confederate soldier just a few feet away from us.
BLACKMAN: There's no way in the South you can ignore the question of race and identity. It doesn't mean that you have to weaponize identity politics, but you need to understand that there is a deep history in the South.
KHALID: Blackman says there's no doubt identity was a part of the governor's race in Georgia on both sides. Look at how Stacey Abrams talked about getting rid of the carving at Stone Mountain, the largest confederate memorial in the country, or how Republican Brian Kemp talked about rounding up criminal illegals in his truck. But Republicans around here are tired of hearing about the residual effects of race.
PATRICK BELL: At some point, we have to quit talking about race and gender and look at the person.
KHALID: Patrick Bell is the chairman of the Forsyth County Republican Party.
BELL: Every time something comes up that the left doesn't like, they scream, racism, racism. You're just racist. And I'm sick of hearing about race. And I'm sick of hearing about gender.
KHALID: This is a conservative area. In the midterms, 70 percent of the county voted for Brian Kemp, the Republican candidate for governor. I met Bell along with some other Republicans at a local Cajun restaurant in town. Y.G. Nyghtstorm was also there in me.
Y G NYGHTSTORM: And me, let's just talk about the elephant in the room. I'm a black Republican. OK? I'm a black conservative.
KHALID: Nyghtstorm says this past election, friends called him a sellout, even a traitor, a race traitor.
KHALID: And they were saying, Stacey Abrams is a black woman. Your mother is a black woman. So if you vote for Brian Kemp, that means you hate your mom.
KHALID: The GOP sees an equation like that as the definition of identity politics and say it's corrosive for democracy.
BEN WILLIAMS: We are in a place called Georgia.
KHALID: That's Democrat Ben Williams with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
WILLIAMS: This phrase, identity politics - and I grapple with because I think it has the elasticity of being able to mean different things to different people. And therein lies part of the problem.
KHALID: For him, identity politics is not necessarily corrosive. In fact, it can be a motivator. It's about whose voices are amplified. And so if you want to see whose voices are valued, just...
WILLIAMS: Look at the parties and see what the class picture looks like.
KHALID: The class picture for Democrats is a lot more diverse, he says. Democrats in Georgia say even though Stacey Abrams lost her race, her campaign offers some signs for what their party ought to think about for the future. Democrats got closer to the governor's mansion than they have in years by explicitly courting minorities. And so maybe embracing so-called identity issues is not such a liability. Asma Khalid, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.