Intersectionality and Democratic Politics

Sociologist Tressie Collum has a fascintating and very useful Medium article about intersectionality in the Trump era that catalyizes some thoughts I’ve had about writing critical of identity politics by Adolph Reed and Mark Lilla.

I’ll begin with Collum’s concise definition of intersectionality as a theory that guides us in a quest to understand how social systems function:

Intersectionality’s raison dêtre is to reveal the systems that organize our society. Intersectionality’s brilliance is that its fundamental contribution to how we view the world seems so common-sense once you have heard it: by focusing on the parts of the system that are most complex and where the people living it are the most vulnerable we understand the system best.

Collum then goes on to criticize “Mark Lilla and others who critique this view of the body politic, reducing it to the caricature of identity politicsbecause they “refuse to engage intersectionality’s most powerful empirical truth: we all have intersectional identities and all of them matter, if not all in the same way.”

I agree with Collum that intersectionality is a powerful approach to understanding the way in which social systems function and that those understandings have ethical and moral implications that call us to both reflection on our own social positions and to action. Where I think writers like Lilla and Reed have a point is in how the understanding developed by intersectional thinking relates to democratic politics. In short, I believe that intersectionality demands more than democratic politics can deliver at present. It demands a moral revolution in the sense discussed by Kwame Anthony Appiah in his 2010 book “The Honor Code.”

While I am all in favor of a moral revolution spurred by the insights of intersectionality, I also think it is important to recognize that moral revolutions are both a) much more difficult and long in the making than political coalitions and b) can be helped but not delivered by democratic politics. The two projects of an intersectionality inspired moral revolution and a democratic political movement that demands a government that works in the interests of ordinary people rather than the rich or corporations are both important and worthwhile. But we must take care not to burden the latter with the more thoroughgoing demands of the former because in democracy one needs a broad coalition to win.

To my mind, that means accepting that a left coalition is going to include people who I may believe have incorrect views on race and gender in order to fight for shared goals such as universal health care, lower inequality, and an end to militarism. I recognize that as a well-off white male academic, tolerating those people is going to be a lot easier for me than it is for those who don’t share my social position. The views I dislike are not views about me. I also recognize it as my duty as someone lucky to have a privileged identity to fight racism and sexism in the cause of moral revolution. But I don’t think we should wait until that revolution is complete before we make progress on our shared goals. And indeed spreading the moral revolution may be easier in a society the provides more security to all its members.