In 1977 I co-authored the Combahee River Collective Statement – a document that emphasized the overlapping forms of economic and social oppression faced by black women. The Combahee Statement coined the term “identity politics”, and it was instrumental in pushing the international left and other political movements to understand inequality as a structural and intersectional phenomenon which affects oppressed groups differently.
Those ideas continue to reverberate today. I am often disheartened, however, to see support for identity politics and intersectionality reduced to buzzwords. I am supporting Bernie Sanders for president because I believe that his campaign and his understanding of politics complements the priorities that women of color defined decades ago.
I was born into Jim Crow in 1946. The country I grew up in, with few exceptions, was brutally committed to keeping people like me in their place. My family were among the courageous African Americans who participated in the first wave of the Great Migration after the first world war, which occurred during an even more perilous era than the later wave following the second world war. They ended up in Cleveland, Ohio; although we lived in a northern state, racism and segregation shaped every aspect of our daily lives. I became active in the civil rights movement as a teenager.
As president he can implement policies that give those who are most harmed by the current system full access to opportunity and a decent human life.
At the same time that I was growing up in Cleveland, Bernie Sanders, who was a few years older, was growing up in Brooklyn. He noticed some of the same paradoxes and injustices that I did and came to a similar conclusion: that he needed to get involved.
Long before he thought about running for any office, let alone for president, Sanders fought for racial justice. He and I worked in different local branches of the same organization, the Congress of Racial Equality (Core), which focused on de facto segregation in the north.
Because there is little understanding of the terrifying conditions of mid-20th century US apartheid, some people dismiss Sanders’ involvement in the civil rights struggle as insignificant or think that many white people at the time supported black liberation and human rights. Far from it. I support Sanders because unlike most people of his generation he decided as a young person to challenge Jim Crow. I wonder if other candidates can say the same.
Sanders has devoted most of his life to social movements. He has shaped them and been shaped by them. He understands that the most substantial and meaningful change comes from the bottom up, not the top down. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, to name two examples, would not have happened without movement organizing. The Vietnam war ended because a mass movement finally forced the political establishment to end the carnage. Sanders and I were in that movement too.
Sanders has said that as president he will be “organizer-in-chief.” He is committed to fighting for regular working people, which is most of us, and he has the advantage of connection with an existing broad-based social movement. As president he can implement policies that give those who are most harmed by the current system full access to opportunity and a decent human life.
At least 140 million people in the United States live in poverty or do not have enough income to cover their family’s basic needs of food, housing and healthcare. Women, people of color, members of the LGBTQ+ community, people with disabilities, children and elders are disproportionately part of this 140 million.
Some critics have questioned whether Sanders is concerned about the specific ways that people with varying intersecting identities experience oppression. As a black lesbian feminist who has been out since the mid-1970s, I believe that, among all the candidates, his leadership offers us the best chance to eradicate the unique injustices that marginalized groups in America endure.
In 2016 I served on the LGBTQ steering committee for the Sanders campaign. I am even more excited to support him now.
Look at the diversity and vitality of Sanders’ own supporters. His campaign is powered by a grassroots movement including thousands of women and people of color. His current surge in the polls is due in large part to support from voters of color, Spanish-speakers and immigrants. Multilingual caucus sites in Iowa supported Sanders by a huge margin. Four of the most dynamic women of color in Congress – representatives Pramila Jayapal, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib—have endorsed Bernie.
The stakes could not be higher. Before the 2016 election I dreaded a return to the Jim Crow era signaled by the slogan “Make America Great Again”, which obviously meant white. Tragically that is exactly what happened. Four more years is unthinkable. That is why I am working to elect President Bernie Sanders.