Kamala Harris is on a mission. Or, at least, her boosters hope she can be drafted into one.
According to the progressive activists with whom NBC News reporter Julianne McShane spoke, Harris’s candidacy, to say nothing of her potential vice presidency, could represent a “sea change” in American political culture if she is able 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.”
As an academic framework for understanding how prejudices manifest in the real world—how they overlap, compound, and, indeed, intersect—the theory of intersectionality is an ongoing intellectual experiment. But these activists do not see intersectionality as a mere academic exercise. To them, it is nothing less than an alternative theory of societal organization and a governing ethos.
Author and university professor Mary Romero told McShane that “intersectionality deals with power relationships and the way in which we experience subordination and domination in our lives.” It is a mechanism by which Americans of majority extraction—white women, in particular—can access and participate in the new political paradigm. “There always have been people in this country who want to be part of a multiracial coalition,” the activist Lakshmi Sridaran observed. “Intersectionality allows them a way in.” Most important, intersectionality represents a theory of everything upon which all sound public policy should be predicated. As She the People founder Aimee Allison succinctly framed it: “We know that effective governance requires us to approach the problems that we face from an intersectional lens.”
As an organizational principle, intersectionality is of instrumental utility for the progressive activist class. It posits, in a truly Marxian sense, that there are no distinct struggles against prejudice. They are inexorably bound together, and they all originate from the same fundamental source. Thus, otherwise disparate efforts to seek and achieve equality are united under a common banner. At least, that’s the theory. In practice, however, intersectionality as a governing philosophy robs its adherents of the legitimacy and political authority they seek. The rapid rise and even faster decline of the Women’s March movement is a case in point.
In the immediate wake of Donald Trump’s 2017 inauguration, this explicitly intersectional organization sprang to life amid an organic outpouring of hostility toward the new president. The group and its rank-and-file supporters were both organized and sympathetic, and the Democratic Party in the wilderness tethered itself to this outpouring of grassroots energy. But it wasn’t long before the group’s founders exposed the bigotries at the heart of their activism, many of which were justified by the tenets of intersectionality.
Linda Sarsour, one of the organizers who was described by prominent Democrats such as Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand as one of the “suffragists of our time,” found herself in controversy after controversy. “I wish I could take their vaginas away,” the Palestinian-American activist wrote of female activists with whom she disagreed, including genital mutilation victim Ayaan Hirsi Ali. She wrote approvingly of Sharia Law’s social covenants, and she compelled her allies to come to her defense when she declared opposition to Donald Trump to a “jihad.”
Her fellow Women’s March leaders, Tamika Mallory and Carmen Perez, expended precious political capital rationalizing their alliance with Nation of Islam founder and famous anti-Semite Louis Farrakhan. The organization itself heaped praise upon the “revolutionary” and convicted murderer living as a fugitive from justice in Communist Cuba, Assata Shakur.
Meanwhile, within the organization, a schism was brewing over whether white, Jewish women who shared all of the group’s political assumptions could be part of their movement. In what amounted to an apology for the conduct that alienated the group’s Jewish allies, Mallory confessed that, nevertheless, “we’ve all learned a lot about how while white Jews, as white people, uphold white supremacy.”
A competent political organization should have been able to isolate its anti-Semitic fringes. It should have been able to cast its most controversial organizers overboard. It should have understood that certain hills—among them, the honor of a convicted cop killer—are not worth dying over. But intersectionality forbids prudent dissociation; to abandon one is to abandon all, and thus to give up on the intersectional doctrine altogether. But as these controversies mounted, the Democratic Party was compelled to sever its connection with the group. As a direct result of its adherence to intersectionality, the Women’s March lost its access to power.
Another troubling aspect of this philosophy from the perspective of a political organizer is the extent to which it forces its adherents to think in stereotypes. Indeed, an enlightened intersectional theorist must be well versed in the hurtful tropes that surround race, ethnicity, sex, sexuality, and the various other elements that constitute identity in order to understand others’ experiences and navigate the matrix of oppression we all inhabit. The problem arises when those theorists inevitably apply those stereotypes to the demographic groups whose experiences they think they already fully understand.
New York Times columnist Thomas Edsall recently described how the left’s supposedly enlightened views on Hispanic voters reduced them to a racial monolith that, in reality, doesn’t exist. “Progressives commonly categorize Latinos as people of color,” wrote two university professors in another Times op-ed. “Yet in our survey, only one in four Hispanics saw the group as people of color.” Indeed, most Latinos “reject this designation.” A majority of Hispanic voters perceive themselves to be defined by their individual traits, many of which have nothing to do with the accidents of their birth. As Times reporter and data analyst, Nate Cohn found as far back as 2014, approximately 1.2 million of those who identified as “Hispanic, Latino or Spanish origin” for the 2000 census suddenly reclassified themselves as “some other race” or even “white” by the year 2010.
Racial categories are simply more nebulous and mutable than the intersectional paradigm allows. One’s birth sex is, by contrast, more immutable than the popular orthodoxy insists. Religious and sexual affinities can change. It’s not just Kamala Harris who has an “intersectional identity,” as NBC News observes. Everyone does. We contain multitudes, and no one is defined by a single distinguishing characteristic. And just as those traits can evolve, so, too, do American prejudices. Intersectionality as an organizational theory is not comfortable with these vicissitudes, and so it waves them off as some sort of construct invented by small minds beholden to anachronistic abstractions.
There was a time when Sen. Harris espoused a less divisive and, importantly, more productive formula to convey the same intuitive understanding of the human condition as her intersectional allies. “We have to stop seeing issues and people through a plate-glass window as though we were one-dimensional,” she said back in 2009. “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.” That’s a perspective we can all share.