“Centering the marginalized” is common parlance among both Christian and secular social justice advocates. This is especially true for Christians, as it was Jesus who said, “the last will be first, and the first will be last” (Matthew 20:16). So when it comes to seeking justice, it makes sense that we’d try to prioritize the experiences and perspectives of those our society discriminates against because of religion, race, gender, sexual orientation, or other marginalized identities. But two examples from this past year have made me doubt the viability of an identity-based approach for pursuing social justice.
First, there was the saga with Wipf and Stock Publishers pulling Jennifer M. Buck’s Bad and Boujee: Toward a Trap Feminist Theology, after people criticized the book as an example of a white person appropriating Black theology and culture. In my estimation, Wipf and Stock made the right decision. But, like theologian Chanequa Walker-Barnes, the aftermath of the situation left me feeling “messy.” Feeling this way caused me to ask the following question: Should people raced as white always be banned from taking inspiration from and contributing to Black studies?
The second example: Rev. Megan Rohrer, who made history in 2021 as the first openly transgender bishop of any mainline denomination in the U.S., resigned from their position in June of this year. Their resignation followed accusations of racism — specifically due to Rohrer’s dismissal of Afro-Caribbean minister, Rev. Nelson Rabell-Gonzáles, who had himself been accused of “harassment and bullying.” My brain began to boil with a new question: Considering that Rohrer and Rabell-Gonzáles both come from marginalized backgrounds, how are we to decide which experience to “center” in our pursuit of justice?
Here enters activist, philosopher, public intellectual, musician, and boxer, Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò. Táíwò’s latest research, activism, and writing revolve around the very questions I’d been asking myself about the problem with this kind of identity politics. I sat down with Táíwò to discuss these questions, plus Black radicalism, the Christian Left and better ways to transform the systems that marginalize people to begin with.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Josiah R. Daniels, Sojourners: Tell me a little bit about yourself. What made you want to become a philosopher?
Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò: I grew up in a household of immigrants. My sister and I were born in the U.S. and my brother and parents were born in Nigeria. They came to the U.S. shortly after my brother was born. And so there was this interesting kind of curiosity and aimlessness and confusion that I always had as a kid. My parents and the Nigerian American community have one set of expectations, and the world around me has another set of expectations. So, I just had questions about how things worked, and I was just kind of always asking the kinds of questions that I’m still asking now.
While I was in college, I took philosophy classes and just got hooked.
What other projects outside of philosophy and activism are you involved in specifically?
Music was the thing I took most seriously. And then I ended up getting into grad school and [then taking the job as associate professor of philosophy at] Georgetown University, and I gradually started to become an academic. But I still play music. It’s a fun thing that kind of uses the same parts of my brain as philosophy but in a different way. I’ve gotten really into boxing these days, which is fun. Martial arts in general has been something I’ve done since I was a teenager.
Were you raised in a religious home?
Yes, and we always went to multiple churches. Some weeks we would go to the church in our neighborhoods, predominantly white, and some weeks we’d go to a Nigerian church farther away. One of the biggest aspects of my social life outside of school was Nigerian Bible study which we would go to at different parts of the week.
And that was kind of the early organization that became a larger Nigerian American organization in the greater Cincinnati area, which is where I grew up before we moved to Indiana.
Earlier this year, you published your second book, Elite Capture: How the Powerful Took Over Identity Politics (And Everything Else). How would you explain identity politics and elite capture to someone who’s unfamiliar with those phrases?
The way that I think about identity politics is more or less the way that the Combahee River Collective explained it: Your politics starts from the ground, where you are in particular, and that affects your priorities and your political agenda. And then you go from there to figuring out what the rest of the world is like — and what you’d like to do about the rest of the world. So, you might find that your gender is particularly important to you, or you might find that your race is particularly important to you, etc.
And those particularities are the things that get you started thinking about politics. But then the rest of the story is, of course, where you go from that starting point.
Elite capture is just a process that tends to play out over time in a system where inequality begets inequality. If you start out with inequality of one kind — perhaps in resources or in a hierarchy — that inequality tends to recruit some friends along the way.
So wealth inequality turns into inequality in terms of the distribution of ideas; the ideas that circulate tend to be the ones that wealthy people have, not because there’s some inherent conceptual connection between wealth and ideas, but because wealthy people tend to do things that result in their ideas getting more circulation.
In the absence of really concerted efforts or really strong organization from the people that aren’t elite, the people who are elites are going to be able to skew things in their direction. Once we’ve noticed that, what does that imply about how we should do politics?
Both secular and Christian activist circles tend to emphasize “deference politics,” which is a call to “center the marginalized.” You explain that motivation as admirable, but note that in practice, the approach often stymies transforming the systems that marginalize people in the first place. Why is that?
I think what is especially prevalent in Christian spaces is a kind of desire to be “good” and view the world in a way that understands “being good” as the ultimate goal of what we do from day to day. How do we get right with Jesus? How do we live a life of righteousness?
I grew up in the church. I find that to be a very meaningful perspective and helpful in some ways, but it’s a difficult orientation to take to the political project of changing social structures because social structures aren’t about you. Political structures are not about whether you’re “good” or “bad.”
I think, particularly on the Christian Left — although there are definitely echoes of this on the secular Left — there’s just a sense in which the conversations are starting in the wrong place. If we were asking how to actually change our ecological conditions, and I mean our literal ecological conditions — the climate, the water, the soil — and our political ecological conditions, none of us would answer that question by saying, “Well, I’m gonna be nicer to my neighbor.”
That’s a good thing to do, but none of us would pretend like that’s the only thing that is going to be decisive in figuring out whether Jeff Bezos gets to reorganize our economy. In Elite Capture, I wasn’t trying to offer anything in the way of decisive answers about how we’re going to displace the Chevrons and Exxons of the world. But I did want to point out that the question in front of us is not about who’s being centered, who’s a good person, or who’s complicit.
At the same time, you write about the need for informal structures that help people create patterns of concern and attention that speak to our everyday, mundane interactions. Why are mundane habits important?
It is the actual material reality of our existence that forces us as material creatures — people that live in nature and have material needs for food, water, and shelter — to organize our activity in ways that respond to those needs.
So when I say the things that we do to build our interactions with each other and to build the possibilities for sustaining ourselves, whether that be biologically, culturally, or spiritually, that those mundane things are politically important, I feel like I'm saying something that should be unobjectionable and uncontroversial. I feel like I’m just saying let’s be materialists! For those who might not know, materialism is the kind of philosophy that Marxism is an example of. Air, water, soil, our social and political institutions — there is a kind of dynamic interplay between all of these things that determine history.
When we’re talking about how we make sure people have secure access to food, water, and housing, we’re talking about the most mundane aspects of doing anything politically. This is just how we should understand politics. And we should find ways of providing people with access to those things that line up with our values.
Historian Robin D.G. Kelley has said that to understand the Black radical tradition is “to understand the religious, the cultural and the ritual practices of people who are oppressed.” What does it look like to parse this out?
Reading good histories that don’t neglect those aspects of things. Whether or not we have the same cultural or spiritual beliefs as other people, or whether we even have religious beliefs at all, it’s important to understand that, historically, those are ways that people have organized themselves.
We don’t need religion to organize, but religion is one way that it’s been done. And to understand the history of the Black radical tradition is, in part, to understand these dimensions of how Black people have organized their lives in the face of unrelenting and overwhelming violence from an exploitative system of racial capitalism. We should understand that we might learn a lot from that history. That doesn’t mean we should take everything from that history — we certainly shouldn’t. But there is a lot to learn there, and there are a lot of wheels we need to reinvent.
The Black radical tradition is just one example of an intellectual, practical, religious, and historical tradition that has actually done this. It has actually said, “What would it look like if we genuinely wanted to do a critique of everything existing?”
One of my favorite scenes from the Black Power movement happens in May of 1969 when civil rights activist James Forman bursts into Riverside Church and demands $500 million in reparations. What is your own understanding of reparations?
I'm not sure that my answer would be much different than Forman’s. One of the things that I talk about in Reconsidering Reparations is unconditional cash transfers. I think my thing is that I see that as the beginning of the story rather than the end.
The way I would evaluate any version of reparations, cash transfer or otherwise, as a success or failure would be by asking, “What comes out the other side? What is the outcome? What gets built or accomplished in the long term?” And, again, I think the Black radical tradition has provided ways of thinking about — and examples of — reparations as building a new society.
This isn’t just some hypothetical thing that I’m saying about reparations based on philosophies. People escaped slavery and built new societies of free people. And that was a beginning rather than the end.
When we talk about the distribution of power and resources, why do you think it’s better to talk about “cumulative advantage” rather than “privilege”?
I think it’s better to talk about cumulative advantage because it changes the subject from moral evaluation of people to evaluation of the behavior of systems. Bad things happen in the world partially due to how people act, but also importantly, independent of how individual people act.
Why is that? What can we do about that? And I think part of the reason that we don’t focus our questions in this way has to do with the kind of spiritual character-focused moralistic way of thinking through politics.
If the central political question is, “Am I a good person?” then we get all these “privilege” and “complicity” conversations. But if the central question is, “What are we going to do about these systems?” then it’s less obvious what “complicity” and “privilege” have to do with answering the question.
But I also think it’s partially because of the kind of relative impotence on the Left now. If we were genuinely convinced that we could actually change whether people have housing or not, we might be less concerned with identifiers and more concerned with whether or not housing gets built and who gets to live there.