by Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò
Georgetown philosophy professor Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò’s 2020 academic essay “Being-in-the-Room Privilege: Elite Capture and Epistemic Deference” got much more social media traction than the usual journal treatise.
As the post-Bernie left has struggled to create cross-racial, cross-class solidarity, critiques of the limited corporate nature of identity politics have also arisen. And his essay about the limitations of standpoint epistemology — taken as something of a left critique of the lack of attention to class in identity politics more broadly — sparked the kind of buzz that has now led to his compact new book, Elite Capture: How the Powerful Took Over Identity Politics (And Everything Else).
While elite capture usually refers to the corrupt way elites use public funds meant as public resources for themselves, he extends it as a metaphor to argue against the limitations of a politics that focuses on getting marginalized people to enter powerful rooms. The book traverses some of the history (and co-optation) of the very term “identity politics” from the Combahee River Collective and features compelling mini-histories of cross-ethnic and cross-racial solidarity in independence movements.
Throughout the five chapters, Táíwò provides critiques of liberal democracy and institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund and considers thinkers ranging from Frantz Fanon to Paulo Freire. The argument that transforming the world that creates the powerful rooms and being accountable to those not in the room are more important ethical imperatives than neoliberal multiculturalism is important. But other fields like cultural studies have long made these kinds of critiques about the limits of representationalism.
And some of the specificity and power of the original essay is lost in the translation and expansion; the historical jumps — from examples of decolonial struggles to the material realities of big tech — can be jarring, and makes it hard to really see what the historical examples can teach us in the current context. Still, his amplification of debates about power and politics within a broader context of class and colonial struggle is an important public intervention and a rebuke to the parochialism of corporate media debates about identity. —Alessa Dominguez
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