Has anyone else noticed that the rainbow flag of sexual diversity keeps expanding to include the full possible spectrum of visible colors? I recently saw that something called the Intersex Inclusion Campaign introduced a new “intersex inclusive pride progress flag,” which is the old LGBT pride flag altered from six bars to 12, with the bonus introduction of triangles and a circle. I learned that these fresh shapes and colors symbolize not only the transgender community and the intersex people once crudely called hermaphrodites, but also Black people, Hispanics, and other “brown” folx. In an unforgettable piece of symbolism, the new identity markers now take up more than half the old pride flag, swooping into it (from the left, naturally) in a wedge shaped vaguely like a boar’s head. “A bit invasive,” I thought.
Tablet columnist Wesley Yang has referred to this kind of thing as the “unity of oppression thesis,” “the astroturfed credo of the activist class” which insists, for example, that “LGBTQ parades have to call for freeing Palestine and White House plans for gender equity have to call for the elimination of cash bail.” Kristine Hadeed, a left-leaning writer and apparent member of that class, made a good-faith attempt to explain the phenomenon to Yang on Twitter: “It’s because they recognize that the roots of oppression are intertwined. None of us are truly liberated unless all of us are liberated. Oppressed people uniting for collective liberation is the only way liberation will ever happen.”
Hadeed’s thesis was elegantly stated, and gels closely with the still poorly understood tenets of the woke movement writ large. Far from being an inchoate collection of protest-sign slogans and dorm-room pronouncements, contemporary radical theory is actually a coherent epistemology centered around three core points: first, that racism and similar prejudices are “everyday” and “everywhere,” and that many supposedly race-neutral systems like standardized testing are in fact set up to oppress; second, that evidence of such oppression—most notably of racism—can be gleaned from the mere existence of performance disparities between large groups; and third, that the solution to this subtle but pervasive institutional bias is state-enforced “equity,” defined as the proportional representation of every major identity group across every endeavor, regardless of performance.
I am summarizing, not interpreting, as these points have been made quite openly by major scholars like Richard Delgado, a founder of critical race theory, and Ibram X. Kendi, that of “anti-racism.” These three core ideas have generated secondary ones, like the claim that people of color (POC) by definition exist only outside of oppressive power systems, and therefore cannot effectively be racist. Another is the argument made by Hadeed and the flag redecorators: that because many or most groups are oppressed by their exclusion from power, the interests of all oppressed people(s) therefore run in concert, meaning that the destruction of a system oppressing one such group will help lead to equality for all.
Perhaps the most notable thing about this logical-sounding argument is that virtually every element of it is demonstrably false. There is no empirical evidence, of any kind, that most American “systems” operating in 2022 (do university admissions count?) were designed by a racially and ideologically unified ruling class to oppress minorities and still serve that purpose. Even leaving aside awkward historical facts—standardized exams were specifically adopted in large part to allow smart poor kids to compete with gentry scions—it is simply true that no racially or ideologically unified American ruling class exists.
To take just one empirical measure, consider that the list of the country’s highest-earning ethnic groups is dominated by Americans of Asian and African descent. Jewish Americans, considered a minority group until very recently, I’m told, probably do even better—it’s hard to track. In the real world, metrics like the SAT reflect well not on Anglo-Saxon rich kids but on kids from East Asian, South Asian, West African, and Jewish families: Asian students often finish nearly 11 percentage points ahead of white ones, and Nigerian Americans are overall the best-educated group in the United States. On the rare occasion when serious “quants” take a look at this touchy topic, they find that basic and intuitive variables like family structure, median age, and aptitude test scores consistently predict success for all Americans far better than race does.
The claim that POC are incapable of racism faces similar obstacles. Again, for this to be true, the United States would have to have a unified, all-white ruling class—a caste to which all or most whites belong and from which all or most POC are barred. It is only in this imaginary America that a toothless Appalachian coal miner could be said to belong to the same “team” as George Bush or John Kerry. Of course, in reality, no such America exists.
In reality, the current vice president of the United States, like the country’s most popular president of the last 20 years, is Black, and many of the country’s homeless, sleeping outdoors in the rain, are white. All white Americans combined probably still have more power than all minority Americans combined, even in reality, but it is difficult to see how this would matter much outside of a theoretical race war. The vast majority of human interactions are one-on-one, personal and individual, and every human being is defined by dozens of traits other than his or her race: social class, sex, age, sexual orientation, and plain old looks and smarts. In reality, I—a successful businessman and tenured professor at a state university—would have no problem being abusive and cruel to a white janitor, if I happened to also be an asshole. In reality, everyone knows this to be true.
The fact that power in America has no single face invalidates the claim of the unity of oppression. The simple and rather obvious fact is that there are many different elites in charge of different “systems” within the United States. The top echelon of the Democratic Party is more diverse and probably wealthier than the top of the GOP—which is itself led by players like the Italian American Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and the Hispanic Sen. Marco Rubio. Both the Black and Asian American communities have produced innumerable and remarkable success stories, including in technology, business, politics, the military, entertainment, and sports. Taking a more jaundiced view of the definition of “business,” a cynic might also note that the various Black Lives Matter-related causes pulled in an astonishing $10.6 billion in donations between May and December 2020, according to The Economist.
A lot of these powerful, predatory individuals and groups exist alongside one another, and frequently clash. An equally obvious but much more taboo fact is that the groups lumped together by wokists as “oppressed” also have nothing in common and mostly dislike one another. It is difficult to imagine, in fact, what could even theoretically unify a union laborer and an illegal Salvadoran migrant, a transwoman and a lesbian “TERF,” a devout Muslim and an ostentatious urban scenester, and so forth. Which might help explain the need to invent a unitary white caste oppressing all who struggle.
Per multiple amusing but deadly serious recent polls, only 2%-3% of Hispanics/Latinos actually use the “Latinx” descriptor so favored by both feminists and LGBT activists as a way to make la lengua de Cervantes less gendered, while almost 40% of those who are even aware of the term describe themselves as less likely to vote for a political candidate who does use it. Traditionalist Blacks and Hispanics also frequently poll as some of the most homophobic and “transphobic” Americans. Even among registered Democratic voters, 45% of Blacks and fully 59% of Hispanics (versus 25% or less of liberal whites) refused to accept the claim that a person’s gender can be determined by anything other than “their sex at birth.” How might veterans of the Stonewall era—many of whom saw friends and fellow citizens die for the old pride flag—feel about expanding it to include representations of society’s least LGBT-friendly groups?
It is not just wrong to assert that all nonwhite, nonheteronormative Americans are connected because all are oppressed by a single source of evil; it also correlates with negative societal consequences, including increased levels of individual fear and decreased levels of individual empowerment. According to the Skeptic Research Center, a slight majority of Americans on the left believe the number of unarmed Black men killed by police officers in a given year is somewhere between “about 1,000” and “more than 10,000.” The political scientist Eric Kaufman came to similar conclusions, finding in 2021 that 8 in 10 Black Americans and 6 out of 10 educated white liberal Americans (at least in his sizable samples) believe that young Black men are more likely to be killed by cops than to die in automobile wrecks. In reality, the average number of unarmed Black Americans shot and killed in 2020 by on-duty police officers was on the order of 17, according to a database put together over the past several years by the slightly right-of-Trotsky Washington Post.
Kaufman’s paper, “The Social Construction of Racism in the United States,” also found that exposure to contemporary critical theory makes minority citizens feel less confident about their chances of personal success. In one quantitative test of survey respondents, Kaufman found that African Americans who had read a passage written by pro-reparations author Ta-Nehisi Coates were 15% less likely than African American members of a control group that read a passage of standard Black history to identify with the statement: “When I make plans, I am almost certain that I can make them work.” No one-off effect, the drop-off in self-confidence from readers of standard history to readers of Coates was consistent across other questions about personal efficacy, including “No matter how much I try, I don’t receive any credit for what I do” and “It is my responsibility to make the most of my talents and abilities.” The results Kaufman found were significant in each case, at the (p=.05) level or below. As a Black man, such levels of individual fear and feelings of helplessness are disturbing, and can only be made worse by demands to “get in formation” with disparate groups for a fight against an imaginary enemy that requires the subordination of individual interests.
Far from the flag of a thousand shapes and colors, the implementation of the “shared oppression” idea in reality looks more like the increasing tensions between traditional feminists and transwomen (biological males who identify as women in gender terms). For the past several years, these two groups have been publicly clashing around a range of issues, from J.K. Rowling’s public defense of biological sex and criticism of terms like “people who menstruate,” to the inclusion of trans-identifying biological males like Lia Thomas in women’s athletic events, to how we should “believe women” if a lesbian woman accuses a transwoman of sexual harassment.
I have no dog in this unfortunate fight, other than to point out that women’s rights and transgender inclusivity clearly are not the same cause, any more than racial equality will be advanced by eliminating carbon emissions. All of which is a good argument for old-school, incremental, single-issue activism, and for leaving the old LGBT pride flag alone.
Wilfred Reilly, a political science professor at Kentucky State University, is the author of Taboo: 10 Facts You Can’t Talk About.