Friday, April 6, 2018

Why "intersectionality" is identity reductionism

People who cite "intersectionality" claim socialists are class reductionists. In theory, that makes sense—the names say socialism is only about class, while intersectionality is about every form of social identity.

But if you think names tell the whole truth, you think Delicious Apples are delicious and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea is democratic.

Kimberlé Crenshaw coined "intersectionality" to connect two reductionist theories that liberals loved, third wave feminism and the antiracism that comes from Derrick Bell, who rejected the anticapitalism of King and Malcolm X. People concerned primarily with other social identities—most notably, sexual orientation and disability—quickly adopted and expanded the intersectional model. The result was identity reductionism. The intersectionalist's goal is social equality, not economic justice. Intersectionalists want people of all identities to be respected. They believe that in a fair system, all levels of society are proportionate in terms of race, gender, and every other social identity.

When intersectionalists realized class could not be ignored, they forced it into their model by treating class as a social rather than an economic identity. But, as others have noted, the goal for the poor is not respect, and they do not dream of a poverty that is perfectly proportionate in terms of social identity. They dream of an end to their identity as poor people.

Two examples of identity reductionism that I've often written about, and then some recent examples from Facebook:

1. If you only consider gender, women make less money than men. If you also consider class, you notice that women do more low-paying work than men, but when men and women do the same work and have the same work experience, they are paid the same. When men and women are paid the same for the same work, the problem is not sexism.

2. If you only consider race, black people are more likely to be killed by the police than white people. If you also consider class, you notice that the racial statistics of poverty and police killing in the US are the same for white and black people because most police victims are poor. When black and white people of the same class are treated the same, the problem is not racism.

Of course neither of these facts means the problems of racism or sexism are over. They only show how identity reductionism hides the role of capitalism in the treatment of women and people of color. Real problems of sexism and racism remain: Though black people are not more likely to be killed than white people of the same class, they are more likely to be beaten by the police, and though women get equal pay for equal work, the US makes life harder for working mothers by doing little to help them with child care. While black and white women from the same economic background do equally well in life, black and white boys only do equally well in neighborhoods with low poverty rates. Racism and sexism are still with us, and socialists, as always, are still concerned with them—after all, feminism got its name from the socialist Charles Fourier, and the most famous opponent of racism was the democratic socialist Martin Luther King.

Intersectionalists love intersectionality because the term makes their simplistic understanding of power sound profound. Kimberlé Crenshaw was far from the first to notice that in a racist and sexist system, life is hardest for black women. Sojourner Truth knew it in 1851. Someone undoubtedly saw it in the 17th century when race was invented.

Because intersectionality is an ideology without a foundation, intersectionalists are especially susceptible to cognitive dissonance. Lashing out in anger keeps them from confronting the contradictions in their beliefs. Though I know that, I'm still surprised when it happens over things that seem trivial to me. The most recent example: I was accused of being a racist after I made a Facebook post linking to Did Black People Own Slaves? by Henry Louis Gates, a black writer who I respect enormously despite his neoliberal politics.

As I often do, I made the post without a note saying why I was sharing it. My identitarian followers found that troubling. I'll focus on two comments they left. Tyler Tork said,
...past experience with Will leads us to expect that he intends some racist point that he’s not actually stating, and people are tired of hearing it.
The idea that linking to a black man writing about historical facts has a "racist point" only makes sense to people who are offended by historical facts. The objection can only be made by people whose ideology requires them to deny facts. My "racist point" was the same as the author's: In the Old South, a few rich black people owned many slaves, just as rich white people did. For identitarians, that fact can only be rationalized as an exception to the rules they understand, as this interchange with Paul Anderson illustrates. He said:
Capitalism, and slavery, and racism, are systems. No insitution is likely to be without exceptions. So what?
I answered,
Institutions do not have exceptions if you understand them. Under Jim Crow, there were no exceptions for black people. Under capitalism, there are no exceptions for poor people. Under slavery, there were no exceptions for slaves.
Paul could not grasp that. The identitarians' reductionist rule is "black people were mostly slaves," and therefore rich black people must be exceptions. But if your understanding includes capitalism, the apparent exceptions disappear. The United States was not created to be a racist nation. It was created to be a capitalist nation that allowed slavery. For a free person of any race to own slaves was not an exception. It was simply how the system worked.

If "intersectionality" meant what its name claims, its believers would never have to talk of exceptions. They would see that when capitalism and racism intersect, the system will not have contradictions: Capitalism allowed for rich black slaveowners, and the racism that grew out of slavery meant freed black people had fewer resources and opportunities than most white people, so there were proportionally fewer rich black slaveowners than rich white ones.

I could say more about the simplistic vision of identity reductionists, but Adolph Reed covered them well when writing of race reductionists, so I'll end with a link to his Antiracism: vague politics about a nearly indescribable thing.

My apologies to identitarians like Tyler who think white people should not link to black writers who disgree with intersectionality.