How Women of Color Are Changing the Dynamics of Identity Politics

When President Obama gave the commencement address at Morehouse College back in 2016, Ta-Nehisi Coates took him to task for focusing his message on personal responsibility, something Obama didn’t tend to do when he spoke to white audiences.

This clearly is a message that only a particular president can offer. Perhaps not the “president of black America,” but certainly a president who sees holding African Americans to a standard of individual responsibility as part of his job. This is not a role Barack Obama undertakes with other communities.

But what Coates seemed to miss is that there was another way that Obama spoke differently to the young black men who were graduating from Morehouse.

As Morehouse Men, many of you know what it’s like to be an outsider; know what it’s like to be marginalized; know what it’s like to feel the sting of discrimination. And that’s an experience that a lot of Americans share…

So your experiences give you special insight that today’s leaders need. If you tap into that experience, it should endow you with empathy — the understanding of what it’s like to walk in somebody else’s shoes, to see through their eyes, to know what it’s like when you’re not born on 3rd base, thinking you hit a triple. It should give you the ability to connect. It should give you a sense of compassion and what it means to overcome barriers…

So it’s up to you to widen your circle of concern — to care about justice for everybody, white, black and brown. Everybody. Not just in your own community, but also across this country and around the world. To make sure everyone has a voice, and everybody gets a seat at the table…

Obama believed that being “an outsider” gave these young men the special insight that today’s leaders need. If they could tap into that, it would help them ensure that everyone, regardless of their race, got a seat at the table.

When Obama was elected to a second term in 2012, David Simon echoed the need for that kind of leadership.

America is different now, more so with every election cycle…America will soon belong to the men and women — white and black and Latino and Asian, Christian and Jew and Muslim and atheist, gay and straight — who can walk into a room and accept with real comfort the sensation that they are in a world of certain difference, that there are no real majorities, only pluralities and coalitions…

You want to lead in America? Find a way to be entirely utilitarian — to address the most problems on behalf of the most possible citizens. That works. That matters.

I was reminded of all of that as I began to listen to what some of the women of color running for office this year are saying about their candidacies.

  • Tatewin Means, a Native American woman running to be attorney general of South Dakota, says, “The challenges we face don’t care what mountain, field, city, town, or tribal nation we come from—what color or party. The challenges affect us all. And victory against those challenges is not found in the ways we separate ourselves, but in the ways we come together.”
  • Stacey Abrams, the Democratic candidate for Georgia governor who believes that being a black woman is not a deficit, but a strength, says, “We are writing the next chapter of Georgia’s history where no one is unseen, no one is unheard and no one is uninspired. We are writing a history of Georgia where we prosper together.”
  • Sharice Davids, a Native American woman running for Congress in Kansas, says, “I’ve always had to fight: because of who I am, who I love, and where I started. But I didn’t let any of that get in my way. In Congress, I’ll continue fighting for everyone who’s ever been left out or left behind. Because progress is undefeated.”

In the past, we’ve assumed that women and people of color running for office have to choose between two options: (1) run away from or abandon the role of their gender/race, or (2) run on the kind of “identity politics” of being an advocate for women or people of color.

What we are beginning to see is that these women are embracing their race and gender in the way that Obama and  Simon suggested. Their own life experiences give them the empathy to ensure that every voice is heard, as well as the strength to fight for anyone who feels marginalized or left out.

In many ways this poses an even bigger threat to white male power. Simon went on to write that the racial and social hierarchy of America is being upended.

No longer will it mean more politically to be a white male than to be anything else. Evolve, or don’t. Swallow your resentments, or don’t. But the votes are going to be counted, more of them with each election…And those wishing to hold national office in these United States will find it increasingly useless to argue for normal, to attempt to play one minority against the next, to turn pluralities against the feared “other” of gays, or blacks, or immigrants, or, incredibly in this election cycle, our very wives and lovers and daughters, fellow citizens who demand to control their own bodies.

…We are all the other now, in some sense. Special interests? That term has no more meaning in the New America. We are all — all of us, every last American, even the whitest of white guys — special interests. And now, normal isn’t white or straight or Christian. There is no normal. That word, too, means less with every moment. And those who continue to argue for such retrograde notions as a political reality will become less germane and more ridiculous with every passing year.

Like many of us, Simon underestimated the backlash that would be triggered by the “death of normal.” It brought us Donald Trump. But women like Tatewin Means, Stacey Abrams and Sharice Davids aren’t backing down—neither are the record-breaking number of women running for office this year.

Don’t make the same mistake Simon did and expect this one to change overnight or in one election cycle. Instead, notice that women and people of color are changing the dynamics of how they run for office. They know what’s coming and what kind of leadership will be required by the changes that are inevitable.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly. Follow her on Twitter @Smartypants60 .