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Confessions of a Black Feminist

In 1975, my parents' marriage ended. My mother and I moved to Atlanta where Maynard Jackson opened Atlanta as the gateway to the New South. For the first six months, we lived near the intersection of Bankhead Highway and I-285, in what is now called the Donald Lee Hollowell Parkway Corridor – a place made world famous by T.I and the Bankhead Bounce.

I went to an elementary school where I witnessed things I couldn't have imagined in New Jersey. They were doing work I had covered two years earlier. Classroom discipline featured the public humiliation of getting beaten by your teacher in front of your classmates. I tutored my classmates, won the science fair, played in a jazz band, wrote our class song, graduated valedictorian, and tried to stay out of trouble.

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By the time the next school year began, we had moved to Sandy Springs. Fifteen miles separated substandard schools and urban blight from honors programs, AP courses, and white flight. I was black in an overwhelmingly white enclave where I sang "Dixie," memorized the names of the Georgians who signed the Declaration of Independence, and learned the Civil War was also known as "The War Between the States" or "The War of Northern Aggression."

Beyond my presence as one of a handful of integrating blacks, Sandy Springs seemed untouched by Atlanta's civil rights. For that education, I ventured deep into the City's center to worship at Ebenezer Baptist Church. Only a sacred institution so steeped in civil rights history could counter the extreme conditions of my secular life. I knew DuBois' double consciousness long before I read The Souls of Black Folks.

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Not surprisingly, I am a black feminist with white girlfriends. Spending my formative years simultaneously operating in two worlds made the prospect of choosing between my blackness and femaleness as ludicrous as choosing between my church friends and my school friends. The essence of my politics is captured in a statement written by a group of black lesbian feminists in Boston at the same time as I travelled between Auburn Avenue and Roswell Road.

The Combahee River Collective statement says that "[i]f Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression." While black communities, institutions, and families are my chosen sites of engagement, "racism in the white women's movement" is also an issue of major concern. Eliminating this racism is, "by definition for white women to do," but, as a black feminist, I will "speak and demand accountability" from white women, particularly my white girlfriends, on this front.

Geraldine Ferraro's resignation from Hillary Clinton's campaign last week brought to mind both the Combahee River Collective and my girlfriends. In Torrance, California, Ferraro attributed Senator Obama's success to race, sex, and luck. "If Obama was a white man," Ferraro speculated, "he would not be in this position and if he was a woman he would not be in this position. He happens to be very lucky to be who he is and the country is caught up in the concept."

Being a black man in America is not a matter of luck unless being over-incarcerated, under-employed, and routinely vilified means you're lucky. For me, however, what she said was as important as where she said it. She spoke in California, a state whose voters approved a ballot initiative to outlaw race-based affirmative action 12 years ago. She spoke in Torrance, a city in which whites outnumber blacks 30:1 located 20 minutes from Los Angeles and 54 miles from the Simi Valley made infamous by riots in South Central L.A. Branding Obama as her Party's affirmative action candidate in Torrance, California was enough to make me conclude Ferraro had committed a huge political gaffe. I waited for a retraction and an apology.

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Soon it was obvious that I, like those awaiting ice water in hell, would not get what I wanted. Rather than apologize, Ferraro fought back, digging in her heels and defending both her statement and her right to make it. She claimed her words were twisted. She cried she was unfairly branded a racist, even though no one associated with the Obama campaign publicly uttered such a charge.

She brandished civil rights credentials as a license to speak her mind. She accused the Obama campaign of being divisive. At this point, I could no longer believe she had unwittingly committed a political faux pas. I saw her for what she was - a white woman who came of age during the heyday of Second Wave feminism. Hers is a world shaped by the "race or gender" politics of exclusion, in which simultaneous struggle on multiple fronts is impracticable, complicated and antithetical to white women's progress.

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But why was I surprised? Ferraro was not the first white feminist of this vintage to level misleading charges of racial divisiveness in the current campaign. In January, Gloria Steinem reminded readers of the New York Times of the parallels between the current Democratic contest and the Nineteenth Century struggles over the Fifteenth Amendment. Steinem warned, "the abolition and suffrage movements progressed when united and were damaged by division; we should remember that."

But Steinem failed to name the fault line along which these parallel Nineteenth Century movements fractured. She left uninformed readers with the impression that gender and race were equally divisive. She chose not to acknowledge, let alone grapple with the fact that the racism of the white suffragettes was far more damaging than any sexism in a movement of people who, for the most part, saw the enfranchisement of black men as a step on the path to universal suffrage.

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More than 130 years later, we are having essentially the same conversation about race and political participation. This time around, however, the stakes have changed. Race will remain an intractable, quintessentially American issue until more than the most enlightened whites fess up when they play their proverbial race card. I have too many other things to deal with to put the likes of Ferraro and Steinem on my "to do" list. Dorothy, Susan, Jerri, Jeanne, Suzanne, Dana, Lauri, Ali, Joy, and Adrian – this is your work, my friends, not mine.

Lisa Crooms is a professor at Howard University School of Law.

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