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Law Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw defined the concept of intersectionality 30 years ago. She developed that framework to understand how identities such as race, gender and class intersect in overlapping systems of oppression and discrimination — resulting in compounded damage.
Now, amidst COVID-19’s disparate impact, police murders and brutality against of Black people and the uprising against white supremacy, Crenshaw raises her voice as a Black feminist and legal scholar. She discusses how intersectionality can be a vital tool for understanding, and transforming power imbalances.
Image Credit: Annabel Clark
Featuring Special thanks to: John McDonald and Haymarket Books The African American Policy Forum Janine Jackson of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting and Counterspin Mitch Jeserich and Pacifica’s Letters and Politics Thanks to the Omnia Foundation, Puffin Foundation and so many individual supporters for unwavering financial support of our prison and police beat and our broadcasting voices of #BLM Credits Guest Editor and Host: Paulina Velasco Making Contact Staff
Special thanks to:
John McDonald and Haymarket Books
The African American Policy Forum
Janine Jackson of Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting and Counterspin
Mitch Jeserich and Pacifica’s Letters and Politics
Thanks to the Omnia Foundation, Puffin Foundation and so many individual supporters for unwavering financial support of our prison and police beat and our broadcasting voices of #BLM
Guest Editor and Host: Paulina Velasco
Making Contact Staff
- Main theme: Alice Coltrane, Pharoah Sanders, Journey in Satchidananda”
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<Making Contact Intro Music>
This is Making Contact, Im your guest-host, Paulina Velasco. When you look at the way the coronavirus pandemic is playing out in the United Statesthe people that are dying, the people that are out of workand those who are fed up and taking to the streets to protest a racist system, to say Black Lives Matter, how is it all connected?
There was the moment of, oh, my God, there is a racial crisis here. Oh, my goodness, this is actually playing out in devastating ways in its impact on African-American, Latinx communities, native communities. So, who knew? Well, actually, a lot of people knew, right?
Thats Kimberlé Crenshaw. Shes a Law Professor at UCLA and Columbia Law Schools, and the co-founder and Executive Director of the African American Policy Forum.
Crenshaw developed the theory of intersectionality 30 years ago.
Intersectionality refers to how multiple forms of discrimination – based on your race, gender, or class – can overlap, or intersect, in your experience of the world, and in how youre treated. Like, for example, a Black woman is discriminated against not solely for being Black, and not solely for being a woman, but for the intersection of those two identities.
Crenshaws framework allows us to see that theres a compounding (and an intersection) of problems. And its a useful tool to look at our current crises.
Kimberlé Crenshaw spoke about the need for intersectionality – in an interview with Janine Jackson hosted by Haymarket Books and the African American Policy Forum, on May 5, 2020.
She says many people made the mistake of discarding intersectionality as the COVID crisis set in.
And at the time, the conversation was still in the well, this may be the one thing that brings everybody to the table to recognize the need for universal health care. This will be the one moment that we have been theorizing will happen that will cause people to give up their fantasies about whiteness, maleness, whatever, and they’ll recognize that we’re all just one race, the human race, and we need to pull all together.
So, there was this sense that this is the moment that shows that all, quote unquote, identity oriented politics that are not human identity politics are yesterday’s news and they don’t do us any good. And so I was pretty much clear that this was just going to be another moment where human crises would not create the moment of recognition of our common humanity, and that that crisis was actually going to reinforce the preexisting structured and historical vulnerabilities that we’ve been trying to use intersectionality to talk about, you know, for a generation.
Now, we do have these outcomes that suggest that we’re not all in this together. You know, COVID may be an equal opportunity, a lethal force, but it doesn’t impact us in an equal way. How now do we talk about these differences? And that’s when we saw, I think, the consequences of over a decade of post-racial, nonracial, colorblind discourse. So if you don’t have a robust framework that is attending to structured institutional forms of power, if you don’t have a structural racism framework and you’re looking at difference you take power out of the equation; all you have is difference. And the difference is embodied in the people who are being differently impacted.
So that’s why we get a surgeon general who comes on and uses racialized, racially coded talk to basically say you have control over this, you have to start acting differently. So, the disease is actually projected into bodies, into communities, into culture. That’s the consequence of not having an analysis that, number one, is attending to pre-existing inequalities. And number two, that understands that you can have a dynamic which is COVID, which itself may be, you know, obviously blind to social difference, but it intersects with preexisting social differences that produce these outcomes.
So when one of the things that, you know, sort of go-to point that I make with respect to the importance of an intersectional prism, is that if you if you really don’t have the language to see a problem, you can’t really fix it. And the I guess the primary example of that is that, the language that we currently have that’s mainstream is an understanding of inequality as being unjust only if it’s produced by some decision maker whose absolute intent, reason for doing the thing they’re doing is because of bigotry, hatred, or at minimal, complete and utter disdain for a particular group.
Where does that idea come from? Part of that idea comes from sort of the history of how certain disciplines have conceptualized what discrimination is, what it what it is constituted by. Within the American academy the idea that, you know, discrimination and illegitimate power should be thought about as structural as opposed to a feature of psychology was thought about and lost in the 50s. Right? There were earlier ways of thinking about inequality as a societal problem that looked at its sociology and its structure as opposed to its psychology and its individual sort of personality driven contours. But that got lost.
And part of the consequence of that loss is that when Law finally started to pay attention to discrimination, it had readily available to it after a very short period of debate, a very narrow conception of what constitutes illegitimate inequality, And that basically became the moment when the law adopted that in a case called Washington vs. Davis. The only thing that really counts as illegitimate inequality, as far as the Constitution is concerned, is when an actor decides to go after people simply because of who they are.
Well, that’s a very small subset of all the ways that illegitimate power plays out across race, gender and other groups. But making that move means that constitutional law became increasingly less useful to dismantle white supremacy, to dismantle the illegitimate expectations that many white voters had in the status quo staying exactly the way it was. And then that gets doubled down by the fact that the right figured out pretty early that a key place where they could draw the line in the sand and protect their interests was the courts.
So now the courts are completely on board. The consequences of these decisions we’re going to see in the future when lawsuits start coming up, not only with respect to the groups that are completely shut out of the remedies to the economic downturn. But there are going to be lawsuits about opening up these economies, knowing that people are going to die.
They are going to be lawsuits about, you know, not being able to work because of suspicion that you might be infected. They’re going to be all sorts of lawsuits. And largely, many of these lawsuits are going to go into courts with judges that have been appointed by the Federalist Society during a time where the right was clear about the need to take over the courts. So, it’s, again, another moment where I think it’s important to be able to fully understand the different dimensions of empowerment.
PV: Youre listening to: Kimberlé Crenshaw, speaking about how the framework of intersectionality can help us understand the coronavirus pandemics unequal impacts. But, she says, this useful tool is often misunderstood and manipulated.
30 years later, intersectionality has now been framed as all sorts of things. But the most interesting part of it to me is the way that it’s been picked up as sort of a battering ram, you know, by the Right to accuse Progressives of identity politics. And what I find fascinating about that is that the main claim made by what I call the anti-intersectional intersectionalist, is a grievance claim that itself is the product of identity politics.
So, you know, Lindsay Graham, for example, in that moment during the Kavanaugh hearings that some of us still have post-traumatic stress around, there’s a moment where he gave voice to this anti-intersectional intersectionality when he says, you know, I’m a I’m a straight white man and I know that I’m supposed to shut up, you know, but I’m not going to shut up. And he goes on, you know, with this, you know, grievance, we are, you know, being oppressed by, you know, all of these various groups that all come together under the intersectional frame.
It’s clear from that moment that the complaint against intersectionality is not that it’s about the intersections of identity. It’s not about, and it’s clearly not about, you know, structured inequalities. It’s just about the people that they see riding in this vehicle. And the politics that come with those people, and the histories that come with those politics.
That’s what much of the critique of intersectionality is all about. Instead it’s important to see intersectionality as a prism for helping us see and predict and interact with the preexisting structures that intersectionality can help us see and that COVID has laid bare.
One hears echoes of some of the same impatient distancing from intersectional sensibilities within our quarters as one hears on the right. And I’ve seen that. I’ve seen it written like this is the post intersectional moment. What the heck does that mean?
When we can look across at this moment and see you know, essential yet expendable worker reflects the same convergence of vulnerable identities now that as it did, you know, decades ago. What does it mean to say we’re post intersectional when we can look atwe’ve called them geographies of confinementand see that the risk of COVID is dramatically increased for those populations who live at the intersections of lots of things.
Let’s look at, you know, how markets situate some workers, both in terms of our own national market, but globally as people who are essential but actually have no real home. We look at the intersections and confinement within a community. So, if we look at a food desert, if we look at places where one has to drive for 100 miles to get to the hospital, as we learned in Indian country, thats intersections of settler colonialism, of class and just political marginality.
We could continue to name all of these places where the morbidity tracks on to being confined, both physically but also politically by the forces of white supremacy, by the forces of patriarchy and so on. I don’t know how you look at that stuff and say we’re post-intersectional. I literally do not know what people are talking about when they say that.
I think the most perhaps unusual aspect of that was when we did a geographies of confinement and talked about the clusters of death that are happening in prisons and in ICE facilities and what’s happening in nursing homes. The tendency is to see what’s happening in nursing homes and what’s happening in prisons as sort of mutually exclusive, the populations as mutually exclusive, the justifications for what is happening to them as mutually exclusive.
But if you actually start looking more closely, you see in both of these populations, there are people who have largely been written off either because of some projection of choice – they did things that put them in that situation – or inevitability. They are just older people and older people are subject to COVID.
And what’s less seen is that these death facilities are the product of choices. They’re product of choices of using the carceral state as a mechanism of social ordering and disciplinary social ordering on top of that. Choices about now that that has been an investment not to practice humanitarian release and let people go.
They’re choices about warehousing older people and doing so with a profit motivation that ensures that 90 percent of people in nursing homes are going to have some experience of neglect. And that’s across class.
And then finally, there are those a commonality of interests between those who have to work in those facilities and those who have to live in them. So partly because of the profit motivation, workers who work in these facilities often cannot sustain their lives on those wages, which means that they move from one facility to another. They have multiple responsibilities. It makes them vulnerable. It makes the people that they are caring for vulnerable, makes their families vulnerable.
So, all of these are moments where when we start talking about confinement, then we talk more broadly about what’s happening in the home, what’s happening in Native Country, what’s happening and formally segregated communities. We are able to see where intersectional commonalities exist and hopefully come up with ways of expecting something different in the aftermath.
We dont want to go back to normal; normal was messed up!
We were we were doing a webinar a couple of weeks ago in when we were introducing the idea of disaster white supremacy, building off of the great Naomi Klein’s work about disaster capitalism and, directly interrogating the ways that disasters present opportunities for white supremacist projects, that may have not been fully expressed or articulated or may have had to be produced in ways in which the supremacist dimensions were suppressed or hidden behind frameworks of, you know, the losses of middle America or rural America, where whiteness is not expressly part of it. But in the disaster moment, those shackles come off and one gets the Full Monty, as it were.
So, we want to talk about how emergencies, how moments of anxiety, moments of economic and political instability are not necessarily moments where we all come together. Historically in the United States, there have been moments where we fall apart ! After all we had a civil war! And we’ve had many smaller versions of these wars since then.
So, I think COVID is, again, an opportunistic disease that facilitates the converging of many right? wing flavors of politics. They are able to elevate whiteness as its ideological expression, elevating whiteness, as it has been expressed across the centuries here, and do so in a way that normalizes stuff that, Trump began to normalize by saying, Oh, they’re nice people, you know, on both sides, to Oh, those are nice people taking guns to the capital. The governors should sit down with them. This normalization is an incredible danger. And we’ve got to stop seeing it as just fringe politics. We’ve got to see it as potentially the politics of the future.
PV: Thats Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw and youre listening to Making Contact and www.radioproject.org.
What are your thoughts on intersectionality, Covid-19 and Black Lives Matter? Give us a call at (510) 239-3899. Thats (510) 239-3899 or join the conversation on social media. On twitter were @Making_Contact.
Kimberlé Crenshaw appeared on Haymarket Books forum on intersectionality and COVID before the U-S erupted in protests against police murders of Black people. Those protests were followed by increased police brutality and state violence. Much like Crenshaw predicted, white supremacy reared its head.
Soon after, Crenshaw went on Pacificas show Letters and Politics on June 1st, 2020, to talk to host Mitch Jeserich, about how intersectionality is key to understanding this moment as well.
Well, I’m thinking about many different aspects of, I guess, a common theme, and that would be the precarity of black life in the United States. We are now in the moment in which many people are grieving, having seen an African-American man being killed deliberately, it seems. His suffering not being heard, his pleas for his life being disregarded. Officers seemingly taking this as just another day at the office, snuffing out another life.
The inhumanity of it, I think, is shocking to so many people. And at the same time, I struggled to hold the unfathomable dimension of this man’s life being taken along with the thousands of people who are dying every day from decisions that have been made to prioritize the economy, to prioritize the comfort, or to prioritize the preferences and the privileges of some over the lives and the well-being of others. And holding these together at the same time is in some ways an act of jujitsu. You have to be responsive to the emergency that happens. And you have to also see the emergency that’s always been there that this is built on top of.
We are shocked when we see elements of American life that seem to be ripped from the pages of history. We’re seeing, frankly, lynchings happening now. You know, too many. There shouldn’t be any. But to see them happening again is shocking.
Let’s think about what makes this possible, right. Police departments across the country spend millions of dollars every year in settling cases like these. The police officers involved, although these were fired, are often free to go somewhere else and actually become a police officer. So, for example, the police officer that killed Tamir Rice, he was the little boy who was killed in Cleveland when a police officer rolled up on him and got out of the car and shot him because he was reported as having a gun. Turned out to be a toy gun. He had been dismissed from another police department as unfit for service.
Many police officers are able to go somewhere else. Why? a) there is no registry. There is no mechanism that is fully enforceable across all police departments. That makes it clear that if you have been fired because of abuse of your authority, because you have killed people, because you are untrainable, because you are unfit, nothing that prevents them if the police departments themselves don’t commit to it to hiring them. Why is that?
Well, one of the most powerful unions we have is the police union. And part of their power is because they are able to convince the majority of Americans we are the ones that are protecting you. If our ability to do what we have to do in order to protect you is constrained in in ways that make it tougher for us to do our job, then law and order is going to suffer. You are going to suffer.
So, these are just some of the ways that we have to begin unpacking what are the conditions of possibility that allow this problem to go on uninterrupted. That’s something that we can change. We can change that by making these issues politically costly for mayors, for elected officials. If there are unjustified killings like this, you are going to suffer at the polls.
And then we’ve got to put our political resources in the middle of that and say, Not in our name will we allow you to continue killing people and otherwise abusing themsaying that you are promoting law and order. This is law and disorder. This is law and inequality. And we refuse to allow you to use us as the justification for it. That can be done. There just hasn’t been political will as yet to make that happen.
It is important to recognize that police violence and vigilante violence, which happened to Ahmaud Arbery, are all a piece of the precarity of black life. There is violence that happens both public and private, and it’s both historical violence and contemporary violenceall an expression of the fact that Black life has largely been seen as expendable, essential, but expendable. That that’s been the basic logic of our presence here since and since we arrived on these shores. Absolutely essential to building the country. And the terms of our presence have always been one in which black life has taken a back seat to property, to markets, to home values, to professions, and now to the comfort and security of people who want to go back to getting their haircut and getting their nails done and going to restaurants. That’s a logic that is pretty much like a slave logic. It’s you exist for us. We don’t exist for you. So, we don’t have to do anything to protect your life.
I think it’s important to draw the line between the killing on the street that happened to George Floyd, the killing in the home that happened to Breonna Taylor, the threat of calling the police that we saw in Central Park and the broader, huger decision to go back to work knowing that the disproportionate impact of that is going to be on particular lives.
Question is, if it were the other way around, what would we be looking at? That, I think really is, the moment in which we have to think about how race may be the condition of this possibility.
PV: That was Kimberlé Crenshaw on Letters and Politics with host Mitch Jeserich and produced by Diana Martinez. Janine Jackson hosted the conversation about intersectionality, convened by the African American Policy Forum & Haymarket Books. Special thanks to John McDonald.
Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw hosts a webinar called, Under the Blacklight: The intersectional failures that COVID lays bare, and also has a podcast, Intersectionality Matters.
Well link to those at our site radioproject.org.
Im Paulina Velasco. Thanks for listening to Making Contact.