Yesterday the Supreme Court of the United States voided key parts of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a law that was enacted to protect African American citizens from a wide variety of voter disenfranchisement strategies. The court decided that the Section 5, which requires 15 states with a history of racist voter discrimination to obtain federal approval before making changes to election processes, is no longer necessary because, in a nutshell, they believe racist electoral disenfranchisement is over. This ruling dealt a serious blow to the voting rights of people of color in the United States, and therefore to the democracy of everyone in the nation. Curiously, though, instead of seeing people rallying together to have a national conversation and begin building coalitions across communities and issues to do the work that will be necessary to address the problems the ruling will inevitably cause, what I witnessed was this:
My dignity, safety, and uterus are side issues? Who knew?
Wait but… haven’t we wanted him to talk about climate change for a while (years) now?
Black people, all people of color, let me be clear: we cannot allow history to repeat itself. We cannot allow what qualifies as a “black” (or Latino, or Native, or POC) issue to be defined solely by the experience of men in our communities. We have done this before. We have failed to acknowledge the nuances of our struggles, refused to use the immense power we have to to address multiple issues at once and make “others’” issues our own, insisted on silo-ing ourselves. And what did we get? Civil rights and feminist movements that alienated black women and pushed our struggles to the side. Watered down movements that accomplished important legal victories while leaving structural inequities festering, a “post-racial” and “post-feminism” society where people don’t even want to talk about those inequities anymore. Communities vainly struggling against each other for attention instead of struggling with each other to build capacity to dismantle the forces that oppress us all.
Voting rights, housing discrimination, separate and unequal public schools, stop and frisk, incarceration, the war on drugs, AIDS. Yes, these are some of the most pressing issues facing the black community. Yes, yesterday some people in the South got busy figuring out how to capitalize on the SCOTUS ruling to disenfranchise as many voters as possible. But know this- street harassment, body image, intimate partner violence, workplace sexual harassment, rape culture, sex trafficking, the wage gap, slut shaming- these too are black issues. They are black issues because black women are impacted by them- disproportionately for most of these issues, because half of black people are women, because four African American women were killed by intimate partners yesterday and four will be killed today, and tomorrow, and the next day. Climate change, air quality, emissions standards, energy production- these too are black issues. They are black issues because race is an independent determining factor for how close you live to a coal power plant and for how fast Superfund sites get cleaned up, because black people have children and grandchildren who will have to live in a devastated climate, because of plans to pump toxic tarsands from Canada all the way to Texas for people of color to process, because three African Americans die from asthma attacks every day.
White allies and activists, I hope you already know how essential it is for you to see the intersections between these issues as well. Many of us cheered on state Senator Wendy Davis last night as she filibustered to protect the right of Texas women to have the access they need to make choices about their pregnancies. But Wendy Davis was only elected to her seat because a panel of federal judges used Section 5 of a VRA to block redistricting that would have substantially reduced the voting power of black and Latino citizens in her district. The SCOTUS ruling on the VRA is problem for everyone who cares about social justice issues- from abortion access to queer liberation to climate change- because it opens the door for the disenfranchisement of voters who are essential to achieving progress, a problem we must all work together to solve.
I can’t help but believe that no one literally believes the VRA provision would not have been struck down without Slutwalk, or that Obama should have changed the topic of a climate change speech he’s undoubtedly been working on for months on the fly. I hope we all know that is not the way activism or advocacy or government works. But I believe the underlying sentiments, the gut instinct to cling to what impacts us the most, or the most urgently, or the most directly in the aftermath of having our rights attacked, is real. And y’all, that is dangerous. It is exactly the opposite of what people struggling against a web of interconnected oppressions need to do. It is exactly what those doing the attacking are counting on.
So please, in the words of Al Green, let’s stay together.