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Identity politics is everywhere—and so are its political critics, from white nationalists and their right-wing apologists to leftists who want to talk about class but not race, gender, or other social identities and differences. When this is the case, what, if anything, is worth salvaging from identity politics?

In his book, Elite Capture: How the Powerful Took Over Identity Politics (And Everything Else), Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò, an associate professor of philosophy at Georgetown University, discusses identity politics and how far the term has strayed from its radical political origins in the collective manifesto of Black, queer feminist socialists.

Táíwò notes that critics of “identity politics,” “wokeness,” and “cancel culture” typically ignore what all three have in common with everything else in our lives: “the increasing domination of elite interests and control over aspects of our social system” (21). Combatting this elite capture, he argues, requires a constructive politics that draws on identity politics’ radical foundation: a practice of solidarity that links people of different identities and their struggles, building power to win a better world for all.

I spoke with Táíwò last fall about his book, Elite Capture, and its relevance to contemporary politics and the civil sector. Our interview has been condensed and edited for length and clarity.

Kitana Ananda: Your book, Elite Capture, dives into the radical origins of identity politics before making a broader point about its elite capture in political representation: that the interests of those most advantaged in a group often stand in for the whole group. You argue that elite capture divests our political identities from its material realities. What do you mean by this?

Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò: Co-optation is a real political phenomenon. In the book, I discuss concerted efforts by advantaged people to evacuate identity politics of its potential radicalism. I gravitate towards “elite capture” as a way of framing this problem—rather than “co-optation”—to explain the dynamics underlying the dilution of radical politics in systemic ways that appeal to the variation of power within and across groups.

One such discussion comes from [the Black sociologist] E. Franklin Frazier’s book, Black Bourgeoisie. Frazier is scathing about Black newspapers celebrating the ascension of a Black doctor to the American Medical Association. In Frazier’s view, the limits of such professional inclusion exemplifies a larger problem: how structural inequality impacts Black health. Black working-class people share an interest in the reputational damage Black people suffer because of racism, but their interests diverge in terms of, say, the actual healthcare system’s structure. If you’re a well-off Black doctor, or a Black media owner who reports on Black doctors, you can be confident that you’re going to get some healthcare regardless of what happens to socialized medicine. The same was not true for Black workers in Frazier’s time.

That’s an example of elite capture: the interests at the top [of a class hierarchy] among the most advantaged within any marginalized group will be different from those at the bottom. This is what structural inequality means at the level of access to distributing knowledge, political perspectives, and ideologies. By looking at the competitive advantage that the elites of marginalized groups have over subordinated members of those groups, we can start to understand elite capture.

That said, what’s wrong with identity politics is what’s wrong with our politics writ large: It’s the predictable result of hierarchical social structures functioning over time.

KA: How does elite capture function in industries that aren’t organized directly around profit—specifically, the civil sector of nonprofit organizations, philanthropies, social services, etc.?

To what extent is it possible to shift the power to name and frame problems from funders to the people that these organizations ostensibly exist to serve?

OT: Part of the reason for using the term “elite”—rather than terms in leftist political critique like “the bourgeoisie”—is to capture what you’re pointing at. There are other materially influential sectors of public and private life—the military, the media, the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors—that aren’t organized around profit in the same way that economic production under capitalism is, but that are also top-heavy in politically meaningful ways.

In the philanthropic sector, the production and distribution of information is especially significant. These major organs of global research disseminate information about who is suffering, what’s being suffered, what it’s going to take to alleviate that suffering—or what pretends to—that organizations may then apply. That power should be reckoned with as such: To what extent is it possible to shift the power to name and frame problems from funders to the people that these organizations ostensibly exist to serve? That question entails others about governance and funding—all of which shapes how philanthropists exert some control over approaches to our social problems.

KA: Yes, who has the power to define social problems is critical—as are debates about the categories used to understand them. Over the last half century, leftist movements were mired in debates that oppose class interests and demands with that of social identities like race and gender. Your analysis of elite capture moves beyond that false opposition by recognizing and building on the political work of activists who understood that race and class are fundamentally intertwined in a world order—what you’ve called “global racial empire”—formed through capitalism’s emergence within conquest, colonialism, and genocide.

It’s key to describe these tensions as a sort of intra-Left culture war around our guiding norms and what we are trying to achieve.

How has your critique of elite capture been received on the broad spectrum of the Left?

OT: It’s been very positive overall. People are curious about this way of framing problems that show up in ground game organizing. It’s key to describe these tensions as a sort of intra-Left culture war around our guiding norms and what we are trying to achieve. Is it just wealth redistribution, or is it something broader than that? What kinds of demands are the right ones to make in service of that? Should we be focusing entirely on say, universal demands like Medicare for All? Or is there a role for specific demands around abortion or antiracism and so on? These debates about specific ideas, proposals, and demands are also about how we understand ourselves. Increasingly, there’s a growing consensus on the Left about connecting struggles for control over the means of economic production with dismantling the patriarchy and combating racism and other concerns that we might think of as liberal identity politics.

KA: Let’s talk about how elite capture relates to a popular approach to social justice movements today. You argue that deferring to those who are “most impacted” by injustice as “a default political orientation can work counter to marginalized groups’ interests” in ways that further their marginalization. What is “deference politics”? And how is it related to the problem of elite capture?

OT: Part of my argument is that some elite capture is structurally built into having inequality of power. If a hierarchical structure has some amount of elite capture, how much will it be? Most societies are unequal to some degree, but the 1 percent having 10 percent of the land and wealth is a very different political situation from the 1 percent having 90 percent of the land and wealth. The question is, are we engaging in a politics that constrains elite capture or a politics that supercharges it, making it even worse?

This question is central to the book’s critique of what I call “deference politics.” A basic insight of standpoint epistemology is that where people are located [in a social system] forms what they know and have access to knowing. One political response to this is deference. We could look around the rooms of the organizations we’re in, find whoever has the “right” kind of marginalized status, and defer to them based on their standpoint. There are good intentions and a basic insight behind this appreciation for the difference that social position makes. But this isn’t the most helpful use of this knowledge. Who we’re positioned to engage is not random—it’s produced by the same social world. The phenomenon of elite capture means that our access to marginalized perspectives is filtered. As a result, we’re building inequality into our politics through how we engage with each other in the room [by deferring to those who have already made it into that room].

KA: As you discuss in a prior essay and your book, the problem isn’t about being “bad roommates” or “good” ones—it’s that we’re stuck in the room of the house that inequality built. After making this point, you outline how you got into the room. Are you modeling a practice of how we should engage with each other? And how does this relate to the task of “building a new house”?

OT: I’m trying to model what I hope will be a healthier way to relate to important facts about privilege and social advantage, and how they fit into the pursuit of justice. I’m also trying to meet the full force of deference politics by saying, “This is a genuine problem. Let me show you that I am not only not against telling and seriously grappling with the privilege I have. Let me explain why that’s the reason why I disagree with this political conclusion [of deference].” Because I am astronomically privileged in a global sense within Black politics [as a newly tenured Nigerian American professor with a PhD]. That means I am astronomically more likely to, say, be invited to interview with Nonprofit Quarterly.

We need to take seriously the advantages that we all have—and that means rejecting a flat-footed politics of deference to perspectives we happen to have access to, because we don’t have access to most politically relevant perspectives. This is a separate but linked criticism that comes up later when I talk about Flint: even if we did have access to those perspectives, a focus on such access doesn’t answer marginalized political perspectives. It distracts from a serious grappling with these problems, our power, and how we get to solutions from our level of power. 

KA: This concern with how we get to solutions from our level of power—what you call a constructive politics—has implications for the nonprofit sector, which focused more recently on bringing new people and their voices into the room. What is a “constructive politics” and what role can nonprofits have in it to remake our global social system?

OT: Deference politics is an orientation that identifies marginalized people whose political judgment we will follow with the hopes of moving forward. In contrast, a constructive politics aims to change our political environment—to build institutions and norms and political cultures that make it possible to win justice.

A concrete example of constructive politics is forming a union. On its own, forming a union doesn’t end capitalism or even change the working conditions of a particular workplace immediately—but it moves us out of the zone of individual complaints to management, and toward an organization where those complaints come in the form of demands by people who can potentially leverage the strategy of withdrawing their labor as a strike.

I am on board with Leftist criticisms of the nonprofit-industrial complex. Nonprofit work has an ideological mystique that isn’t there in for-profit work. When you sign up for your shift at Target, you can be clear eyed that you’ve been hired to do this job because it’s good for Target’s bottom line. It’s less clear when you clock in for Save the Children that you’re engaged in that kind of transaction.

That said, an overcorrection happens when people think that such criticisms mean that there’s no route to doing something helpful. This is false. We wouldn’t tell a Trader Joe’s or Amazon worker that they can’t join a broader movement for justice because they work for those companies. Chris Smalls and Derrick Palmer [of the Amazon Labor Union] are out there proving that you can. It’s unionizing in that case, but there are many creative ways to pursue justice that don’t depend on whether the entire complex is “good” or “bad.” Nonprofit workers self-flagellating about whether they’re participating in saviorism is not the way to contribute to movements for justice. Do anything besides that.

KA: Absolutely. Thank you for also speaking to your point about what is unproductive about moralistic critiques of inequality that emerge from deference politics. Could you discuss their opposite—what you call “the moral and emotional demands” of a constructive politics—and why they are important?

OT: I wanted to make clear in the book that not all reasons for deference are calculating about identity and standpoint. A lot of people in organizing cultures would tell you yes, women and anybody with a uterus knows more about the stakes of reproductive justice than anyone without one; yes, Black people know more about policing and what’s at stake than people who aren’t racially targeted. But that isn’t everything there is to say about deference as a moral approach or political strategy.

A communal response is crucial to successfully responding to trauma—and this is what a constructive politics demands.

Taking trauma seriously also informs the deference approach. This is generally a positive political development, and we should continue to think about how to do right by trauma. But a deference politics that puts traumatized people on a pedestal and says, “It’s your responsibility to come up with the right political response to the thing that traumatized you” is not the way. It isolates people from the collective back and forth that produces a more robust politics. A communal response is crucial to successfully responding to trauma—and this is what a constructive politics demands.

KA: The last two chapters of the book focus on specific examples of constructive politics, from organizing in response to the Flint water crisis to anti-colonial struggles for liberation in Lusophone Africa. What can the nonprofit sector learn from these practices?

OT: I’m really encouraged by the action and organizing of Flint residents. They figured out how to prove that the Department of Environmental Quality was lying about the water, they met with researchers and did a citizen science campaign to prove that, and they organized legal defense to extract damages. While this wasn’t a total victory on every front—Michigan’s response continues to be inadequate—it is a move forward from where they started. And Flint residents have their own self-defense to credit for that.

Another example of constructive politics is being done by unions across the country in what’s called Bargaining for the Common Good. The basic idea is that unions can bargain for better working conditions, wages and benefits and wield their collective power to benefit wider communities. Groups like the Chicago Teachers Union do this through democratic rank and file engagement. They interface with their own members and community groups outside the union, working together to determine what to fight for and get those demands fulfilled. The Chicago Teachers Union, UCLA, and SEIU locals have all used this strategy to win immigration legal defense funds, to win support for homeless children, to win support for better climate policies through “the first climate strike.” Their struggles could be thought of as identitarian concerns—racial justice for kids in Chicago, immigration justice in LA, for example. But as a coalition of organized workers and community groups creating joint demands, they build the kind of room for interactions that not only come to the right conclusions about racial, gender, or climate justice—they begin to move the gears of society in that direction.

Finally, I think political education has a central role in social change—which is why so many of the people that I talk about in the book are teachers, whatever else they are. They might be militants, but they were also teachers.

Much of the maintenance of political power is premised on making the people who have less power think that they have none. Which seems like a subtle difference, but it’s importantly different.

KA: Right. The prevailing idea that maintains dominant power is that we live in a global system that is unchanging and unchangeable, and it structures our every interaction so there’s no possibility for any kind of resistance.

OT: Exactly. So many of these conversations—for example, what I said earlier about moralistic criticisms of the nonprofit-industrial complex—can obscure what’s available to us. I’m trying to acknowledge the severe violence and deprivation that upholds this order while saying we can organize to effectively resist it. And people against, frankly, longer odds than ours have done so—sometimes even successfully. The African Party for the Independence of Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde (PAIGC) provide an actual example of this.

It’s the spirit of different people seeing themselves as linked—not just conceptually, but linking themselves in material practices of sharing resources, information, and theories—that leads to their success.

By telling the story of these anti-colonial revolts, I also wanted to get people to consider: what can we meaningfully accomplish through such internationalism? It was the liberation struggles of Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde that toppled fascism in Portugal. The system convinces us that we have less power than we do by putting us in separate rooms, telling us that we are more remote from each other than we actually are. But with a fraction of today’s information technology, activists were coordinating across oceans, across the African continent, to topple the Portuguese fascist regime in Angola, Mozambique, Cape Verde, Guinea-Bissau, Sao Tomé, and Principe. And at the same time, others were resisting the British and French empires. It’s the spirit of different people seeing themselves as linked—not just conceptually, but linking themselves in material practices of sharing resources, information, and theories—that leads to their success. Linking fights that seem as distant as Vietnam and Cape Verde are from each other is what makes these fights winnable in Vietnam and Cape Verde.

KA: At a time of so many converging crises—from the pandemic to ongoing systemic racism and colonialism to the climate crisis—I really appreciate how your book and our discussion of it ends on this actively hopeful note about what we can do to build the world we want. Thank you.

OT: Yes, thanks for doing this. I hope some good conversations come of it.