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An Interview with Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò

[PHILOSOPHER]

“When I say we should change the world, I mean it literally. I’m talking about a literal construction project.” 

Things we need to change, according to Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò
The number of trees that are planted now
The quantity of organic matter in the soil
The amount of food that’s going to this city rather than to that city

header-image

An Interview with Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò

[PHILOSOPHER]

“When I say we should change the world, I mean it literally. I’m talking about a literal construction project.” 

Things we need to change, according to Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò
The number of trees that are planted now
The quantity of organic matter in the soil
The amount of food that’s going to this city rather than to that city

An Interview with Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò

Benjamin R. Cohen
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Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò is a philosopher by training and a public intellectual by vocation. He writes about climate and racial justice from his office at Georgetown University, where he is an associate professor. His widely acclaimed work focuses on reparations and elite capture, a term that describes how those perpetuating racial capitalism will co-opt the critique of it—by misusing the term identity politics, for example—to pit people against one another and further harm marginalized groups. Táíwò’s combination of depth and range is rare in the academy.

He was born in the Bay Area to Nigerian immigrants who’d moved there for graduate school in the late 1980s. They later relocated to Cincinnati, where Táíwò spent part of his childhood in an active Nigerian American community, and the other part in mostly white institutions. He went to white schools and Sunday churches, but also attended entirely Black African Bible study groups and discovered a social scene of African Americans and African immigrants. Those contrasts marked the Midwestern childhood of a self-­described nerd. His upbringing was framed by questions of belonging, as he navigated spaces of bigotry daily. He then majored in philosophy at Indiana University, and went on to pursue his graduate studies at UCLA, but not before taking a year off to try to become a professional musician. The saxophonic life didn’t pan out—he credits failing as a musician for its character-building success—but his studies of freedom, colonialism, and political philosophy earned him a PhD in 2018.

In the mere half decade since, we’ve seen many so-called racial reckonings and one full-blown global pandemic. During that time, Táíwò’s voice has become increasingly forceful, establishing him as one of the leading contemporary thinkers to consider racial and climate justice together. That voice is above all clear and evocative. Another interviewer once characterized him as relaxed and unpretentious. Readers will notice those qualities in all his works: Elite Capture: How the Powerful Took Over Identity Politics (Haymarket Books, 2022), Reconsidering Reparations (Oxford University Press, 2022), articles in a dozen-plus academic journals, and a score of essays published in mainstream venues.

—Benjamin R. Cohen

I. LOST IN ABSTRACTION

THE BELIEVER: Climate justice, racial capitalism, reparations, identity politics, standpoint epistemology: this is not light material. But I’m reading your work in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Al Jazeera, The Nation—places I don’t often see this kind of philosophically informed broad engagement with such topics. What draws you to write for the more mainstream cultural, political, and literary forums? How does it fit into your work life?

OLÚFé.MI O. TÁÍWÒ: You know, in a lot of ways it’s just a function of the kinds of things I work on. There’s a place for philosophy that’s more esoteric, I don’t know what kind of conversation you could get going at Teen Vogue about mereology or the philosophical problem of what constitutes a “heap” or something. But the topics I work on—like reparations, like the change of our literal physical and political infrastructure in response to the climate crisis, like the goals of racial justice—I don’t think there’s even the presumption that those intellectual questions are purely technical. They’re clearly of some public import, even if researchers talk about them differently than the general public does.

BLVR: They’re not of interest only to technical logicians or something.

OT: Right. On my part, there’s never been the presumption that the only people I should be talking to are academics. For better or worse, we all live in these structures and have to figure them out together. I’ve been asked before why I talk about these things in public venues, but from my perspective, the thing you’d have to explain is not doing that.

BLVR: Even so, not all philosophers or academics write fluidly for different audiences. Did you cultivate that skill or did you just always feel it?

OT: It’s definitely something I work on, and, you know, there’s so much hidden labor that goes into a lot of these publications. One of the things I’ve been fortunate about is having good experiences with editors at various publications, people like my editor Jen Parker at Hammer & Hope, or Shuja Haider at The Nation, to name two that jump right out. People talk about publishing as if it’s the work of the one person whose name is in the byline, but in my case, I’ve been lucky to work with editors who are good at helping me and other writers speak to different audiences.

BLVR: We tiptoed onto the topics of invisible labor and concealed structures, which I wanted to ask about more fully. Both these things happen beneath or before us. Some people—like colonizers, settlers, capitalists, industrialists—are responsible for their existence, and others bear the burden of it. 

OT: Hidden infrastructures.

BLVR: That’s it: hidden infrastructures. The hidden parts of publishing are a small example, I know, but it got me thinking about larger problems. You take the word structure seriously, not just as a metaphor but as a practical point about how people build things. Elite Capture and Reconsidering Reparations had me thinking that you’re a very architectural philosopher. You talk about construction, reconstruction, foundations—the tactility of building, like, you need a hard hat to get the work done.

OT: I do talk about building often.

BLVR: There’s a fable that comes up in some of my classes, about these people on the side of the river who see a baby floating in the current, so they all, quite sensibly, jump into the river to save the baby, only to find more floating down the river, and more. And they keep saving them, until someone on shore says, “Hey, we should go upriver to find out who’s putting babies in the water.” I mean, you don’t stop getting the baby that’s right there out of the river; it’s not an either/or scenario. But you have to understand why this is happening if you want to truly address it. If we’re talking about how to think about the big issues—justice, climate, identity—and I don’t mean to get us bogged down in the place of metaphor, but how do you think through the ways our current problems are coming from upriver?

OT: I would say my writing is actually an effort to avoid metaphor, maybe even more than to use it. So there’s an abstract, philosophical commitment—in particular a form of materialist thought—that emphasizes these kinds of broader ecological arrangements of power. These social and political relationships are the context in which we make our individual, or organizational, collective choices about what to do, what to pursue, how to pursue it. It’s about these ecological relationships that load the deck in favor of some people and places and things, and against other people and places and things. In the midst of that highly abstract explanation of the way I think about politics, one of the things I fear being lost is: I’m not speaking metaphorically. When I say we should change the world, I mean it literally. I’m talking about a literal construction project. When I say we should change the world ecologically, I’m saying the number of trees that are planted now, the number of actual trees with roots in the actual ground, needs to be a larger number—

BLVR: A whole reality. Building gardens, forests, farm stands, community centers.

OT: Exactly! The quantity of organic matter in the soil, the amount of food that’s going to this city rather than to that city, and at this price. Those are the things we need to change. And it’s very easy for the concreteness of that project to get lost in the necessary abstractions we use to talk about that project at scale, and to talk about that project across domains. Sometimes we’re worried about where funding is going, about where food is going, and so to talk about that on a planetary scale, you need to make abstractions. But for me, I want to speak in terms of construction projects because I’m trying to consistently emphasize that, despite the abstractions, the things I’m talking about are real, tangible flows of capital, of food, of soil, of waste. It’s those distributions of political power—which are just as real as any of the things I’ve mentioned—that we have to do something about.

BLVR: You talk about Flint, Michigan, in Elite Capture. The point of the Flint water crisis being: We want clean water, not talking points about clean water justice. We want actual clean water. All the political work around that takes effort, we get it, but it’s all so we can have actual clean water in our cups and in our sinks.

OT: That’s right, and I think, at bottom, the hope is that you find a way of thinking through abstractions that makes them aids to thinking about concrete political decisions, as opposed to being alternatives to concrete solutions.

II. “WELCOME TO POLITICS. ARE YOU NEW HERE?”

BLVR: I wanted to get into another part of Elite Capture, because there’s a complicated phrase you unfold in the book, “the deferential applications of standpoint epistemology,” and it feels key. Could you say more about that passage?

OT: Basically, standpoint epistemology is the idea that what people know depends on who they are. So what kind of relationship do you have to the world around you? And sometimes people talk about that in terms of social position or social identity. The basic idea is that different people have access to different kinds of knowledge about the world, based on their different experiences and their different relationships to the world. Women are going to learn things about gender that men don’t; Black people are going to know things about racism that white people won’t. That kind of thought. If you stare at that directly, it would be very surprising if that were not true. If the kinds of things that determine how people treat you and who you have connections with had no impact on the information you have about the world? That would be extremely surprising, right?

BLVR: OK, so you’re talking about differences in access to knowledge, a human point of experience-based understanding.

OT: Yeah, and if you have any kind of empiricism going, it would be very difficult, at this level of abstraction, to fight that conclusion. So what standpoint epistemology builds on top of—its very accurate, very poignant insight—is just the intention to pay attention to those kinds of differences in access to knowledge. It’s not just true, as a matter of fact, that some people have access to different sorts of knowledge about the world. It’s that when we’re doing science, when we’re doing theory, when we’re trying to figure out what the world is like, those are differences that we can pay attention to, and as you add flesh onto the bones of this thought, you start to see where controversies might come in. Well, pay attention to those kinds of differences how? What precise difference does it make that someone is from this group or that group?

And there’s lots to get into there, but I’ll just punctuate this by saying that I think the basic insight of standpoint epistemology is true and it’s useful and it’s important. And I say that for the sake of making it clear that what I’m about to describe is just one way to use that insight. It’s not equivalent to that insight; it’s a thing to do with it, and we can and should discuss it in those terms. And that gets me further into your question—to what I’ve been calling “deference”: “deference epistemology.”

One way you could respond to the true, useful, and important fact that different people are situated differently is to say this: I’m going to figure out what an oppressive society is like and figure out how I should respond to it by finding someone from an oppressed group and deferring to their political analysis—describing the world as they describe the world; maybe even going further than that; maybe taking cues from them about what I should do, what constitutes solidarity, what constitutes allyship, or how I should respond to that version of oppression. I don’t like that way of using the standpoint epistemology insight, and I have a bunch of criticisms of it.

BLVR: You point out that identity politics derives from the Combahee River Collective in the 1970s. Who you are influences how you walk in the world. Where you come from shapes how you experience the world. Then we find in the decades since this term’s origination that those in power co-opt and abuse it.

OT: Let me say it this way. It’s definitely true that the people who are best positioned to opine on identity politics across the political spectrum have done so in a way that’s convenient for them and not necessarily tied to the core values that either standpoint epistemology or, much more broadly, identity politics were originally thought to describe and defend. But, I don’t know, the more I talk about this, the less I understand the pushback against identity politics, and I’ll be a little uncharitable about it, but—

BLVR: Go for it.

OT: [Laughs] People tell me that identity politics is used to pursue political agendas that aren’t really about helping the marginalized, and that people use these words in ways that are disconnected from the true meaning that it might have for core activists. I listen to those complaints about identity politics and I listen and I nod and I wait to hear the important insight that is being expressed to me, and they stop talking. Then I get confused. Show me a political concept that has not and could not be creatively utilized by the people in power, or the people who are relatively advantaged over some more marginalized group of people. I don’t know. I don’t know what people have in mind, what the contrast case is against which identity politics has some special deficiency. There’s no place to go from that basic insight—like, Welcome to politics. Are you new here?

BLVR: [Laughs] Your article “Being-in-the-Room Privilege” laid out some of these issues before you expanded on them in Elite Capture. You say that the rooms of power and influence are built at the end of this long process. So even if we’re in the room, we would say, Sure, let’s get different voices in the room. Let’s pass the mic. Let’s center the most marginalized—but what about the person who built that room? How did that room get there? Who decided that we’re in this room? There’s an entire series of events that happened historically, and it’s like, OK, we’re just going to accept the first ninety-nine steps and then talk about step one hundred as if it is the first one. My reading of your work on deferential politics is that it’s not really so much about whether the term identity politics is good or bad, or if it’s used or misused. It’s more: Well, there’s so much shit going on that got us to this point that we’re in this room talking. If we put all our work into deferring to those otherwise kept out of the room, we accept that the structure, the room itself, is fine.

OT: And it goes back to that line from earlier: if someone finds a baby in the river, we should absolutely pull the baby out of the river, but also there are questions we should ask. And one of the ways I put it when I talk about this in public is: There are actual funding structures behind CNN and Fox News and major research universities, and those structures come with people who make decisions, and those people, as a matter of concrete fact, get to decide which version of identity politics you get to hear. It’s not as if there is a lottery that decides what the media covers or what is in your textbook. And as soon as you tell the story of which people occupy those decision-making points and why, you’ll have gotten some distance to answering why the version of identity politics that circulates is the one that is probably more favorable to J. P. Morgan than the one that would be favorable to people whose houses were foreclosed on. I don’t think you’re learning some deep fact about what is actually in the Combahee River Collective Statement, right? If you wanted a deep fact about that, maybe you should just read it, rather than trying to work backward through decades of ideological drift and propagandizing.

BLVR: Is that coverage philosophically limiting? It doesn’t allow for the fuller historical and, as you say, ideological context?

OT: Yeah, and it’s practically limiting too. It doesn’t just limit the ways people theorize it. It limits how people act in the world. The reason that’s important is because you have to solve proximate problems—if your house is on fire, you have to put the fire out, but if you don’t want to be doing that every year, you need to catch the arsonist. To make lasting, transformative change, you have to deal with root causes, not just immediate causes. And lots of political analysis and thinking try to figure out what those root causes are and what aspects of them are tractable or changeable, and identity politics is no exception to this general rule. 

BLVR: That notion underneath the “Being-in-the-Room Privilege” argument and Elite Capture—it hit on something that got people thinking. I kept seeing references to it in a range of conversations.

OT: One of the things I’ve been struck by since writing the article and book is that identity politics is just like the rest of politics. There’s no special thing happening there. There’s no special ideological deficiency; there’s no special political deficiency. The causes of the problems in that realm are not different, as far as I can tell, from the causes of other ideological problems or rhetorical problems or communicative problems that are tied to different political concepts. There’s been a very intentional effort by the right wing—but I think with some participation from the center and the left—to try to make identity politics seem special for the very simple reason that people look at you funny if you just say, I want segregation back. But the people who want segregation back had to figure out something else to say, so they just landed on opposition to wokeness. Even that is not particularly special. It’s not the first time people have found some more polite-sounding wedge issue to use to fight for openly reactionary ideals, so we shouldn’t act like it is, and we shouldn’t act like there’s something special happening here. This is not particularly complicated or intellectually involved; it’s the right fighting the center fighting the left. And if we on the left (that’s where I put myself) want to grapple with it all, it might help to have some basic clarity about what’s actually happening.

III. “THE DOMAIN OF JUSTICE”

BLVR: If you don’t want your house to be on fire all the time, you catch the arsonist; if you want to save the babies in the river, you find out who’s putting them in the river. If we move this to the climate point, we’d say that instead of the fire, instead of the baby, we’re dealing with pollution and other environmental harms. If we want to redress problems like pollution, climate change, sea-level rise, lack of access to clean water, corrupted land, and damaged food, your work pushes us to try to understand the edifice that has produced environmental damage.

OT: We should talk about climate justice. And here the pollution metaphor does justice to the basic strategy of both books, because it’s not a metaphor. Climate change is driven by actual pollution, which is bound up with the role of capitalism and the role of imperialism and the role of consumerism.

BLVR: We had to reschedule our initial interview last year because smoke from Canadian wildfires overtook my hometown in Pennsylvania.

OT: I forgot about that! Confronting these broader stories means confronting more specific disasters and calamities that come with the climate crisis. Heat waves, and hurricanes, and rainfall variation, and harm to crop yields, and heightened evictions, and heightened policing within countries and at the borders—

BLVR: Those make some of my metaphors a bit thin.

OT: No, it’s not as clean, unfortunately, as the baby-in-the-river metaphor. But this is just me being fair to everybody else. I mean, do we have to just destroy consumerism, this entire edifice of human behavior, to deal with one hurricane in the Gulf? What do these broader ills that are harming people have to do with more local problems?

BLVR: What is a good working definition of climate justice?

OT: I see climate justice less as a specific kind of justice and more as a domain of justice. There are going to be pressures on our political and economic systems that are caused by the climate crisis, and there are going to be specific actions to reconstitute our energy and food systems that countries, regions, and cities take in response to the climate crisis. In both those senses there are questions to ask about justice: Which people are empowered by the changes we make to deal with droughts? Which people are made safe by the levees and seawalls that are erected to protect them from sea-level rise? Which people are insured in programs that are put into place to give people economic security in a warming world? Those are concrete political questions.

BLVR: They raise important questions about distribution, about how harms and benefits get distributed: Why is the municipal waste dump here? Why is there more trash there? Why is there bad water here? It didn’t get that way accident­ally. Not to mention the process of how decisions are made, who gets to participate, whose voice is heard. How do you try to address all the questions raised by the climate crisis?

OT: The way I think about these problems is through the lens of self-determination. That’s what I’m working on now: freedom and self-determination. I think many have viewed freedom as self-determination, and I’m trying to figure out why that is, basically.

BLVR: This feels like a good place to ask for an example.

OT: OK, so suppose you’re someone who can place a big emphasis on who gets to be part of the decision-making process—procedural justice. There are all sorts of reasons why procedural justice is an important aspect of thinking broadly about justice, but what mistake would someone be making if they thought procedural justice was all there was to justice? And if they thought about procedural justice as something like inclusion in political processes? Well, you know, not all inclusion is created equal. You could include the public in an advisory role; you could schedule town halls during working hours so nobody could come to them. Here it’s not even inclusion but the possibility of inclusion. There are all sorts of ways you could cosmetically include people in politics that would fail to do the most important thing, which is including people in the political decisions that shape their lives. I don’t think that’s anybody’s vision of justice, procedural or otherwise.

BLVR: What’s missing?

OT: Well, when you start to ask what’s missing from that kind of caricature of justice, what’s important, to me at least, is thinking about the direction of freedom as self-determination. That’s a way of asking what justice requires of a social system: it gives people meaningful power to actually shape their own lives. That does not mean simply having the opportunity to shape their lives or to be in the room when their lives are being shaped. You’d start worrying about whether people had an actual opportunity to make the meeting, or if the meeting could be scheduled at a time when more people could come. You’d start to wonder: What’s the point of this meeting? Is it just a meeting to advise the people with the real decision-making power? Are the people who make the decisions about infrastructure elected or not elected? And if they are elected, are they responsive to the people who elected them? If they are not elected, are they chosen in a way that implies genuine democratic input? All those questions, I think, are about who has the power to shape the world around us. They are not simply about whether the processes that shape the world meet the cosmetic criteria of democracy, but about who is actually doing the shaping. And that’s where self-determination meets freedom.

BLVR: I talk with food-justice students about the difference between food security and food sovereignty. Food security is narrower: Do people have enough calories? Is there enough food for them? Food sovereignty is more about how people choose what they are going to eat and how they are going to get their food. Do they have the capacity to choose their diets? It’s a harder thing to achieve.

OT: Right. I think the food security/food sovereignty distinction is the same as the freedom/self-determination distinction, just on the topic of food. We walk that distinction out to every aspect of social life, and it’s the same thing. Are we shaping the world around one another and alongside one another, or are some of us shaping the world for others? That’s the key distinction right there.

BLVR: You’ve done work on justice around energy technologies—how we produce it, how we distribute it, who gets it—but it’s instructive that your points about climate justice keep the interconnected environmental systems at hand. That is, the ways energy and food and water are tied together.

OT: Yeah, among other things, a food system is a set of flows and stocks of solar energy—it’s all systems all the way down. I get it: it’s convenient and helpful for us limited beings to sift parts of this enormously complex system into buckets, to sit in a room and be like, In this room we’re going to talk about food, and to sit in another room and say, In this room we’re going to talk about energy. We make these problems artificially smaller and artificially contained so they are trackable, so students can have an actual amount of learnable material in front of them. But that’s something we impose for trackability; it’s not a real distinction.

BLVR: Can you talk about the implications of how we think about justice and equity when we pay attention to interconnected environmental systems?

OT: It’s like the apple tree doesn’t say, I’m part of the food network, so it doesn’t matter whether or not I get water! That’s not what happens in nature. But we’re dealing with the actual movement of energy and goods and the military, and in principle anything could be relevant to that. I think, in terms of my particular political philosophy, just trying to keep that sort of thing in mind is crucial.

IV. HOBSBAWM’S HISTORIES

BLVR: How did you get to these ideas? Whose work influences you?

OT: Honestly, a lot of the core theoretical convictions I have were sparked by the anti-colonial activists of the ’50s and ’60s. Maybe some people got there centuries before that, but I’m really motivated by that period of political history. People like Amílcar Cabral, especially. I mean, speaking of food, in addition to being an anti-colonial materialist, he was a soil scientist.

BLVR: I learned from you that he had a keen sense of history too.

OT: Definitely, and that’s another thing: historians are huge influences on how I think. I think few other disciplines encourage, maybe even require, the kind of breadth that I aspire to as a political philosopher. Like, think of Eric Hobsbawm’s histories. With equal fluency, this guy is talking about the rates of technological adoption across centuries in Europe and the artistic movements of the US and the intellectual progression of different elites in different parts of the world. And he’s trying to tell a story that encompasses all those things. I don’t know that any one person can do the complexity of the world justice, but I think that’s what we should be trying for as research communities. And in the field of history it’s nice to see people trying to do that. I mention Hobsbawm as an influence because he has the most comically large stories to tell. But also C.L.R. James, Robin Kelley: this could be a long list—

BLVR: We’re here for it.

OT: [Laughs] I was about to add heterodox economists to the mix too. It’s fashionable now to shit on economics, and I get why, but I think there’s a lot to learn there, especially from a materialist perspective. I think some economists, like Daniela Gabor, are trying to ask and answer the kinds of questions I’m trying to ask and answer. I’m thinking of economists like Ndongo Samba Sylla and Isabella Weber. Then there are people in the intellectual journalist sphere. Tim Sahay is one. These are my contemporaries who are working on issues in ways that push me to do more.

BLVR: We haven’t even touched on philosophers, though I know our time is running short here.

OT: There are people in philosophy departments, particularly in the past few decades, who have been enormously influential to me. Charles Mills is an obvious one. Plus contemporary but senior scholars that I continue to learn from—people like Lewis Gordon, Chike Jeffers, Linda Martín Alcoff. Plenty of philosophers have worked on things I’m interested in, but given how the world works, it’s no surprise that someone with my interests has to read so far outside philosophy.

BLVR: We started with your own contributions to philosophy, political culture, intellectually engaging journalism, and we’re ending by looking to those you’ve been in conversation with, the hidden infrastructure of ideas that has led you to make your own contributions.

OT: The last thing I’d say, then, is that I invest in what our contemporaries are doing, obviously, but I really don’t get the sense, especially in the humanities, that the right way to think of the passage of time is as a progression. I think things are cyclical. Sometimes things regress very noticeably. Whether it was written fifty years ago or fifty seconds ago, there’s potentially something to learn there. Just be open-minded.

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