In Defense of Intersectionality

Look at Class, Abundance

When law professor Kimberle Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality” in 1989, she was expanding on the new trend in law schools of Critical Race Theory. Her idea was that race and racism were not sufficient to explain the many facets of inequality in American society. She didn’t discount race but combined it with gender as a special angle on racial inequities. Black women experienced discrimination and disempowerment differently than Black men. She further developed this line of thinking to embody other possible dimensions, like class, language, and geography. The fabric of oppression was a rich tapestry of lived experience. There was not a single vector of oppression in society, but many. The Venn diagram of marginalization was equally real to many identifiable groups. If we are forced to pick only one marginalized group with whom to identify, we will likely not achieve our full potential.

Besides, political reality has always been that success comes more easily if you have multiple fronts on which to do battle. Push here, while withdrawing to more defensible terrain there, then counterattack!

Perhaps understanding this strategic advantage of intersectionality, its critics have been notably louder than for any one dimension of inequality. The loudest over the last decade has been Ben Shapiro. Instead of a Venn diagram to illustrate the concept, Shapiro seems to prefer a pyramid, where various groups have different status, with “white men” at the bottom! When presented with Crenshaw’s original essay defining intersectionality, he conceded that he doesn’t object to that concept – just the way it’s interpreted in the academy. He is thus attacking a straw man.

Admittedly, intersectionality’s association with CRT and third wave feminism has not done it any good in the highly charged, polarized media environment of the 2020s. But it is still worthwhile to take a serious look at the political implications of a more intersectional social justice agenda. Specifically, what about the role social class plays in that intersectional Venn diagram? Social class is determined in the USA by various factors, including sometimes race and gender, but also geography and most important, educational level. Education, in turn, controls both where you live and how you earn your living (to some extent, how “well” you live, too). If class were combined with other dimensions, like race and gender, you should be able to construct a more powerful coalition. Not a smaller, but a larger, cohort.

The political secret sauce ought to be how well you can form alliances with those who share some, but not necessarily all, of your intersectional identity factors. If we all placed value on greater intergroup trust, such alliances would emerge. It could even reach the ultimate utilitarian ideal: The greatest good for the greatest number. Marginalization, after all, is, by definition, the lack of “great good” compared to other groups.

Universal access to public education in the United States is foundational to our society – as far as it goes. Yes, it once was possible to stipulate that a high school diploma was sufficient to ensure a place as a productive member of society. But then it soon became obvious that was not enough. To do much about ameliorating the growing class divides in the country, other factors, especially race and gender, but also privilege and inheritance, began to climb in public views of oppression. Or, maybe as the meritocracy advocate claims, it was simply a matter of more or better education that made the difference between the haves and have-nots.

Whatever the etiology of oppression and marginalization, the intersectionalist maintains that the remedy is to combine the political power of multiple allied groups working for the same goal. It becomes a philosophy based on commonalities, not differences. There is not a natural pyramid of privilege, as Ben Shapiro would have it, nor a natural law of caste, as Isabel Wilkerson wrote analyzing her lived experience as a Black woman. But there is an identity group based on class. And its boundaries are fluid and mixed based on many different social factors. In the end, intersectionalists say that Black women graduates of HBCU law schools can certainly talk to each other since they have much in common, but they also should be able to talk to many (perhaps not all) white female lawyers from ivy league schools. I should be able to talk to my neighborhood plumber, when I call him to fix a leaky sink, about the public schools in our community – after all, we’ve both sent our kids to them. Instead of the zero-sum game of who has more power, perhaps we could collaborate to provide greater abundance for all – better public schools. Just as I’m contributing to the plumber’s income with that call, both women law school grads have common lived experience of being female lawyers in a political/professional world historically dominated by men.

The tyranny of the zero-sum political game is it sows distrust between different identity groups. Those “other” groups, if they gain, must be taking something away from my group. A system based on abundance rather than scarcity would encourage cooperation, not conflict. But how do we get there?

First, abundance is a state of mind, not a physical reality of resources (see my earlier pieces, The Growth Game and What Is Money?). We should look at the world as being full of possibility – possibilities not yet born, not yet realized. That’s what trust is all about. Second, many people we know, people with whom we interact, do not have all the same lived experience as we do (both limitations and advantages). Empathize with them. Third, let’s work on building political mechanisms that allow for something other than that binary win-lose outcome – proportional representation would be a good start! (See Compromise, Not Consensusand Tired of Polarization?)

Also, prepare for some determined opposition from those who understand the power of intersectionality, like Ben Shapiro. And those who may cleverly enter bad faith negotiations with you in a political forum, like Senator Joe Manchin!

— William Sundwick

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