Days into the national insurrection that boiled over after the police lynching of George Floyd, in May, 2020, Muriel Bowser, a Black woman and the mayor of Washington, D.C., ordered that the words “Black Lives Matter” be painted in mustard yellow along Sixteenth Street, near the White House. The symbolism radiated from multiple directions. Almost a week earlier, law-enforcement agents had used tear gas to clear Lafayette Park, which intersects the street, of protesters. The mural was a thumb in the eye of Trump, who certainly took it as such. He thundered, in response, that Bowser was “incompetent” and “constantly coming back to us for ‘handouts.’ ”
In the fall of 2021, Bowser announced that the segment of Sixteenth Street displaying the mural—renamed as Black Lives Matter Plaza—had been turned into a permanent monument. She explained, “The Black Lives Matter mural is a representation of an expression of our saying no, but also identifying and claiming a part of our city that had been taken over by federal forces.” Speaking of its wider significance, she said, “There are people who are craving to be heard and to be seen, and to have their humanity recognized, and we had the opportunity to send that message loud and clear on a very important street in our city.”
Last spring, nearly two years after her confrontation with Trump, Bowser proposed a new spending budget for Washington, D.C., that spoke as loudly as the paint used to decorate B.L.M. Plaza. In a press conference celebrating a surplus created in part by the federal government’s pandemic stimulus, Bowser announced, “We’ve been able to invest in something we’ve been wanting to invest in a long time—the sports complex. We’ve been able to invest in a new jail.” Bowser was promising to spend more than two hundred and fifty million dollars to eventually replace part of the existing jail. She was also proposing thirty million dollars to hire and retain new police officers, with the goal of bringing the force to a total of four thousand members; another nearly ten million dollars would add one hundred and seventy new speed cameras across the municipality.
Despite Bowser’s very public embrace of the slogan “Black Lives Matter,” even enshrining its existence in the nation’s capital, the D.C. Mayor was now advancing a political agenda that stood in stark contrast to the movement’s demand to defund the police. Instead, Bowser had denuded the most radical imaginings of the movement into the decidedly vague “craving to be heard,” while also wielding it as a shield to protect her from activists’ accusations that her policies would harm Black communities. Bowser was able to benefit from the assumption that, as a Black woman who had angered and been insulted by Trump after painting “Black Lives Matter” on a public street, she could be trusted to do what was in the best interest of the Black community.
The most profound changes in Black life in the past several decades have been along the lines of class and status, creating political and social chasms between élites and ordinary Black people. After the struggles of the nineteen-sixties and seventies, it was no longer politically tenable in the U.S. to make decisions about minorities without their participation. This was especially true in cities that had experienced riots and rebellions. But exclusion gave way to shallow representation of African Americans in politics and the private sector as evidence of color blindness and progress. The rooms where decisions were being made were no longer entirely white and male; they were now punctuated with token representations of race and gender.
Not only could the few stand in to represent the many but their existence could also serve as evidence that the system could work for those who had formerly been excluded. And these new representatives could also use the language of identity politics, because many of them continued to experience racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination. But their aspirations were different from those who first used these left-wing political frameworks. The new representatives were not interested in transforming the system so much as they were trying to navigate it.
These tensions are strained when Black élites or political operatives claim to speak on behalf of the Black public or Black social movements while also engaging in political actions that either are in opposition to the movement or reinforce the status quo. It is a process described by the writer and philosopher Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò as “elite capture.” The concept, derived from the politics of global development, describes scenarios in which local élites in developing countries would seize resources intended for the much larger public. Táíwò explains that the term is used “to describe the way socially advantaged people tend to gain control over benefits meant for everyone” (if only rhetorically).
Táíwò, a professor of philosophy at Georgetown, published his first book earlier this year. Titled “Reconsidering Reparations,” it argues that, if colonialism and slavery were responsible for the maldistribution of wealth and resources that has made Black and brown people particularly vulnerable to today’s climate crisis, then the repair should be just as expansive or capable of remaking the world. In 2020, Táíwò wrote several essays critiquing the variety of ways that the concept of “identity politics” has been transformed from a radical invention of the Black feminist left of the sixties and seventies into a placid appeal to racial and gender representation. The themes of these essays have now been spun into a tight, short volume published by Haymarket Books, titled “Elite Capture: How the Powerful Took Over Identity Politics (and Everything Else).”
Táíwò begins his examination of identity politics with the Combahee River Collective, a group of Black lesbian socialists that formed in the late nineteen-seventies. Among them were Demita Frazier and the twin sisters Barbara and Beverly Smith, who wrote the Combahee River Statement, in which they coined the term “identity politics.” The women were veterans of the antiwar and feminist movements but also connected to the civil-rights movement and Black-liberation struggles of the era. In their wide range of experiences, the issues of importance to them—namely organizing against forced sterilizations and intimate-partner violence against women—were rarely taken seriously by others, including Black men and white women.
In the Combahee River Statement, the authors explained that Black women had to map out their own political agenda: “We realize that the only people who care enough about us to work consistently for our liberation are us.” They continued, “This focusing upon our own oppression is embodied in the concept of identity politics. We believe that the most profound and potentially most radical politics come directly out of our own identity, as opposed to working to end somebody else’s oppression. . . . We reject pedestals, queenhood, and walking ten paces behind. To be recognized as human, levelly human, is enough.”
In this way, standpoint epistemology, or the ability to acquire knowledge because of your lived experience or social standing, is closely linked to the Combahee’s vision of identity politics. It was a powerful rejection of the status quo in the social sciences, which for many years had relied upon powerful outsiders, typically white men, to extoll their own wisdom about the lives of the marginalized, excluded, and oppressed. The powerful social movements of the era swept aside the common sense of white-male authority, transforming the marginalized from examined objects into subjects capable of controlling their own destiny.