Breaking news feels like it’s about to break us. Daily accounts of police brutality, armed white supremacists, coronavirus deniers, protesters and counter-protesters and murdered trans women, not to mention executive orders and the relentless Twitter stream from the Oval Office are about enough to send us over the edge. Sure, there’s some good news, but it mostly feels like one step forward, two steps back.
We’re finishing up Pride month, and we’ve just seen the Supreme Court rule that LGBTQ people are protected from workplace discrimination. Of course, in a majority of states we can still be denied housing and service in places of business like bakeries, but this ruling is one of those steps forward.
We’re also still witnessing the powerful demonstrations for Black Lives Matter and against systemic racism that began in response to George Floyd’s death at the hands of police in Minneapolis. We’ve seen some changes, including Confederate statues coming down and some city budgets being restructured away from policing, and lots of statements of solidarity and antiracism from corporations, university presidents and amusement parks. (What we have yet to see are plans to improve access for people of color to decent, affordable housing, good education and healthcare.)
“We must be multi-issue people willing to confront the multi-issue problems we face and the multi-issue lives we lead.”
And speaking of healthcare, the novel coronavirus continues to spread. Despite research indicating that if everyone wore a face mask we could lower the transmission rate and end the pandemic, many people continue to see face masks as a political issue that somehow indicates weakness, fear and a challenge to President Trump. We’re not in a second wave. We never got out of the first. When New York City, the epicenter of the pandemic, and several other hot spots managed to lower infection and death rates, people in the rest of the country, eager to get their hair cut or go to the beach, ignored CDC guidelines and demanded a reopening that has now put even more lives at risk.
The Supreme Court also handed down some good news about DACA. People who were children when they were brought to this country by undocumented parents can’t simply be deported as the Trump administration wants. On the other hand, children are still in cages at the border, and Trump is threatening to pursue other avenues to undermine DACA.
While we were in lockdown, air quality improved. That’s short-lived now that people are going back to work and back to casinos. Meanwhile, the Trump administration has managed to continue to roll back environmental protections, such as car and truck fuel efficiency standards, power plant air pollution regulations, and stream and wetland water pollution protections.
Norma McCorvey (aka Jane Roe) died recently, and we found out that evangelicals had paid her to renounce her support of abortion rights. Now yet another abortion case is on the Supreme Court’s docket.
It’s a lot to take in. I imagine many people right now are feeling the effects of stress and fatigue and are tempted to turn off the news and climb back under the covers. Of course, that might also suggest a level of privilege that would allow someone to ignore everything that’s going on. After all, people of color, LGBTQ people, immigrants, women and poor people don’t have the luxury of escaping their oppression by changing the TV channel.
Furthermore, these oppressions and our struggles against them do not exist in isolation from one another. As black lesbian feminist Audre Lorde wrote, “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle, because we do not live single-issue lives.”
If we take Jesus out of the stained-glass window for a moment, we realize that he was a working class Jew living under empire who in his brief ministry confronted issues of disability, poverty, gender, sexuality, colonization and religious intolerance, to the extent he became enough of a threat to the state that the Roman Empire executed him.
Intersectionality, a term coined by lawyer Kimberlé Crenshaw, is an analytical tool that helps us take account of the interactions of gender, race, class, sexuality, ability, age and other forms of social difference within systems of power and privilege. Unfortunately, in the popular vernacular, intersectionality has been misused as simply an additive statement of individual identities. The term’s power, however, lies in the ways it points us to understanding how individuals experience interlocking systems of oppression (such as racism, sexism and classism) within social institutions that distribute political, economic and social power and resources inequitably.
Intersectionality helps us analyze, for example, why black people are incarcerated at rates much higher than white people who commit the same crimes or why trans women of color are murdered at incredibly disproportionate rates or why missing and murdered indigenous women are not even on our mainstream radar.
“Our solutions have to be systemic. We must transform – not merely reform – policing, work, family, education, government and the church.”
It may also help us understand the inability of white churches, even progressive ones, to confront the realities of legacies of racial discrimination, sexist oppression, LGBTQ exclusion and unconstrained capitalism which show up in persistent poverty, rape culture, immigrant detention centers and family separation, environmental degradation and militarization of the police, to name but a few examples. Intersectionality helps us see how all of these are of a piece. They work hand in hand to maintain wealth and power for the few, while pitting oppressed people against one another.
And the church plays a role in the maintenance of this power. In our book on Intersectional Theology, Grace Ji-Sun Kim and I ask questions about an ecclesiology that takes intersectionality seriously. What would an intersectional church look like?
William Barber helps us see that possibility with his multi-issue coalitional work that connects employment, healthcare, workers’ rights, police violence, wealth gaps, environmental degradation, affordable housing, immigration and education. His co-chair for the Poor People’s Campaign, Liz Tehoharis, explains, “We as a nation, as a movement, must break through the lie that only small changes on one issue at a time are possible.” Barber adds, “The worst mistake we can make now, with all the marching, the protesting in the streets, would be to demand too little.”
The problem is not one of bad individuals committing bad acts. Intersectionality helps us see that the problem is systemic. We live in a social system with institutions – including the church – built to ensure the maintenance of white supremacy and patriarchy. Our solutions, then, also have to be systemic. We must transform – not merely reform – policing, work, family, education, government and the church.
To do so, we must be multi-issue people willing to confront the multi-issue problems we face and the multi-issue lives we lead. As longtime social justice activist Angela Davis reminds us, “Freedom is a constant struggle.”