Opinion | What We Can Learn From the Rise and Fall of ‘Political Blackness’

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What about the ADOS movement? If ADOS activists flounder — they have fixed their gaze on slavery reparations and are intent that the wrong people don’t get in on the action — it will be because their certain-Black-lives-matter-more approach proves politically misjudged. An ambitious goal like reparations may require broad support, and in turn a broad conception of “Black.” Skeptics might think that, as with the prospectors and fortune hunters of “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” ADOS’s determination to keep the rewards for themselves imperils the chances of anyone getting them.

But let’s say you’re concerned about colorism. You might have been among those who were indignant when Zoe Saldana, a light-skinned Black woman, was cast in a biopic about Nina Simone, a dark-skinned Black woman. To talk about such prejudice, you’ll have to insist on one of the ways in which all Black people aren’t alike. You’ll have to split rather than lump.

Getting the identity aperture wrong — drawing a circle that’s too wide or too narrow, given our agenda — can lead to confusion or futility. When we’re told that about a third of Latinos support President Trump, should we wonder whether something has gone terribly wrong with Joe Biden’s ethnic outreach? Or should we wonder whether a demographic category that suggests a similarity of interests between Ted Cruz and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez may — for these purposes, anyway — be eliding distinctions that matter more?

For these purposes is always the crucial qualifier. One’s purposes can involve coalition politics, cultural interpretation or socioeconomic precision. The point is that none of these identity terms is stenciled by the brute facts of the social world; rather, they stencil themselves upon the social world. Each is invariably a decision — a decision made jointly with others — that arises from our interests and objectives. You don’t like the available identity options? Start a movement; you may be able to change them.

By the cultural logic, or illogic, of race, Kamala Harris, like Barack Obama, counts both as biracial and as Black. Among major-party vice-presidential candidates, she qualifies as the first Asian-American, the first Indian-American, the first African-American, the first woman of color. Identities, of course, are multiple, interactive and, yes, subject to revision. As the architects of political Blackness rightly insisted, collective identities are always the subject of contestation and negotiation.

Political Blackness may have had its day, but we’re still coming to grips with its central insight: Blackness, like whiteness, has never not been political.

Kwame Anthony Appiah (@KAnthonyAppiah) is a professor of philosophy at New York University and the author, most recently, of “The Lies That Bind: Rethinking Identity.”

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