Editor's Note

We regret to inform readers that for personal reasons, Melissa Harris-Perry will not be participating.

About this Issue

Intersectionality is a perspective in sociology and related fields that encourages researchers to consider the ways that different forms of prejudice and oppression interact with one another. So, for example, a person who is both of a racial minority and also gay may find—unsurprisingly—that both of these attributes can be a source of stigma. What intersectional analysis contributes to the study of such a person’s life is that the two prejudices or systems of oppression are not necessarily simply additive. They interact in complex ways that also deserve to be considered in their own right.

What does intersectionality add to our understanding of the world and those who inhabit it? And what specifically can intersectionality contribute to research that is otherwise done in the classical liberal paradigm? Classical liberalism has traditionally valorized individualism and looked with some suspicion on group identities in general. Voices on the right side of the political spectrum in particular have urged that intersectionality is not a useful lens for viewing the world at all.

One might think, then, that this fusion isn’t a particularly promising one, but our lead essayist for this month, Prof. Jacob T. Levy of McGill University, begs to differ. Joining him will be Phillip W. Magness of the American Institute for Economic Research, Prof. Fabio Rojas of Indiana University Bloomington, and Prof. Melissa Harris-Perry of Wake Forest University. Comments are also open through the month for readers to join the discussion.

Lead Essay

Of Groups, Intersections, and the People Who Inhabit Them

The powerful norms and rules that structured life in the American South during slavery and Jim Crow not only prohibited sex between black men and white women but tried to tightly regulate even the possibility of a black man’s sexual desire for a white woman. To rape a white woman, to be suspected of raping a white woman, to sexually proposition a white woman, sometimes to look at a white woman in a way that some observer interpreted as lustful—these were forbidden, and during the long era of lynching they were paradigmatically offenses punished by death. By contrast, those norms and rules only intermittently, and never as severely, restricted white men’s sexual interest in black women, up to and including rape. In some times and places it might be a matter of embarrassment, not to be publicly acknowledged—and the resulting born-into-slavery offspring were certainly not to be acknowledged—but it was not a hanging offense, and de facto almost never a criminal offense at all.

Was there a relationship between the racism of the era and sex? Or rape? It would take a singularly obtuse analysis to say “no; interracial sex was neither generally prohibited nor generally allowed; interracial rape was neither generally prohibited nor generally allowed; therefore, race and norms about sex or rape were uncorrelated.” The norms of white supremacy interacted with norms about sex and gender; racism was refracted through gender, and they manifested differently in the two (heterosexual) pairings. A contemporary academic scholar would be likely to express this as “racism was gendered” or “patriarchy was racialized,” or both, but that language is secondary to the basic thought that racist and sexist norms interacted in a way that means we shouldn’t just take some average and say “race didn’t matter.”

In statistics, when studying a phenomenon with a quantifiable dependent variable, we commonly find two independent variables that complicate each other. Suppose that, all else equal, higher income is associated with more conservative political views, and higher education is associated with more liberal political views, but higher education is also correlated with higher income. We improve the power of a statistical model that seeks to predict ideology by using as independent variables income, education, and an interaction between the two. Without including the interaction effect, the income and education effects might confound each other to the point where we doubted that either matters for ideology, when in fact both do. While interaction effects are easiest to understand—and to control for—in statistical studies, the underlying thought need not be restricted to easily quantifiable outcomes. Two or more causes or phenomena might both be important for understanding some outcome or state of affairs, but they interact with each other in shaping the outcome such that we won’t understand the outcome as well as we could if we look at each one separately.

None of this is controversial—certainly not in quantitative social science, and expressed at this level of generality, not in qualitative social science either.

For some reason, however, intersectionality—the analytical strategy of thinking about such phenomena as race and gender, or racism and sexism, as interacting—has become a wildly controversial concept, mostly among right-leaning non-academics who have fixated on an extraordinary caricature of it and elevated it into a religion, cult, or totalitarian ethos that somehow rules higher education. I imagine that we will devote some of the reply and discussion essays to that problem. I want to set it aside for now, in order to answer the question the symposium asks, and to argue that intersectionality rightly understood is an important and valuable intellectual tool for classical liberalism.

Intersectionality was first developed by the legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw in a 1989 article in the University of Chicago Legal Forum, “Demarginalizing the intersection of race and sex: A black feminist critique of antidiscrimination doctrine, feminist theory, and antiracist politics.”

She developed it further in a 1991 article in the Stanford Law Review, “Mapping the margins: Intersectionality, identity politics, and violence against women of color.” (I will also note, and the literature acknowledges, that my late colleague and collaborator Iris Marion Young developed closely related ideas using a different vocabulary in her 1990 Justice and the Politics of Difference.)

The two main targets of critique in these articles are, first, identity politics as it was then conceived, and, second, elements of U.S. antidiscrimination law, both of which she argued treated concerns about racism and racial discrimination and concerns about sexism and sex discrimination separately from one another. Doing so, she argued, tended to obscure intergroup differences. Feminism tended to become the politics of white middle-class women representing their concerns as those of women as such. Antiracist politics tended to become the politics of black men. Black women, and by extension women of color generally, were hidden from theoretical view: “this focus on otherwise-privileged group members creates a distorted analysis of racism and sexism because the operative conceptions of race and sex become grounded in experiences that actually represent only a subset of a much more complex phenomenon.”

It’s worth emphasizing a few features of intersectionality as an analytical tool that one would not know from the familiar caricature of it. One is that its key original targets of criticism were extant versions of identity politics and antidiscrimination law. Intersectionality is not itself an answer to any broad-brush question like “how racist or sexist is American society?” One could think—Crenshaw doesn’t, and I don’t, but one could—that the answer to that question was “not very,” and still think that intersectionality was an important tool for understanding how the remaining vestiges of racism and sexism manifest. Another is that intersectionality is not about the question “who is most oppressed?” and its method is not to count up different axes of oppression. Its central question is not how much?—a question that might call for such counting—but rather how?

Now, once one begins to think intersectionally, it becomes a natural question to ask of any given group’s identity politics, avowed representatives, and legal standing whether some subgroups’ interests or oppression are being obscured. And it is something of a truism that it will tend to be less powerful subgroups whose different experiences of injustice are less seen or heard. So an intersectional approach will tend to direct attention to the question “does this representation of the injustice one group suffers hide the different way that a less-powerful subgroup experiences the injustice?” That will mean, for example, that attention tends to get drawn to the question “does this particular feminist claim about injustice rely on a description of the lives of white middle-class women and obscure the very different way things play out for poor women or women of color?” But the point of that is not to stack the categories “woman,” “poor,” and “racial minority.” It is to refract each through the others.

In statistics, not all interaction terms turn out to have explanatory power. Not every dimension of social difference or social inequality interacts with every other dimension, either, and sometimes asking these questions won’t reveal relevant differences. But this is true for every methodological question of social analysis: the “who benefits?” of public choice theory, the “at what cost and at what margin?” of microeconomics, the “how will competing actors respond?” of game theory, and so on. Any of these questions can be distorting if it is taken to be the only question, and it can tempt the analyst who uses it to think it always generates answers that explain every situation. But they all sometimes direct our attention at questions we want answered, and that’s enough to understand them as being intellectually useful and valuable.

With that understanding in mind, what makes intersectionality useful and valuable to classical liberalism—and vice-versa? I should emphasize that I think classical liberals share other liberals’ reasons for wanting to know how, for example, racism and misogyny work and interact at a social and cultural level. But in the interest of having a symposium suitable to Cato Unbound, I want to single out some reasons why classical liberal social theorists in particular should be interested in asking intersectional questions, beyond the reasons that they share with liberalism more broadly understood.

At their worst, classical liberal ideas, slogans, and politics have been appropriated as defenses only of the liberty of white men, with “liberty” here meaning a freedom from state intervention in private and quasi-private sites of domination of others from the plantation to the marital bedroom. In the standard case, classical liberal political theory has defended formal equal liberty for all but implicitly relied on racialized nationalist understandings of the pre-political people and preferred formal treatments of rights to substantive political understandings of how state violence and power are used, and how they connect with social sources of power. But at their best, not only should classical liberal ideals be genuinely concerned with liberty for all; so should classical liberal social analysis be genuinely concerned with the social sources and social effects of unfreedom. For this, intersectionality offers essential insights.

Social injustice and spontaneous orders

I have argued elsewhere that the broad idea of social injustice that includes generalized racial and gendered social disadvantage is much more congenial to classical liberal social analysis than has been generally recognized. Smithian and Hayekian understandings of complex and emergent social orders encourage us to de-emphasize attention to actors making deliberate decisions to plan large-scale outcomes, in favor of observed outcomes that are real but possibly unintended by anyone involved. Emergent orders can have properties that their components do not have. It is possible for each of us to be led by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of our intention. And there is no reason to suppose that such ends are inevitably beneficial or salutary. Small-scale perversities, accidents, historical legacies, or practices can multiply and ossify into self-reinforcing large-scale patterns of exclusion and domination. Thomas Schelling’s famous model showing that white flight could be a case of a “complex system with collective results that bear no close relation to individual intent” has sometimes been taken as somehow exculpatory of American society, as if the only lesson that could be drawn from it is that one can’t infer individual-level racist attitudes from the fact of white flight. But if we are interested in social analysis rather than in treating racism as an individual sin and providing individual white people with a defense against the charge, this is very strange. As in Smith’s original discussion, our interest should be less in the souls of the individual actors than in the shape of the world they create—in the case of white flight, one in which both high-quality publicly provided goods and increases in wealth through homeownership are constantly receding from the reach of black households. This is not an injustice that is created de novo—a history of unjust de jure housing segregation shaped the initial dynamic, as did white homeowners’ suspicion that other white homeowners and buyers might harbor racist attitudes. But it amplifies, multiplies, and reshapes the unjust inheritances into a new pattern.

But precisely because emergent injustices don’t map onto obvious individual-level injustices (each homeowner has a right to sell their own house when they like and violates no one’s rights by doing so), they require deliberate social-level examination to pick out. Again, this is familiar. If you focus on each person pursuing their self-interest and never look at, so to speak, the wealth of nations, you would never notice the end that they have inadvertently promoted. The “spontaneous orders” F.A. Hayek examined through his scholarly career require the same ability to look at a phenomenon at two levels: language, the common law, the price system, evolved cultural rules—none of these can be read directly off individual actions or bilateral exchanges. So one has to have access to questions that direct intellectual attention. Understanding the existence of racism directs our attention to noticing white flight amidst the churn of tens of millions of residential property sales in a year. Knowing that race and gender interact gives us the ability to notice and to ask about patterns of exclusion and domination in which they do so, from labor markets to cultural stereotypes.

Social power and state power

Classical liberals are—or ought to be—particularly interested in the sources and causes of state power. All too often, though, that inquiry begins and ends with the concept of rent-seeking, the understanding that powerful economic actors seek to advance their economic interest through the strategic use of state regulation and expenditure. The phenomenon of the powerful seeking to use and expand state authority to entrench and enhance their domination is entirely general. This should sound like a truism:the powerful use their power to protect and expand their power. And yet all too often people think it is strange or counterintuitive to say that members of a dominant race, gender, religion, or orientation predictably do what Adam Smith taught us dominant economic interests do: expand state power to entrench existing power relations in another sphere. We astonishingly manage to forget that in the United States racism has been a source of statism, that state power has been expanded to enhance and entrench racial domination, from the organization of armed force to expropriate Indian lands and keep down slave revolts to the drug war, overpolicing, and mass incarceration.

Homophobia, of course, has also been a social cause of state power. While sodomy laws themselves preceded our contemporary sense of sexual orientation as an ongoing identity, in the twentieth century the existence of sodomy laws in the background empowered those in law enforcement and intelligence agencies to expand their power through blackmail, extortion, raids, and the threat of mass arrests. Individual gays and lesbians in government employment or the armed services, gay clubs and bars and social gatherings—all could be held hostage by any number of state actors with the threat of exposure and prosecution, in much the way that sex workers are vulnerable to police dominance to this day.

Classical liberals should want to know whether the intersection between race and homosexuality has generated especially aggravated kinds of state power from the outside—particularly invasive policing of black or mixed-race gay clubs. They should want to know how racism and sexism have interacted in the intrusive paternalism shown by many branches of the state in regulating of women of color’s reproductive lives and childraising.

They should also want to know whether access to or the promise of political power has aggravated in-group power differentials. Political scientist Cathy Cohen documented, for example, the ways in which post-Civil Rights Era African-Americans’ struggle for political power in a society marked by homophobia encouraged an internal silencing of black gay advocacy and expressions of identity, and a studied indifference to the advent of AIDS in black communities.

It’s a very common pattern. A subordinated group with access to a little bit of political power becomes internally vulnerable to the power of its representatives and intermediaries. (I discuss this, without the language of intersectionality, in chapter 3 of Rationalism, Pluralism, and Freedom.) These will typically be the relatively advantaged within the group: the relatively educated, the relatively wealthy, those with relatively high social standing or family status. In most settings we will find that these are, in addition, heterosexual men. The ability to speak for the group to the wider society makes these internal elites the proxy-holders for at least a portion of the wider society’s power over the group. It will be unsurprising if they use it to enhance and entrench their in-group power, and if they represent their elite subgroup’s interests when accessing political resources.

And so in addition to intersecting social group exclusion and domination sometimes being a source of state power, state power will sometimes be a source of intersectional disadvantage. Women, gays and lesbians, the poor, or dissidents will suffer additional in-group disadvantage from the ability of wealthy, educated, orthodox straight men in the group to act as political intermediaries. Even if classical liberal social theory is only interested in questions of state power and state abuses, intersectionality allows for interesting and important questions and analyses.


Sometimes critics of intersectional analysis offer what they suppose to be a clever faux-embrace of it: taken to its conclusion, it leads to complete individualism, because no one person has just the same set of life circumstances as any other, so the most intersectional way to think treats every person as an individual with no reference to social groups at all—or to any phenomena about social groups, such as racism.

The reductio is wrong: a tool of social analysis isn’t useful if it destroys the possibility of social analysis, which depends on the ability to group and aggregate. Economic analysis includes aggregating concepts like “consumers,” “the unemployed,” “the U.S. automotive industry,” “service workers,” “landlords,” and so on; political science has “voters,” “Republicans,” “military officers,” “protestors,” “the German government,” and so on. We never seek to understand the actions and decisions of 7 billion persons, one person at a time.

But the bad-faith reductio still points toward a valuable truth. When we observe the world, whether in the social sciences or outside them, we tend to treat aggregations as fixed blocs, dominant tendencies as stereotypes and rules, and groups as mutually exclusive and jointly exhaustive. We reify nations, religions, races, political parties, economic interests, or whatever. This is a particular problem when we are trying to understand intergroup dynamics that in part consist of just such reification: the stereotyping, objectification, and denial of agency or individuality that so often accompanies thinking about one or another disfavored group. How do we think about the social consequences of racism without reifying races?

The intersectional insight offers one answer. We don’t have to imagine away the categories that allow us to understand domination and exclusion; but we should remember that no one of them ever tells the whole story. No one is ever only their race, only their gender, only their religion, only their sexual orientation—even if any one of those might tell us important things about their social standing, their vulnerability, their legal rights, their political power. Each of those categories may have real explanatory power (“may,” always “may”) about a person’s life or a society’s structure. But there’s no one of them, not even any particular combination of them, that is ever the end of the inquiry. Always being willing to ask the intersectional questions—What other identity might matter? Does the general phenomenon manifest differently for a subgroup, particularly for a subordinate group? Once we’ve identified a group pattern, what various patterns might it be encompassing or hiding?—remind us never to treat any one of those identities or cleavages as the whole of a society, or the whole of a person.

Response Essays

Does Classical Liberalism Need Intersectionality Theory?

Although it remains a point of widely varying emphasis across the past two centuries, a clear strain of anti-discriminatory thought undergirds what may be broadly summarized as the classical liberal philosophical tradition. Its applications extend to race, gender, and religion, and generally aim to center the epistemic humility of toleration within its consideration of individuality. This approach was succinctly summarized by eighteenth-century liberal Whig forebearer Charles James Fox, who noted “Persecution always says, ‘I know the consequences of your opinion better than you know them yourselves.’ But the language of toleration was always amicable, liberal, and just: it confessed its doubts, and acknowledged its ignorance.” Such an approach prioritized assessment “from actions and not from opinions,” as distinct from prejudicial forms of reasoning that render value judgements out of fixed prior assumptions about an individual’s associations, characteristics, or identity.

Although the specific occasion of Fox’s comment was a plea for religious toleration, its principle forms the basis of a broader recognition of the interrelation between discriminatory injustices and state institutions. We find a similar recognition in Adam Smith’s indictment of the colonial slaveowner who employed political leverage to entrench his institution with a complex system of subsidies and discriminatory laws. Indeed, Fox himself would lead a two-decade parliamentary campaign to dismantle this system’s sustaining lifeblood from the transatlantic slave trade. A common current flows through Richard Cobden’s intentional pairing of abolitionism and free market theory under the banner of Exeter Hall liberalism. Cobden’s economic program was branded the “dismal science” by its adversaries specifically from the threat it posed to entrenched racial and class hierarchies. So pronounced were these sentiments that the proslavery radical George Fitzhugh assailed the liberal maxim of laissez-faire in 1851 for making “war with all kinds of slavery” on account of depriving the state of its tools of hierarchical enforcement. And make war upon slavery they did.

The same liberal tradition provided one of the few consistent voices against progressive eugenic planning in the early twentieth century. Ludwig von Mises chastised Keynes in 1927 for unwittingly opening the political doors to mass atrocity by presumptively elevating this new “science” to a function of state policy. Friedrich A. Hayek’s withering dissection of the racial totalitarian Nazi regime a decade later explored the devastation wrought by the same intolerant lines of reasoning.

We find lesser-known manifestations of the liberal anti-discriminatory current in newspaper editor R.C. Hoiles, who took a nearly solitary stance against Franklin Roosevelt’s Japanese internment program, and who campaigned against the segregation of Mexican-American students in 1947 as part of an important case precedent for Brown v. Board. In the postwar era, classical liberalism provided a basis for scholarly investigation of the symbiosis between state power and racial discrimination, as seen in W.H. Hutt’s dissection of the South African Apartheid regime, Gary Becker’s empirics-driven formalization of an economic theory of discrimination, the public choice subfield’s investigations of discriminatory political institutions, and liberal constitutional theorizing around a non-discriminatory generality norm.

I suspect that Jacob Levy would join me in lamenting how the principles of toleration and non-discrimination have languished from underdeveloped attention in some libertarian circles. Yet I also question a presumptive claim from his lead essay that “[w]e astonishingly manage to forget that in the United States racism has been a source of statism, that state power has been expanded to enhance and entrench racial domination.” Clearly as the foregoing examples illustrate, cognizance of this very problem runs deep within the last two and a half centuries of the liberal intellectual tradition. Levy nonetheless proceeds from the belief that a gap exists in classical liberal theory’s treatment of racial and other forms of discrimination. His argument, then, holds that that this gap may be filled with what he describes as the “essential insights” of intersectionality analysis.

First posited by legal theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw in the late 1980s, intersectionality has become an immensely fashionable epistemic framework in academic discussions of race, gender, and other social identities, particularly as they interact under discriminatory or oppressive circumstances. Yet it also has come under fire for its own ideological baggage, and particularly its association with a number of far-left activist causes, including overt hostility to free-market economic theory. While Levy largely discounts these charges as a caricature of a mode of analysis he finds useful, they nonetheless warrant consideration when assessing the relationship between intersectionality theory and classical liberalism.

That brings us to the question of what intersectionality theory has to offer to the same classical liberal tradition. If it is a largely innocuous device for understanding how “racism and misogyny work and interact at a social and cultural level,” as Levy contends, such considerations might be expected to augment the aforementioned anti-discriminatory current to liberal thought. But if, as its critics often charge, intersectionality theory serves primarily to import anti-capitalist, Marxist, and other far-left ideological priors into social scientific analysis, an obvious tension emerges between it and the liberal tradition. Indeed, that tension would be tantamount to a complete inversion of the conscious historical links between anti-discriminatory toleration and free market theory, dating back to Fox, Smith, Cobden, and Hayek.

In attempting to answer these questions, I will note that it is not my intention to dispute whether the problems of discrimination may be interpreted through the framework of intersectional theory. Obviously they can, and they are with great frequency in the academic literature on race and gender. Rather, we must ask whether an intersectional framework is a necessary tool for understanding the interacting effects of discriminatory experiences, to the extent that any tradition that attempts to grapple with these problems will come up short in the absence of that framework. And we must also consider both the robustness of intersectionality as an analytical tool and its vulnerability to epistemic or ideological baggage, as the concept’s critics allege.

Between Two Intersectionalities

Before turning directly to these issues, it is helpful to develop a functional definition of the concept of intersectionality. In doing so, allow me to suggest that there are actually two forms of the concept at play in the associated academic literature, including Crenshaw’s original presentation. For convenience of this discussion I will designate them as its elementary and compound forms.

Elementary intersectionality offers a relatively straightforward observation. Drawing on the analogy of a traffic intersection in which cars flow from multiple directions and, should a collision occur, the quickly compounding effects that follow, Crenshaw presents the term as a mental model for understanding social interactions as well. Elementary intersectionality thus asserts that interactions traversing multiple social identities (race, class, gender, religion, sexuality, politics, and so forth) will produce distinct modes of experience that are different from the experience of any one of those identities when viewed in isolation. This in turn shapes how a social encounter is received by its participants, especially in face of discrimination against one or more component social identity. “[T]he intersectional experience is greater than the sum of racism and sexism,” she explains. As a result “any analysis that does not take intersectionality into account cannot sufficiently address the particular manner in which” a member of multiple identity groups (Crenshaw uses the example of an African-American female) experiences discriminatory subordination.

Crenshaw’s claim here is fairly innocuous in its elementary form and rings true as a simple descriptive observation. This elementary usage is also consistent with what Levy refers to as intersectionality “rightly understood” in his essay. But that “truth” is also banally so, even to the point one might legitimately wonder whether its basic insight is significant enough to warrant so much ink—or whether such interactive complexities were not already a matter of other human intuitions long before the specific coining of the term.

Intersectionality’s academic fashionability likely derives from the path dependency of the scholarly literature it emerged from, as Levy also acknowledges. Crenshaw first presented the concept as a corrective to the shortcomings of earlier feminist theory, which in her critique had placed the white middle-class female experience at the center of feminism to the neglect of other identities, including overlapping experiences that diverged from this archetype. This critique may be entirely appropriate given where mainstream feminist theory stood at the time of Crenshaw’s original article. Its extension to other modes of analysis becomes another matter, particularly given that the intersectionality literature has long since expanded its reach beyond the mid-century feminist genre typified by Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. Here we also begin to encounter the concept’s limitations.

Outside of the normative philosophical universe of critical theory, social scientists have long used a fairly similar conceptual tool to place the study of compound social interactions of almost all types on a firmer empirical basis. Levy’s lead essay openly acknowledges this similarity by way of comparison. But multivariate regression analysis aims not only to quantify the effects of multiple variables upon an observed social phenomenon—it also provides a testable approach for discerning correlations between those terms.

Teasing out the compounding effects of multiple interacting variables is arguably the great challenge of this line of empirical analysis, and it carries with it a benefit that casual intersectionality theorizing often lacks: scientific falsifiability. Of course a related challenge is the limitations of empirical approaches in assessing variables that are not easily quantified, which is where Levy proposes the parallel value of qualitative intersectional analysis. But “difficult to measure” does not mean “impossible to measure.” And in this elementary form, even a charitable interpretation of intersectionality theory begins to look a lot like armchair multivariate regression wherein weak or missing data are made up for by injecting unfalsifiable normative speculation about how race, gender, and other identity categories interact with each other.

Let us turn then to the second form of intersectionality theory though, which I again refer to here as compound intersectionality for purposes of convenience. Whereas I’m somewhat inclined to agree with Levy that conservatives have caricatured the elementary intersectionality claim as delineated above, their charges against the concept gain greater salience when redirected to the compound form.

So what do I mean by compound intersectionality? Here I refer to the scholarly literature, including subsequent contributions by Crenshaw, that takes the relatively uncontroversial if also mundane elementary iteration of the concept then extends it to a universal mode of socio-political analysis and, with it, socio-political activism.

Examples of compound intersectionality theory abound in the scholarly literature, often taking the form of sweeping denunciations of disliked beliefs, concepts, and social institutions. In most forms it functions as a normative identification strategy to imbue the characteristics of racism, sexism, white supremacy, and other bigotries onto the oppositional target of the activist’s political agitation. Generalized assaults on “late capitalism,” “market ideology,” or the trendy pejorative monikerneoliberalism” are commonplace in this literature, as are blanket denigrations of prominent thinkers and liberal intellectual traditions—Milton Friedman (frequently deemed an “architect” or “guru” of “disaster capitalism”), Friedrich A. Hayek (also a “chief architect” of “neoliberalism”), Public Choice theory, and libertarianism in general—as irredeemably tainted by white supremacy, even in the absence of tangible evidence for this charge. Marxist ideology and its many schismatic derivatives from the critical theory world are often baked into this same literature, as are overt activist strategies, making the heavy normative baggage of this mode of analysis an unavoidable feature. In fact, a prominent subset of the compound intersectionality literature is even explicitly devoted to protecting the concept from the supposed corrupting incursions of “neoliberal” hierarchies and “knowledge economies,” which are depicted as existential threats to the activist objectives of a supposed intersectional “political project.”

In its ubiquitous academic deployment, compound intersectionality theory functions as an epistemic trump card wherein the vantage point of an identity group or groups is invoked in the place of weak evidence to establish a social scientific claim as “true,” or to shut down and exclude a competing viewpoint with stronger evidence. We see this pattern frequently in arguments that seek to dismiss salient criticisms of a weakly attested normative proposition on account of presumptive observations about the critic’s own race, gender, class, religion, or other identity category.

While it may be tempting to dissociate these ideological manifestations from the core of intersectionality theory, simply returning to Crenshaw reveals a frank admission that an ideological project lay at the root of its elementary form. “Recognizing that identity politics takes place at the site where categories intersect thus seems more fruitful than challenging the possibility of talking about categories at all,” she explained in a 1990 expansion of the concept. “Through an awareness of intersectionality, we can better acknowledge and ground the differences among us and negotiate the means by which these differences will find expression in constructing group politics.” It offers no use to pivot back to the elementary form of the concept as a means of avoiding the substantial ideological baggage and far-left political activism of its compound iteration, as the two are inextricably linked in its original formulation.

In noting this conundrum, one need not embrace the oversimplified formulations of its underlying critique that come from the editorializing of the political right. Such arguments are still heavy on political rhetoric and uncharitable to the intersectionality concept, even as they touch upon very real problems with its compound form.

A more robust and intellectual criticism of the operative mechanisms may instead be found within scholarly criticisms of the broader critical theory framework. A handful of pertinent examples come to mind. Adam Martin’s assessment of “the New Egalitarianism” identifies two characteristics at play in much of this literature, and compound forms of intersectionality theory seem acutely susceptible. First, such contributions are often intentionally obscurantist, which is to say they adopt an intellectual style to “evade critical scrutiny” of their claims. Harry Frankfurt applies the moniker “bullshit” to this style of argumentation, differentiating it from an outright deception by noting that the academic bullshitter is characterized by a disregard for truth in the service of a narrative or persuasive aim. With its already tenuous relationship to falsifiability in the elementary form, compound intersectionality seems particularly susceptible to sliding down the obscurantist slope of purposeful indulgences in cluttered exercises of proprietary jargon that attempt to imbue its baser political aims with an air of intellectual sophistication.

The second feature of such literature, as Martin notes, is its epistocratic tendencies, achieved by self-invocation of the intersectionality literature as an arbiter of its own validity. Intersectionality’s origins within a relatively narrow slice of literature on mid-century feminism may render it particularly vulnerable on this count, as seen in Crenshaw’s “discovery” of what may in its elementary form be little more than a prosaic approximation of quantitative analysis, minus the social scientific validation of empirical testing. When shifted to its compound iteration, the process of self-validation becomes an acroamatic exercise, which is to say that intersectionality theorists adopt a posture of preemptively excluding viewpoints that emerge exogenously to the intersectional literature, including older and competing conceptual frameworks for the study of race, gender, and compounding interactions involving social identity. The very act of contestation of an intersectional claim, including its built-in ideological implications, thus becomes discountable by casting it as an untrained “misunderstanding” of what intersectionality means. The combination of the two, obscurantism and epistocracy, thus functions to elevate a weak and ideologically loaded social scientific claim into a position of being politically unassailable.

As a final consideration, the compound and politically loaded form of intersectionality theory carries with it the distinct risk of crowding out more conceptually robust attempts to provide substantive understanding of the problems of racial and other forms of discrimination, including their overlapping effects. Perhaps this subject will elicit further discussion in the responses, but two potential avenues warrant brief mention. The first is within the classical liberal line of anti-discriminatory theory noted at the outset of my response essay, and perhaps most recently explored through the public choice literature on the operation of discriminatory non-market institutions. The second is to turn to the economic literature on race, and particularly the evolution of different barriers to economic and social life as experienced by persons facing discrimination. Such discussions, drawing upon a multitude of methods and intellectual traditions outside of the critical theory world, offer meaningful insights for combatting the harms of both explicit and soft bigotries. Social scientific analysis of this subject suffers though if competing and exogenous attempts to grapple with the problem of discrimination are pushed aside by or subordinated to the pronounced ideological activism of the intersectionality literature.

On Intersectionality and Classical Liberalism: Is there a common thread?

Returning to the question of what room, if any, exists for commonality between intersectionality and classical liberalism, allow me to offer a few observations in light of the foregoing discussion. First, I agree with Levy that the elementary form of intersectionality is largely non-objectionable when presented in isolation. It has also been uncharitably depicted in conservative editorializing, at least when understood as that same isolated elementary form. My one caveat, and where I likely diverge from Levy on the point, is that the elementary version of intersectionality just isn’t all that profound of an insight. It is perhaps a convenient neologism for a common intuitive observation. Insofar as classical liberal theory is concerned, its isolated form does not necessarily conflict. But our sympathies for the least well-off, and our legitimate desires to grapple with the persistent problems of discrimination and bigotry in social interactions, would be much better served by tapping the long and vibrant intellectual tradition of liberal toleration and its many anti-discriminatory extensions.

Compound intersectionality presents a much trickier set of problems vis-à-vis the same liberal tradition due its ideological baggage. Insofar as the compound form is an inextricable and consciously projected political activist iteration of its elementary framing—and as we’ve seen Crenshaw treats it as such—it may be irreconcilable.

Multiple prominent intersectionality theorists, expounding the compound form, have made no effort to conceal their own hostility to classical liberal thought and thinkers, to free market economics, to capitalism, to “neoliberalism”—whatever that is other than a derisive term for the aforementioned concepts —and to libertarian perspectives as a whole. And even more so, much of this hostility takes the form of invoking unfalsifiable esotericism to “detect” hidden strains of racism, sexism, white supremacy, and other contemptible bigotries in the DNA of that which the intersectionality literature derides for political reasons. In its most abusive manifestations, this serves little other purpose than to preemptively discredit any external scrutiny that might otherwise challenge the accompanying ideological propositions of the compound form by casting them outside of the realms of respectable dialogue. Whether classical liberal thought may still incorporate intersectionality theory, or at least its compound forms, may therefore depend on considerations beyond our control, as much of the intersectionality literature has already adopted an explicit rejection of the very same proposition.

This concluding thought will likely be unwelcomed among those who see greater hope for constructively adapting intersectional analysis to liberal philosophy. But it needn’t rest on my own pessimism toward the concept.

Crenshaw herself has effectively rendered the same judgement in her most recent book. That book amounts to a broadside against the very notion of economic sciences. “The emergence of economics as a discipline…” she contends, “suppressed the study of socially constructed institutions” by reducing human behavior to “the sum total of autonomous actions by universally interchangeable rational and self-interested acquisitive subjects.” This caricature is rendered all the more astounding in her identification of what she sees as a primary culprit for this supposed trend, namely the emergence of the public choice subfield.

This mid-twentieth century outgrowth of classical liberal economic theory might strike the independent observer as uniquely suited to the study of socially constructed institutions and the harmful incentive structures therein, including discriminatory collective action. Crenshaw, however, preemptively dismisses it. And she does so by adopting the above-mentioned patterns of obscurantist deflection and self-referential curation to exclude this line of analysis entirely. Drawing explicitly upon the conspiratorial historical falsifications of Nancy MacLean, Crenshaw contends “the ‘public choice’ paradigm…linked attacks on a broad range of public institutions (especially public education) with the preservation of American apartheid.” She continues, declaring that “the core logic of an entire academic subfield,” public choice, is “implicitly constituted around assumptions of white supremacy, even as it disavowed any racial intent and animus.”

If you still hold out hope that classical liberal thought can be constructively reconciled with intersectionality theory in a way that meets Crenshaw’s own terms, I can only suggest that you are likely being as dismissive of underlying problems with intersectionality as the political right is with intersectionality itself.

Intersectionality: Friend or Foe of Classical Liberalism?

Intersectionality has become a very popular tool for thinking about inequality. The theory’s primary claim is that inequality and repression are not unidimensional, that is, not just a matter of black versus white. Rather, inequality emerges from interlocking categories such as race, gender, and social class. Academic journals and books, including my own work, discuss intersectional theory at length as an important development in the theory of inequality.[i] Intersectionality has also become a focal point for activists promoting social justice.

Against this background, this Cato Unbound symposium asks a simple question. What role does intersectionality theory have, if any, within classical liberal thought? This question is striking because many scholars and activists who employ intersectional language view the classical liberal vision of limited government and free markets with deep suspicion, if not outright hostility. Many of these advocates of intersectionality see the multidimensional system of inequality as part of the “matrix of domination” found within capitalist societies.

Levy’s Arguments

Jacob Levy’s essay is an interesting and thought-provoking contribution to the discussion about the link between intersectionality theory and classical liberalism. First, Levy argues that intersectionality theory focuses on a rather uncontroversial aspect of social life. People may suffer injustice in ways that are shaped by the overlap of social categories. Second, intersectionality is needed to understand how emergent social orders may injure specific people and communities defined by the intersection of social categories. Third, state violence may fall on specific people who are defined through their intersectionality.

Levy is wise to focus on intersectionality theory’s most foundational empirical observation. It is true that human societies enact repressive practices that highlight some forms of difference while downplaying others. He is also correct in that, as a methodological matter, there should be nothing suspect about assessing interaction effects, such as testing a hypothesis about whether Black women have different life course outcomes than White women or Black men.

However, Levy’s essay is misleading in one very important way because he sidesteps the connection between intersectionality theory and schools of thought that are strongly at odds with classical liberalism. Leading practitioners have often asserted that their theory of inequality is an expansion, extrapolation, or generalization of Marxism and other critical social theories. It is an error to present intersectionality theory as a rather simple and obvious perspective for classical liberals to adopt. Rather, classical liberals who adopt intersectionality theory would need to employ a redacted version that would be unfamiliar to its advocates.

Intersectionality as Critical Theory

Intersectionality theory has grown past its roots in discussions of U.S. anti-discrimination law and the specific milieu of second wave feminism. It is now a theory that offers a comprehensive analysis of how societies are organized. For example, Patricia Hill Collins’s book, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment, is considered by many to be one of the most thorough presentations of intersectional thought. Collins uses intersectionality theory to motivate a deeper appreciation and exploration of the social theory and writings of black women.[ii]

Though not primarily a text that addresses Marxist theory, Black Feminist Thought at multiple points notes the parallels and similarities between Collins’s arguments and Marxism. She sees her work as being a form of liberation for women of color just as Marxism is about the liberation of the working class and says so explicitly.[iii] In fact, the affinity between intersectionality theory and Marxism has motivated a literature debating the “single system” question: is there a single process of oppression and domination with multiple faces? Or, does the repression of women, racial minorities, and the working class each have its own distinct logic?[iv]

For many scholars within the intersectionality school, the answer is often that these forms of repression are at least “co-constitutive”; the repression of people along gender or racial lines is often enabled or facilitated by the repression of working class people.[v] Thus, intersectionality theory isn’t merely the observation that people can be defined by overlapping categories, or even that prejudice can be disproportionately directed at “doubly marginalized” communities. Rather, for many scholars, intersectionality is seen as part of a wide-ranging radical critique of the liberal economic and social order.

Intersectionality as Standpoint Epistemology and Inclusion Project

Intersectionality via critical theory and classical liberalism are incompatible partners. Yet there are elements of intersectionality theory that fit more comfortably with a philosophy of freedom, autonomy, and laissez-faire. In the second half of this response, I focus on two ideas within intersectionality theory that can be more fruitfully assimilated into liberalism: as a standpoint epistemology and as an inclusion project.

Standpoint epistemology: One of the more intriguing elements of intersectionality theory is the claim that intersecting statuses create distinct categories within a broader multidimensional social structure. These categories, in turn, produce “standpoints,” or relative positions, within the matrix of domination. Collins, among others, has called for special attention to be paid to multiply marginalized groups because they can witness how inequality is created and enacted better than most. Conversely, those in highly privileged positions may find it hard to acknowledge or perceive how systems of inequality create and support their superior status.[vi]

Most classical liberal social thinkers might find standpoint theory discomforting. It does not presume a universalistic ego that pursues enlightened self-interest, or even the imperfect creature found in behavioral economics. It might be seen as an implicit criticism of libertarians or classical liberals, who are more likely to be male and white than the general population.[vii] This does not have to be the case. Rather, standpoint epistemology can be seen as a recognition that experience matters and it fundamentally shapes who we are and how we can imagine things. Furthermore, experience is not randomly assigned throughout society. As Levy correctly notes in his essay, oppressive experiences are disproportionately felt by some groups and more so among the multiply marginalized, who do not have access to the institutions that are most likely to recognize and document these experiences. The “doubly” marginalized, thus, must encode and transmit their knowledge through practices that are overlooked by the mainstream.

For the classical liberal scholar, this should be seen as an invitation to appreciate the impact of state interventionism in a more expansive way. Normally, we may focus on the most obvious and overt examples of state repression, but intersectionality may sensitize us to the damages wrought on marginalized communities by restrictions on freedom. For example, open borders advocates, such as myself, often focus on job loss. Intersectionality theory asks us to look at how migration restriction affects doubly marginal groups, such as women of color. Their experience is different than that of men. Not only are women of color deprived of the opportunity for economic improvement, they are often left with the task of raising children by themselves when migration restrictions make it impossible for the father to be with his family. Migration restrictions not only keep people in poverty, they exacerbate gender inequality.

Inclusion project: Another important element of intersectional theory is the idea that certain voices are excluded from academic discourse and social change projects.[viii] Levy notes that an initial impulse for the theory was found in feminist political movements, which were seen as being overly concerned with the interests and needs of white women. A similar critique might be made of classical liberal theory. Articulated primarily by white men, classical liberal social thought might be overly concerned with their experiences. Levy’s essay is correct on this point and it shows one constructive avenue for discussion between classical liberals and intersectionality theorists—understanding how the philosophy of freedom and autonomy might be enriched by placing more emphasis on the issues that affect women of color and other multiply disadvantaged communities.

Dialogue, Not Marriage

Levy’s relatively uncritical depiction of intersectionality does not confront the fact that the theory, as understood by its practitioners, is simply at odds with classical liberalism because it sees inequality and repression as the natural outgrowth of a liberal social order. Still, dialogue is possible if classical liberals understand that intersectional theory has multiple goals and some of these goals should be rejected. The embrace of Marxism and other theories that view the market economy and limited government as inherently suspect should be critiqued and cast aside. Also, intersectionality theory, like all schools of thought, has its own excesses that should be avoided. For example, the more thoughtful practitioners of intersectionality warn against an “oppression Olympics” where resources are earned by boasting about injustice.[ix] Classical liberals are wise to follow this advice.

Intersectionality theory has a truly indispensable insight for classical liberals. All societies will have complex status orders that combine in important ways shaping individual life chances and opportunities. Multiply marginalized communities often suffer the most from illiberal states and repressive private social practices. However, this statement underplays intersectionality’s value for classical liberals. At heart, classical liberals champion freedom of action, and that means people will create communities defined by intersecting categories and hybridized social roles. Thus, classical liberalism must necessarily be a philosophy of diversity. Intersectionality theory can help classical liberals imagine institutions that foster and protect social diversity, rather than marginalize it.


[i] Rojas, Fabio. 2017. Theory for the Working Sociologist. Columbia University Press.

[ii] Collins, Patricia Hill. 2014. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment, 2nd edition. Routledge press.

[iii] Ibid, page 9. Collins specifically parallels feminism and gay liberation with Marxism: “Feminism advocates women’s emancipation and empowerment, Marxist social thought aims for a more equitable society, while queer theory opposes hetero-sexism.” In other parts of the text, Collins situates the subordination of women as part of a global system of advanced capitalism: “Situating mother-child families in the context of the global political economy highlights the significance of advanced capitalism for understanding mother-child families in transnational context (Mencher and Okongwu 1993).In particular, important connections characterize the stage of capitalist development encountered by any group of people and the patterns of family organization that emerge within that group.” (272)

[iv] Bohrer, Ashley. 2018. “Intersectionality and Marxism: A Critical Historiography.” Historical Materialism 26 (2): 46-74.

[v] Choo, Hae Yoon and Ferree, Myra Marx. 2010. “Practicing Intersectionality in Sociological Research: A Critical Analysis of Inclusions, Interactions, and Institutions in the Study of Inequalities.” Sociological Theory, 28(2), 129–149.

[vi] Yuval-Davis, Nira. 2012. “Dialogical Epistemology—An Intersectional Resistance to the ‘Oppression Olympics.’” Gender & Society, 26(1), 46–54.

[vii] Ekins, Emily. 2016. Libertarians Are More Racially Diverse Than Some May Realize. Cato at Liberty Blog. https://www.cato.org/blog/libertarians-are-more-racially-diverse-people-realize Specifically, Ekins cites data showing that Libertarians are slightly more white than the general population (73% vs. 67%) and notably less black (5% vs. 12%). The same data shows that self-identified libertarians are much more male (63% male vs. 50% in the general population).

[viii] Lépinard, É. 2014. “Impossible Intersectionality? French Feminists and the Struggle for Inclusion.” Politics & Gender, 10(1), 124-130. This article reviews recent attempts to articulate intersectionality as a project of social inclusion.

[ix] See Choo and Marx (2010: 130). Johanna Kantola & Kevät Nousiainen. 2009.“Institutionalizing Intersectionality in Europe.”International Feminist Journal of Politics,11:4,459-477. Hancock, Ange-Marie. 2011. Solidarity politics for millennials. New York: Palgrave MacMillan.

The Conversation

Reply to Magness and Rojas

I’d like to begin by saying how sorry I am that Melissa Harris-Perry wasn’t able to join us due to the ongoing schedule disruptions. I had very much looked forward to reading what she had to say on these questions, and her absence leaves our discussion less balanced than I think we all had hoped for. I look forward to conversation with her on these topics in other places in the future.

I think it’s also worth noting something that is slightly off to the side of these discussions, though maybe only slightly. I have been arguing for the value of treating intersectionality as a tool of social analysis available to classical liberal social theory, and below I will reemphasize that this is not the same as taking on board the whole raft of conclusions that have been reached or political views that have been held by people who also use that tool. But I think that the resistance among classical liberals to thinking about intersectionality has been in important part political rather than analytical or methodological: a dislike of the politics or political movements associated with rectifying (claimed) social injustice toward groups identified on the basis of race, gender, or orientation. The current online degeneration of the label “classical liberal” into something like “a trollish contrarianism about race and racial equality, an understanding of freedom of speech as primarily the freedom to flirt with racism without repercussions or criticism, and a belief that acknowledging patterns of racial disadvantage is a betrayal of moral individualism” didn’t come out of nowhere, and neither did the overlap between the Ron Paul/ Rand Paul wing of libertarianism on one hand and Confederate revisionism and white nationalism on the other. There are historical, cultural, and intellectual reasons why many classical liberals and libertarians have often been slow to perceive or to prioritize racialized forms of injustice and unfreedom. But we have seen in the last two weeks, as we saw beginning in 2013, that an awareness of the particularized, racialized character of police violence, mass incarceration, and the whole deeply illiberal structure of the American criminal “justice” system can be a powerful motivator in the struggle for a freer society. To the degree that classical liberals resist intersectional social analysis because of a mood affiliation with their dislike of identity politics in general and the politics of anti-racism in particular, I would hope that the current mass movement in the wake of the murder of George Floyd—and the fact that those opposing that movement include violent agents of state coercion as well as an executive pressing the limits on military involvement in civilian politics—could hasten a change.

But that is not a positive argument for adopting intersectional approaches to scholarship, and I don’t mean to simply reverse the sign on a mood affiliation. In their serious—and interestingly related—replies, Philip Magness and Fabio Rojas do emphasize the scholarship proper, and avoid the trap of treating “intersectionality” as a synecdoche for a whole complicated mess of phenomena involving activists, students, twitter fads, and so on, for “wokeness” and “cancel culture” and all the rest.

The three of us disagree less than it rhetorically sounds like we do, and Rojas’s essay in particular overlaps with both Magness’s and mine. Magness and Rojas both appeal to a distinction between the core insight of the interaction among axes of disadvantage and oppression and subsequent generations of intersectional scholarship that have joined that insight to general theories of social order that expressly reject key aspects of a liberal social order. (Rojas treats that as a change over time; Magness maintains that the illiberalism was already incipient in Crenshaw’s original work.). Rojas concludes his essay with just the kind of thing I meant to encourage: an account of how the central intersectional insights can be used to deepen classical liberalism without taking on board those illiberal entanglements. To Magness’s claim that even the core insight is banal and unproductive, I reply by pointing to the final two sections of Rojas’s essay. While both Magness and Rojas seem to have taken me to mean that classical liberals should abandon liberalism and embrace everything they find in the intersectional literature (which would hardly be possible; it’s simply not that unified), I didn’t say anything like that. Rather, I share Rojas’s hope that joining intersectional analysis to liberal social theory could enrich both, offering a version of the former free of unnecessary entanglements with economic views we have good reason to reject, and a version of the latter much more attuned to the experience of injustice, much more attentive to the various ways in which various populations are harmed by unfreedom.

With all of that said— and with due reluctance to argue with Rojas in particular, who knows far more about the scholarship on black social movements and black politics than I do— there are some genuine differences among us. Some of these are probably not of general enough interest to justify full discussions in Cato Unbound: I disagree with Magness’s emphasis on economic analysis as apparently primary within classical liberal social science, with his characterization of Harry Frankfurt’s analysis of “bullshit,” and with his application of that concept to often-jargony intersectional scholarship.

ButI do think it’s worth elaborating one area of apparent disagreement. There is a kind of intellectual tribalism to which Rojas comes closer than I would have expected, and which I think Magness openly adopts. If an idea is held by people with whom we politically disagree, how much reason does that give us to reject the idea? I think that Magness’s implicit answer is “a lot,” and Rojas’s is on the high side of “some.”

But surely most classical liberal scholars have at least some list of cases about which we know the answer has to be “none or almost none.” After all, every intellectual tool that has been even loosely associated with classical liberalism has sometimes met the same reaction: Hayekian information theory, public choice economics, law and economics, game theory, rights-based and contractarian political philosophy, polycentric institutional analysis, and so on. In each of these cases there’s some plausible affinity between the method or analytical insight and some political views, but there’s also plausibly some intellectual power to the method or insight that spills out past neat political borders. We have seen rich gains to intellectual trade when scholars who did not share the politics picked up and used the tools. And we’ve grumbled in frustration when others refused to entertain the idea of doing so, seeing the tools as merely disguised ideology. Indeed, Magness himself complains that Crenshaw has adopted this attitude toward public choice theory. But this is not a domain in which tit-for-tat norms of punishment apply. “You refused to learn from someone on my team so I refuse to learn from you” is self-destructive; learning is neither zero-sum nor a team sport.

Magness calls for us to look to “the long and vibrant intellectual tradition of liberal toleration and its many anti-discriminatory extensions,” joined perhaps to some economic analyses of race, rather than to intersectional scholarship. When I read that tradition, I find a Montesquieu whose attention to cultural and religious plurality in the world is regularly brought back into engagement with gender and family roles and power within various traditions. I find an Adam Smith who rejects what we would now think of as purely economic analysis of slavery and its durability, knowing that the love of domineering would outweigh ordinary financial interest. I find John Stuart Mill exemplifying the intersectionalist caricature of the white feminist, full of concern for the intellectual and moral opportunities open to the educated western woman he can see as an individual while justifying “despotic authority” over backward races—their men and their women alike—painted with the broadest of brushes. I find (indeed I wrote a whole book about) competing and complicated analysis of different patterns of abusive power, and I find reason to let liberalism incorporate that complexity. I find no reason to reduce the complexity of those patterns to something dissoluble by a “non-discriminatory generality norm.” Showing the difficulty with understanding what formal non-discrimination means when it sits atop socially complex patterns of discrimination is what inaugurated intersectional analysis in the first place.