Whatever Happened to Identity Politics?

Over the past year or so, I’ve been returning again and again to one persistent question: Does the conversation around social justice, especially in the media and academia, actually serve the less fortunate and the oppressed?

These interrogations have been guided by a number of thinkers and writers, but I am particularly indebted to the writing of the philosopher Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò. In May 2020, Táíwò published an influential article in the Boston Review in which he outlined the way the once radical spirit of identity politics had been co-opted and redefined by elites who now use a similar language to further their own aims — a development he defines as “elite capture.” In his new book, “Elite Capture: How the Powerful Took Over Identity Politics (and Everything Else),” Táíwò, who is an assistant professor of philosophy at Georgetown, explores in greater detail how “the advantaged few steer resources and institutions that could serve the many toward their own narrower interests and aims.”

In an earlier newsletter, I gave an example of how elite capture works in the realm of racial justice:

Take, say, an upwardly mobile and educated Korean American banker whose parents immigrated to the United States in 1975 as graduate students and another Korean American who has entered the country illegally, works as a delivery person and makes $9 an hour. If you reduce their stories to the atrocities of Japanese imperialism in early-20th-century Korea and the Korean War, as well as the day-to-day microaggressions experienced by all Asian men in America, the banker and the delivery driver become more or less indistinguishable from each other.

Everything that matters much more — the delivery driver’s poverty and his undocumented status — gets obscured by a broad telling of history and a few handpicked complaints about how white people ask, “Where are you from?” These instances of identity slippage remind me of a style of sleight-of-hand where the magician provides you tiny, seemingly identifying glimpses that trick you into thinking the card in his hand is actually the card he has secured in his pocket.

Táíwò sees this process everywhere (hence the “and everything else” subtitle to his book), not just in the United States, but internationally. His work has stuck with me because he grapples with these difficult ideas in a capacious and honest way that sometimes leads him into the types of contradictions that I find myself trying to resolve in this space. He, for example, does not dismiss all identity politics in the crude, almost scornful way that many of its modern critics do; nor does he embark on a crusade to root out every instance of elite capture that might be poisoning the well of social justice. Instead, he pursues an intellectual path that tries to meet people where they are. His critique isn’t of the idea of identity politics, but rather how it’s been co-opted and corrupted by elites.

The following conversation between Táíwò and me has been edited for length and clarity.

When did this idea of elite capture and the corruption of identity politics start occurring to you?

I was trying to position myself with respect to all these issues that folks in academic and organizing spaces talk about, whether it was immigration, racism or whatever. And a lot of what people were focused on in the spaces that I was in seemed like it made sense. If you’re a grad student studying racism, it makes sense to talk about racism in the university and in the classroom. But there’s a question about how that relates to the broader issue: How much does racism in general have to do with the particular racism that’s going on here on campus? I didn’t always agree with the people around me in terms of what the priorities should be.

What’s an example of something that happened on campus that you felt was blown out of proportion or myopic?

There was one event in particular, where a group of people had come to visit campus from an alternative high school for kids who had been railroaded out of other school systems. Working-class, Black and brown kids. And they had come to campus to see what we were doing. And this person from the medical school comes up to speak and gives this impassioned description of how racially insensitive the med school practices are, and it’s just one of those “read the room” moments — this is the furthest thing from what your audience on this particular day rightfully cares about. That was a clear moment where I realized, “Oh, it’s not just that people talk this way when it’s just us academics around.” I think some people have built this worldview where racism is what’s going on on campus, and what we need to do about it is change things here, in these particular spaces we happen to be in, as Black elites.

You’re talking in some ways about taking social and economic class out of these conversations about identity. How did this happen?

The recent story of the term “identity politics” isn’t super hard to grasp: The people in a position to study race and gender are disproportionately people with certain kinds of social support — disproportionately academics, and within that group of academics, disproportionately people from the fanciest institutions.

Part of what I try to argue in the book is that you don’t need a special ideological story to explain why this happens. The story of elite capture of identity politics is the same story of elite capture of society. In general, there’s more elite capture when there’s wider economic and political inequality between elites and non-elites, and there’s also more elite capture when the organizations and actions that exist to constrain elite impunity are smaller or weaker — organizations like unions, regulatory bodies.

Since the 1960s, both of these things have happened in the United States. In 1918, there was just the one “billionaire”: Rockefeller, standing atop Standard Oil. Now we have hundreds of them, alongside asset managers directing whole countries’ worth of investment capital. Then there’s the U.S.-led global offensive against the organized: In the 1960s, nearly a third of U.S. workers were unionized. Today it’s a tenth, and many of the unions that have survived have had to spend their time and attention playing defense. At the same time, tuition rates have skyrocketed in the fanciest schools that command an outsize portion of social attention and prestige — which affects both who is learning at these institutions and who can afford to stay in them long enough to teach at them. Vulture capital has descended on media, helping to explain the decline of local news and orienting the surviving media outlets around whatever their agenda is.

Put all this together and ask a simple question: Whose views about anything, oppression or otherwise, are likely to circulate in a social environment where so much economic and political opportunity is concentrated at the top? The people selected to be in a position to talk about or ignore class are chosen by processes and institutions that emerge from this same history, and it’s not particularly surprising that unserious analyses of the social world are the ones that win out in this kind of top-heavy political environment.

At the beginning of your book you talk about the international scope of the George Floyd protests, which drew in millions of people. And a lot of your work is about the ways in which action or discussion becomes inert through elite capture. But if identity politics has really been captured by elites and rendered inert, how do you explain the size of the protests?

This is part of why it’s important to me to reject the super-cynical take on identity politics. The view that everything is just a plot by the powers-that-be is wrong, and the protests of that summer are the most powerful way I could think of to put it. People really do think racism is wrong. It’s a victory of the era of the ’60s and ’70s, and of the global movement against colonialism and racism. And it’s that victory that is the reason for these kinds of draconian advances from the far right — fighting against trans kids and critical race theory. The question is, can we take that victory and win bigger victories, and get better things out of it? Can we get people not just to protest policing, but actually get policing to change?

I remember when the book “White Fragility” by Robin DiAngelo, a white academic, became a best seller during the Floyd protests. Soon it became a sort of ritual for people on the left to bash it because it seemed like the ultimate form of elite capture — a style of social justice for corporate meeting rooms. I agree with this view at some level, and I want to be critical of the book, too. But I sometimes wonder if it’s better to just ignore it, because the fact that the book exists does seem like an advance.

It’s clearly an advance. When I was a kid, the best-selling book on race that I remember was “The Bell Curve.” And God only knows what books were selling in my teenage years in the War on Terror era. If folks want to read Robin DiAngelo, I’m ecstatic. That’s not where we want the discussion to end, but if it’s starting there, I can work with that. Criticism is necessary, but it doesn’t really need to be Plan A. A lot of people don’t even necessarily disagree with a lot of the things that people of my political persuasion think. And I think the better approach is to start by saying, “Well, here’s what I think is true. Here’s what I think antiracism actually demands,” rather than going into attack mode and putting people on the defensive.

There’s a sharp critique in your work about how identity politics has been subject to elite capture. My own go-to example for Asian people is what happened after the Atlanta spa shooting: A lot of well-meaning Asian colleagues in the media started talking about microaggressions that they experienced in their own workplaces. I find this type of thinking bankrupt and weird because there’s a clear difference between working at one of these massage parlors and working at, say, Condé Nast. And yet I still feel this tinge of regret when I make these types of critiques. At some level, I feel like I’m providing ammunition for people who want to tell all Asian people to shut up. This is not something I want. How do you deal with it?

It’s difficult. There’s lots of criticisms of identity politics, but from the outside. I see at least three vantage points: a right-wing criticism of identity politics by those who are simply pro-oppression, whether functionally or self-consciously; the center and center-left, who don’t really have strong views about oppression but are pro shutting people up; and the “class-reductionist” left who have really strong views about oppression but are hostile to competing ways of framing that oppression.

I’m not on any of those teams, or making any of those points. My criticism of identity politics is “internal”: I’m on team identity politics! It’s good if people think about how social structures affect them and people like them, specifically, and treat that as a political starting point. And it’s hard to see how we could do better than changing one system of oppression to another system of oppression unless we had something like that going. The best I can do, I think, is be as clear as I can about what I think is baby and what I think is bathwater, so that people can distinguish this sort of internal criticism of identity politics from those three external ones. It also might help that my criticism of identity politics is so structurally focused, rather than being primarily centered around psychological or moral criticism of the choices elites make.

I want to talk a bit about an idea you discuss near the end of your book — “deference politics,” which is what happens when mostly white people turn themselves into “allies” and blindly follow the person of the oppressed identity. You write that deference politics “considers it a step toward justice to modify the interpersonal interactions in compliance with the perceived wishes of the marginalized. While the deference perspective isn’t entirely off base, it is potentially limiting and misleading.” Can you explain what you mean there?

Let’s say I’m in a particular conversation and I don’t have life experience with the thing that we’re talking about. At that moment I can take political direction from somebody who does have that relevant life experience. Deference politics means I’m going to find a person of some particular identity, and whatever that person’s thoughts or opinions or perspectives are, they’re also going to be mine.

Do you think that the way questions of race and justice are discussed in the elite spaces now essentially asks white people to take on a philanthropic role as opposed to a role in solidarity? Are people becoming too deferential?

Yes, I think that’s definitely happening. This is among my biggest gripes about the direction that identity politics has taken in elite spaces. I think it’s related to privilege as a governing framework. I don’t think that’s a helpful way of framing what advantages under the current unjust system really mean for people. I’m in so many spaces where people say “to be white” or “to be cis” or “to be a man” is to be in a position to make the system operate differently. And it just mystifies power relations. Whether or not someone has privilege, whether they are above or below you in the social hierarchy, is just a different question from whether or not this person has the requisite social power to do something.

Your prescription for how we can move past elite capture is what you call a “constructive political culture.” Can you explain what you mean by that?

Constructive political culture relates to the idea that we were just talking about, to ask: What is the thing that you’re trying to do in any given political interaction? One thing you could try to do is play it in the right kind of moral or aesthetic way. What is the thing that will signal my political radical bona fides in this interaction? That’s a question you could ask. But there is a different kind of question you could ask: What’s the most useful thing we could build together? How can we change the social landscape in a way that will be usable by us later, and by the people who come after us? That’s constructive politics. And the construction part is something that I mean literally. The thing that we should do might be to plant trees, literally plant trees, or it might be to build a certain kind of school. It might be building a social institution, or building a certain kind of knowledge base or an archive or database or something like that. But it’s about making these kinds of practical changes to the unfair environment that we’re in, instead of making changes to discourse.

Is the type of identity politics you’ve critiqued in this book an impediment to constructive political culture? And if so, what should we do about it?

Yes, it is an impediment. But it’s not as though there’s ever been a favorable political or social environment for this kind of political culture. Every time this kind of political culture has been built, it’s been in opposition to the cultural, political and capitalist status quo. The anticolonial movements of the post-WWII years, the anti-apartheid movement — they emerged in unfavorable environments, but they were still built, and they were built in the kinds of organizations that were tried and true examples of constructive politics, like unions. The boss may want to only pay some of us this and pay the rest of us that, but we’re going to bargain collectively, and we’re going to build a space where we struggle together for collective goals. That’s the kind of thing that can build solidarity across political differences.

What are some examples of things that excite you in that line of thinking?

Definitely the wave of unionization at Amazon and Starbucks. If there were more of these kinds of movements in tech, things like the Alphabet Workers Union, that would be even more promising. Formations like the Debt Collective, that are uniting people based on being indebted. I think of tenants’ activism that really accelerated during the pandemic, particularly in places like Kansas City, Los Angeles — all of those things are really promising kinds of mobilization. And the more we get together, the better we can get together.

Have feedback? Send a note to [email protected].

Jay Caspian Kang (@jaycaspiankang), a writer for Opinion and The New York Times Magazine, is the author of “The Loneliest Americans.”

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