Progressivism has an authenticity problem.
It’s been hijacked by those most disconnected from the injustices it seeks to correct — it has, as I have written before, “become the project of the oppressors, not the oppressed.” In doing so, it has stripped autonomy from those marginalized populations who suffer the most under those injustices. This has led to those populations being denied the validation and empowerment they desperately need, which can only arise from the ability to freely decide their own fate.
To understand this problem, we need to examine the progressive movement itself.
Modern-day progressivism is the social and political movement that lays claim to the concerns of a wide range of populations which can all be summed up as the project of social justice. Social justice, in turn, can be defined as the project of correcting the fundamental inequalities that reside in basic underlying cultural, political, and economic institutions and systems that guide our individual activity.
Progressivism has attracted a wide variety of individuals from a wide spectrum of identities. The movement’s focus on societal reform at a structural level, rather than on a certain issue or set of issues, allows for unity among those identities. While the concerns of black men and Latina women may not always align in terms of specific issues, both populations suffer under social and political systems that disenfranchise them, place them in physical danger, and demonize their culture. By focusing on those systems, progressivism has sought to fix the cause, not the symptoms, of a fundamentally unequal society.
This is all well and good. But progressivism hasn’t stopped at unifying marginalized populations. Progressivism also welcomes allies of those populations into its midst. For example, both white progressives and black progressives are united in the project to end racism. We often see this as an admirable example of human decency of those with privilege doing their part to fix broken systems, but it’s a dangerous line to toe.
I do not mean that it is dangerous for allies to participate in the project of social justice. Rather, the complications arise when those allies do more than participate, when such allies start to re-center the project around themselves. This happens through a shift in the rhetoric surrounding progressivism, a shift toward what I have called “empathy.” We see attempts by progressive allies to access the felt reality of marginalized individuals so that they can “understand” what it feels like to be black, or female, or queer.
The problem therein is twofold. First, the reality is that such a project is impossible. A white ally can never understand the black experience because it is not such a thing that can be either explained or felt in a few words.
For example, no matter how much effort a white ally puts into understanding the black experience, a white person can never be called a “nigger” in the same sense as a black person. That word can never engender the same emotions within a white person as within a black person.
The black experience, and the female experience, and the queer experience, is loaded with one’s personal history, the sum of every interaction one has had with the world, and the precise way they have overlapped and affected one’s perspective and identity. That’s not something that can be shared through conversation. It has to be felt.
Second, the greater problem is the implication that we have to “convince” the people in power to liberate us. It brings to mind distasteful images of slaves bargaining with their masters for freedom. To liberate ourselves, it seems, we must appeal to the feelings of those in power, rather than to principles of justice or equality. In challenging us to strike at their empathy, the privileged compel us to give them relevance in the project of social justice.
Appeals to empathy are built on the idea that projects of social justice are only worthwhile when everyone is involved. I’m reminded of Secretary Clinton’s famous words: “Women’s rights are human rights, and human rights are women’s rights.” An admirable sentiment, for sure. But what does it mean? If one digs down far enough, one finds that, at the core, it’s just “All Lives Matter” for progressives. It’s an erasure of specific existences and realities, but unlike “All Lives Matter,” it’s specifically a sly attempt to take control of the project of social justice. By making social justice a human project, rather than a project focused and tailored to the lives and experiences of the actual marginalized people, allies are able to make as much about them as it is about the people actually in danger.
We’re currently witnessing this in action with the election of and subsequent backlash to President Donald Trump. Since January 20, President Trump’s policies have threatened Muslims, undocumented immigrants and the entire Latinx community, refugees from non-Western countries, and women in need of reproductive healthcare. In order to do so, he has circumvented the courts, Congress, and multiple executive agencies. The continuous narrative, then, has been that Trump poses a “threat to American democracy”, and heralds the end of those beloved institutions. This narrative has been spread for months; in the past six months, virtually every major moderate, center, or left-leaning news source has published a thinkpiece titled something like “Trump’s Challenge to American Democracy.”
This has veiled the reality that while President Trump is certainly a threat to the American constitution, this will not affect everyone equally. President Trump is not tearing up the Bill of Rights to incarcerate and deport white Americans or Christians. His proposals do not attack men, or straight people, or investment bankers. Rather, his attack is targeted on certain populations. Painting with a broad brush is obscuring that reality. Trump is not an American problem. He is a problem for brown immigrants, the black community, the working class, women, and queer people. While we desire — and expect — those with privilege to assist us, the fight is fundamentally for our lives and liberties, not theirs.
We see the careless and sometimes intentional appropriation of social progress by the privileged. The question then is: what effect does this have?
By taking over progressivism, “allies” have given themselves control over the movement. They are able to set its agenda, the rhetoric, and the strategies. Take, for example, Elizabeth Warren. In a speech at Netroots Nation in 2014 entitled “11 Commandments of Progressivism,” Warren attempted to offer a concrete agenda for progressivism, of which she and multiple other white upper-class Congresspeople have taken ownership. Warren cites poverty, worker empowerment, and wage inequality, but never mentions race. These issues are painted as universal American concerns
Compare this with the conversations had by radical young black progressives such as Alicia Garza, one of the co-founders of Black Lives Matter. Garza, like Warren, focuses her attention on economic justice. But unlike Warren, she works to specifically target the income inequality suffered by people (and particularly women) of color, who suffer economic injustice at a much higher rate than white people.
Garza understands that there are people suffering in silence because they don’t fit in the narrative of universality, the narrative that includes everyone. She reclaims the fight for economic justice for the communities that need it must. And in doing so, she empowers herself and her community to take control of their own lives and to be treated as the ultimate experts of their experience.
Imagine progressivism as an iceberg, with those least affected poking out on the surface, seen by all, but those most grievously affected by the issues in question filling out the gargantuan submerged base. Those who have been silenced and pushed to the side have lost the ability to voice their own experiences and over their own lives.
Police brutality is not a detached political game for black activists. It is real and tangible, because it is tied into their existences. White “progressive” politicians who appropriate the fight to end police brutality without acknowledging that it is an issue primarily centered around the lives of people of color rob those people of the chance to speak for themselves. These people in power receive the attention of the world, while those who truly understand the issue — and its effects on their lives — are ignored. Progressivism moves on without them, and they are left on the wayside. Their life work, their struggle, is taken from their hand.
Losing control affects how one interacts with the world and with themselves. When allies refuse to give marginalized individuals respect and attention, it is because they don’t see them as worth listening to. As a black man, I have been challenged, time and time again, by allies who cannot conceive of me as someone who has authority on their own experience. When I try to speak on racism, on culture norms, on the black experience, I am silenced. I am made to feel as though I do not understand my own life. And as such, I begin to doubt my power and worth as an individual. As the anti-AIDS slogan goes, “Silence = death.” Silence equals erasure, and erasure equals a loss of autonomy that spirals into an existential crisis — a spiritual death as much as a material one.
Social justice is the project of correcting fundamental inequalities. In that sense, it is the project of validating populations who are dehumanized and degraded. Validation of that kind is not something that can be given by those in power. It is something that is taken, something that is “claimed and committed to,” as Anne Phillips writes. It is a way of living one’s life in confident control of one’s own destiny. Social justice seeks to humanize the oppressed. Being human is not about having equal rights or wealth. Being human is being treated as worthwhile and autonomous. It is the consequence of expressing autonomy and being treated as the masters of our own fate.
Progressive allies can never give us autonomy, but they can take it away. And by taking over the movement and the project, they have done exactly that. Social justice is about more than distributing wealth and political power; it’s about taking back a capacity for control.
This seems vague, but there are action steps. Part of what makes the Black Lives Matter movement so controversial is that it is a grassroots organization founded and perpetuated by black people. While white allies may balk at what they see to be the movement’s unnecessary and aggressive tactics, the fact is that this is what true progressivism looks like: marginalized individuals themselves seizing control of their fate and asserting their needs. Giving them the room to flourish is what it means to be a true ally. So is supporting other organizations and movements like BLM, and voting for progressive state assembly, Congressional, and executive candidates who actually represent the communities they promise to protect.
These are all relatively easy to do. Many Harvard progressives would claim to do them already. But what is harder, and perhaps most important, is validating the marginalized voices you encounter daily. Every time you challenge a person of color to “explain themselves” you interrupt their project.
The next time someone different from you speaks up and lays their frustrations out, do not ask for clarification. Do not ask for them to help you understand. Do not take on their plight as your own. Give them the space they need to process their own experiences, and to embark on their own projects. Offer your help, of course. But allow them to retain that control, that sense of ownership.
Give progressivism back to those who need it most.
Nicholas P. Whittaker is a sophomore at Harvard College.