Under the Biden Administration, we are going to be hearing a lot about “intersectionality” as an ineluctable dimension of social justice and the American Dream.
Intersectionality is a refinement of identity politics. It is not as complex as it might sound. For instance, being black or female or gay in America is regarded as a distinct identity that implies disadvantage or at least challenges on the path to equality. If someone ticks two or more of those boxes they have an intersectional identity. This means that their challenges and disadvantages are greatly compounded.
So, intersectionality identifies the overlapping prejudices that people face because of their ethnicity, race, sex, sexuality, disability, etc. In the victim stakes the person with the thickest overlap wins. The more prejudice, the more moral prestige, the greater the claim to affirmative support.
This is going to be important over the next four years, so let’s see how it’s working out.
American Youth Poet Laureate, Amanda Gorman, who read her poem, The Hill we Climb, at the inauguration of President Biden is a good example of the moral prestige of intersectionality. Amanda spoke of herself as “the skinny black girl, descended from slaves, raised by a single mother” who is now free to dream of becoming President. In those few well-chosen words, she bedded herself securely within the pie chart of intersectional disadvantage.
But the truth is rather more complex.
Amanda along with her twin sister was indeed raised by a single mother, Joan Wicks, a middle school teacher of English. However, Amanda’s back story suggests privilege too.. She attended a private school in Santa Monica called New Roads. The fees there are in the region of US$40,000 a year. New Roads is very politically correct. Its mission statement proclaims that “solidarity and allyship are in our DNA”.
Amanda went from New Roads to another bastion of American privilege, Harvard University, from which she graduated with a BA last year.
You would think that a thick layer of education privilege would thin out the layers of prejudice below it. Not so. New Roads and Harvard add to Ms Gorman’s social privilege but she retains the moral privilege of being intersectional. It’s a bit odd.
Kamala Harris is another black woman with a complex background.
She is a child of immigrants. But her parents came to America as promising students who rose rapidly through the ranks of academia to the position of tenured Stanford professor, in her father’s case, and lead researcher in the field of breast cancer, in her mother’s. America allowed them to prosper.
One can talk about glass ceilings but could Kamala Harris really have faced greater challenges than say, the son of a travelling salesman whose father died in a car accident three months before his birth and whose mother later re-married a man he described as an “abusive gambler and alcoholic”? That of course was Bill Clinton, a straightforward, clever, heterosexual, white, male. Despite these disadvantages, he could never be an intersectional victim. Why? Because the colour of his skin is the silver spoon he was born with, whether he recognises it or not. It is perceived to overcome or dwarf somehow all the other challenges of his early life.
The intersectionality virus sends politicians desperately digging in their identity for a category which makes them a victim.
President Joe Biden, as another example, can lighten the load of his straight, white male baggage by talking up his Irish ancestry. While his maternal grandfather is Irish, his paternal grandfather’s lineage, along with his surname, traces to Sussex in deepest England. His maternal grandmother is mostly French and he carries her surname as his middle name. Identifying with an oppressed race, however, is a good image and if the oppressed race concerned is Irish, well, sure that never did any American politician any harm.
Biden was not long in the Oval Office before he had mapped out the full extent of his commitment to identity politics and intersectionality in all its divisiveness. There is no area of his policy platform that it does not touch.
He even announced that help packages for businesses struggling as a result of the pandemic would be based on sex and ethnicity. Friendly media have since tried to rescue him from the fallout of his controversial remarks with helpful fact checks. But as President-elect he announced on January 10: “our priority will be Black, Asian, Latino and Native American owned businesses and women owned businesses”.
Statements like this sum up the flawed thinking underlying intersectionality and identity politics. Disadvantage is not seen as an individual condition. It is a matter of the colour of your skin, gender or sexual orientation. But there cannot be a surer way to “other” minorities than to stamp them with victimhood — even when members of the black community reject it as leading black commentators like Thomas Sowell, Larry Elder and Candace Owens do. These voices within the minority don’t count because they undermine the noblesse oblige of the elite who have placed themselves at the tip of a power pyramid with an ever-widening base of minority groups. Their position there depends on identifying such groups, stoking their grievances and shaming and silencing their named oppressors.
Because their political raison d’etre depends on attacking the dominant culture as the oppressor, this elite can never be the unifying force that Biden pledged his government would be in his inaugural address. The composition of his cabinet crosses a wide spectrum of race, religion and gender identity, to be sure, but there is not, for example, a single evangelical Christian in the mix. This is not necessarily his fault of course. He would be hard pressed to find one willing to serve — but it does show the limits and limitations of inclusion.
The current US Supreme Court is ethnically diverse, too, but it leans decisively towards Christian conservatism, counting its sole black member, Clarence Thomas, among the conservatives — just another instance of how intersectionality works in real life.
This is not Biden’s idea of diversity because his does not extend to opinions and ideas.
Biden was right when he said in his inaugural address, quoting the words of St Augustine –who, incidentally, had little faith in the ability of politics alone to create a just society — that a multitude becomes a people when their identity is “defined by the common objects of their love”.
In his list of those objects, Biden gave special emphasis to truth.
But truth cannot be reduced to a slogan or appropriated by one or other political platform. Many of those who voted against Biden did so because for them it is untruthful to describe abortion as “healthcare for women — which is exactly what Biden did in the first few days in power when he set about reversing the restrictions Trump had placed around abortion during his presidency.
They would also hold it is untruthful to describe protests that cost US$1.4 billion of damage to property and the loss of 28 lives as “peaceful”. Or untruthful to say he supports women’s rights when he backs laws that allow biological men to compete against them in sport, to share their private spaces and potentially their prisons and refuge centres. Untruthful, too, to say that he defends minority rights when he continues to trade with repressive regimes around the world and to turn a blind eye to the oppression of the very minorities he has placed at the centre of your domestic politics.
The Biden era, like the Obama era and the might-have-been Hillary Clinton era, is doubling down on identity politics. This is deeply divisive and creates pushback that will drive voters into the arms of populists and nationalists.
Biden still has time to change course but, with the agressively identitarian Kamala Harris at his elbow and rights bodies huddling parasitically around the seat of power, that won’t be easy.