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November 5, 2012

We asked Dr. Tim McCarthy, Lecturer at the Harvard Kennedy School, about coalition building in our current political moment and about what’s at stake in this election. This is part one of his response.

What is at stake for women of color in this election?

So much. When it comes to the fundamental rights of citizenship for historically marginalized and disfranchised groups—women, people of color, immigrants, LGBT folks, the poor and working-class (in other words, the majority of Americans)—the choice this election season could not be more clear. Neither candidate is perfect, by any means, but as I have written elsewhere, I’d much rather be struggling for justice in Barack Obama’s America than fighting for my life in Romneyworld!

Neither candidate is perfect, by any means, but… I’d much rather be struggling for justice in Barack Obama’s America than fighting for my life in Romneyworld!

On a range of public policy issues—from affirmative action and equal pay for equal work to government assistance and reproductive health—Mitt Romney’s record, as governor of Massachusetts and presidential candidate, constitutes an assault on expanded civil rights and full equality for women of color. For instance, he is opposed to race- and gender-based affirmative action, policies that have clearly opened up economic and educational opportunities for African-American and Latina women, who shoulder a disproportionate share of the burden of historical discrimination. In the second Presidential debate, Romney couldn’t even answer a simple question about whether he supports equal pay for equal work for women. This was problematic enough, but when you consider the fact that black and brown women earn less than the 77 cents on a dollar that white women make compared to their male counterparts, you begin to see how a Romney Presidency would only compound the socioeconomic inequality that women of color already face. In terms of government assistance—what the cynics lump together, derisively, as “welfare”—Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan have been very clear that they will implement harsh cuts in social programs that many women of color, especially those who are raising children and caring for elders on their own, rely on to pay the rent, secure a loan, access education, feed their kids, and care for their extended family. And when it comes to health care, Mitt Romney has vowed not only to repeal the 2010 Affordable Care Act on “day one,” transforming Medicare and Medicaid (and Social Security) into some kind of privatized voucher system, but also to outlaw abortion, restrict access to contraception, and impose draconian legislation that would control and constrain women’s reproductive health. The Republican “war on women” is both real and retrograde, and it has a disproportionately negative effect—as all discriminatory policy agendas do—on women of color, especially those who live in poverty and economic hardship.

The Republican “war on women” is both real and retrograde, and it has a disproportionately negative effect—as all discriminatory policy agendas do—on women of color, especially those who live in poverty and economic hardship.

On the other hand, both Barack Obama and Joe Biden have demonstrated a longstanding commitment to gender justice and women’s equality, represented legislatively in the 2009 Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act (the first piece of legislation signed into law by President Obama) and the 1994 Violence Against Women Act (authored by then-Senator Biden). Moreover, in both the personal and political spheres, President Obama has consistently surrounded himself with powerful women of color—First Lady Michelle Obama, Senior Advisor to the President Valerie Jarrett, U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, and Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis, to name a few—and in 2009, he successfully nominated the first Latina, Sonia Sotomayor, to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court. So far as I can tell, Mitt Romney has no prominent women of color in his close circle of advisors, which may explain why he seems so tone-deaf on race and gender matters, to say nothing of class, whenever he is forced to talk about them. It’s not just that his policies would take the country back to the 1950s, it’s that he himself has not yet entered the 21st century—a place where an increasing number of us enjoy a diverse community of friends, family members, and colleagues who have broadened our worldview, deepened our capacity for empathy, and renewed our sense of fairness and equality.

It’s not just that his policies would take the country back to the 1950s, it’s that he himself has not yet entered the 21st century—a place where an increasing number of us enjoy a diverse community of friends, family members, and colleagues who have broadened our worldview, deepened our capacity for empathy, and renewed our sense of fairness and equality.

How do the intersections of race, gender and sexuality complicate our understanding of traditional voting blocks, i.e. “the black vote” or “the woman vote?” Do you see any problems in terms of coalition building in our present moment? Can you share any salient examples?

Too often, Americans tend to think about identity—whether we’re talking about “communities” or “constituencies”—in overly simplistic and compartmentalized ways. This has the effect of reducing all of us to one- or two-dimensional caricatures that are at once digestible and dehumanizing. Back in 2008, we saw this in sharp relief when the nation finally elected its first black President, himself a biracial man with a richly multicultural heritage, at the very same moment that California voters overturned a court ruling in favor of same-sex marriage by passing a ballot proposition that amended the state constitution to define marriage as solely between a man and woman. In the immediate aftermath, some prominent white leaders from the LGBT community blamed the passage of “Prop 8” on blacks and Latinos, whom they presumed to be more homophobic than other “communities” (they also criticized Barack Obama for failing to support marriage equality as a candidate). This sad episode—which was compounded by faulty exit polling and high emotions on all sides—served to divide black, brown, and gay communities, creating unnecessary social and political cleavages at precisely a moment when we should have had each other’s back. These divisions still linger, and present real challenges to coalition building across movements. As a black gay friend of mine said to me shortly after the 2008 election: “Where is my voice in this debate?”

Too often, we are viewed—and view ourselves—too narrowly, which forecloses real opportunities for coalition-building and for understanding “identity” with greater attention to its complexity

As I see it, this tendency towards compartmentalization—of race, gender, sexuality, and even class—stems from two principal sources: segregation and segmentation. It is no secret that this nation’s history is filled with many lamentable instances of segregation: black from white, women from men, immigrant from native born, poor from rich, gay from straight. These segregations have occurred in housing, employment, and education, in political and social institutions, in private and public spaces, and they have been reinforced through legal and legislative discrimination, social prejudice, cultural norms, physical violence, and economic practice. While much of this segregation is externally produced, some of it is also self-imposed, when marginalized groups create their own hermetically sealed institutions and identities as a way to guard against the worst forms of bias and bullying that exist in the broader culture. On some level, this is understandable—after all, in a fractured and often unforgiving world, we must protect ourselves—but the result is an unnecessarily atomized society where we are suspicious of or hostile to one another. This atomization is only reinforced by the more recent phenomenon of political segmentation, the micro-targeting of distinct groups—the “black vote,” the “gay vote,” the “women’s vote,” the “Latino vote”—for the purposes of gaining or maintaining power for political parties or candidates. Too often, we are viewed—and view ourselves—too narrowly, which forecloses real opportunities for coalition-building and for understanding “identity” with greater attention to its complexity, what the writer and critic Audre Lorde once called “intersectionality.”

I also think that this election— no matter who wins— opens up new opportunities for coalition building, based not on segregated or segmented notions of identity, but on more collective commitments to social justice.

But all is not lost—especially if we heed the prophetic wisdom of people like Audre Lorde (and James Baldwin, Walt Whitman, Bayard Rustin, June Jordan, Gloria Anzaldua, the list is long). Some of the worst effects of segregation and segmentation are already being challenged by the growing visibility of biracial and multiracial individuals, by “blended” families, and by new ways of recognizing multiple genders and sexualities. The sooner we open ourselves up to these shifting demographics and understandings—for instance, to see multiracial and transgender people as constitutive of our collective humanity rather than as a threat to it—the more likely we are to move from fear and prejudice to tolerance and acceptance. And here, I think, young people are leading the way in blurring the boundaries and exploding the binaries that have structured our way of seeing and living in the world for far too long. At least that’s my hope.

I also think that this election—no matter who wins—opens up new opportunities for coalition building, based not on segregated or segmented notions of identity, but on more collective commitments to social justice. If President Obama wins re-election, he will have done so because a broad coalition of workers, LGBT people, people of color, and women of various backgrounds came together to support him. Because the Republican Party is increasingly a party of wealthy, straight, white men—a shrinking demographic by any measure—the rest of us have found our home in the Democratic tent. But we must not be content to merely occupy that tent; we must own it—pushing Democratic leaders to embrace more progressive policies to end war, eliminate poverty, overhaul the criminal justice system, protect and promote our civil rights, and heal the environment. And we must also make clear to Republicans that they cannot continue to exist, as a party, so long as they stand in the way of these things (for what it’s worth, my prediction is that the GOP will either split into two parties—one right-wing, the other more moderate—or else undergo a major transformation between now and 2016, fueled, in part, by softening its position on LGBT rights and immigration). But the two-party political system, while currently dominant, is itself a pernicious and constraining binary, broken in more ways than I can possibly count. It is time we all became feminists, anti-racists, trans-nationalists, post-colonialists, environmentalists, queers, critics of global capitalism, peacemakers, activists, and democratic citizens in the broadest possible sense. We, the people, must once again become the hope and change we want to see in this world, and we can start by insisting on a more complex and coalitional politics of identity.

But we must not be content to merely occupy that tent; we must own it—pushing Democratic leaders to embrace more progressive policies to end war, eliminate poverty, overhaul the criminal justice system, protect and promote our civil rights, and heal the environment.

What are the particular challenges that you see associated with mobilizing marginalized communities? Do these difficulties change based on different geographic locations?

There are many challenges to organizing marginalized communities, but it boils down to three main things: poverty, prejudice, and powerlessness. With respect to poverty, which has only gotten worse in the last generation, we must make a renewed commitment to its abolition. This is absolutely essential if we are to survive as a democracy over the long term. During the 1960s, Americans launched an ambitious “War on Poverty,” which achieved real progress in terms of significantly reducing poverty over the course of a decade and a half. But this commitment was short-lived, derailed as it was by a decade of unjust foreign wars and a conservative counterrevolution hell-bent on taming the radical “excesses” of the 1960s and 1970s. As a result, economic inequality—the expansion of poverty, the growing gap between rich and poor, and the rapid consolidation of wealth in the upper echelons of American society—has only gotten worse since the Reagan era. As anyone who has ever experienced it knows (I have and I do), poverty breeds its own particular form of alienation from social and political life. Poor people are less likely to finish high school or go to college, more likely to be targeted for criminal activity, more likely to experience mental and physical health disparities, less likely to vote or participate in a range of civil society institutions. This is understandable if not acceptable—after all, it’s much harder to afford education, stay out of trouble, be healthy, and have time for anything else when you are poor. Staying afloat, trying to make ends meet, are the most urgent priorities. So mobilizing marginalized communities is doubly difficult—poor people often don’t have the time or resources to organize effectively, and politicians don’t offer much in the way of hope that organizing will lead to any real and substantive changes in their quality of life. So why bother?

And this is also why we must reject any claims that America is “post-racial,” or “post-sexual,” or “post-gender.” So long as these grotesque disparities exist, so long as we still get weepy every time we celebrate a “first black” this, or a “first gay” that, or a “first woman” anything, we cannot begin to seriously claim that these historical obstacles to full citizenship—which are still very real in our present day—are irrelevant or any less determinative.

Prejudice also plays an important role. Marginalized communities are often in the positions they are because they have been subjected to years of racism, xenophobia, sexism, and/or homophobia. It is hard to get ahead in the world when you are undervalued because of what you look like, where you come from, who you love, and how you were born. This is why it is imperative for any class-based analysis to be informed by factors of race, ethnicity, sexuality, and gender. After all, it is no coincidence that women, people of color, queer people, and immigrants are overrepresented among the impoverished and the imprisoned, among the poor, sick, homeless, and abused. And this is also why we must reject any claims that America is “post-racial,” or “post-sexual,” or “post-gender.” So long as these grotesque disparities exist, so long as we still get weepy every time we celebrate a “first black” this, or a “first gay” that, or a “first woman” anything, we cannot begin to seriously claim that these historical obstacles to full citizenship—which are still very real in our present day—are irrelevant or any less determinative.

Poverty and prejudice have always conspired to produce a sense of powerlessness among marginalized groups that is still the greatest obstacle to sustained, effective mobilization. After all, when you have been historically and systematically denied power over years or generations or centuries, it’s even harder to muster the energy—to say nothing of the resources and resilience—needed to make concrete social, economic, and political change. That is not to say that this hasn’t been done; on the contrary, the United States has a deep and longstanding radical tradition, one that has produced some of the greatest movements for change in the history of the world. But these social movements have always struggled against enormous odds, and that is still the case today. The most successful mobilizations—abolitionism, women’s rights, the labor movement, the black freedom struggle, the LGBT movement, and the like—have been fueled by a combination of exasperation, the feeling that “enough is enough,” and aspiration, the faith that change is possible. Because of this, effective organizing must come from within contexts of oppression, from the people themselves, not the politicians who rule over them while claiming (at times) to represent them. Overcoming the sense of powerlessness endemic to the various systems—social, political, economic—that govern our lives is the first step towards realizing social change. Of course, it would help to have leaders who pay attention to and genuinely care about the marginalized populations that exist throughout this country. But we can hardly wait for that. As Frederick Douglass said long ago, “Power concedes nothing without demand.”

Read the second part of the interview here.
Timothy Patrick McCarthy teaches history, literature, and public policy at Harvard University, where he directs the Sexuality, Gender, and Human Rights Program at the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy. An award-winning scholar, teacher, and activist, he has published four books—The Radical Reader, Prophets of Protest, Protest Nation, and The Indispensable Zinn—with the New Press. He is also an online blogger for The Nation.

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