MSNBC contributor Dr. Jason Johnson (he would like us to not forget that he has a Ph.D., and I’ll do my best not to throughout this piece) said Friday on SiriusXM’s The Karen Hunter Show that the “racist white liberals” who apparently love Bernie Sanders (news to me) are coming after black people who don’t fall into Sanders’ so-called “orthodoxy” (again, that Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign represents an orthodoxy, in the context of the Democratic Party, I have never heard before).
Dr. Johnson believes that Sanders is not “intersectional,” which his host and fellow guest—both black women—seemed to agree with him about, though it’s unclear that he knows either what intersectionality—as defined by critical race theory scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw—means or its true context and ever-evolving political purpose.
In the paper Intersectionality: Mapping the Movements of a Theory, authors Crenshaw, Devon W. Carbado, Vickie M. Mays, and Barbara Tomlinson seek to explain the slipperiness of intersectionality as a tool (and not an ideology) as well as the ways in which “all intersectional moves are necessarily particularized and therefore provisional and incomplete.” A movement or political campaign, for that matter, cannot wholly be described as “intersectional,” if you’re using the term correctly.
“Rooted in Black feminism and Critical Race Theory,” the authors write, “intersectionality is a method and a disposition, a heuristic and analytic tool.” It is not a simple adjective you can tack onto whichever campaign you think talks about the specific policy needs of black women enough. The theory of intersectionality was developed by Crenshaw in order to analyze specifically how the “vulnerabilities of women of color, particularly those from immigrant and socially disadvantaged communities” are ignored or marginalized in “not only antidiscrimination law but also in feminist and antiracist theory and politics.”
Unfortunately, as intersectionality has expanded into the mainstream as a tool to apply to other theories and ideologies, its utility, and thus its meaning, has been lost. That’s why there are people who call themselves “intersectional feminists,” which is well-meaning but doesn’t quite mean anything. You can very well use intersectionality theory in your analysis as a feminist, but are you yourself intersectional?
That’s why, in the same breath as laying claim to intersectionality himself, Dr. Johnson blurted out that he didn’t even want you to get him started about “the island of misfit black girls” who indeed support Sanders’ candidacy and are even staffers and surrogates on the campaign, like Briahna Joy Gray, Nina Turner, and Combahee River Collective founder Barbara Smith (who coined the term “identity politics,” which is similarly decontextualized again and again by political pundits).
To speak about Gray’s or Turner’s politics with any intelligence would just serve to undermine Dr. Johnson’s incoherent, ahistorical, and small-minded identification of Sanders’ supporters, who include many of the “women of color… from immigrant and socially disadvantaged communities” that Crenshaw orients intersectional theory towards.
And it’s not just the “misfit black girls” Dr. Johnson is (willfully) ignorant about; he also misunderstands the political orientations of the misfit white people who so fiercely back Sanders.
For one thing, “white liberals”, as such, are more likely to back candidates like Elizabeth Warren or even especially down-to-their-bones moderates like Amy Klobuchar, Pete Buttigieg, and Joe Biden. White liberals—who believe in a kind of justice meted out from above, a benevolent capitalism where non-profits and regulatory bodies abound, while we keep the same age-old systems essentially intact, with training wheels—have also been known to cop for plutocrat Michael Bloomberg, who is—if we’re being honest with ourselves—a Republican. In fact, Republicans can be liberal. too, just as Democrats can be conservative. It’s not just intersectionality—the concept of liberalism, too, has been bastardized.
What Dr. Johnson obscured with his mish-mash rhetoric is that white socialists, not liberals, are among Sanders’ most fervent supporters, as well as Latinx and Muslims of various ideologies, and independents, whom he is loathe to acknowledge.
“The island of misfit black girls”, then, are the black women he can’t bother to train his intersectional analysis on. Unfortunately for us, it seems that Dr. Johnson does not want to apply his doctoral research skills to find out why, in fact, there would be black leftist women who believe it is worth campaigning for and supporting Sanders.
But Dr. Johnson’s nasty words go beyond Senator Sanders and electoral politics—socialist, communist, Marxist, anarchist, truly progressive “misfit” black women abound through history, and have led and supported movements for justice for all people, while specifically fighting to make sure that poor black women don’t get second shrift. Fannie Lou Hamer, Angela Davis, Assata Shakur, Harriet Tubman, Lorraine Hansberry, Nina Simone, Ilhan Omar, and many more have insisted on radical leftist politics without hewing to the expectations of moderate and patriarchal black men in their communities.
Dr. Johnson would be sorely mistaken to think that his sorry attempts at analysis will stop this rich legacy now.