In an April 2020 op-ed for the Washington Post, recent Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang argues that Asian Americans ought to “step up” and visibly support relief efforts in order to combat the racist hostility that has accompanied the rise of COVID-19. The appeal is an example of identity politics, though not of the sort that the terms calls to mind for most people. Identity politics is usually thought of as advocacy on behalf of a group, rooted in the group’s collective victimization. But often, whether by accident or design, identity politics serves a narrower set of interests, such as the electoral goals of a Democratic candidate. Yang’s argument, for instance, tasks the very group targeted by racism with proving itself worthy of being American, while at the same time asking little of the country’s non-Asian majority, whose votes his political future depends upon.
Identity politics is deployed by elites in the service of their own interests, rather than in the service of the vulnerable people they often claim to represent.
The term “identity politics” was first popularized by the 1977 manifesto of the Combahee River Collective, an organization of black feminist activists. In a recent interview with the Root and in an op-ed at the Guardian, Barbara Smith, a founding member of the collective, addresses common misconceptions about the term. The manifesto, she explains, was written by black women claiming the right to set their own political agendas. They weren’t establishing themselves as a moral aristocracy—they were building a political viewpoint out of common experience to work toward “common problems.” As such, they were strongly in favor of diverse people working in coalition, an approach that for Smith was exemplified by the Bernie Sanders campaign’s grassroots approach and its focus on social issues that people of many identities face, especially “basic needs of food, housing and healthcare.” According to Smith, today’s uses of the concept are often “very different than what we intended.” “We absolutely did not mean that we would work with people who were only identical to ourselves,” she insists. “We strongly believed in coalitions and working with people across various identities on common problems.”
But instead of forging alliances across difference, some have chosen to weaponize identity politics, closing ranks—especially on social media—around ever-narrower conceptions of group interests rather than building solidarity. Identity politics itself isn’t at fault. The trouble is that, like so many other things, identity politics is the victim of elite capture—deployed by political, social, and economic elites in the service of their own interests, rather than in the service of the vulnerable people they often claim to represent.
The concept of elite capture originated in the study of developing countries to describe the way socially advantaged people tend to gain control over financial benefits meant for everyone, especially foreign aid. But the concept has also been applied more generally to describe how political projects can be hijacked—in principle or in effect—by the well positioned and resourced, as Yang’s “step up” demand exemplifies. The idea also helps to explain how public resources such as knowledge, attention, and values get distorted and distributed by our power structures. And it is precisely what stands between us and Smith’s urgent vision of coalitional politics.
Elite capture accounts for many of the common objections leveled against identity politics: that it requires uncritical support for political figures without regard to their politics, or that it reflects social preoccupations that are “really for rich white people.” Some observers have noted as much; Saagar Enjeti even uses the word “elite” in his recent gleeful takedown of the “identity politics obsessed elite wing” of the Democratic Party. As Enjeti writes, “the people who populate our newsrooms” also “populate the professional managerial class, and have far too much of an impact on our contemporary political discourse.” Despite having identified the problem with mainstream popular uses of identity politics today—the outsize impact of well-positioned people on our political discourse—Enjeti nevertheless seems to think this is a special problem of one wing of one political party. In fact, the underlying dynamics are as old as politics itself and are not confined to a particular politics of social identity.
In 1957 the pioneering African American sociologist E. Franklin Frazier published an English translation of his study of the U.S. black middle class, Black Bourgeoisie. We might also think of it as a pioneering work in the study of elite capture of politics. Frazier accuses the black middle class of being insecure and powerless, constantly constructing a world of “make-believe” to deal with an “inferiority complex” caused by the brutal history of racial domination in the United States. Immediately controversial upon its publication, the book notes in a preface to the 1962 edition that Frazier was both applauded for his courage and threatened with violence.
Why did the myth of a black economy as a comprehensive response to anti-black racism survive, when it was never a serious possibility? In Frazier’s telling, it did because it furthered the class interests of the black bourgeoisie.
One of the book’s arguments concerns the generations-old political strategy for racial uplift: the project of building a separate black economy within the United States. In 1900, for example, Booker T. Washington organized the National Negro Business League, first convened in Boston. It was greeted with enthusiasm and fanfare; many African American business leaders in attendance hoped that this sort of venture would be the key to eradicating the harm of white racism.
Frazier argues that Washington’s approach was not only misguided, but based on faulty analysis of the economic potential of African American business. The total net worth of all 115 original attendees did not even amount to $1 million. By the time Frazier wrote his book in 1955, all eleven black-owned banks in the nation combined did not represent the amount of capital in the average local bank in smaller white cities. There was simply not enough black wealth for a separate black economy to “bootstrap” itself up. Even if the initiative successfully encouraged people to buy black—for example, with dollars earned at their jobs at the Ford plant—it would still not create a black economy. Nonetheless, shortly after the group’s fiftieth anniversary, the league doubled down on its goal to preach the gospel of faith in black business. No wonder Frazier concludes that an African American economy would remain a pipedream into the 1960s, as it had been at the turn of the century.
Why did the myth of a black economy as a comprehensive response to anti-black racism survive, even when prominent black businessmen could have known that it wasn’t a serious possibility? In Frazier’s telling, it was the particular class interests of the small but influential black bourgeoisie that carried the idea. Some were business owners, hoping to enjoy a monopoly of the African American economic market. Others were salaried professionals—far and away the largest percentage of the black middle class at the time—hoping to work their way into white-owned marketing firms on the strength of their presumed knowledge of untapped black purchasing power. Either way, the National Negro Business League promoted a viewpoint that encouraged people to confront the complex problem of white hegemony over politics, culture, and the economy with the mythical premise that black people could spend and invest their way out of domination.
Frazier saves his most scathing criticisms for the black press, “the chief medium of communication which creates and perpetuates the world of make-believe for the black bourgeoisie.” While acknowledging the contributions of black publications such as the Chicago Defender and Frederick Douglass’s Paper, he nevertheless insists that the black press’s “demand for equality for the Negro in American life is concerned primarily with opportunities which will benefit the black bourgeoisie economically and enhance the social status of the Negro.” The elite control of prominent black media advanced these subgroup interests seemingly without regard to the larger group. As an example, Frazier notes that the Norfolk, Virginia, black newspaper Journal and Guide celebrated the election of a black doctor to the presidency of a local affiliate of the American Medical Association—in spite of the fact that he had opposed “socialized medicine,” which no doubt would have benefitted working-class African Americans.
Frazier concludes that, whether in the black press or in business, “the black bourgeoisie have shown no interest in the ‘liberation’ of Negroes”—that is, unless “it affected their own status or acceptance by the white community.” At every opportunity, “the black bourgeoisie has exploited the Negro masses as ruthlessly as have whites.” Frazier surely overstates things here, but his book is a window into a common phenomenon.
To better understand the broader dynamic, we can look to philosopher C. Thi Nguyen’s work on games. As he explains in his new book Games: Agency as Art (2020), confusing the real world with the carefully incentivized structure of game worlds can lead to a phenomenon he calls “value capture,” a process by which we begin with rich and subtle values, encounter simplified versions of them in social life, and then revise our values in the direction of simplicity. Nguyen is careful to point out that value capture doesn’t require anyone’s deliberate or calculated intervention, only an environment or incentive structure that encourages excess value clarity.
Nguyen stops short of noting that another risk of gamifying values is the unequal distribution of power across participants. But outside of the world of games, power differentials do shape outcomes. Value capture is managed by elites, on purpose or not. In other words, elites don’t simply participate in our community; their decisions help to structure it, much in the way that game designers structure the world of games. After all, elites face a simpler version of oppression than non-elites do: whereas working-class black folk are pressed by racial slights and degradation alongside economic problems that might require “socialized medicine” to solve, elites’s economic position makes them comfortable enough to focus on their own status and cultural power—often at the expense of non-elites.
‘The black bourgeoisie has exploited the Negro masses as ruthlessly as have whites.’
Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor gives a telling example in her book From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation (2016). The Congressional Black Caucus’s cosponsorship of Ronald Reagan’s 1986 Anti-Drug Abuse Act helped supercharge mass incarceration by establishing mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines and adding $1.7 billion toward the drug war while welfare programs were cut. This legislation solved the problem for the black elites of the CBC of how to seem involved with respect to the crack cocaine epidemic. But with the law’s passage, working-class African Americans went from dealing with one very complex problem to weathering two interlocking ones: the drug epidemic itself—unsolved by this draconian measure—and the surge of discriminatory law enforcement the legislation unleashed. In Crack (2019), a history of this period, historian David Farber quotes Democratic senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s striking appraisal:
If we blame crime on crack, our politicians are off the hook. Forgotten are failed schools, the malign welfare programs, the desolate neighborhoods, the wasted years. Only crack is to blame. One is tempted to think that if crack did not exist, someone somewhere would have received a federal grant to develop it.
Such elite capture threatens a whole group’s value structure, as everyone is confronted with this simplified version of the initial values and incentives to adopt it. This can tend, over time, to push understandings of the group values—both by those in the group and outside of it—toward the elites’ simpler direction.
There is another crucial insight that can be gained from applying the analogy of games to our discussion of elite capture. Design decisions structure a game’s built environment, baking the outlook of designers into the decisions players are faced with. In similar fashion, elite decision-making determines what options are available to non-elites. This is precisely the role that the press, social media influencers, military top brass, and titans of capital have in our lives. That is, they frame the conditions of work (and play) for the rest of us.
This helps to illuminate developments in black elite politics since Frazier wrote in the 1950s. In Frazier’s time, there were class differences among African Americans, but exceedingly few black Americans had notable political power or the level of wealth that could buy serious influence. But that has changed, as Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor points out:
The most significant transformation in all of black life over the last fifty years has been the emergence of a black elite, bolstered by the black political class, that has been responsible for administering cuts and managing meager budgets on the backs of black constituents.
This transformation was dramatically on display in Baltimore during the protests of the murder of Freddie Gray. Taylor continues: “when a black mayor, governing a largely black city, aids in the mobilization of a military unit led by a black woman to suppress a black rebellion, we are in a new period of the black freedom struggle.”
Elite capture is not unique to black politics; it is a general feature of politics, anywhere and everywhere. I could just as easily have focused on the world of elite universities. In Philosophy of African American Studies (2015), for example, Stephen Ferguson II makes a similar argument about the elite capture of black studies, which owes its existence to the radical student movements of the 1960s and ’70s but has since been “turned into a bureaucratic cog in the academic wheel controlled by administrators, with virtually no democratic input from students or the black working-class community.” I could also have kept the general perspective but reversed the role of race and class. In socialist organizations, for example, we might find that white people likewise tend to capture the group’s politics.
Identity politics originated with black women who were tired of having their political priorities sidelined or devalued in political organizations.
Or we could look away from race to a different set of identity characteristics altogether. In the Buzzfeed article “You Wanted Same-Sex Marriage? Now You Have Pete Buttigieg,” Shannon Keating laments the trajectory of mainstream queer politics away from the more radical elements dramatically on display in the Stonewall riot of 1969 and ACT UP. Or take how The Wing, a coworking space touting itself as a “women’s utopia,” exploits the women who work for it.
And, of course, elite abuse of identity politics isn’t limited to the United States. It is also a particularly salient problem in Global South politics, where national, ethnic, and caste identities are shaped by an unstable mix of indigenous and colonial history. Peace studies scholar Camilla Orjuela argues that, from Sri Lanka to Kenya, politics in multiethnic Global South societies easily fall into cycles of expecting elites to allocate resources along blatantly ethnic and regional lines. After all, the thinking going, the elites of every other ethnic group will do the same when they’re in power. Journalist John Githongo describes such ethnic elites as “creatures of patronage and . . . influence peddling” who treat the state as a ladder to their own goals rather than an institution of collective responsibility. These conceptual strands are vividly illustrated by the history of the U.S.-backed Haitian dictators “Papa Doc” and “Baby Doc” Duvalier. The Duvaliers cynically used tropes drawn from the Vodou religion, popular with the country’s poor, to intimidate the citizenry while enriching themselves. At the same time, they unleashed unspeakable violence upon actual Vodou practitioners, fearing the revolutionary potential of the religion, which was instrumental in ending slavery on the island.
The Combahee River Collective’s manifesto speaks from a deep understanding of elite capture, and represents a principled response to it. Their stance was informed by their experiences in movement politics. Historian Duchess Harris recounts that, in 1961, President John F. Kennedy convened a Commission on the Status of Women. It was split into four consultative bodies, one of which was the Consultation on Negro Women. This event inspired sequels, and the third National Conference of Commissions on the Status of Women birthed the meeting that founded the National Organization for Women (NOW), which founders hoped would serve as an “NAACP for women.” However, NOW failed to live up to this promise to treat race seriously—and black nationalist organizations failed equally at addressing gender. As a result, activists, including Shirley Chisholm and Alice Walker, formed the National Black Feminist Organization in 1973. In 1974 young activist Barbara Smith met Demita Frazier after she began working toward building an NBFO chapter in Boston. The pair agreed with many NBFO goals but also wanted an organization that would discuss “radical economics” more freely and would guarantee a voice for lesbians. From a meeting of four began the Combahee River Collective: a black feminist and socialist political collective. From 1977 to 1980, they held seven retreats with fellow activists, which were attended by like-minded Boston veteran activists, and even Audre Lorde.
The experiences that united these women—having their political priorities consistently sidelined or devalued in different political organizations—resulted in the stance they developed, which they christened “identity politics.” Smith explained their motivations by saying, “We, as black women, we actually had a right to create political priorities and agendas and actions and solutions based in our experiences”—a political agenda based in their experiences and their interests, not as white women’s tokens or as white men’s secretaries, and with the full complexity of their values in view, not a degraded and misshapen caricature of them.
Smith’s vision of identity politics wasn’t an alternative to a political coalition but an enabling condition of it.
A key problem with elite capture is that the subgroup of people with power over and access to the resources that get used to describe, define, and create political realities—in other words, elites—are substantively different from the total set of people affected by the decisions they make. As the part of the group closest to power and resources, they are typically the part whose interests overlap with the total group’s the least. In the absence of the right kind of checks or constraints, they will capture the group’s values, forcing people to coordinate on a narrower social project than the group would if power were distributed differently. When elites run the show, the “group’s” interests get whittled down to what they have in common with those at the top.
Considered as a response to this kind of problem, Smith’s vision of identity politics, she maintains, wasn’t an alternative to a political coalition but an enabling condition of it. The Combahee River Collective emphasized individual differences not as a litmus test for who could participate but rather to reveal limitations in other groups’ definitions of the scale and scope of problems and solutions alike.
Put this way, it perhaps makes more sense that Frazier took his criticism of the black bourgeoisie to apply equally to business, media, and popular culture. It should also clarify why elite capture is no special problem with identity politics. If elite capture boils down to the way power and resources tend to be distributed within groups, and not simply across groups, then it is a fully general problem of politics in a world that distributes power and resources unjustly and unequally. Elites get outsize control over the ideas in circulation about identities by, more or less, the same methods and for the same reasons that they get control over everything else.
In the preface to the 1962 edition of Black Bourgeoisie, Frazier points out a key demographic that he would have been forced to consider if he were to write the book again: the participants of the sit-ins and other social movements against racial segregation. When asked by a reviewer to envision an alternative black elite that didn’t merit the scathing criticism he gave to the present one, these activists served as his answer.
This is a start, but not enough. As the Combahee River Collective acknowledged, simply participating in activism is no guarantee that we will develop the right kind of political culture; its founding members were veterans of important radical political movements that nevertheless made crucial oversights along the way. Elites have to get involved—actually involved—but that involvement needs to resist elite capture of values and the gamification of political life.
We have our work cut out for us, but fortunately we aren’t starting from scratch: there’s a rich history to draw from. In the 1960s, feminists held regular group meetings, in houses and apartments, to discuss gender injustice in ways that would have been taboo in mixed company. A set of such “consciousness raising” guidelines by Barbara Smith and fellow activists Tia Cross, Freada Klein, and Beverly Smith provides an example of identity politics work as the Combahee River Collective envisioned it. The exercise starts by asking participants to examine their own shortcomings (“When did you first notice yourself treating people of color in a different way?”), but ends by asking how they can use an element of shared oppression as a bridge to unite people across difference (“In what ways can shared lesbian oppression be used to build connections between white women and women of color?”). Because, in the end, we’re in it together—and, from the point of view of identity politics, that is the whole point.