Intersectional Centrism Leads the Left Nowhere

What is the point of the political Left? To me, the point of a Left political party should be to worry about those without significant material resources. Though some on the Left do not grasp it, the point of the Left is not hating the rich, but rather focusing on those that aren’t. The Left will have completed its goals either when poverty ends, or when to be poor is to actually be comfortable.

Having fleshed out the purpose of the Left, any Left political party or movement should be evaluated on these merits—on the question of how they decreased the incidence of poverty or at least made life easier on the poor. On these merits, the American Left has mostly failed, especially when compared to other upper-income countries like the Nordic democracies (Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland, and Iceland).

Though America is richer on a per capita GDP basis than most Nordic countries, it has much worse poverty. In a measure of relative poverty, 18% of Americans earned less than half the median income in America in 2016, when the Left lost the presidency. That’s roughly double the rates of relative poverty that the Nordic countries had that year. In measures of absolute poverty (percentage below a certain dollar income across all countries), the gulf between the countries is just as pronounced. 

If economics is not your primary interest, happiness works as an accurate measure to highlight the success of the Nordic countries as well. From 2014-2016, during the Obama presidency, Norwegians had the highest average happiness in the world, followed by Danes and Icelanders. The Finnish come in fourth, the Swedes in tenth, and the Americans in fourteenth. 

The force that keeps poverty low (and probably happiness high, though this isn’t a psychology article) in Nordic countries is a specific brand of social democracy with a mixed economy, widespread unionization, free trade, and most importantly a generous welfare state. This welfare state is financed by high taxes, not just on the rich, but on huge percentages of people. High taxes on the rich, though I don’t mind them, do not pay for everything, and they never will because there simply aren’t enough rich people. America doesn’t have high taxes on the rich anyway; in fact, in 2015, when President Obama was in office, the effective tax rate on the top 1 percent of earners was 26%. The overall tax rate on the richest 400 households today is only 23%

The road to creating a flourishing social democracy is therefore not especially uncharted—just raise taxes and build a universal welfare state with the revenues. Yet, most Democratic politicians don’t seem to be aware of this. Biden has announced that he will not raise taxes on anyone making less than $400,000 per year. This would mean keeping all of the Trump tax cuts on those making less than $400,000 per year and accepting that social democracy, while possible, shouldn’t really be strived for since it involves raising taxes on more than just the rich. But in order to assuage attacks from the farther-left, Democrats tend to focus not on these opportunities to massively eliminate poverty, but on “equity” instead, a problem that in its own terms cannot be addressed without discrimination. Democrats are peddling intersectional centrism when they should be peddling colorblind social democracy, uplifting those in need without respect to the color of their skin.  

It is worth clarifying what “colorblind” means. “Colorblind” is not meant here in a literal sense, that we should be incapable of seeing skin color, and it is especially not meant in a sense that we should be blind to racism where it exists. Racism is a horrible evil, and we should be aware of it. My use of the word “colorblind” is to indicate that governments and institutions should not take race into account and we should try to avoid doing so in our private lives. The social significance of race should wither away instead of being nourished. Though it is cliché to cite him, we should play out Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream and judge people not by “the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” Martin Luther King Jr. said those famous words at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, an event chiefly organized by Bayard Rustin, who was a gay, black colorblind-social-democrat himself, chairing the “Social Democrats, USA” political party and opposing affirmative action.

Where Does a Focus on Race Lead the Left?

Racism is undoubtedly real in America, both historically and presently. It is perpetuated not just by racist individuals, but laws that have clearly racist outcomes, some deliberately so, like in the case of the war on drugs. Other systems may not be intended to have racially disparate outcomes, but do in part because there are some racist people in the system, like in the case of police, or in the case of home appraisals. It is not as if policing or home appraisals are inherently racist, but that doesn’t mean there can’t be racism latent in these systems due to many individually racist people.

Even more systems have racially disparate outcomes, most without any evidence of systemic or individual racism. For example, a much smaller percentage of black people have completed a bachelor’s degree than whites or Asians, yet neither the “system” of college is racist against black people nor are the vast majority of college administrators.

Disparities persist despite a massive decline in racism because disparities between groups would be the norm even without any racism. As writer Coleman Hughes notes, the difference in income between Russian-Americans and French-Americans is large and unexplained by racism. Russian-Americans have a median household income of nearly $86,000 whereas French-Americans have a median household income of about $71,400. Similarly, Somali-Americans have a median household income of about $31,000 while Ghanaian-Americans have a median household income over $69,000. Employers, universities, and others with the power to help Americans make money are not racist against Somali-Americans but warm towards Ghanaian-Americans and they are certainly not taking different approaches when it comes to French-Americans and Russian-Americans. Large disparities between groups persist even outside the realm of race and without discrimination. As famed economist Thomas Sowell notes, 22 of the 29 astronauts in the Apollo program were either the firstborn or an only child, but not because Apollo discriminated on the basis of sibling order.

Because racial disparities are caused by more than just racism, we should be wary of the context and the nature of the discussion of them. Too often, people talk about racial disparities either to virtue signal or to encourage racial discrimination. The first group does not have effective plans to eliminate racial disparities, but the latter does, albeit through ugly means.

Most Democrats are of the first category, frequently mentioning the racial wealth gap, for example, which is essentially a gap between well-off people of different races. As market socialist writer Matt Bruenig writes, “if the bottom 90 percent of black families were given the exact same per-household wealth as the bottom 90 percent of white families…77.5 percent of the overall racial wealth gap still remains.” He continues, writing that “97 percent of the racial wealth gap is driven by households above the median of each racial group.” If the goals of the Left are to improve the lives of those without material resources (and it is), then the racial wealth gap itself is of little relative significance. The biggest problem facing black people, which is also the biggest problem facing America in general, is the lives of those without many material resources and the Left’s focus should be on improving them.

Focusing on these racial disparities will not eliminate them. Focusing on the poor and designing policies to benefit them regardless of their color would ameliorate racial disparities, but not eliminate them, since it happens to be that the poor are disproportionately black and Latino. Because disparities are multicausal, the only policy that can really claim to eliminate racial disparities is racial discrimination.

Antiracist intellectuals do not shy away from this fact. Ibram X. Kendi writes in his bestselling book How to Be an Antiracist, “The only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination. The only remedy to present discrimination is future discrimination.” To be clear, Kendi believes in dismantling systemic racism using systemic racism. He clarifies, “The defining question is whether the discrimination is creating equity or inequity. If discrimination is creating equity, then it is antiracist. If discrimination is creating inequity, then it is racist.” He defines equity as equality of outcome, writing, “Here’s an example of racial inequity: 71 percent of White families lived in owner-occupied homes in 2014, compared to 45 percent of Latinx families and 41 percent of Black families. Racial equity is when two or more racial groups are standing on a relatively equal footing. An example of racial equity would be if there were relatively equitable percentages of all three racial groups living in owner-occupied homes in the forties, seventies, or, better, nineties.”

In other words, according to Kendi, it would not be racist, but rather antiracist to simply refuse to hire any Asian people at a high-paying job since Asians’ high median incomes are definitionally inequitable (since equity means equality of outcome). It would also be antiracist to run an elite university and accept twice as many black students as Asian students (according to their relative populations) even though 20 times more Asian 2020 high school graduates got above a 1400 (out of 1600) on the SAT than black 2020 graduates. It would actually be racist to run an elite university and not do this, according to Kendi, since doing anything else would create inequities.  

Since centrist Democrat policies have failed to eliminate racial disparities, should the Left give into Kendi’s ideology and racially discriminate? The answer is no because racial discrimination is unethical, unpopular, and it fails the actual goals of the Left—uplifting those in need. None of this has stopped the American Left though, so let’s focus next on the existing racial discrimination endorsed by the American Left: affirmative action.

Affirmative action allows universities and employers to give preferential treatment in hiring and admissions to some races and not others, therefore discriminating against those others. Evidence that affirmative action is intentionally and necessarily discriminatory lies in California’s Proposition 16, which proposes reintroducing affirmative action to the state of California by removing the following sentence from the California Constitution: “The State shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education, or public contracting.” If enacting affirmative action requires removing the clause that prohibits racial discrimination, then affirmative action is explicitly racially discriminatory. 

Explicit evidence of this racial discrimination is usually hidden, but when it is revealed, the ugliness of it becomes clear. The Department of Justice alleges in its complaint against Yale that Yale treats “racially-favored applicants” differently than “racially-penalized candidates” at every single step of the admissions process. In a more specific example, for applicants with roughly the same academics (better than 70% of applicants but worse than 20% of applicants), the admit rate for black students (48.99%) was nearly eight times higher than the admit rate for Asian students (6.2%). The effects are not that race is just used as some sort of tiebreaker among otherwise equal candidates; rather, the DOJ alleges that “Yale’s use of race is significant and the determining factor for hundreds of applicants each admissions cycle.” It may not seem bad that admissions departments take into account the increased adversity typically experienced by black students, but when you realize that one’s race alone literally determines one’s acceptance into an elite university for hundreds (out of only around 2000 admits), the ethics of such a system no longer seem permissible. 

In case you don’t trust the Department of Justice, a 2004 study by researchers at Princeton wrote that “the bonus for African-American applicants is roughly equivalent to an extra 230 SAT points (on a 1600-point scale), [and] to 185 points for Hispanics…The Asian disadvantage is comparable to a loss of 50 SAT points.” Massive benefits and penalties are given on the basis of someone’s race alone.

You may wonder how it is legal to blatantly discriminate against people because of their race and then accept federal funding, despite the Civil Rights Act’s (the culmination of the Civil Rights Movement) explicit text that it isn’t. The answer is that the Supreme Court has ruled that racial discrimination in affirmative action is fine, so long as it is in the aims of diversity, doesn’t use quotas or a race-based point system, and the discriminator has tried non-discriminatory ways of raising diversity before that have failed. The diversity argument is that it is better for all students to have a diverse class, that it would make people more racially accepting of others. But does it really make people less racist to have half of black college students finishing in the bottom 20% of their class or in the bottom 10% of their law school class because they are sometimes elevated because of their race? Does setting up some students of the same races over and over again to fail actually improve racism? You would think surely not.

When explained in detail, such racial discrimination reveals itself as unethical, and most other Americans agree. According to Pew Research Center, 73% of Americans say that colleges and universities should not consider race or ethnicity in admissions, including notably 62% of black people and 65% of Hispanics. This legalized form of racial discrimination is unpopular, and massive racial inequities persist despite its existence. You can imagine how unpopular the desired discrimination necessary to actually end racial disparities would be.

But does this racial discrimination meet the goals of the Left at least, even if isn’t popular or ethical? No. At Harvard, for example, “71% of the black and Latino students come from wealthy backgrounds,” writes Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the progressive think tank The Century Foundation. Harvard’s race-deep analysis continues to prevent social mobility, but at least its student-aristocrats have a variety of skin colors. Were Harvard to enact class-based affirmative action instead, it might actually accomplish the goals of the Left, and it would coincidentally (since poor people are disproportionately black and Latino) also increase the number of underrepresented minority students at Harvard. If Harvard’s admission department gave half the boost it gave to recruited athletes[1] to “socioeconomically disadvantaged students of all races,” underrepresented minorities would make up 30% of the student body instead of 28%, and first-generation college students would make up 25% instead of 7%, Kahlenberg concludes. Race-based affirmative action ignores and entrenches class, while class-based affirmative action happens to create racial diversity. 

As one Hispanic Yale graduate writes about his alma mater, “The irony is that Yale is such a manipulatable institution that the student that benefits from Yale’s ‘affirmative action policies’ is not the poor Mexican kid from Brownsville or the Black kid from Compton: it’s the barely-tan kid from Boston whose dad is a doctor at Mass General or the Black kid from Maryland whose mom is an attorney in DC. College admissions is a game, and the type of families that send their kids to Yale learned how to play it a long time ago.” Affirmative action does not accomplish the goals of the Left, but it does accomplish Kendi’s goal of “antiracist” racial discrimination.

Affirmative action highlights what happens when generally well-intentioned Democrats lose their focus on helping the poor regardless of race and enact the intentionally racially discriminatory policies that thinkers like Kendi demand. To be clear, such race-obsessed policies do not accomplish the Left’s goals of uplifting those in need, and in addition, these policies are unpopular and unethical. Such rhetoric and policymaking may in part be why the Democrats are getting richer and whiter relative to Republicans, even in a “browning” America. Democrats, and the Left at large should be uplifting those without economic status regardless of their color, instead of giving into Kendi’s dark and wrong conclusion that constant discrimination is actually desirable.  

Democrats need not focus on race and racial disparities as much as they do. All too often they are merely signaling their wokeness, and when they aren’t, the outcome is even worse. But affirmative action is just the beginning. If the Democrats’ obsession with racial identity politics continues, we Democrats will find ourselves on the actual Left no longer; we’ll just be Kendi’s begging for ever more “antiracist” policies that accomplish nothing but division. Some of these reforms may include (or already include) dropping standardized tests despite them being the fairest and most equitable aspect of admissions, ending blind auditions for orchestras (so you can racially discriminate), creating an unelected bureaucracy that by design infringes on free speech, getting rid of magnet schools, and mandatory white-male-only federally-funded reeducation camps for national laboratory employees (even though mandatory diversity trainings do not work). I do not know what ineffective, wrongheaded, and downright society-deteriorating reforms the race-reifiers will come up with next, but I can tell you this much: intersectional centrist Democrats will not be willing to combat them, even if it goes against everything they say they believe in.

Here are some things the American Left could do instead.

The Left Way Forward

So if intersectional centrism has not met the goals of the Left, what actually would? There are a large number of policies that could be named here, but let me state what I view to be the most important aspect of building a functioning social democracy: a universal welfare state. America has a bit of an obsession with making sure that no government benefits accrue to those who might not “deserve it.” This obsession creates proposals that call for a public option instead of universal healthcare (like the rest of the developed world has), calls to make public college “more affordable” instead of free, and a welfare system that awards money only if you’re poor and then disappears if you start to get on your feet.

This obsession supposedly comes from a place of fiscal thriftiness, but the problem is that obsessive means-testing (making sure recipients are poor) often ensures that those who are worst off miss out because of all the red tape. This is why only 25% of those who are eligible participate in TANF (our cash welfare system). Twenty-five percent. Stop making people prove that they are poor—poor people don’t always have the time or knowhow to prove their economic status easily.

In addition, making sure that recipients of welfare programs are poor often locks people into poverty. This is because a welfare recipient might not want to accept a job that earns less than the welfare pays them, but that bad job may be the first step on the road to a better one. An even more nightmarish scenario occurs when people have a low-paying job and receive welfare, but if they accept a promotion (that won’t pay them all that much more), they’ll lose their whole welfare, so they don’t accept the promotion (watch one mother, Amy Jo Hutchison, describe this situation to the House Committee on Oversight and Reform). Why enact such a cruel system that effectively entrenches people’s poverty just so you don’t end up mailing a check to an upper-middle class person that will probably spend and quickly circulate it anyway?

And while we’re at it, why would it be such a problem if everyone got to use universal welfare benefits? We don’t make people prove that they’re poor to go to the park on the argument that we could save money on parks by building small ones that only have space for the poor. Rich people may have backyards, but it doesn’t seem to be worth effectively kicking out some of the most vulnerable from our welfare programs through means-testing or perverse incentives just so it looks like we are tough on the rich and can save a few bucks from denying the 1 percent the fruits of the high taxes they pay. If we need extra money, we can raise taxes. Essentially all of Europe has a value-added tax (VAT) for example, and they haven’t suffered markedly in growth or in quality of life. A VAT at the European level, or even less, would raise trillions per year in America. While the tax itself is somewhat regressive, if it is funding a universal cash transfer, the entire system would end up progressive anyway.[2]

So here are three examples of universal policies that could meet the goals of the Left—uplifting those in need: universal basic income (which I’ve written about before), universal government-provided health insurance, and free public colleges. These policies all need to be paid for, and taxes should be raised on everyone in order to pay for them. There is an idea that these high taxes will simply make nobody want to work since they’ll have to give up more of their money—this  idea is disproven by every Nordic country with high taxes where the labor force participation rate is leagues higher than ours. Ultimately, people do not hate taxes so much as they hate that they see none of the benefits of their taxes. If the government were to provide free healthcare and a check every month and the chance for your kids to go to college for free if they get in, you might feel differently about taxes.

On healthcare and college, financing them is not the end of the issues. For healthcare, a reasonable plan (not one that pays for everything Bernie Sanders would want it to—vision, dental, mental health care, no co-pays nor deductibles) like what the rest of the upper-income countries has will be the answer, and rich people should be allowed to get private plans on top of that if they so please. Once again, the Left is not about hating the rich, but caring about those who aren’t.

For public colleges, tuition can be free only if public colleges can agree to rein in tuition hikes. Since 1980, tuition has tripled at public colleges after adjusting for inflation. At these rates, America wouldn’t be able to pay for public college for long. College funding for public schools will have to be conditioned on administrative costs so that administrators cannot continue to use tuition hikes to rip off families and enrich themselves at the expense of everybody else (often even their own faculties). Furthermore, free public college cannot mean that everyone is sent to a four-year school even when it doesn’t make sense—this will bloat budgets even more and waste four years of some people’s time. Some people should go to free public community college, public or private trade school, and great numbers of people shouldn’t go to college at all. Social democratic policies can be reasonable while still ensuring a standard of universal welfare.

I could give more such policies, but I hope the point is already clear: the American Left should be creating a universal welfare state that takes care of all its citizens, regardless of if they “deserve it” on account of being well-off and especially regardless of the color of their skin. Giving into a race-focused discussion and racially discriminatory policies would be unethical, politically suicidal, and a total failure of all the Left claims to stand for. 

Though the intersectional-centrist-run Democratic Party is still better than the alternative, the American Left has a long way to go to building the type of state that people of all races and ethnicities can be proud of: a colorblind social democracy.

[1] Kahlenberg’s piece does not say what the boost that athletes receive is, but the aforementioned study by Princeton researchers shows that elite universities tend to give athletes roughly a 200 point SAT boost (out of 1600). Therefore, what Kahlenberg is describing is giving socioeconomically disadvantaged students roughly an 100 point SAT boost. The current system, according to the study, works like this: “The bonus for African-American applicants is roughly equivalent to an extra 230 SAT points (on a 1600-point scale), to 185 points for Hispanics, 200 points for athletes, and 160 points for children of alumni. The Asian disadvantage is comparable to a loss of 50 SAT points.” For the record, my belief is that all of these bonuses and disadvantages, including those for legacies and athletes, should be removed in elite universities and replaced with a medium-sized boost for the socioeconomically disadvantaged, like Kahlenberg describes.

[2] If the VAT is passed on to consumers, it becomes a consumption tax. Poor people spend a higher portion of their incomes on consumption so a VAT is theoretically “regressive,” but a universal cash transfer of $1000 a month (for example) would also be a higher portion of their incomes returned back to them. You could also have different VAT rates for luxury products and necessity products like Sweden does to make the system progressive, but even if you didn’t, it would still be progressive if you look at the tax AND the transfer, not just the tax. Gregory Mankiw, a well-respected macroeconomist, offers a good illustration of this concept here. Here is another by William G. Gale, a senior fellow at Brookings.