Elite Capture

Elite Capture by Olúfémi O. Táíwò is a slim book that grew out of a blog post for The Philosopher. With reference to protests against anti-Black racism and police killings, at the book’s core is the concept of “the elites’ tactics of performing symbolic identity politics to pacify protesters without enacting material reforms; and their efforts to rebrand (not replace) existing institutions, also using elements of identity politics” (p. 5).

Elite capture appears to be an insidious force co-opting various political projects, including those Dr. Táíwò might not name but that recur in my own life. However, at fault is not identity politics in itself—a phenomenon he traces to the Combahee River Collective of Black feminists who in the 1970s were sidelined by both women’s rights and Civil Rights movements, “as white women’s tokens or as Black men’s secretaries” (p. 7). In fact, as Dr. Táíwò affirms, identity politics was originally motivated by the desire for “diverse coalitional organizing” (p. 8), not the foreclosure of alliance-building. This is something that has long moved me about Audre Lorde’s work.

However, identity politics itself has also fallen victim to elite capture in that it has become co-opted in the service of dominant groups’ interests. This is a result of different groups of people having differential access to power and resources, to different rooms—“the Situation Room, the newsroom, the bargaining table, the conference room” (p. 69). Caught up in rooms that others have little or no access to, well-intentioned people are tempted to play the politics of deference and pass the mic to more marginalized people in the same room. However, Dr. Táíwò argues, this discourse focuses attention on the symbolic and performative at the expense of larger aims, such as building new rooms. After all, we are already in the room by virtue of our comparative advantages and thus less equipped to represent the most marginalized people with whom we may share facets of a particular social identity.

What does Dr. Táíwò propose? Nothing less than old-school critical pedagogy in the manner of Paolo Freire (and just like that, I am back in Jim Cummins’ classroom in the fall of 2005). Joining theory to action, Dr. Táíwò traces the history of the Portuguese Empire from the transatlantic slave trade and colonialism to the rise of the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde that won independence in 1973. As Freire predicted, the struggle for liberation frees the oppressor as well as the oppressed. Following the successes of the African Party’s revolutionary struggle in Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde, the Portuguese people threw off the fascist Estada Novo government.

In urging a constructive political culture focused on coalition-building, Dr. Táíwò reflects on his own trauma, not because he feels it confers him with special rights but because these experiences of suffering, in James Baldwin’s words, “were the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, or who had ever been alive” (p. 121). Our vulnerability is part of what enables us to work together for larger aims.