will the real intersectionality theory please stand up?

with 9 comments

I thought that I was done discussing the debate on intersectionality theory between Jacob Levy, Phil Magness and myself. Well, 200 Proof Liberals (a new successor blog to Bleeding Heart Libertarians) has a post by Jess Flanigan. She argues that there are multiple version of intersectionality theory and that it’s easy for libertarians to accept the mellow version, which they never opposed anyway, but there’s a serious issue with the more hard core version:

Rojas’s point is that it’s a mistake to equivocate between these two conceptions of intersectionality. If the theory (T) refers to the first definition (T1), then it doesn’t seem like classical liberals should oppose it, but it’s also not clear how many classical liberals do oppose it. If it’s the second definition (T2), then they should clearly oppose it because T2 is directly opposed to classical liberalism. Levy doesn’t make the case that T2 is consistent with classical liberalism.

So what are the different versions of the theory that are at issue? Let’s simplify:

  1. Basic: In this version, the only point is that people are unequal in multiple ways and these hierarchies intersect in important ways.
  2. Intermediate: The intermediate version of the theory focuses on the distinctive aspects of intersecting hierarchies but does not anchor them in larger normative or empirical claims. In my original post at the Cato Unbound web site, I argued that standpoint epistemology could be one example.
  3. Hard Core: Intersectionality theory is really a whole sale critique of the modern liberal capitalist social order. Damaging inequalities are structural, not epiphenomenon. The reason we have gender inequality is wrapped up with the reasons we have poverty, inequality, and racism. You have one, you have them all.

Basically, Levy asserts that any rational person would want intersectionality #1. Magness, Flanigan, and myself respond by saying that nobody opposed #1 to start with. Magness deepens the point by documenting how racial domination, such as slavery and apartheid were well discussed and rejected by classical liberals and libertarians since the 19th century. My essay was a defense of the view that pro-market liberals could have a constructive dialogue around #2. However, most of the dedicated practitioners of intersectionality theory probably adhere to #3, which makes a dialogue incredibly hard. If you buy #3, then a classical liberal who even considers intersectionality theory is probably a walking contradiction. If Levy retreats from #1, then the next thing that would need to happen is for a social theorist/normative political theorist to reconstruct intersectionality theory on different grounds so that it would be compatible with classical liberalism.

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Written by fabiorojas

June 26, 2020 at 7:46 pm

Posted in uncategorized

9 Responses

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  1. I understand that classical liberals might want to find reasons to concur with a “soft/domesticated” intersectionality theory but I think the scholars that developed that theory had different goals. They were interested in how our legal system discriminates against black women and how discrimination and exclusion in the labor market, family, residential markets and so on might inspire social movements of black women in alliance with others. The hard version was not framed in terms of classical liberal rights; it was a critique of how those rights are not in practice extended to black women. I would reverse the question and ask: what classical liberal theory has offered a better explanation for these specific forms of exclusion and proposed concrete policies within the liberal framework to ameliorate them?


    Joel Stillerman

    June 26, 2020 at 8:06 pm

  2. Hi, Joel: Even though I’m pretty well read in CL/lint’n theory, I don’t think there is a specific literature on how a multiply marginalized group (e.g., Black or Latina women) experiences discrimination. However, it probably isn’t too hard to develop such an insight from existing ideas. For example, the obvious one would be public choice theory. It provides a number of fairly straightforward tools and ideas to understand why courts/social services/police (to use Crenshaw’s case) don’t enforce the rights of multiply marginalized theory.

    Liked by 1 person


    June 28, 2020 at 5:46 pm

  3. Hi Fabio, Thanks for the reply, Would a public choice approach to this question be something like: staff at street level bureaucracies have job protection and since black and latina women do not have the political power to pressure those agencies to treat them better and those agencies are not subject to market discipline, they mistreat these women? Would the same apply to judges with lifetime appointments? Or, black and latina women don’t have well resourced special interest groups to influence legislation vs, white women or black men? I’m not sure any of these hypothetical situations is empirically true, or maybe I’m just misinterpreting the theory. If you have a minute, could you let me know if this is what you have in mind or, if not, briefly sketch what a public choice approach to this issue might look like? I’m genuinely curious. Thx.


    Joel Stillerman

    June 28, 2020 at 7:25 pm

  4. In general, public choice starts with the premise that bureaucrats and elected officials are themselves subject to incentives, often perverse ones. So yes, one straight forward application would be that the most marginalized people have the fewest resources (e.g., less time to vote, fewer donations, etc) to pressure public agencies, so they get the least response. Another aspect might be that when people are at the bottom of the racial hierarchy, politicians are not rewarded as much for helping them. E.g., few mayors win tons of votes for helping women escape domestic abuse (Crenshaw’s case), especially women of color.



    June 28, 2020 at 7:32 pm

  5. Thanks. Apologies if this posts twice. I tried to write it once and I needed to log in again. I’m familiar with those arguments but I don’t think they better explain Crenshaw’s or Collins’s problem. Crenshaw argues that the feminist and anti-racist movements as well as legislative campaigns to address domestic violence and rape, make black women invisible. This is so because of historically embedded elements in our culture that devalue black women and that precede and go beyond politicians’ disincentives to attend to the needs of black women. In brief — it’s a cultural, not an electoral/public administration problem at its core. How do we address it? One way is through intersectional social movements that effectively ally with legislators (as in the Violence Against Women Act that Crenshaw briefly mentions). Understanding if and when such movements can change the law or the incentives for politicians that enact racist policies seems fruitful (e.g. look at Minneapolis P.D., all the statues coming down, and the renaming of the Woodrow Wilson school). I’m not suggesting public choice doesn’t have contributions to make to addressing specific problems, I’m just not sure it adds a whole lot to this particular question. Since you study social movements, I’m guessing you have some thoughts re: the above. I’d be interested to hear them.


    Joel Stillerman

    June 28, 2020 at 9:31 pm

  6. Let me gently push back. I think the theory gives you more mileage. Public choice theory is a version of rational choice theory. It applies the analytical tools of decision science to public agencies. Thus, it is not built to explain why hierarchies exist in society, or how hierarchies intersect, nor does it claim to, but it provides a way to translate public attitudes on race into policy predictions and explanations of bureaucratic behavior. Crenshaw, and any other legal theorist, should be keenly interested in any theory that explains why public servants don’t behave the way we want them to. Using current politics, it’s like saying that a theory that explains bad police incentives is useless because it does not explain police racism.

    I think a theorist like Collins, or any theorist of race, would also be interested in a unique public choice idea – “regulatory capture.” Which is when a small group gains control over the government agency that regulates it. As I mentioned last week, a number of public choice theorists have argued that this can include racists as well – for example, racists being attracted to police departments, or racists running for office so they can pass racially targeted policies. The ideas I just covered don’t exactly match up with what Crenshaw or Collins talked about but they seem incredibly relevant to how understanding how the state treat some citizens better than others and it’s worth thinking about.



    June 29, 2020 at 1:41 am

  7. Thanks. These are interesting ideas. I did go back and read Levy’s debate and reread your earlier post about the Virginia school approach to racism, so I see a little more about where you are going with this. I guess my puzzlement about this discussion is that Crenshaw and Collins never saw (as far as I can tell) their ideas as coming out of classical liberalism — they are in different intellectual subfields than either liberal or public choice theory. I also think, and I’ve said this a couple of times, so I’m not sure why it’s not getting across — that both writers are not primarily looking at public policy; rather, they are interested in how social movements can be racist and sexist and (in Crenshaw’s case) how those prejudices match up with the same prejudices among lobbyists and legislators with terrible consequences for law and policy. Can perverse incentives and regulatory capture illuminate some aspects of racist state policy? Probably. But as black feminist scholars, both have a pretty broad arsenal of conceptual and empirical material to draw on from sociology and related disciplines to understand the multiple forms of exclusion that interest them. Sociologists have shown how state and market actors produced and reinforced residential segregation (Massey & Denton), that employers prefer to hire white ex convicts than blacks with clean records (Pager), and that employers almost universally pay women less than men (Williams, Hartmann — ok she’s an economist) just to name a couple of the many examples. Given their trajectories, I just don’t see them engaging with public choice theory and I think they have already done paradigm-shifting work in their respective fields. Not impossible, but unlikely. Maybe you could attempt to integrate the two bodies of work since you are interested in both. BTW, if you haven’t seen it, Armstrong et al. have an Annual Review piece (2018) on intersectionality theory. Might be of interest. Thanks for engaging.


    Joel Stillerman

    June 29, 2020 at 2:44 am

  8. Thanks for the response. Two brief responses: I don’t think anyone claimed that intersectionality theory was looking at CL/libt’n theory. The Cato forum is more like, “what can these two traditions learn from each other?” Also, modern intersectionality theory is a very mature theory with vast normative and empirical claims, way beyond the specific issue of what feminist movements are doing right and wrong. Thus, it’s fair to ask how that framework overlaps with CL/libt’n theory and the value of such overlaps.



    June 29, 2020 at 2:48 am

  9. I agree that it’s a mature theory and of the three pieces in the forum, your contribution was most effective in mapping it out. So, I guess the question is not whether or not its founders *should* be interested in Buchanan’s ideas as you suggested above, but whether current practitioners might find these ideas of use and whether libertarians might find the ideas (or some subset) appealing. I agree with you that libertarians would find the Marxism and liberal/left activism of the intersectionality founders beyond the pale (as was also noted in the debate). On the flipside, I think that practitioners of the theory, who are largely sympathetic with those ideological and activist origins, would unlikely seek out a libertarian economist for inspiration given their opposition to libertarian-inspired social policies. So, I think it’s a tough sell on both sides but you made an interesting argument for the possible shared space within the Venn diagram.


    Joel Stillerman

    June 29, 2020 at 12:58 pm

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