DES MOINES, IOWA—Barbara Smith, founding member of the black feminist Combahee River Collective that coined the term “identity politics,” has endorsed Sen. Bernie Sanders for president, The Root has learned.
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In an exclusive interview, Smith, who endorsed Sanders in 2016, said her reasons for endorsing him again were clear.
“Of all of the people who are running, Bernie Sanders is the person whose political commitment most closely reflects and align with political commitments that I’ve had throughout my life,” she said. “He has a much deeper understanding of what the situation is, why we have injustice and inequality and oppression and discrimination or whatever words you use to describe a society that isn’t functioning the way that it should be functioning. He [has] the most incisive, sharpest understanding of where all that comes from.”
Briahna Joy Gray, national press secretary for the Sanders campaign, told The Root that the campaign is “enormously proud to have earned the endorsement of one of the preeminent black feminist activists in American history. Barbara Smith’s work highlighting the interlocking oppressions of race, gender identity, sexual orientation, and class has helped to empower millions of people in the fight for substantive equality. That fight is central to this campaign, and we’re humbled to have earned her support.”
In addition to her scholarly work, Smith has also served in elected office. She served two terms as a city councilwoman in Albany, N.Y., between 2005 and 2013. Her endorsement comes just as voters in Iowa begin caucusing, where Sanders is one of the favorites to win.
Sanders has long been criticized for not having a race analysis. But Smith strongly pushes back on that narrative, adding that he fits within the framework of identity politics and cautions against misusing the term from its intended purpose.
“The way it’s been used in the last couple of decades is very different than what we intended,” she said. “The Combahee River Collective has a race, class, gender, and sexuality platform and analysis. We wrote in our statement that all of the systems of oppression are interlocking, she said.
“When we use the term ‘identity politics,’ we are actually asserting that black women had a right to determine our own political agendas. We, as black women, we actually had a right to create political priorities and agendas and actions and solutions based in our experiences in having these simultaneous identities—that included other identities via the working class, gay, lesbian, bisexual, etc. So that’s what we meant by it. That didn’t mean we didn’t care about other people’s situations of injustice. We absolutely did not mean that we would work with people who were only identical to ourselves. We did not mean that. We strongly believed in coalitions and working with people across various identities on common problems. I think that the Sanders campaign and the candidate himself are absolutely consistent with what we meant by identity politics.”
Terrell Jermaine Starr is a senior reporter at The Root. He is currently writing a book proposal that analyzes US-Russia relations from a black perspective.