As progressives scramble to unravel What Went Wrong In 2016, two narratives have emerged. The first — popular among moderate liberals and old-school socialists — holds that the postmodern fixation with identity politics has fractured the Democratic Party’s base by de-emphasizing class solidarity. The second — popular amongst college students and left-wing academics — holds that the solution to Democrats’ electoral troubles is more identity politics, not less.
Proponents of the second viewpoint tend to stress the importance of one concept in particular: “intersectionality.” According to University of California, Berkeley Law Professor David Schraub, the “core observation” of intersectionality is that “‘black woman’ =/= ‘black’ + ‘woman,’ because ‘black’ is typically defined in terms of the experience of black men, and ‘woman’ in terms of white women. Consequently, simply ladling opposition to racism on top of opposition to sexism would not necessarily capture the unique discrimination faced by black women.”
On this view, intersectionality is not about constructing a hierarchy of oppressed groups, as its critics often allege. Rather, the concept functions as an analytical tool which helps make sense of particularized experiences and grievances, especially in the context of anti-discrimination law. Intersectionality, then, may be viewed as a response to critical race theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw’s worry that identity politics “frequently conflates or ignores intragroup differences.” Intersectionality is a corrective to identity politics, not a symptom of its worst pathologies.
Yeah, maybe. But this innocuous characterization ultimately misses the point.
What frustrates opponents of intersectionality is the tendency to use the term to describe a predictable cocktail of racial and sexual qualifiers — black women, disabled lesbians, queer Muslims — that have very little to do with the “lived experiences” of most Americans. This is not to discredit the importance of the locution to people with these sorts of overlapping and marginalized identities. But if you are a white woman, a poor Jew, a middle-aged coal miner or — yes — a white working-class male, you are not likely to find your own struggles reflected in the literature of intersectionality. Instead, you’ll find them relegated to the margins of liberal culture, buried beneath an avalanche of neologisms and concepts that never quite seem to be speaking for your pocketbook, your safety or your identity. That’s the problem: An idea that was meant to foster inclusion and nuance has come to symbolize balkanization and parochialism through selective and inconsistent usage.
Other particles of leftist jargon exacerbate this tension. Intersectionality originated as a counterweight to the more essentializing impulses of identity politics. That particularist attitude is strikingly absent from the language of “privilege” at the heart of the modern social justice crusade. To say that someone has white privilege is, in effect, to say that they enjoy some sort of benefit just by being white. Yet the crucial claim of intersectionality is that race cannot be analyzed in isolation. Its meaning depends on religion, gender and class.
Such hypocrisies fuel the perception that intersectionality is just another excuse for left-wing academics to lecture white America about its chronic moral failings. Of course, a truly consistent intersectional politics would not ask about a “white America” at all. It would ask instead about how “whiteness” interacts with gender and socioeconomic status to produce discrete experiences and — in certain cases — challenges that are not shared by other groups.
How might this work? Consider the following:
A 2012 sociology paper found that “religious attendance among moderately educated whites has declined relative to attendance among college-educated whites.” The death rate for working class whites has skyrocketed at the same time that many manufacturing jobs — once a source of order and stability for white men in particular — were destroyed by globalization.
Taken together, these facts support the notion that white, economically disadvantaged males confront a peculiar kind of privation that cannot be captured by single-factor analyses of race, class or gender. The claim is not that working class whites are worse-off than blacks or women — by many metrics, they aren’t. It is that they experience a unique form of dispossession that is to some degree incommensurable with the experiences of other groups. “White” + “male” + “working class” does not capture the peculiar challenges faced by white working class men.
Liberals should broaden the language of intersectionality to include the demographics that lost them the 2016 election. By stressing intersectionality — not just for queer disabled women of color — the left can craft an identity politics that speaks to a much larger, much more sustainable constituency. Otherwise, there’s always the first case scenario.
Aaron Sibarium is a junior in Timothy Dwight College. His column runs on alternate Wednesdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .