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Why Kamala Harris' nomination is pushing this academic idea further into the mainstream

Kamala Harris being on the Democratic ticket is historic. Here's why a Biden-Harris win could help center the concerns of women of color in public policy.
Image: Candidates Attend First 2020 Democratic Presidential Debate
Sen. Kamala Harris speaks to the media following the Democratic presidential candidate debate in Miami on June 27, 2019.Jayme Gershen / Bloomberg via Getty Images

When law professor Kimberlé Crenshaw introduced the concept of "intersectionality" in a 1989 law journal article to describe how various forms of oppression based on categories of identity — like racism, sexism and classism, among others — overlap and "intersect," it was decades from becoming the buzzword that it is today.

Although she did not use the word "intersectionality," Sen. Kamala Harris implicitly acknowledged her own intersectional identity in her speech at the Democratic National Convention last month, when she accepted the vice presidential nomination as Joe Biden's running mate. Of her late mother, Shyamala Gopalan Harris, Harris said: "She raised us to be proud, strong Black women. And she raised us to know and be proud of our Indian heritage."

Harris' candidacy is historic in multiple ways: The daughter of Indian and Jamaican immigrants, she is the first woman of color to be nominated for national office by a major political party, and she would be the first female, first Black and first Asian American vice president should she and Biden win the November election. But some activists say Harris' candidacy — and potential vice presidency — could also represent another type of sea change, by helping to popularize intersectionality as a national political framework by centering in policymaking the concerns of women of color that stem from their unique experiences at the intersection of racism and sexism.

"An intersectional framework allows us to tackle problems from an economic justice, gender justice and racial justice perspective," said Aimee Allison, founder and president of She the People, a national network that advocates for the concerns and involvement of women of color in politics. "We know that effective governance requires us to approach the problems that we face from an intersectional lens."

The origins of 'intersectionality'

While Crenshaw introduced the concept of "intersectionality," as a legal framework, she was not the first scholar to discuss the social implications of gender, race and class, said Mary Romero, author of "Introducing Intersectionality" and emerita professor of justice studies and social inquiry at Arizona State University. Other early proponents of intersectionality emerged in the 19th and early 20th centuries, including abolitionist and women's rights activist Sojourner Truth and investigative journalist and anti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells-Barnett, as well as, later, sociologists including Deborah King and Patricia Hill Collins.

"What's significant about intersectionality is that it has activist roots, even in academia," Romero said. "Those researchers that were interested in intersectionality wanted their knowledge to be able to change the world, not just explain the world."

The New York Women's Foundation's 2018 Celebrating Women Breakfast
Kimberle Crenshaw, director of the African American Policy Forum, speaks at the New York Women's Foundation's 2018 "Celebrating Women" breakfast in New York City on May 10, 2018.Monica Schipper / Getty Images for The New York Women's Foundation

In her original 1989 article about intersectionality, Crenshaw argued that anti-discrimination laws, along with feminist and anti-racist movements, erased the unique experiences of Black women by failing to recognize the interlocking forms of oppression they face as a result of both racism and sexism. White women and Black men were widely recognized as victims of sexist and racist oppressions, respectively, but Black women and the challenges they faced were all but invisible in the eyes of the law and within even feminist work and Black-led anti-racist movements, according to Crenshaw.

Two years later, Crenshaw published another related pioneering article in which she broadened the focus of her initial analysis of intersectionality to examine both the realities and the representations of violence against women of color more broadly, including Black, Asian, Latina and immigrant women, examining the unique systemic challenges and stereotypes each group faces.

At the time, "intersectionality'" was also years from being implicitly targeted by President Donald Trump, given its status as one of the most significant components of critical race theory, which Trump called "a sickness that cannot be allowed to continue" in a Sept. 5 tweet. A day earlier, the White House announced that the president would prohibit departments from using federal funds to pay for executive branch agencies' diversity training programs that examine topics including critical race theory and white privilege.

Crenshaw "is part of a group of critical race theorists in the law who argue and have demonstrated that the law is not neutral and that it has its biases and that people don't experience the law in the same way," Romero said.

While intersectionality began as a legal concept, it soon became a tool of analysis used to show the embeddedness of gendered and racial inequities across academic disciplines. And more recently, intersectionality has become a concept well-known outside university halls — including within activist movements such as the Women's March and the Movement for Black Lives, which have adopted intersectional policy platforms to focus on how forms of power and oppression manifest in systemic anti-Black racism.

Intersectionality in national politics

While intersectionality has been widely adopted within academia, in activist movements and in local and state politics, it has not been historically centered in national American politics, according to Allison and Romero.

"I think the misconception is that 'intersectionality' is 'diversity,' and it's not — intersectionality deals with power relationships and the way in which we experience subordination and domination in our lives," Romero said. "It involves dealing with the larger system [of inequities], and that hasn't been very popular in American politics."

Black women have rarely been centered in national politics — even within the Obama administration, Romero added.

Intersectionality generally goes unrecognized and unnamed as a frame of analysis in mainstream national discussions about politics and policy, even though its relevance emerges in discussions about the economy, health care and mass incarceration — all of which affect women of color in particular, said Adrianne Shropshire, the executive director of BlackPAC, a political group that this month joined forces with three others to spend $10 million on digital advertising and messaging in key battleground states to counter racist and sexist attacks against Harris.

"The most common issues and the things that people say that they care about the most are in fact intersectional issues, and we just don't talk about them that way," Shropshire said. "There is a tendency, because of sexism and misogyny that live in our society, to push those conversations off to the side."

Image: us-politics-abortion-protest-social
Abortion rights activists rally in front of the Supreme Court in Washington, DC, on May 21, 2019.Andrew Caballero-Reynolds / AFP - Getty Images file

While intersectionality is about centering the needs of women of color and of marginalized people more broadly who face discrimination based on multiple categories of identity, building policies around Black women specifically — given their unique history of racism and sexism in America stretching back to slavery, along with their modern-day wage gap and high maternal mortality rates, among other forms of oppression — would highlight the similar challenges faced by other women of color, said Lakshmi Sridaran, executive director of South Asian Americans Leading Together, an organization that advocates for racial justice and the civil rights of South Asian people in the U.S.

"If Black women are centered in policymaking, then we will all benefit," Sridaran said. "That is the other side of intersectionality. If those most impacted are centered, then the magnitude of transformation is also compounded and far more expansive."

Allison said intersectionality also gives white women and other people who do not personally experience the unique combination of racism and sexism faced by women of color an analytical framework for understanding how women of color experience distinct, multiple and simultaneous forms of oppression.

Intersectionality "gives white women a new way to think," she said. "There always have been people in this country who want to be part of a multiracial coalition. Intersectionality allows them a way in."

Harris as an intersectional candidate

Until recently, Harris tended not to discuss the different components of her identity, deflecting questions by insisting that she did not spend time thinking about it.

"When I first ran for office that was one of the things that I struggled with, which is that you are forced through that process to define yourself in a way that you fit neatly into the compartment that other people have created," she told The Washington Post last year. "My point was: I am who I am. I'm good with it. You might need to figure it out, but I'm fine with it."

Harris expressed similar frustrations more than a decade ago. In a 2009 interview with the weekly newspaper India Abroad, she said her identity was the product not of a single influence, but of many.

"We have to stop seeing issues and people through a plate-glass window as though we were one-dimensional," Harris said at the time. "Instead, we have to see that most people exist through a prism and they are a sum of many factors — everyone is that way, and that is just the reality of it."

But in her interview with The Post last year, Harris added that she understood that voters want candidates for public office to share how their backgrounds shaped them.

"I appreciate that there is that desire that people have to have context, and I want to give people context," she said.

For activists, Harris' newly publicly embraced identity alone is not enough to make her an intersectional candidate: She also has to prioritize intersectionality in her policymaking and in a potential Biden-Harris administration, they insist.

Harris has insisted that she would use her identity to serve as a voice for the needs of Black women if elected.

"It is such a powerful and strong voice, the voice of Black women, and it needs to be heard," she told Essence last year.

But in an interview with The 19th, a nonprofit news organization covering gender in politics, last month Harris acknowledged that her identity would not be enough to secure Black women's votes, insisting that her and Biden's platform addressed Black women's concerns.

"There will be a point of pride — you don't want to have any false modesty — about a Black woman being on the ticket, but it takes more than just that to motivate Black women to vote," she said. "People have to speak to their issues, and the Biden-Harris ticket does that."

But Harris' record serving Black women is imperfect. Critics point to her record of presiding over the arrests of parents — notably, mothers, according to HuffPost and The Orange County Register — of mostly Black truant students during her years as San Francisco's district attorney and California's attorney general.

But activists and supporters of Harris say that intersectional policies that Harris has pushed in the past would directly respond to some of the economic and health-related issues that disproportionately affect women of color. That includes her support for monthly $2,000 direct cash payments during the coronavirus pandemic, which sent women's national unemployment rates higher than they had ever been in the more than six decades since the Bureau of Labor Statistics started tracking women's unemployment. The economy affected women of color particularly hard — in June, 15.3 percent of Latinas and 14 percent of Black women were unemployed, compared to 9 percent of white men.

Harris has not publicly tied the proposal for cash payments to the challenges faced by women of color during the pandemic. But in The 19th interview, she reiterated her and Biden's plans to fund paid family leave, child care and elder care — the majority of which is done by women of color.

"Women carry a disproportionate burden for a lot of [care] responsibilities, so we need to recognize that and fix the problem," she said.

Activists also note that Harris co-sponsored the Black Maternal Health Momnibus Act this year to address the disproportionate Black maternal mortality rate — Black women in the U.S. are three to four times more likely to suffer pregnancy-related death than white women. The bill would direct federal agencies to establish task forces to examine and address the social determinants of maternal health and provide funding for community-based Black maternal health organizations, among other measures. Last year, Harris reintroduced the Maternal CARE Act, which she originally introduced in 2018, to tackle the Black maternal mortality crisis by introducing health care professionals to implicit bias training and establishing a state grant program to address high-risk pregnancies in areas with high and racially disparate rates of maternal deaths and illnesses.

In a column for Essence this year, Harris wrote about the proposed package of bills and blamed racism for the disparities in maternal mortality rates between Black and white women.

"We must acknowledge that there are two problems when it comes to Black maternal mortality: ongoing systematic disparities and implicit bias," she wrote.

But advocates also say neither Harris nor Biden have gone far enough in their plans to prioritize racial justice work or to guarantee federal health care for all. While Biden vowed in June to set up a police oversight body within his first 100 days in office to address "institutional racism," research shows that many women of color want a more comprehensive approach to racial justice that goes beyond policing.

A national survey conducted by She the People found that 52 percent of women of color respondents support establishing a White House Office on Racial Justice, an idea proposed by several women of color activists and elected officials.

And 53 percent of those survey respondents also said they would be more enthusiastic about the Biden campaign if he came out with a plan to implement "Medicare for All," as opposed to his proposal to preserve employer-based coverage while boosting subsidies and eligibility for coverage under the Affordable Care Act and adding a public marketplace option that people could buy into.

Universal health care is, and has been, a particularly relevant concern for Black Americans because access to health care has largely been defined by race, and people of color are more likely to be uninsured than white people. And even when Black women have health care, they often face both racism and sexism. Black women, for example, have complained of doctors' not taking their pain seriously, in part because of mythologies stretching back to slavery arguing that Black people could bear more pain than white people.

During the primary season, Harris vocalized a series of conflicting positions about her health care plan. Ultimately, Harris released a plan that positioned her to the left of Biden on health care by guaranteeing coverage to all Americans via a "Medicare for All" plan phased in over 10 years.

Regardless of where activists say Biden and Harris still have room to improve when it comes to intersectionality, they characterize Harris' very presence on the Democratic ticket as an opportunity to center women of color — and intersectionality — in national politics.

"Her historic candidacy opens up more possibilities to force this conversation," Sridaran said.