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Defining Political Progress

One of the things I love most about writing for Diverse is that it provides an opportunity for me to think through our increasingly complicated political space. Exploring the intersection of politics, pop culture and higher education also provides a platform to align pedagogy with public scholarship. I approach this column as I approach my classroom: my job isn’t to tell people how to think; but to provide them with information that encourages them to think critically and analytically. Usually I draw inspiration from a discussion I’ve had in class with my students, from a compelling news story, or a longstanding political tension that commands our attention. Since the divisiveness of the 2016 Presidential election, my mantra in the classroom is “we do facts, not feelings.” And yet, in this increasingly contentious political era, I’ve started to question whether that is a false dichotomy that undervalues the ways our effective responses reveal the depth of our convictions.

Dr. Khalilah L. Brown-DeanDr. Khalilah L. Brown-Dean

In my forthcoming book, Identity Politics in the United States, I define identity politics as an essential and ubiquitous feature of American political development. I argue that identity politics represents a battle over how we see ourselves, how we see others and the mechanisms we have to reinforce those distinctions. I was inspired to write the book by the aftermath of the 2017 White supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia and the barrage of negative emails I received after commenting during an on-air interview, “No one I know is surprised this happened.”

As a Virginia native and a proud alum of the University of Virginia, I am acutely aware that what appears as progress is often limited by institutional design. Even as the United States elected its first African-American president, seated its first Latinx Supreme Court Justice and witnessed the unprecedented grassroots organizing of young people, political mobilization always breeds countermobilization. It also requires that we interrogate how we define progress, and for whom. My graduate school mentor, the late Dr. William E. Nelson, Jr., would famously temper our excitement over political wins by asking a simple yet poignant question, “What does this mean for the liberation of Black people?” Dr. Nelson challenged us to remember that even people with the best intentions and genuine commitment are constrained by the presence of multiple, interlocking systems that define their presence and potential.

In “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color,” Kimberle Crenshaw (1991) points out the challenge of contemporary notions of identity politics as “not that it fails to transcend difference, as some critics charge, but rather the opposite – that it frequently conflates or ignores intragroup differences.” The runoff election in Chicago between two African-American women, Toni Preckwinkle and Lori Lightfoot, highlight the importance of analyzing intra group differences within the realm of electoral politics and community development.

In her pioneering text, The Boundaries of Blackness, Cathy Cohen advances the concept of secondary marginalization to explain some elites‘ concern that embracing a less desirable segment of the community – such as the formerly incarcerated – may damage the public image of African-Americans as a whole. The desire to assert a positive image and the failure to fully address group needs may suppress overall rates of political incorporation and engagement. Though the term respectability politics and captures a portion of this rejection, Cohen’s theoretical framework helps us better understand how African-American citizenship is fractured via routine social interactions and political decisionmaking. Much has been made of Lori Lightfoot’s election as the first African-American woman mayor of Chicago, and one of a handful of LGBTQI+ elected officials across the United States. Overall, 4.5 percent of the U.S. population identifies as members of the LGBTQI+ community, compared to just .1 percent of elected officials. The 2018 midterm elections ushered in the largest class of LGBTQI+ candidates for a range of offices from local school boards to the halls of Congress. And yet, for LGBTQI+ women of color, overcoming the triple hurdles of race, gender and sexual identity remains a formidable challenge in the electoral arena.

Lightfoot’s campaign website proclaims that equity and inclusion will be the key guiding principles for her administration and the City of Chicago. Yet some activists such as Charlene Carruthers question her commitment to dismantling a culture and institutional structure that has long dismissed the concerns of the city’s most vulnerable communities. As the founding director of the Black Youth Project 100, Carruthers’ activism centers on advocating for young people whose voices and experiences are too often overlooked within policymaking circles. Carruthers generated a tremendous social media buzz following a flurry of tweets reacting to Lightfoot’s election victory. She argued that seeing her election as a victory for the LGBTQ+ community without taking into consideration her policy stance on issues such as policing, public education and economic development, represents a dangerous strain of identity politics that equates a shared group identity with substantive progress. Carruthers tweeted, “do Chicago a favor and save all excited posts and articles about our next mayor being Black lesbian. You’re not helping. She loves and has worked to protect the very systems that suck resources and harm our communities.” The reaction to her tweets was swift and explosive. Some accused Carruthers of being homophobic for not celebrating the history-making election of an openly lesbian woman of color as mayor of one of the largest cities in the country. While supporters tweeted out Carruthers’ self-description from her own website, “Yes I am Black, yes I am a lesbian, yes I am queer, yes I am a woman and my eyes are squarely centered on Black liberation.”

To be sure, Lightfoot will inherit myriad problems created and exacerbated by eight years of her predecessor’s administration. That inheritance includes community anger over the shuttering and underfunding of public schools that have long served as a place of refuge for children for whom violence is an ever-present reality. It will also include ongoing contestations over the best way to protect the people of Chicago from violence committed by fellow citizens and the state. In 2018, the City of Chicago paid out over $60 million in police misconduct settlements with little evidence that number will decrease in 2019. As the City still reels from a recent judicial decision that acquitted three officers accused of covering up the murder of Laquan McDonald, the former Chair of the Chicago Police Accountability Task Force will have to navigate the delicate relationship between restoring public trust and maintaining law enforcement support as Mayor. And yet, Lightfoot will face the same realities as Chicago’s first African-American mayor, the late Harold Washington: electoral coalitions are vastly different from governing coalitions. Defining political progress requires an admission that even when political actors may change, institutional norms remain.

Dr. Khalilah L. Brown-Dean is an associate professor of political science at Quinnipiac University where she writes about American politics, political psychology and public policy. Her book, Identity Politics in the United States, will be released by Polity Press in September 2019. You can follow her on Twitter @KBDPHD.

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