What’s Wrong With Identity Politics?
Photo: Elliott Jerome Brown Jr.
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When Olúfemi O. Táíwò was an undergraduate at Indiana University, he traveled with his parents to their homeland, Nigeria, for his grandfather’s funeral in the southwestern city of Abeokuta. To reach the family compound where they would be staying, the travelers chartered a convoy and an armed escort. “At that point, it was some of the most concentrated poverty I’d ever seen in my life,” Táíwò, who is 32, told me. He spent most of that night in a nauseated daze — malaria, he thinks — and was shocked to wake up in midair. Armed men were storming the compound, and Táíwò’s father had thrown him out of bed in a futile effort to escape. The family was held at gunpoint for hours while the burglars rummaged for goods and cash.
Nobody was injured, but the experience was formative. For Táíwò, now an assistant professor of philosophy at Georgetown University, the limits of catchall identity categories were made evident when his family cruised past beggars with the car windows up and their jewelry glinting. “I wouldn’t be saying something false if I identified myself as a Nigerian American,” he told me. “But I would at the very least be saying something misleading” by suggesting “I was somehow representative of all of those people.”
On May 3, Táíwò published his second book, Elite Capture, which deals with the confused ways the concept of identity is used in American political culture. The idea of elite capture has been around for decades and typically describes how the most advantaged people in a group take control of benefits that are meant for everybody — as, for example, how a leader in a developing country might use foreign-aid money to line his own pockets. Táíwò’s innovation is applying this idea to identity politics, the concept devised in 1977 by the Black radical feminists of the Combahee River Collective. He argues that their project has been hijacked. “We believe that the most profound and potentially most radical politics come directly out of our own identity,” they wrote, because organizing around what was good for people at the bottom of social hierarchies would be good for all oppressed people. But rather than using personal identity as an entry point to building radical coalitions, as these innovators intended, elites are using it as a tool to advance their own narrow interests.
He gives recent examples: when Washington, D.C., mayor Muriel Bowser had the words BLACK LIVES MATTER painted on a street days after her police force was brutalizing protesters in 2020, and the “Humans of CIA” video series, in which the agency tried to attract new recruits by appealing, for instance, to their queer identities. Both were efforts to pacify dissent or to rebrand violent institutions using the symbols of identity politics.
Photo: Elliott Jerome Brown Jr.
Táíwò is a relaxed and unpretentious communicator given to long pauses while he figures out the clearest way to get his thought across. His temperament is well suited to making sense of our inflection point. The past several years have been tumultuous, with the departure of the Obamas from the White House and Donald Trump’s bigoted rise opening up novel ways to think about identity and how it shapes experience. One result has been social movements — Black Lives Matter, the George Floyd uprisings, Me Too — which, for all their merits, were easily reduced to branded content. The misuse of identity politics has led to Nancy Pelosi wearing kente cloth but has done little to address actual inequality. So Táíwò’s project is reclamation. “It’s a starting point,” he said of the concept’s original use. “It’s compatible with working on common problems with people from other identity groups.”
These distinctions were uniquely salient where he came from. Born in 1990, Táíwò moved with his family at around the age of 1 from the San Francisco Bay Area, where his parents had immigrated to attend graduate school in the early 1980s, to the northern suburbs of Cincinnati. His mother got a pharmacology job with Procter & Gamble, while his father, an engineer by training, stayed home to care for their first child, Táíwò’s autistic older brother. The physical landscape was a sharp contrast to their first American home — chain stores, strip malls, and other emblems of white suburban affluence replaced the mom-and-pop commerce and Black Power reverberations of Oakland — but the social one was more indelible, composed mostly of a tight-knit Nigerian diasporic community.
In Elite Capture, Táíwò refers only obliquely to his personal experiences with violence. (The story about Abeokuta does not make an appearance.) But his upbringing is deeply entwined with the fact that genocide, in the form of the 1966 anti-Igbo pogrom that led to the Nigeria-Biafra War between 1967 and 1970, was a living memory for many people he grew up around. Their identity-based experiences and suffering, what you might call their Nigerian-ness, did not automatically make them wise or good or heroic — to say nothing of establishing them as natural authorities on what a just world should look like. “There were people with anger and other emotional-regulation issues,” he told me. “There were incidents of abuse, especially of kids.”
As a result, faddish calls to “listen to the most affected” or “center the most marginalized,” which abound in the academic and leftist activist circles he occupies and bleed out into the corporate world and the halls of Congress, “never sat well with me,” Táíwò writes. When people said these things to him, “it wasn’t usually because they intended to set up Skype calls to refugee camps or to collaborate with houseless people.” Instead, inside the elite spaces on campus or within government, deference to people who seemed marginalized was mostly a well-intended but hollow gesture.
Photo: Elliott Jerome Brown Jr.
This pattern felt both personally and politically corrosive. “There’s a sense in which I could never take myself seriously,” Táíwò told me, “sitting in a fancy academic room and just saying, ‘Here’s my perspective as a Nigerian American person,’ while also remembering rolling through Abeokuta and seeing other Nigerian people outside of the closed window of a car in an armed convoy.” The emphasis on material factors is a hallmark of his work. Táíwò’s first book, Reconsidering Reparations, also released this year, argues that reparations, in addition to addressing colonialism and slavery, must respond to the effects of climate change.
It also gives voice to people on the left who neither see personal identity as the lone vector for inequality nor reject its relevance outright. “Acting on this conception of ‘centering the most marginalized’ would require a different approach entirely, in a world where 1.6 billion people live in inadequate housing (slum conditions) and 100 million are unhoused,” Táíwò writes. “Such a stance would require, at a minimum, that one leave the room.”
So what could a different approach look like? Táíwò proposes a “constructive politics” — a shift in focus to specific results. To him, this means redistributing resources and power downward to the people most negatively affected by the status quo. That may seem frustratingly general, and Táíwò is up front about not offering a how-to guide for equality. He wrote Elite Capture, he says, to help progressives, both in leadership and the rank-and-file, be more aware and strategic. But he points to how people in Flint, Michigan, working with allies across the country, bucked local authorities to address their water crisis — this was an example of moving past the perils of identity into collective action. “In that moment, what they needed was not for their oppression to be ‘celebrated,’ ‘centered,’ or narrated in the newest academic parlance,” Táíwò writes. “What Flint residents really needed, above all, was to get the lead out of their water.”