Over the past month or so, the conversation concerning the Obama administration’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative has quickly degenerated into an all-too-familiar debate that boils down to this: Who wins the medal of “most oppressed”? As they have in controversies past, dueling statistics have emerged to “prove” that “It’s black boys!” or “No, it’s black girls!” Meanwhile, most overlook the idea that the terms of this debate ask the wrong questions.
As a financial supporter of programs for young men of color and for young women of color, I am fully aware that there are challenges specific to each group. So why did I sign the letter of more than 1,000 black women criticizing My Brother’s Keeper, even though I am excited about its many possibilities?
Because advocates on both sides of the debate fail to use intersectional analysis in a way that brings people together rather than drives them apart.
As an intersectionality scholar, I find it difficult to watch the conversation around MBK take this turn. I am aware that there are challenges specific to black women and to black men, as many authors have argued. Unfortunately, the “include us too”-style of reactions to MBK oversimplify critiques of and support for the program by focusing solely on the specific challenges that are most important to each camp. An intersectional approach to evaluating this program wouldn’t need to do this.
Intersectional-type analysis dates to at least 1831 with the pamphlets of Maria Stewart, who wrote that race, gender and religion simultaneously shape our lives. Educator Anna Julia Cooper, activists Liga Femenil Mexicanista, the Rev. Pauli Murray and the Combahee River Collective all fought for visibility within the women’s and civil rights movements.
W.E.B. Du Bois talked about structural “intersections” of race and class in his The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study and Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880. In the 1980s and 1990s, Bonnie Thornton Dill, Ruth Zambrana, Patricia Hill Collins and Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw all wrote about visibility, but they also argued that intersectionality was a way of analyzing the puzzle of inequality differently.
I’ve spent my adult life determined to encourage people to apply intersectionality to the discussion of our most contentious political and social questions. I’m sure it could deepen the discussion here.
Consider how people who embrace intersectionality do three things very differently:
We ask different questions. We don’t start the conversation with, “Who has it the worst?” Instead, intersectional researchers have the courage to admit that we choose to be interested in disparities for our own reasons.
We must own up to the difficulty of choosing among equally compelling needs in our communities rather than pretending that our data compensates for what has historically been a qualitative choice—improved outcomes for boys or healthy development for girls. It’s time to acknowledge that as some repeatedly chose to invest in black men and boys, they walked their money and influence away from eradicating sexual abuse and sex trafficking that is reaching epidemic levels among our girls. #BringBackOurGirls applies right here in the U.S., not just in Nigeria.
We collect data differently. Instead of collecting data to question if race or gender or class compound disadvantage, we collect multilevel data to examine what those experiencing stigma have in common, and what diversity, within the target group, may substantively affect the effectiveness of any proposed solution at both the individual and policy level. We don’t pretend race doesn’t exist; we include race as an important but complex part of a diverse world where we’ve made tremendous progress but still have a long way to go. Mitu Gulati and Devon Carbado’s book Acting White? Rethinking Race in Post-Racial America and my own books focus on evidence-based models for understanding how inequality works in the 21st century.
We leave the “personal responsibility” versus “structural inequality” debate where it belongs: in the 20th century. In reality, individuals are embedded in social networks of families, communities, schools, workplaces and economies that have norms of behavior and policies with which we must interact. Intersectional analysis of complex social problems addresses both personal agency and institutional policies that can facilitate individuals’ ability to flourish.
Some have complained that intersectionality won’t lead to a revolution in the United States. They’re right. Intersectionality isn’t an ideology like feminism, libertarianism or Marxism. Intersectionality is a framework for analyzing the complex challenges we face. If you are committed to doing the hard work of transforming our community, look into it. If you feel like you can’t decide on who’s the most oppressed before deciding about My Brother’s Keeper, realize that you don’t have to.
Ange-Marie Hancock is author of Solidarity Politics for Millennials: A Guide to Ending the Oppression Olympics and the forthcoming Intersectionality: An Intellectual History, due out in 2015. She is a professor at the University of Southern California. Follow her on Twitter.
We want to hear your story. Send pitches for My Thing Is, a forum for personal narratives by The Root’s readers and contributors, to MyThingIs@theroot.com.