Is the BIPOC Coalition Coming Apart?
with Reihan Salam
The Democratic Party and some on the left have sought to build a coalition of “people of color” that fuses minority groups whose interests align, the argument goes, because they all suffer similarly under the yoke of white supremacy, systemic racism, or whatever you want to call the racial prejudice supposedly endemic to all areas of public life in the US. This coalition only holds together when members of these constituent groups can be convinced that what is good for one is good for all, even when, as the case against Harvard’s and the University of North Carolina's race-based admissions policies have shown, it’s patently untrue.
My guest this week, Manhattan Institute President Reihan Salam, thinks this “top-down” consolidation of minority racial identities may be on the cusp of breaking up. And when that happens, new political alignments and forms of social organization may emerge that make the “BIPOC” coalition impossible to maintain. It’s already the case that many first and second-generation immigrant communities recognize that their interests aren’t reflected by racial preferences in admissions, by DEI initiatives, by “defunding” the police, and by any number of other political trends. When these fault lines deepen and the notion of “people of color” loses coherence, our contemporary ways of thinking about racial identity may change along with it, dramatically so.
In the excerpt below, I express both enthusiasm and wariness regarding these possible changes. I think racial identity can become a cage that prevents people, especially young people, from realizing their full potential and experiencing all that the world has to offer. But I would not want those of us for whom racial identity is meaningful to discard our sense of ourselves as historical agents produced by particular cultural traditions, even if we ought to resist subsuming ourselves entirely beneath those traditions. Right now, that’s a tricky balance. And Reihan notes that we’re not on the verge of some post-identitarian utopia. But I find Reihan’s excitement about the revolutionary possibilities that lie just over the horizon more than a little contagious.
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GLENN LOURY: I want to talk about race. So the battle over critical race theory in the schools. Christopher Rufo, one of our guys. The larger battle about diversity, equity, and inclusion. Heather Mac Donald just had a piece on medical education that I read with great interest in your magazine, our magazine, City Journal, one of our gals. You're in New York City, tinder box and all of that. There's a lot of structural tensions going on on the racial front. How do you see the positioning of the Institute in this big culture, political arena of conflict around racial justice and the post-George Floyd era?
REIHAN SALAM: This is a very big, profound set of questions. We have people at the Institute who have somewhat different approaches to it, how to think about it. I will say, for my purposes, I really believe that there are a lot of shibboleths about race and identity that we're seeing come undone right before our eyes. The whole construct of “people of color,” the idea of flattening the experiences and sensibilities of these kind of census-created categories, I think that stuff is just blowing up right now. And so I think that it's a very important moment, because of that, for fresh thinking, and in a way, having identities that feel more bottom-up and that are driven by mutual aid and driven by shared history and a belief in shared history. I think that that's important and dignity-bearing.
And I think that identities that are imposed from above? I think they're problematic, man. There can be a place for them. And there's all kinds of good reason why we're like, hey, there are communities that are historically disadvantaged and stigmatized, and for the purposes of understanding, we want to highlight them and understand them. I get that.
But I also worry about reifying and, “Actually I create my group boundaries because they serve my purposes.” You know, “I'm elite university X and defining group boundaries in this way and then saying that an authentic representative of the group thinks these things. That serves my purposes. But I don't know about what serves my purposes as actually a member of a living, breathing community.” You know what I mean? And there might be a tension between those two things.
Particularly when you're talking about communities that are historically disadvantaged, where you haven't necessarily had the same kind of wealth creation and institution building, that means that, “Hey, I'm going to start pushing you around. You know, if you are someone who denies the Armenian genocide, then I'm gonna have a problem with it. And by the way, I've got lot of other people of Armenian descent here, and they're gonna make a stink about it, too. And you're gonna have to answer to us.”
In some ways, the new discourse we have about race and ethnicity, part of it, I think is a healthy reflection of the fact that different people are rich now. Different people are famous now. Different people have power now. And they're gonna exert that power, and that might be uncomfortable. They're gonna exert that power politically, economically, and otherwise. I think that that is something that is a good, healthy, natural thing. But to what extent is it not that kind of exercise of power, that kind of democratic contestation, that kind of economic contestation, to what extent is it, and again, I'm gonna sound silly and crude, but to what extent is it something that is driven by institutions that are not kind of organic in that kind of way, that are not actually reflecting that kind of interplay of mutual aid, self-help, communal power?
So that's one reason why I'm so obsessed with you, Glenn, because I gotta think that when you talk about black self-making, when you wrote about the development narrative, to me, that was my lodestar. And again, like when you talk about the bias narrative and the development narrative, you're not saying that the bias narrative is wrong and the development narrative is right. It's more complicated that. Which do you emphasize when? What is going to be our framework for understanding our challenges, our condition? Even it could be that bias is pervasive. Well, then what do you do about that? Fixating on the bias narrative, it's not obvious that you continue to fixate on it.
So the development narrative idea, to me, is so interesting. And I think that it's almost this folk idea that makes so much sense to so many people, but there aren't that many articulate, scholarly champions of that idea, partly because it's a textured idea. It's an idea that requires a sensitivity and narrative understanding. It's not something that is easily quantified. You know what I'm talking about? I don't know. So I just think that that to me is very important. And that is a big part of how I think about progress and group membership and group identity and the things that I think we over-weight and the things we under-weight.
I confess to being of two minds about this bottom-up idea about racial identity and about where the boundaries get drawn and how we identify. On the one hand, I want to say, in the spirit of liberal or even libertarian .. you know, look at individuals and let's not put people in these boxes. People are black or they're Latino or they're “Asian.” We have these horrible things. You know, they're BIPOCs, they're people of color, these aggregations that are politically instrumental but that I think are false to reality.
And I want to tell young people of color, the world is your oyster and you can be anything and you can do anything and don't limit yourself. I want to tell my college students: Read broadly, think broadly, learn languages, expose yourself to things. On the other hand, I want to exhort “my people” to act. I want agency. I want collective action. I want people to be motivated by a sense of duty to their future generations, to a sense of obligation because of the sacrifices of past generations. I want to embrace a narrative that's thick with racial content as an African American, even though I also, in the twenty-first century, with the world getting very small, want people to open up and embrace and be free.
So I got into this discussion with Kmele Foster, whom you will know, who is a race abolitionist, if I understand him correctly. He's black in appearance, but he says, “Don't call me black. I'm not black. Don't put me in that box. I'm a man. I'm a human being. I'm an American. I'm a father. I'm an intellectual.” And I was saying, yeah, yeah, yeah, I agree, I agree. But if we think the black family is part of the developmental problem, that kids are not getting the kind of support that they need and the kind of nurturance that they need in part because of the way that men and women are relating to each other and marrying, forming families, and so forth. How do we even begin to talk in an effective way about mobilizing our cultural resources on behalf of the project of raising our kids if we don't have this framework and this interpretation of “our history” to draw on? So I'm of two minds about it.
One thing that is very kind of confusing, fraught, and contested, and I'm curious to see how it unfolds, is the fact that because of the rise of the first and second-generation black population and because of the rise of these complex dynamics of colorism happening against the backdrop of the emergence of a mixed-race black population that is perhaps overrepresented among people who are educated and affluent and are in positions of influence, I'm curious about how that affects these dynamics, not just of black political unity but of what it actually means.
You have these interesting internet subcultures, that, for example, are skeptical towards conventional feminism. But then when you're looking at black power, it's not just black Americans but black women who are this incredibly important bulwark of democratic political strength, not just when it comes to the voting base but when it comes to, who are people who are increasingly important as policy thinkers, as intellectuals? Who are people who have been really generative and who embrace, call it intersectional feminism as applied to policy?
These are really interesting dynamics where I don't think it's unreasonable to expect that there's some reaction that does not necessarily translate into people voting for Republicans en masse but in thinking that, hey, the Talented Tenth is not what it was in the DuBois era, when you had these intensely segregated cities and you had this professional class that earned its keep by serving this segregated population. Now you have a Talented Tenth that basically swims in the sea of selective higher education and the universe that it creates. People sometimes will say, “Oh, selective higher education is marginal. People like you fixate on that too much.” But in a way, the moral imagination of so much of the upper middle class, black or non-black, is to some degree formed by admissions offices. Because admissions offices say, “We want well-rounded kids. Or we want well-lopsided kids.” There's a wonderful new book about this called Little Platoons.
You establish what parents want to do, whether they know it or not. Every single school is gonna move in that direction. So when you have that cleavage among black Americans, I think that it introduces the possibility of a dissenting faction within the Talented Tenth. Call it that. You have room for these different voices, which, again, you can kind of marginalize and say, “Oh, you know, these are people who are irrelevant. This doesn't matter. They don't speak for anyone.” You could say that for a while. But then when you have these political earthquakes—intra-Democratic political earthquakes, by the way—when you see these different people emerge, I think that's really interesting. And then, I don't know, do you see some counter-elite emerge? That might be a bridge too far.