Kimberlé Crenshaw, activist and professor, discusses underrepresentation of intersectional identities
All too often, the forces of justice in America fail to disrupt the status quo, explained Kimberlé Crenshaw in a lecture on Thursday. The thick controversy surrounding affirmative action in college admissions and hiring, the lack of equal coverage of black women shot and killed by police, and 20th century suffragist arguments based on white supremacy are just a few examples that Crenshaw provided of how when you scratch the surface, arguments on both sides of the political spectrum fail to acknowledge America’s racist and patriarchal legacy.
Crenshaw is a professor of law at UCLA and Columbia Law School and is known for her work in critical race theory, particularly for developing the term “intersectionality.”
In a talk at the University on March 2, she urged audience members to directly address the American legacy that has allowed for the election of Donald Trump. She admitted that for days following Nov. 8 — the day election results were released — she couldn’t sleep because she knew the act of waking would be similar to finding herself in an alternate reality.
“I have to be honest with you, I’m standing here in post-traumatic Trump syndrome,” Crenshaw said to an auditorium so packed that audience members also sat in the aisles and on the stage.
While studying anti-discrimination law in law school, Crenshaw realized that law did not account for the complex identities defined by both race and gender. She studied how black women in manufacturing faced discrimination because of their gender and how black women in clerical work faced discrimination because of their race.
Crenshaw said that she realized that the U.S. Constitution deals with race and gender as two separate aspects of a person’s identity, and that this means individuals with intersectional identities received less protection under the law.
Larry Miller, who gave an introductory speech at the event, chose to begin by directly addressing the privileges he has as a straight white male.
“I am playing the video game of life on the easiest difficulty level,” said Miller.
Miller’s sister Meredith Miller ’93 was killed during a car robbery in Virginia one year after graduating from the University. Miller’s family sponsors the Meredith Miller Lecture Series, which included Crenshaw’s talk, and serves to remember Miller’s work on matters of gender justice.
“It doesn’t mean life will always be easy for me, it doesn’t even mean it won’t ever be hard, but it won’t be hard because I am straight, or because I am white, or because I am male,” said Miller.
Crenshaw, too, argued that we must acknowledge painful truths in order to achieve equality. She said we must acknowledge that constitutional language centered around the idea of the individual prevents the administration of justice to people who have been systemically discriminated against because of their membership to a particular group.
“Critical race theory talks about the power that is instantiated in these institutions,” Crenshaw explained. “Post-racialism is about eliminating biases by better navigating these institutions.”
Basing the majority of her points on American legal history, Crenshaw argued that the various motivations behind political movements in this country have led to many of the unique dilemmas witnessed in the 21st century.
As an example, Crenshaw noted, “White supremacy was the baseline from which Anthony and Stanton framed the unique insult of being denied the right to vote.”
“White women under this frame were more qualified to vote than black men, and more vulnerable to black men because they were denied the right to vote,” she explained. “These arguments have been buried in our incorporation of women’s suffrage movements in the pantheon of social justice victories, but it remains a pattern of argumentation that reappears in contemporary politics.”
Crenshaw went on to expose these arguments as they have presented themselves in the work of individuals many readers would consider liberal.
For example, Crenshaw mentioned that while Barack Obama’s creation of the My Brother’s Keeper initiative has provided black men and boys in the United States with $2 billion in government support, similar groups for black women and girls have only pulled together $118 million.
Crenshaw said My Brother’s Keeper is “based on the idea that we want to create strong healthy families, and despite all of the challenges to traditional families that have come up in the wake of marriage equality and all of the new gender thinking that’s going on, when we’re talking about racial disparities, we’re back like we’re in ‘Ozzie and Harriet,’” said Crenshaw, receiving laughter from the audience. “This is all about how we need to have trickle-down patriarchy,” she said.
Crenshaw asked everyone in the audience to raise their hands while she called out names. She told people to lower their hands when they heard a name they did not recognize. Everyone’s hands remained in the air as Crenshaw announced the names of four black men who have been shot and killed by the police in recent years.
Then Crenshaw said a woman’s name.
The motion of hands returning to laps was audible throughout the auditorium.
Crenshaw continued to say name after name, all of them women, as hands remained motionlessly in laps.
Crenshaw’s talk was held in McCormick 101 at 4:30 p.m. on March 2. The event was sponsored by the Program in Gender and Sexuality Studies and was co-sponsored by the Women*s Center, the Carl A. Fields Center for Equality and Cultural Understanding, and Campus Conversations on Identity.