Intersectionality & Inclusion in Political & Social Movements
Don't Leave LGBTQ, Immigrants, and People of Color Behind: Why Inclusion In Movement Building Matters Now More Than Ever
*This is a presentation I give on why inclusion in social movements, especially in the Trump era, is more important now than ever.
2016: The Rude Awakening
When I woke up and checked my phone on the morning of November of 2016, I was bombarded with notification after notification. I couldn’t believe it. I was in shock. A million things went through my head: How did this happen? How could it happen? What’s going to happen now?
I was in Washington, D.C., at the time working for a federal agency as a legal intern in their diversity and inclusion office. By then, I had already spent about 5 months in the DMV. And I remember walking out the door to head to the office; the sky was overcast and cloudy. It wasn’t raining quite yet. But it’s like Mother Nature, the environment, itself knew it was going to go through some tough and tumultuous times.
The streets even seemed empty. The metro. The coffee shops. When I walked through the security checkpoint, there wasn’t the usual bustle of folks badging in. When I got to my desk, I just sat down and stared at the blank screen for a bit. The office was quieter than usual. It looked like half the civil servants had taken the day off. The few that came in, a lot of them interns, just sort of all did the same thing. Sat with our heads down or staring at our screens.
The deputy director of our office walked in later and came up to us interns and told us, “Keep your chins up. Everything’s going to be ok. We just have to keep going and keep doing good work. Everything’s will be ok.”
Most of us who worked in that office were people of color. And I appreciated her trying to comfort us, but if we listened to anything said during the election and all the campaign promises that were made; you bet I still worried.
All the progress we made over the years, especially on LGBTQ rights. In the Windsor case that struck down provisions of the Defense of Marriage Act and allowed same-sex couples, whose marriages were legal in the states in which they resided, to enjoy the same federal tax benefits as other, opposite-sex couples. Or the Obergefell case that made marriage equality the law of the land.
But all of the progress that we’ve made when it comes to LGBTQ rights. What’s going to happen now? With an administration that, on the surface, preaches unity but in action and behind closed doors is doing everything it can to strip our Transgender friends, neighbors, and family of their rights to be who they are; to separate immigrant and asylum-seeking families and try and use Scripture to justify it; an administration that is hostile to women’s rights and lgbtq rights and votings rights; an administration that wants to make us invisible.
How did this happen? How could it happen? What’s going to happen.
Two years later, we are seeing that they are doing exactly what they promised and what they set out to do. To undo President Obama’s legacy, to divide us, and to stoke hate and fear of “the Other” to do so.
But in all this darkness we have to remember that in dark, light shines the brightest. We are the light. We are the hope. We are the change. And we shine the brightest when we stand and shine together in the dark. That’s is why inclusion matters.
I think America is going through an identity crisis. Hopefully not a mid-life identity crisis.
And political pundits, consultants, and scholars all jumped at the opportunity to figure out exactly what happened and why it happened. Like they do every election, they wanted to do an autopsy on the American electorate; on you and me. And something that I’ve picked up, starting with the heated primary between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, was that we need to stop focusing on “Identity Politics” and focus more on “jobs and the economy” from a class perspective.
As one writer noted in the New York Times:"We need a post-identity liberalism, and it should draw from the past successes of pre-identity liberalism. Such a liberalism would concentrate on widening its base by appealing to Americans as Americans and emphasizing the issues that affect a vast majority of them.... As for narrower issues that are highly charged symbolically and can drive potential allies away, especially those touching on sexuality and religion, such a liberalism would work quietly, sensitively and with a proper sense of scale." -Mark Lilla, Humanities professor at Columbia, Opinion: The End of Identity Liberalism (New York Times).
And there are many who agree with him, both on the left and the right. And I will be completely honest, it worries me deeply. Do they understand what they are saying? They are telling people of color, LGBTQ people, women, immigrants, Muslims, and so on and so forth that, first, we need to win politically and in order to do that, we need to focus less on civil rights and human rights and more on the working class, economy and jobs, and things that we all have in common.
History Doesn’t Repeat Itself, But It Does Rhyme
I’m worried because American history is replete with pivotal moments when liberals ceded ground on civil rights and racial and social justice to claim a political win or two. Acquiescence on social and racial equality and civil rights gave birth to the Jim Crow era, exacerbated it, and created the conditions that disadvantage African Americans.
Over a century and a half ago, after the Civil War and the Reconstruction Period, the party of Lincoln, which I would argue is not the GOP that we see today, stood staunchly for civil rights. The Thirteenth Amendment abolishing slavery was ratified in 1865, followed by the Fourteenth Amendment, which defined citizenship and provided the due process and equal protection clauses. These were followed by the 1866 Civil Rights Act and the Fifteenth Amendment. Federal troops and federal courts stood guard in the South to keep the peace and protect African Americans; their lives, their liberty, their property, and their voting rights. All of this helped make the black vote part of the Republican coalition that helped keep its majority in Congress.
In the latter half of the 1800s:
Black suffrage was a critical plank of the Republican platform
the Southern black vote was a reliable bloc for Republican control of Congress
The number of black elected officials and jurors was rising; and there was some progress toward racial integration of public accommodations.
A radical faction of the Republican Party at the time, literally called the “Radicals” fought for black voting rights and for civil rights laws that curbed the abuses of power and hate crimes of both public and private actors. In 1871, they helped push through the Civil Rights Act of 1871, or what was widely dubbed the “Ku Klux Klan Act,” after President Ulysses S. Grant sent an urgent request to Congress citing the abuses of power and threats to the life, liberty, and property of African Americans.
But as the Civil War began to fade and a new generation started to take on the mantle of charting a future for the United States, The Party of Lincoln’s commitment to black suffrage and civil rights began to wane and white supremacy grew more and more influential in the South. I point to three factors that resemble what is happening today: (1)Money in politics as usual; (2) economic disruption; and (3) lack of commitment to voting and civil rights. Sound familiar?
Westward expansion, the enrichment of railroad barons, and the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution had transformed the North, where the Party of Lincoln was strongest. Gradually, wealthy capitalists and industrialists gained more and more influence over the Republican Party and it transition to focus more on economic issues.
The wealth in the North and the Industrial Revolution resulted in massive economic and disruptive changes that had ripple effects throughout society. Our economy relied less and less on skilled craftsman and agriculture, and more on textiles and manufacturing. This the South especially hard, where the economy largely consisted of agriculture, farming, and cotton. Economic disruption and recessions in the late 1800s helped fuel outrage among Souther white workers and farmers and they organized into a powerful political force that pushed back against voting rights and civil rights.
Political parties want to win majorities. That’s the name of the game. So as the wealthy donors and industrialists in the Republican Party wanted more returns from their investments in the party, and the farther history and the times marched from the memories and horrors of the Civil War, the more Republicans and whites in the north made what is called “Sectional Reconciliation” a priority. The North essentially threw up its hands and said “We’ve done enough. Now what matters is that we unite as a country. That matters more.”
By the 1890s, the commitment of Northern whites to black suffrage and civil rights dissolved also as more black migration from the South to the North increased. The late 1800s also saw the Chinese exclusion acts, which stigmatized Chinese residents and workers. It’s very much like the Muslim Ban, except that it was a Chinese Ban. Later on there was also the Japanese Ban and the period of time when Japanese immigrants and citizens were shipped off to internment camps.
But as blacks spread out to look for jobs and safer communities to raise their families as violence and suppression and oppression in the South grew. And as more and more African Americans showed up in northern and midwestern and western towns, cities, and states, they too discovered their latent racism and biases. This also coincided with immigration forms when Chinese and Japanese workers were brought over to work on the railroads.
And I want to make clear: Racism and discrimination isn’t just a Southern problem. It’s an American problem.
The KKK, which was born in the South, was experiencing a resurgence and began to spread in places like the Northeast in the early 1900s. In my own home state of Maine, the KKK provoked fear and envy among white Protestants against Irish Catholics, Jews, and French Canadians. During this time, hundreds of thousands of French Canadians were crossing the border. In the 1920s, about 130,000, due to They used nativism, racism, and xenophobia to recruit thousands and thousands in Maine. As the South became more and more developed and textile mills began to crop up, Maine’s mill towns and industrial centers faced more and more competition and our economy was in decline in the midst of all this. And the KKK used economic hopelessness and fear to stoke racism and xenophobia and religious intolerance in the Northeast.
The Washington Post reported that by 1925, over 150,000 Mainers had joined the KKK.
Does any of this sound familiar? Again, as Mark Twain is believed to have said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”
Since Citizens United, money has come to dominate both parties. Republican Party or Democratic Party. Corporations and lobbyists want an in with both sides so they can play both sides and get a big return on their investment.
We’ve also experienced great economic disruption. Does anyone remember the Housing Crisis and the Great Recession? In addition to that, for the last few decades, we’re experiencing economic change and disruption in the form of automation, which is replacing laborers and workers in manufacturing and now even at McDonalds or your local grocery store. Apps such as AirBNB and UBER are creating a burgeoning class of “independent drivers” and “independent hospitality providers”. The tech world is moving fast and the big tech companies are focused on what they call, and I’m not kidding, “DISRUPTIVE TECHNOLOGY”. Disruptive tech intentionally creates new markets and businesses that disrupt existing markets and businesses (Source: Airini Ab Rahman, Umar Zakir Abdul Hamid, Thoo Ai Chin). Some are referring to automation and artificial intelligence as the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
And just like in the late 1800s and early 1900s, after some progress was made toward voting rights and civil rights and how America slid backwards into the Jim Crow era of segregation and discrimination, I am worried that we are at a pivotal point in time.
With gerrymandering distorting representation and the power and meaning of our votes; with the Supreme Court’s striking down of a key provision of the Voting Rights Act; police brutality and mass shootings; white nationalists marching through the streets carrying torches; the Muslim Ban; anti-LGBTQ legislation all across the nation; President Trump’s comments that it’s ok for businesses to fire gays. This backlash has followed a period of progress for LGBTQ Americans, for women, and for African Americans. And it is coming during the period of economic disruption. And forces are already at work saying that we must forget identity politics and civil rights and focus on class; on what can unite our country.
Rising Tide Mantra Ignores Disparities
Now, going back to what I’ve said about those who want to focus on just class. Essentially, they are repeating that oft-repeated cliche that a “Rising tide lifts all boats.”
I have a lot of problems with that. But there’s another saying, “It sounds too good to be true.” And indeed it does. The reality is that not everyone has a boat. Not everyone can afford to have a boat. A boat is expensive to own and operate for a few months out of the year. So while a rising tide may lift all boats, what happens to those still in the water? They’re in trouble.
And that is exactly what we’re seeing in America today. Productivity has gone up and up and up. The stock market has gone up and up and up. Corporate profits and dividends have gone up and up and up. The wealthiest in this country are moving on up and up and up.
But for the rest of us, wages and incomes have remained stagnant and have failed to keep up with the cost of living. Especially when it comes to the costs of housing, health care, and education. Those are also going up and up and up. We’re seeing that rising tide.
But here’s the thing, even those in the water are having different experiences. The tide is rising. Some of the people on the boats are kind enough to throw out a few lifejackets. A few people get lucky and find and oar or floating object. But there are some folks who don’t know how to swim. Who were never educated and taught how to swim. Some people may have health problems. And some may still be stuck in the mud or have their hands tied.
Everyone in the ocean of inequality experiences economic inequality.
But not everyone experiences social and racial inequality, systemic racism, homophobia, sexism, misogyny, and xenophobia.
For instance, when we’re talking about our black brothers and sisters, we’ve seen some improvements since the 1960s. But in many ways things have not change and have even gotten worse. According to the Economic Policy Institute:
While the rate of young African Americans graduating from high school is at 90%, compared to just over half in 1968; they are still half as likely as young whites to have a college degree;
On average, black workers make 82.5 cents on every dollar earned by white workers.
What is startling is that African-American are worse off today than they were in 1968 when it comes to unemployment, housing, and incarceration.
In 2017, the black unemployment rate was 7.5%, compared to 6.7% in 1968; roughly twice the white unemployment rate.
The black homeownership rate in 2015 was 40%, virtually unchanged since 1968 and 30 points behind the white homeownership rate;
And the number of African Americans in prison or jail have tripled in 1968, more than 6 times the white incarceration rate.
It’s not just the economy at work here. How do you explain that black workers are paid less than white workers? That’s not just an economic issue, it’s also a civil rights and discrimination issue.
How do you explain the huge disparity between black homeownership and white homeownership? Some people will say, “It’s the economy, stupid.” But it’s note. It’s a civil rights and social justice issue.
It’s what’s been termed “redlining” and “exclusionary zoning”. Both federal, state, and local and private enterprise and realtors engaged in the discriminatory practice of discouraging black buyers from buying homes in white neighborhoods. Towns and cities created segregated neighborhoods by restricting public housing in certain areas, and zoning other areas for single-family homes only. Can you guess who is more likely to be able to afford a single-family home? White families.
And they hide behind phrases such as the “character of the neighborhood” to keep apartment buildings and more affordable housing from being built in single-family neighborhoods. Give me another hour and I could go on and on.
But now you know what I mean when I say there is more underneath the surface. There’s bias. There’s hatred. There’s fear of the Other. There’s racism.
Lessons From the Labor Movement
Economic disruption and upheaval was the impetus used by darker forces to push their nativist and white supremacist agenda. But it also gave birth to the Labor Movement which I believe has shown us what works when it comes to building a coalition that combines both class and identity politics. The Labor Movement itself was not free from the forces of racism and discrimination. Industrialists and capitalists pitted blacks against white. When white workers went on strike to demand better conditions and better wages and benefits, industrialists would go out and hire black workers, at even lower wages and with worse conditions, to break the strike. The tension between white union laborers and black workers was heated at first, but the Labor Movement found a way forward.
The Congress of Industrial Organizations or CIO, especially, is to thank for this. Their solution to the pitting of white workers against black workers was to build solidarity between the two to take on the management class. The CIO and other organizations like it produced a strategy that fused class and race together in order to tackle what they saw and what I also believe are two sides of the same coin: economic and racial inequality.
As CIO president John L. Lewis said at the time, “No group in the population feels more heavily the burden of unemployment and insecurity than the Negro citizens…. The denial of civil liberties lies with heavy discrimination upon Negroes. Only when these economic and political evils are wiped out will the Negro people be free of them.”
Another CIO member, John Brophy, said, “Behind every lynching is the figure of the labor exploiter, the man or the corporation who would deny labor its fundamental rights.”
This fusion of class and race and the forging of solidarity among white, black, and brown voters helped advance progressive policies. And when it came to the civil rights movement in the 1960s, guess who was marching right alongisde Martin Luther King and the Poor People’s Campaign? Unions.
Walter Reuther of the CIO even gave a speech right before MLK gave his famous “I have a dream speech”.
So, yes, jobs and the economy and class matter. But so do civil rights and social equality.They are not mutually exclusive. They intersect and weave in together and they stem from different points of the human condition - but they’re two sides of the same coin.
I think one of the major reasons why we are where we are today is because we’ve lost a key ally in the fight that championed inclusive movements: unions. Just recently, the Supreme Court struck down workers’ rights by holding that non-union members didn’t have to pay fees. It sounds good on the surface, but we need to think about all the things that unions negotiation that benefits non-union members. Without unions, workers wouldn’t have the weekend. Paid vacations. Family medical leave. Lunch breaks. Sick leave. Paid holidays. And the 40 hour work week (it used to be longer).
The Labor Movement helped fuse together class and race and forged the solidarity needed to advance both economic opportunity for all and civil rights and racial justice. But the Labor movement has been under attack since - especially during the 80s.
If we really want to make an impact and a change, diversity and representation is not enough. We need inclusion. Have you ever heard of phrase, “If you’re not at the table, you’re probably on the menu?” Well, I’ll go even further in saything that “Even if you’re at the table, you might still be on the menu.”
To help you better understand, let’s define the two words.
DIVERSITY: More to do with quantity and variety within a particular community and encompasses such things as race, ethnicity, gender, gender identity and expression, socio-economic status, nationality, citizenship, religion, sexual orientation, ability, and age.
INCLUSION: More to do with the quality of the experiences and the policies and practices, attitudes, strategies, etc., of a community and it's participants in engaging and involving individuals of diverse backgrounds.
We are the light. We are the change. We are the hope.
We shine brighter when we stand and shine together, no matter how dark and no matter how dismal the odds.