Rising Against Racism, Supporting Black Female Leadership, and Building an Equitable World
By Marianne Schnall
Police officers’ horrific murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor have sparked mass outrage, calls for justice, and protests around the world. It is time to confront the deeply embedded systemic racism that exists in this country—and finally have the national conversation and make the commitment toward transformative change our history requires and deserves.
During this raw and fertile time for change, we can look to the wisdom of longtime civil rights activists—advocates like Kimberlé Crenshaw, co-founder and executive director of the African American Policy Forum and professor of law at UCLA and Columbia Law School. Crenshaw has been working on these issues for decades and offers a frame that takes into account the complexity of these issues and the often overlooked intersections of our multiple identities. More than 30 years ago, Crenshaw, a leading scholar of critical race theory, coined the term “intersectionality” to describe the way people’s social identities can overlap and how that impacts their experiences, as well as the collective work we need to do to uproot inequality and injustice. As she has described the term in her own words, “It’s basically a lens, a prism, for seeing the way in which various forms of inequality often operate together and exacerbate each other. We tend to talk about race inequality as separate from inequality based on gender, class, sexuality, or immigrant status. What’s often missing is how some people are subject to all of these, and the experience is not just the sum of its parts.”
In the wake of the pandemic, which has disproportionately impacted marginalized communities—whether it is women, people of color, low-income workers, or immigrants—it has become increasingly critical to understand, acknowledge, and create solutions that take into account how COVID-19 is affecting various vulnerable populations and the overlaps that exists within those groups of people. And now, in the aftermath of the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and many other unarmed Black Americans, it has become essential that we look at the multitude of challenges currently facing the Black community, who, in addition to dealing with police brutality and the many other expressions of racism that are entrenched in our society and institutions, also make up a large portion of low-income and essential workers serving on the front lines and are disproportionately falling sick and dying at higher rates than the rest of the population.
As Crenshaw shared with me last month in my piece Putting a Gender Lens on COVID-19, “Thus far, our societal response to COVID-19’s disastrous effects has thrown our general framing of issues into sharp relief. Perhaps most notably, our governmental response has been entirely void of any sort of gender or racial consciousness. The result? In the past week we’ve seen statistics trickle out that show this disaster’s disproportionate impact on people of color, and Black and Latinx people in particular. This was predictable—it traces the history of tragedies that debilitate the marginalized, and are considered resolved when the most privileged return to the status quo.”
I have long admired the words and work of Kimberlé Crenshaw, and believe that intersectionality is a necessary framework for understanding and effectively addressing the deeply rooted societal and systemic issues we face in our country and world today. As our country is upended by a global pandemic and protests take over our streets nationwide, the long-neglected cracks in our society have been painfully laid bare for us all to see. We have a unique opportunity—a mandate really—to reflect and rebuild. But we will only be able to do so through using and applying an intersectional lens, otherwise we will perpetuate outdated paradigms and systems that discriminate and no longer serve us.
I felt fortunate to be able to talk to Crenshaw during this unprecedented time in history. In our far-ranging conversation below, we talk about whether she feels hopeful this moment of reckoning can produce real transformative change, how to apply intersectional principles to the issues we currently face, the impacts of COVID-19 through an intersectional gender lens, the importance of supporting Black female leadership, how she takes care of herself during these challenging times, her vision of a better world, and more.
Marianne Schnall: Just to place us in this moment, between the global pandemic and the groundswell of uprising and support for the Black Lives Matter movement, it does seem like the world is finally beginning to sit up and pay attention. And I’ve heard a few people say that this time feels different. Do you think there might be a chance for real change here? What’s your hope for how we can emerge from this moment, and what do we do now to get there?
Kimberlé Crenshaw: Well, I do think, as a social justice advocate, I always have to hope that this moment is different, so it just kind of goes with the territory to make that hope. Now, the real question is, what are the odds and what are the conditions of possibility for this to be different? I’ll start with the conditions of possibility for it to be different. I think we are seeing in this moment people being activated that never thought that this issue would be theirs. And I also think that that activation has heightened rather than diminished the problem that we’re protesting. In other words, we are protesting policing that is literally out of any control that reflects the fact that we live in a democracy. And the fact that more people are seeing it means that we’re not just protesting the thing that we saw on the video, which was horrific in and of itself, but now the crackdown of righteous indignation and expression of masses of people. So firing tear gas into crowds of peaceful protesters, knocking over a 75-year-old man and marching on—it doesn’t require those of us who’ve been sounding the alarm for the last three years that we were sliding into a police state; people are able to see it now. So I think the legibility of this moment is politically opening up possibilities that don’t open as long as people see the issue as being someone else’s issue, or just a particular expression of a bad apple. I think this is a moment where we’re looking at the barrel and we’re able to see the barrel in a clarity that we haven’t in a generation. So that’s a condition of possibility that makes me hopeful.
The condition that makes me worry is that for a lot of people, this is not a wake-up call to how bad things are. This is a moment for them to say, “Hell yeah, and that’s the way we want it to be.” So it’s heightening the contradiction, heightening the tensions between those who want to double down on this level of brutality, and there are some that look at that video tape and do not see a problem. And I think what’s useful for us is to realize that a lot of the folks who were cool with the status quo, the folks that progressives think that we’re going to be able to woo back over to this side, they’re not wooable and we don’t want to woo them. They don’t have a problem with this. So now that makes it more clear. We need to figure out what the “we” is, and not constantly try to recruit these others back in, and speak with a clarity that should come from a direct confrontation with the level of depravity that we are seeing now to rededicate ourselves to actually speaking this truth and making our politicians accountable for the demands that we’re making right now. So the clarity is what makes me more confident.
Schnall: I think it’s been heightened by the combination of these horrific incidents of police brutality—from Breonna Taylor to George Floyd to countless other unarmed Black Americans whose names we don’t know—coinciding with the extremely concerning disproportionate impact that we’re hearing about of the coronavirus on communities of color. So where do we begin? How do we begin to adequately address such a long, painful history of systemic, structural racism and ensure transformative change? And what does it mean right now to be an effective ally or co-conspirator as part of this movement?
Crenshaw: I like the language of the co-conspirator. I think, frankly, that there is some unlearning and some historic archeology that has to be done. And by that I mean, we are now in a period in which the belief that inequality is the product of individual or group incapacity to take advantage of the opportunities that exist has sort of been the baseline—that we basically live in a fairly fair society. So if it turns out that bad things that happen in life tend to bunch themselves around certain people, it’s not telling us that there’s a problem with our society that distributes those bad things onto certain people; it’s those people bringing the bad things on themselves. So think about what happened when finally the racial disparities that COVID lays bare were at the center of conversation. Did that shift the orientation of folks in Washington to say, “You know what, actually, we really must have a problem of societal and structural racism because look at what’s happening to people who are disproportionately dying of this disease. It’s largely Black people, and then brown people and native people. This must be telling us there’s something that’s positioning them in such a way that the greater risks of death are upon them.”?
But that was not where people went with that. What they went to was the reflexive: “Well, it must be something that you’re doing. It must be something that you’re bringing on yourself.” So it’s sort of an analog to rape culture. When women get raped, our culture tells us to ask, “Well, what did you do to bring it on? Why were you with this guy? What were you wearing? What were you doing?” Rather than focusing on what is the agent, or what is the mechanism that makes this group vulnerable to that? And I think that now that it happened with a disease like this, it has at least caused us to look at how many other causal explanations for widespread gaps in well-being, even in the ability to live—like the mortality gap between Black people and white people is huge.
So this is number one. It shouldn’t have taken a disease to make liberals, and progressives as well, rethink their reliance on inequality as a product of deficits in people and cultures, rather than it’s a problem of damaged institutions that have never really reconstituted themselves after segregation. So I’m of the mind that, number one, you gotta dig a little on the ground you think you’re standing on, so you can actually see that much of what you take for granted in society is actually layers upon layers of inequalities that have allowed for a baseline that’s fundamentally unequal and a product of white supremacy to just be taken as the natural point of departure for all things. And when Black people fall behind it’s because they “didn’t do what they needed to do” rather than we started on a platform that was fundamentally unequal, intentionally so, and are not paying attention to it just plays forward that inequality that constituted the baseline from the beginning.
Just to put a point on that example, we used to do a lot of structural racism training. We had the opportunity to do it for a really well-heeled organization, people traveled all over the country to come to this place. And we would spend five days with people bringing them from the moment of “discovery” all the way to this current moment. And we would talk about all of those specific policies that can now be traced to the inequalities that we see in society today. And a lot of stuff people didn’t know about. They didn’t know about $200 billion being made available by the federal government to build the suburbs and less than 2% of that went to people of color. They didn’t know about that.
So then I ask people, “If you don’t know how this society was actually created in an intentionally discriminatory way, what are you inferring then? Because you look around and you see the inequality, so you have to have an explanation for it. What is it?” And then they started telling you what they thought. That’s a meaningful moment because people have to ask themselves, “Why am I okay with this? I’m okay with it because on a fundamental level, I believe that I worked hard to get everything I got. And therefore, if you don’t have what I have it’s because you’re not working hard.” However liberal people are, if they haven’t thought about that, that’s the default.
So when you ask what we need to do, one thing is to start asking ourselves exactly how did I get where I am and why is someone else, or the family of someone else, in a fundamentally different position? So anyone who inherits wealth from property, for example, has to ask themselves, how were they in the position to get that? And how is someone else not in the position? Back in the forties, when they were creating these suburbs, you would have a Black GI and a white GI. They have the same income, like $45 for housing. The white guy can invest it in housing and build wealth and take care of his kids and send them to college and take care of their grandparents in old age and have enough wealth for them. The Black person wasn’t able to invest in real estate and had to spend his rent on a substandard apartment in some high-rise apartment building and passes his “propertylessness” on generation to generation. That’s why we have huge disparities in wealth, which ends up being disparities in education and health, and finally disparities in their encounter with police. This is what it means to say this is a structural problem.
Schnall: You coined the term “intersectionality” more than 30 years ago, which to me is such a necessary and urgent lens to use when looking at all the many problems we face as a nation and globally. And I remember when you once told me that the term is frequently misunderstood and misused by people from all sides for different purposes, but how can we apply intersectionality’s intended principles in the times we face today?
Crenshaw: Well, I think there are a couple of top-line things. One is being able to read the consequences of being trapped in multiple systems of inequality. So it’s not just that people of color, Black people in particular, are experiencing anti-Black police violence; at the same time, they’re experiencing violence in health; at the same time, they’re experiencing defunding of essential resources in their community; at the same time, they are serving, particularly in many small towns, as an ATM to make up for budgets that are being slashed by local officials using criminalization as a way to generate resources.
This is what the Ferguson report was basically talking about—fines and fees for walking in the middle of the road, or having grass that’s over a certain number of inches, incurring huge fines for these basic violations that then get people trapped and locked in the criminal justice system. And then you get locked in the criminal justice system by not paying a fine, and then that becomes part of your record. And the job that’s already hard for you to get, because there’s still employment discrimination, evaporates overnight. And then your capacity to actually take care of your family goes with it because now unemployment and other government supports are no longer there because they have been retracted, while money for militarization and policing has gone through the roof. So there are all these systems—there’s the employment system, there’s the child welfare system. Dorothy Roberts says that by her estimation, more than 50% of all Black children are in some way caught up in the child welfare system. And why is that? Because low income capacity to fully take care of your children is bottoming out in American society, and it’s only gonna get worse now that the economy is tanking. So you’ve got all of these systems that you’re caught up in.
And when I think about Black women in particular, there is the system of what counts as a good mom, and already, by stereotype, Black women are at the margins of that. Economically where many Black women are situated in the workforce puts them in jobs with low pay, no benefits. So their capacity to fully take care of children and provide for them is undermined by the very economy that they’re in. Then they’re subject to child welfare that comes and takes them; most cases of family separation are not because of violence but because of incapacity to provide the things that our system says kids deserve and need, which is healthcare, food and protection. So many of these inequalities are the product of intersecting dynamics of inequality. It’s not just one, or it’s not just one separately—it’s how they all come together to create so many of these perfect storms. And then that perfect storm often gets used by the police to justify the munities that are being pathologically constituted rather than the pathologies of inequality in society creating specific kinds of obstacles that distort the life chances of people in predictable ways. So that’s what looking at these problems intersectionally can hopefully bring to at least our understanding of how these problems come about.
Schnall: Talking specifically about women, they already faced hurdles and inequity of all types pre-COVID and now face additional challenges in the wake of the pandemic, and this is of course further exacerbated for Black women and for all women of color. How do you view the impact of the virus, looking at it through an intersectional gender lens, and what most concerns you?
Crenshaw: We’ve been looking at the intersection of failures that COVID lays bare for the last twelve weeks on our podcast. So every Wednesday we come together to talk about what are we able to see now that COVID has laid bare? Because these are the pre-existing inequalities that have already been part of our society. So we are seeing where essential but expendable workers are situated, and many of those are women. We see it in agricultural work, we see it in nursing, especially care-taking of older Americans who are being warehoused, frankly, in institutions where our lack of concern about what happens to people when they are no longer contributing to the productivity of society, placing them in a context where people who are taking care of them are not valued.
So they’re the lowest of the income workers and therefore more exposed to COVID, which, in turn, makes them expose their families to COVID. So we’re seeing how that’s playing out. Of course, we’re seeing how, when our society faces insecurities in a patriarchal disorder, maybe times that confrontation with insecurity prompts those who need to reassert their sense of control into violence toward those that they have control over. So the explosion of violence happening in the home is something that we’ve been hearing—from domestic violence and interpersonal violence, caretakers, people who are trying to intervene and make life safe for women, for children and other disempowered people. So we’re seeing that. Obviously we’re going to see tremendous losses in the economic well-being of women who are not even frontline workers but women who are professionals and who are in the fields that are more likely to employ women, particularly Black women. So we’re seeing what’s happening to the post office, we’re seeing what’s happening to teachers, we’re seeing what’s happening to healthcare professionals—that’s a huge pushback. And just to put a point on the fact that this is just telling us what the preexisting inequalities are, we have nurses who had to wear bandannas and garbage bags; we have police officers who have gear that would be suitable for going to war.
Let’s just sit with that for a moment. How did those become our social priorities? And what is that saying about our membership in this thing called the United States of America, where we’re all equal, but some people are a hell of a lot more equal than others? We have allowed this to happen. So, number one, clearly it’s giving us a sense of where things are shaking out for women. And, of course, when we intersect where women are in the workforce with where racialized people are in the workforce, we have a sense of what this pyramid is going to shake out to look like. So that’s number one.
But number two, how did it happen? Where were our voices when these decisions were being made? What were the conditions that allowed for hospitals to be defunded and closed, with democratic as well as Republican people in power, and military-grade weapons to be transferred to small Barney Fife police forces? Where were we?
Schnall: When I talked to you for my piece Putting a Gender Lens on COVID-19, you were observing how thus far the government response has been devoid of any gender or racial consciousness whatsoever. So what would it mean to have an appropriate response right now, and what can people do to push for institutional change?
Crenshaw: The first response has got to be a tremendous backlash that we create against the robbing of the public purse by corporations and billionaires. We have this virus that wreaks havoc on our society, on our economy, on working people and at most people got $1200 bucks while huge corporations were able to line their pockets with no requirement that they necessarily spend in a way that is responsible for the fact that this was a threat that undermined the entire society. There should be consequences to that. There should be consequences to the fact that the epicenters of the disease and the lives that are being lost are not receiving their due share of support because, frankly, a Southern rule that we’re all under right now in the form of Mitch McConnell, effectively saying that this is a blue state bail out. There should be massive response to that.
I think there should be massive response to the incompetence of leadership that allowed this to happen. And massive response to the irresponsibility that we’re seeing with our highest elected officials not demonstrating the protection that they need to be demonstrating in simply wearing the mask, but instead embracing this macho, you know, “I am the great white father. I don’t have to worry about spreading the disease. I don’t have to worry about getting the disease, and none of you should worry about it either.” That is the most irresponsible thing that I think a president has done in recent history, and there ought to be hell to pay for it. So I would just start number one with, we need to get hella mad about what happened and need to actually make it consequential.
If we’re not able to change the equation on the ground, then we’re not going to ever be able to change the sum total of it. So we have to start from punishing the kind of behavior that makes it clear that there is no investment in real leadership in America. This is just holding onto the reins of America while it is being plundered. I think we need to confront that directly. And then other things flow from that. What have we been sold that allows us to think that it was okay to defund most of our public institutions? And how have stereotypes about Black women been marshaled to thread the social safety net? So let’s rewind that and go back to that moment and think, “Okay, what we’re seeing now is the 20-year consequence of that. Where were we? And now how can we show up, now that we’ve seen what has happened?”
And then it’s all the things like that. Our public hospitals ought to be a place where people go to get well, not to go to die, and in this pandemic, that’s what they turned into. No shade on all the people who work there and some gave up their lives; shade on a government and a society that allowed our public hospitals to become that. Shame on us for allowing a public education system to basically be sold off with the clear awareness that we were not going to invest in educational equity for all our children. Shame on us for allowing education to be resegregated. Shame on us for allowing higher education to go to literally the highest bidders.
Schnall: Do you see a connection between racialized police violence and the fact that Black communities have been most affected and are dying in greater numbers from the coronavirus?
Crenshaw: They’re connected because the precarity of Black life has been a condition of American possibility since our founding, and that equation has not changed. So this entire society, the resources that it brings to bear, its position in the world economy—all of that was made possible not only by stealing the labor of Black people but stealing the reproductive freedom of Black women. So the idea that property is always trumping the value of Black life and security is always trumping the value of Black life—that has been the equation that America was born into. And nothing has changed that, nothing significant. The police can still take Black people’s lives. The carceral system can still reap profits off of criminalizing Black people. And a conservative Supreme Court has effectively allowed the police to criminalize and surveil and ultimately kill Black people with very few consequences to it.
And of course it also happens to white people, but let’s face it: we criminalize and imprison more people per capita than virtually any other country in the world. Part of what makes it possible is those logics that themselves were built in based on anti-Black racism that goes all the way back to the past. So much of what is made possible for everyone is grounded in this initial sense that there is a group of people in our society that have to be surveilled for us to be secure and have to be disciplined and punished because otherwise they will steal from us, either directly or indirectly through government supports and services. So that idea that having public support for social welfare is not a good idea because there are some people that are going to take advantage of it—that idea is partly what makes so many conservative, poor white people not support Obamacare. There’s a book that Jonathan Metzl wrote called Dying of Whiteness. And it’s all about how many white people will give up programs that will benefit them because they’re socialized into believing that Black people will take advantage of it and they’re undeserving.
So how does this come together? Black people are disproportionately dying of COVID and people are okay with it. They’re willing to open up the economy with it, because of it, in spite of it—that’s rehearsing that same idea that Black people are the problem group, they’re expendable. They’re expendable to the disease; they’re certainly expendable to the cops who, after all, are “protecting” us from them.
Schnall: Over the years, many of us have come to realize the importance of Black female leadership to the advancement of social justice movements. We want to support Black women and follow your leadership. What action or show of support would you say is most critical to realizing the future we hope to see in that regard?
Crenshaw: I think it’s moving Black women from a symbol of leadership to the reality of leadership. So there’s “trust Black women,” but people aren’t saying invest in Black women. We will acknowledge how Black women’s political mobilization and activation got Doug Jones elected, but we didn’t see a tremendous investment in the development of Black women as candidates, nor did we see a tremendous investment in Black women organizations and institutions to actually fund the efforts to mobilize masses of Black people who are going to be needed in the election coming up in November. Nor did we see a tremendous investment in responding to efforts to push Black people out of the political arena. People have been raising alarms about voter suppression for eight years, and the money that would be necessary to expand these concerns into a real muscular response to disenfranchisement has still been weak. And I’ll say finally, just funding Black women-led organizations. I’ve seen in the last couple of weeks, finally people are turning to #SayHerName for example, but when they finished talking about why #SayHerName name is important, I’m not seeing the support of specific organizations that are doing that work.
So I think we are in a moment where putting money and power where the rhetoric is can make a difference, but people have to really see how Black women’s leadership has been starved for a generation and really step up in a very significant way.
Schnall: Which Black female leaders, both historical and present day, do you look to in difficult times or when you’re seeking inspiration? What voices do you feel might be among those helping us shape a vision of what’s possible if we are able to get it right?
Crenshaw: I will say that I think there is a cross-generational cadre of Black women leaders who are doing the work in the trenches, doing the conceptualization. And it’s often thankless, it’s often invisible. They’re not the women that we see on television, right? They’re not often the ones that come to mind immediately, and yet they continue to do the work. I mean, it goes all the way back to the Montgomery bus boycott. We all think that it was Martin Luther King and Ralph Abernathy. You don’t hear about the Black women like Jo Ann Robinson, who had been working for years to mobilize people. You don’t hear about them doing the hard work of making sure those nightly meetings happen, making sure people got to where they wanted to go.
So we’ve always had, in a patriarchal society, an idea about what leadership looks like, what gender it comes in, and that means we’ve missed out on real strong possibilities to build a movement that understands anti-Black racism in more fully realized ways across the gender spectrum. It’s not just lynching and quasi lynching; it’s a lot of stuff, including sexual violence against Black women, including terrorizing Black women, not just in the streets but in their homes, like what happened to Breonna Taylor. It means understanding that Rosa Parks didn’t become an activist when she decided not to give her seat up on that Montgomery bus. She was an activist when she defended Recy Taylor who was raped by several white men and they were never brought to justice or to trial for it. What would leadership look like and what would our movement look like if gender-based violence and racial violence had been seen as part of the same experience throughout the twentieth century? Where would we be now? So I think we just have to ask those questions and be far more prepared to accept and see leadership in Black women and identify leadership in ways that are not traditional.
Schnall: There is so much that is disheartening, painful and disturbing right now. As we’ve been talking about, some Americans are just waking up to it while Black Americans have been facing this their whole lives. How do you take care of yourself and stay positive and energized during times like this when you must be exhausted, yet your soul is stirred so intensely to continue doing the work?
Crenshaw: You know, this question of self-care is really a generational one because people of my generation never asked that. We didn’t have a plan [laughs]. So I attribute just having the conversation in my head to my youngins, because they’re the ones that frame for me the need for self care. I guess I have to say that I have awareness of the need to find moments of solitude to sit with what is happening, not an escape from it. Because I don’t feel that I have the capacity to actually do an escape, but I do have the capacity to sit with this in different ways. So I have to tell myself to get up from the phone and the computer and go outside. And so now I’ve gardened in every square foot of soil I could find around me. So that’s been a place of some peace. And being able to track the passage of time; so now I see the things that I planted right after we went into lockdown, and seeing them grow is a reminder that I still have life to attend to. And I may be attending to that life by trying to be fully present in this moment, but it is life that I am attending to. And that little bit, I think, keeps me going. I do have to say that, frankly, I think that some of it is that we literally can’t take it all in right now, and that’s probably a good thing.
Schnall: Your garden story is sort of an analogy for my next question, because I have been thinking about what a fertile time it is and about what we’re planting. We have this opportunity at this pivotal time of reflection and of rebuilding. What is your highest, most aspirational vision of the new world that can be created? What does that look like?
Crenshaw: My highest aspirational vision to the extent that I can imagine it is a world where there are no traces of a past that categorized and treated a whole section of its population as utterly expendable. So it would mean that the person who is sitting at the helm of our organizations and our society and the person who is cleaning their office are not looking at fundamentally different life chances. That would be the most radical vision. And that they are not color coded or gendered. So a world in which those identifying marks don’t lose the ascriptive meaning that people embrace, but lose the hierarchical placement that those categories now represent in society. So no race is associated with being on the top or the bottom, nor is the top or the bottom a reflection of life chances. There is no top or bottom—there’s people do what they do and there are plenty of resources for everyone to live a sustainable life of satisfying pursuits and joy. I don’t think that’s impossible. I think it is impossible as long as we believe that people get what they deserve and not what we as society have allowed them to acquire or deprived them from acquiring.
Schnall: I’m going to take that wish and that vision and hold it in my heart because I do think it starts with visualizing and believing it’s possible. I feel something very powerful happening in this moment, and I feel more confident about it because of people like you that are out there doing this work.
For more information on Kimberlé Crenshaw and her work, you can visit the AAPF website, follow her podcast Intersectionality Matters and the Under the Blacklight series, and find out more about AAPF’s #SayHerName campaign which aims to bring awareness to the names and stories of Black women and girls who have been victimized by racist police violence and provide support to their families.
Visit COVID Gendered for more articles, information and resources.
Marianne Schnall is a widely-published interviewer and journalist and author of What Will It Take to Make a Woman President?, Leading the Way, and Dare to Be You. She is also the founder of Feminist.com and What Will It Take Movements.