Reflections on the Frederick Douglass Podcast

August 15, 2023

In Letters To Finkelstein

These are letters from participants in the July 2 podcast on Frederick Douglass and affirmative action. The author of the first letter wished to remain anonymous. It begins:


Following your very interesting online class on Frederick Douglass (and the very stimulating discussion that ensued) I would like to offer some comments that I believe could help to make a very important clarification regarding the question of identity politics. I would like to offer the following distinction, that between


1) Identifying the cause of an injustice and the means of addressing it.




2) Morally advocating on behalf of the group that suffers the injustice.


I think that no one would deny, and certainly not Douglass himself, that the injustice suffered by black slaves was a phenomenon unique to them (compared to any other group in the US). And what had to be addressed is precisely racial prejudice against this particular group (just as today we have different and independent causes such as “the Palestinian cause”, “killer cops” in the US and so on – each of which is distinct and calls for its own way of resolving it in concrete political terms). So this is the part that ‘identity politics’ gets right, that not all people suffer the same kinds of injustices qua being human, but we sometimes have to address the unique grievances of particular groups. That being said, whenever any particular group or minority suffers an injustice it’s far from clear to me whether there are any cases when the moral offense itself that is being inflicted upon the group cannot be reduced to a category of a violation of a general human right (for example). True, the concrete reasons that people get oppressed or suffer injustice are often of particular nature (and it’s important to identify the socio-political causes), but the reason that those injustices are injustices is because they are inflicted upon human beings who don’t deserve to suffer them, irrespective of their particular ‘identity’. So for example, it’s not clear whether there is really such a thing as “LGBT rights”, as distinct from general human rights. Under traditional liberalism it is believed that people should have the right to live how they please as long as they don’t cause harm to others (to put it crudely), one consequence of which is the freedom to choose your preferred sexual partner from whatever sex. It therefore seems to me that there is no unique ‘gay right’ that cannot be reduced to a more general right which is in common to all human beings. The same I believe goes to women, and so on. Thus as long as we keep this distinction in mind there shouldn’t be any tension between Douglass’ universalist moral stance and the recognition of the fact that particular groups may suffer unique injustices that are caused or explained by the victims’ particular identity. But the moral force of Douglass’ universalist argument is of course that these contingent and accidental differences between groups (like skin color and so on) do not give a morally justified reason to oppresses the group because all people, irrespective of their identity, have the same fundamental rights and deserve the same treatment.


I also want to argue that once we understand the distinction between identifying the moral grounds for denouncing an injustice or oppression and the sociological/cultural/historical/political factors that had led to it, it becomes easier to put the finger on where exactly identity politics goes wrong, and why it became such a pernicious and reactionary political force. Here’s a random example from one, Sonia Kruks:


What makes identity politics a significant departure from earlier, pre-identarian forms of the politics of recognition is its demand for recognition on the basis of the very grounds on which recognition has previously been denied: it is qua women, qua blacks, qua lesbians that groups demand recognition. The demand is not for inclusion within the fold of “universal humankind” on the basis of shared human attributes; nor is it for respect “in spite of” one’s differences. Rather, what is demanded is respect for oneself as different (2001: 85).


Putting aside the fact that it’s very unclear and vague what is exactly meant by ‘recognition’ and ‘respect’ of groups (in concrete political terms), the implication of this seems to be quite obvious: imagine if Frederick Douglass had tried to advocate for the abolitionist cause by trying to bring slave holders to like and respect black people as a distinct group, instead of appealing to their fundamental moral and religious convictions. It doesn’t take much imagination to know where that would’ve led. Or again, and to take a modern example, should everyone be forced to like LGBT people or be interested in their lifestyle? Would that be a feasible political objective that could be realistically implemented? Or what is more important: to stop the unaccountable killing of innocent people by cops, or to make everyone like or ‘respect’ black culture? (whatever that means) I don’t think I need to belabor this point, because it should be pretty obvious why this identity politics alternative to classical moral universalism is so politically harmful, and also indefensible on moral grounds. This relates to the discussion you had during class about whether various minorities are better positioned to speak about their oppression compared to outsiders. The premise could be granted that people inside the group have epistemic advantage over outsiders, but this is beside the point, because the essence of progressive political activism is precisely to appeal to the general population, that is people who are outside of your group. If you want to promote racial justice it would be obviously self-defeating to appeal to some kind of esoteric ‘black knowledge’ that only black people posses, instead of trying to formulate the problems in a language understandable to all (or moral grounds and values that are not only shared by black people). So even if the premise is true (about special inside knowledge), it doesn’t follow that the oppressed minority must always be better positioned than outsiders to speak about its suffering.


If any sense can be made of the identity politics position at all, then what identity politics say has been recognized a long time ago by traditional liberals and leftists—in fact, it is arguably a rather trivial claim (for example that the problem of slavery is unique to blacks or that the question of suffrage or equal wages is unique to women)—no reasonable person should dispute that. What should be opposed, however, is the attempt to replace a universalist moral language with a substitute that is not too far off from (and in effect is a mirror image of) a nativist right-wing ideology, as you yourself very perceptibly pointed out in your recent book.


Best regards,







Good morning Norm. The podcast was amazing, I’m glad I joined. I however feel as though I should’ve reinforced my position clearly and so, here is why I agree with Frederick Douglass’, “Away then with the nonsense that a man must be black to be true to the rights of black men.”


1. As Immanuel Kant has once said, “Her giving to man reason,” speaking thus of nature, which he goes on to speak about the reasoning faculty given to man, as well as its use in aiding us to make life. It is reason that allows us to continue being, that allows us to create communities, and plays a pivotal role in progressing the human race. We then establish that humankind is the only creature able to reason. With observation and using our thought processes we are capable of creating beliefs, and as well dispelling.


2. Nature, in my case God, has given us emotional faculties as well. And the one I speak particularly of is ‘EMPATHY’ which allows one to understand and share the feelings of another. Thus, it is with empathy, we can argue, that humankind bonds in society. With it that communities form, that those who are less vulnerable–the widow and orphan are taken care of. As Terence once said, “ I am human, I consider nothing human alien to me.“ Therefore, it is empathy that allows us to identify with each other, and feel the pain that a given person experiences, though we ourselves experience it not. For we are human, it doesn’t take being harmed to understand what another might feel. If reason is that which allows us to understand the importance of community, it is empathy that holds such society together, it is the glue.


Therefore it follows that on these two grounds why would, let’s say, a white person speaking on behalf of a black person be shunned? The same with a man speaking on behalf of women? If we agree that these two faculties in man are indeed true, then I see no reason why a white person should be barred from speaking on black issues, simply because of his race. For those who would argue otherwise, I say then what about veganism. Vegan activists construct arguments on behalf of animals who can neither protest, nor revolt. Should we then say that the vegan must shut his/her “trap”, as the expression goes, and allow animals to argue for themselves?


Now I believe and I’m convinced that we are asking the wrong question, the question that needs to be asked is two fold: 1) Is there a threshold? Meaning is there a point where person X (who is white) should be barred from speaking on behalf of black people. And thus follows the second question, What is that threshold? Where is the limit?


Much gratitude,










I liked the response given by the other class participants very much. Their opinions resonate with sensitivity to a certain problem within left circles that so many people are familiar with, including the atmosphere of arbitrary distinctions that has befallen groups like the Democratic Socialists of America:


The problem that is outlined by [fellow classmate] reminds me of this “shift” in sociology and political economy disciplines away from the study of political interests and wrangling with contradictions of interest. Currently, “left politics” constitutes this other thing, which is about changing perceptions and attitudes as the “most serious” aspect of political work. This results in this problem where so-called anti-racist trainings are essentially these social gatherings where rehearsed sympathies are committed to memory and what-not.


I’ve never really seen much of a problem with universalism. In debates about its usefulness, it is often (incorrectly, in my view) contrasted with the “study of difference” and the focus on particulars.  For me, universalist language is a self-evident “yes,” and part of our short-lived winning streak a la Bernie Sanders, who says “We ALL deserve healthcare, we ALL deserve access to safe drinking water, housing” etc. etc..


Critics of universalism often focus on the study of difference, that one struggle is not akin to another, and so the question is posed, “who am I to speak in the place of a person with their unique burdens and their unique stories and experience” – and here I would like to suggest that this is a flawed departure point. (In the first, a very easy way to invert this is to instead ask, “who am I to believe that my experience is so far out there that only those who live like me could understand me.”)


There are contrasting ways to wield the universalist viewpoint. When the language of rights is limited to a social domain, without addressing the way private property is innately selective and exclusive, that is how the “all” language can be adopted into this sort of ethos of “corporate social responsibility.” Plenty of corporations branding themselves during BLM’s height of attention were using the universalist language to ride on the waves of Woke Political fervor. This generalizes too, and any study of gentrification will see things like “Walkable Cities” policies, which are all about an implicitly market-biased way of solving problems of city layouts — the question “walkable for WHO” is not really allowed to be asked, because the racially-inclusive element of these new apartments (built close to some middle-class job complex, a university, or firm of some kind), makes it seem as if benefits to a socially-inclusive middle-class is the same thing as policy designed to benefit everyone. 


But when the language of ALL is understood to be real, it should be taken for granted that that means taking on the exclusive and ultra-particular nature of privatization, and policies that maximize dependency on the market to solve every problem. This conversation is akin to the one about human rights, and the language of rights being captured itself with arguments about “the right to work.” It’s sentimental, but I cannot help but invoke Peter Kropotkin’s name, who said “No more of such vague formulas as ‘the right to work.’ What we proclaim is THE RIGHT TO WELL-BEING FOR ALL.”


So how do we proceed from theory to practice? From talk-to-walk?


It is deemed antique by some, but I believe a focus on material interest is one way to do this effectively. And of course, when it comes to reducing police brutality, obviously restricting their reach into our lives (family scuffles, lost dogs, romantic couples arguing, etc) is something do-able. This is one level of response, and I think it’s something that addresses some of the degree of racism, especially racist violence, while simultaneously avoiding this problem of resentment between various poor folk. (Think about the “reparations” dialogue, in which, the counterpoint has always been — from some poor white man — that he did not own any slaves, nor is he the son of, nor descendent at all of a slave-owner — and so by common reasoning, he would feel gipped by talkof money for his neighbor and not for him (having the basic problems of life: bills, food, etc)).


I’d also like to challenge the notion of “proportionality” insofar as I don’t know how there could be any lasting solutions if we are looking to make right by adhering to proportionality as our metric and guideline. This is only because, in effect, I’ve seen it manifest in my time in Sunrise Movement, and a lot during Occupy, where “proportionality” would drive a meeting up a mountain of increasingly arbitrary issues concerning representation from this-and-that-dynamic. I’ve not seen it produce many things policy-wise, except to crown equity as a ruling buzzword.


I am pretty sure that rich blacks do a lot better on average than poor whites. Dave Chapelle is not going to be struggling to pay any bills for the rest of his life — how much does he really have in common with someone from Baltimore who has bills to pay, and a bank account in the red? Another good example is my own Governor from Maryland, Wes Moore. “The first black governor of Maryland,” who isn’t even from this state, got a lot of his money at some party where Oprah was in attendance — literally at Martha’s Vineyard. Does he really have anything in common with a community college student from Prince George’s County?


Of the question, “what shall we do?” I must suggest that fighting for quality public housing, high-quality public education, and access to healthcare — these things do fight racism, insofar as they are tangible things that can be seen, fought for, and won. This approach has the added benefit of inviting many to engage in struggle without playing up tribalistic allegiances or loyalties. The other thing is, to the extent that we can fight racism, I think it is best to immunize against the sort of “atmospheric” definitions of racism, with it being sometimes vaguely defined as being “all around us,” and white supremacy being covertly hidden “in everything,” like Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò seems to suggest.


Instead, what can be understood tangibly becomes a problem that can be solved.


— Stephen