A Black Feminist Guide to Electoral Politics in 2020 – Scalawag

Danielle: Barbara Ransby, you joined the over 100 Black scholars and writers to endorse Senator Bernie Sanders for President. And though both Warren and Sanders have withdrawn as presidential candidates, I would love to hear from you about your decision to endorse Sanders, and from the other panelists about what you felt was at stake in considering the differences in Warren and Sanders policy platforms? 

Barbara Ransby: I agree with Brittney and Charlene that we have to be on a very fundamental level critical of the American nation state project, critical of the foundations of racial capitalism. That is, the underlying governing set of ideas and Brittney reminds us often patriarchy drops off then that is when that completes the triad. So understanding that’s the case and understanding that we were not looking at a radical reconfiguration of those foundations through any single election. Voting is one part of our political practice, certainly one part of my political practice. And, I decided to endorse Bernie Sanders, largely because I felt like there was a struggle that could be made inside that campaign, which myself and many others made. I’m not sure how much traction we got. 

But I think as a democratic socialist, as somebody unapologetically critiquing capitalism, that was an appeal. I think there were people in the campaign pulling him actually away from that position. And the greatest disappointment in that campaign, which I’ve written about since in a piece in The Nation is the refusal to confront the issue of white supremacy head on. And we know from examples all over the world and in this country, that it is not just capitalism, it is racial capitalism. Those two are symbiotic and inseparable. And so it was disappointing to me that the Sanders campaign, that Sanders in particular, didn’t step up to that, in his analysis, Elizabeth Warren was good, as far as you know, candidates go as well, you know, and I, and certainly the fact that many women that I respect deeply, or endorsing her made me take her seriously. And, in fact, the statement that we signed, which some people didn’t sign, because this clause was in there is that if Sanders didn’t get the nomination that we would support Warren. I think it’s always in electoral politics, a question of navigating the best option of limited options. People that I admire the most politically and have the most faith in —in terms of the transformative justice agenda — are never gonna run for president of these United States until some fundamental changes occur. And at that point, maybe we don’t have presidents, maybe we have some other form of governance. So for me, it’s always about a vote plus strategy. That was the case in 2016. That is the case in 2020. I am not a cheerleader for Joe Biden, or Kamala Harris, but I think they are lesser of lesser evils, and we need less evil in the world. I think it will create a terrain of struggle that will allow our movements to be on the offense and not on the defense.

I think authoritarianism in a US form of fascism are very real threats. And we need to let that sit with us for a minute, because that’s a very serious thing. And there are all kinds of examples of the current administration moving us in that direction. So, voting is essential, and inadequate at the same time, we need to be doing all kinds of organizing on many, many different fronts, with many different kinds of people. But coming back to the question of Black feminism, and I would say Black left feminism, that is how I’m most comfortable identifying because there is a way in which we can embrace the ideas without the practice or without the transformative agenda. We can pare down and dilute anything, but at its best, I think Black feminism promises not to throw anybody under the bus. And I think that’s why all of us are attracted to it as a kind of underlying visionary politics. 

Danielle: Excellent. Well, I’d love to hear just to have some more interaction in response to Barbara Ransby about the nuances between these platforms. 

Brittney Cooper: I liked when Warren had the call with Black woman, and then she sort of comes out and she’s like, well, they’re pushy, but I like to be pushed, right? What I liked was the way that she sort of engaged Black women, didn’t feel afraid of them, and really took seriously Black women’s concerns and Black women’s leadership. And, you know, she just struck me, I mean, look, this was also a thing that I thought was true about Hillary Clinton, despite the many critiques of her, she just struck me as the like, the person who worked the hardest to be the most competent to read all of this stuff to try to come up with a plan even sometimes when plans were insufficient to have a pretty decent citational politics. 

“I’m a Black feminist, from the deep south. I am from Louisiana, from the northern part of Louisiana. That is Trump country. That is Confederate country. And that Southern sensibility, I think, also informs sometimes the way that pragmatism shows up for me. So part of the thing that I have loved about thinking about electoral politics at this moment is the way that movements are really not happening in these coastal locations.”

So I felt like she was pushing the country to move to the left, really trying to think very robustly, even within the container of beliefs she had about markets around—so she took on Joe Biden about credit cards when Biden was willing to back credit card companies. She was thinking about issues of foreclosure and the mortgage crisis and that is a thing that is ravaging our communities, and has been for decades, and is a Black woman’s issue very specifically because we own more of the homes in our community disproportionately. And when we lose our homes, that also means that our kids lose access to their schools, that we often lose sort of stable places for community building to occur, and for organizing to occur. And so that’s just one example of a way in which Black women were centered in the way that she was thinking about policy, and so you could always see how her thinking about affordable care or health care for all even though she sort of backs away from Medicare for all at one point, but you can see the way that Black women are sort of in the mix in her thinking, and that’s what we’ve pushed white women to do. And so that really mattered to me. 

But the other thing I want to say that I think is really cool that informs some of my perspective about this is, I’m a Black feminist, from the deep south. I am from Louisiana, from the northern part of Louisiana. That is Trump country. That is Confederate country. And that Southern sensibility, I think, also informs sometimes the way that pragmatism shows up for me. So part of the thing that I have loved about thinking about electoral politics at this moment is the way that movements are really not happening in these coastal locations. They’re happening in the Midwest, they’re happening in the South—all of the wonderful radical work going on in Jackson for a long time, because I grew up about two hours away from Jackson. 

Reminding people that the radical political movements grew out of the South, the soil of the South in this country, and then the Midwest has been a tinderbox for us since Ferguson. Or you could think about what is that 2001? Is that Cincinnati or Cleveland, right? And the riots that happened there in the very early 2000s, or rebellions that happened there. So, there is also this invitation then that I think Black feminism gives us where we ask questions about where the people are rising up? And what are the demands that they’re making in the context of their local community? 

And so there’s this pragmatism, which scholars call a visionary pragmatism, at the heart of Black feminist thinking, that says that Black folks always imagined beyond what America says as possible, and what white people say as possible. But they also do that by working the hell out of the systems that are available to them because of the constraints that they have. And for me, as a person who was reared in one of the poorest states in this union and reared in a working class way in a family ravaged by the carceral state in the state that’s the worst on the carceral state around the globe. I feel visionary because of Black feminism. But sometimes I feel super pragmatic. Like, we have to get this fascist out of office, because those of us who lived in these communities and know the levels of terror that can come, and then to know if you have any sense of the history that the terror can get worse than this, right.

Now, that is that thing that motivates me. And something for me, for me something about growing up in the heart of these places, where all of this terror has been enacted. It’s like the thing that has me out here like, well, you’re gonna have to call me a liberal shill for the establishment today, because this fascist has to go. And that’s a hard moment, I think, in radical political organizing that we’re in, because I’ve had this deep sense that people feel like the nuance we’re calling for, or the demand to engage the electorate is a walking away from the radical commitments we have. And, you know, I don’t see it that way. 

“Black folks always imagined beyond what America says is possible, and what white people say is possible. But they also do that by working the hell out of the systems that are available to them because of the constraints that they have.”

Barbara Ransby: Yeah, I don’t either, and I’m glad you said that. I don’t see it that way. But I think we always try to struggle for a balance, right. That’s why sometimes you talk about non reformist reforms, or keeping electoral politics in perspective. And I think it’s very dangerous, in fact, to have this sort of absolutist view, and I’ve known people who’ve had this “I’m a revolutionary,” and you kind of wonder who people are making a revolution for because they don’t care about the suffering of people in the here and now. So I think we have to combine visionary and pragmatic politics, but it’s a fine line that we walk, and Brittney, I love you, sis, but I have to go back to Hillary Clinton as an example, because I think she is an example — and both of us know the pattern of white women in the academy who perform multiculturalism, who performed diversity, who performed being your ally and your friend, and are all about building careers that reinforce racist patriarchal institutions. So I had a little skepticism about Warren having that experience in my mind. 

Rukia Lumumba: I just wanted to recognize and really lift again, is this recognition that yes, when we talk about electoral change in this country, it has been led and started by women in the South. Look at Ida B. Wells, right, Mississippi, you want to look at you know, Rosa Parks and the women before her that sat on the bus, and did not move, and continued. And then, when we want to talk about Ella Baker, we want to talk about Fannie Lou Hamer, I mean we could keep going. And we see that it is consistently women that kept our push for electoral power going in this country and continues to keep it going in this country. 

“If we were unsure before Barack Obama, we were clear after Barack Obama: having a Black man in the White House did not liberate us, having a woman in the White House will not liberate us. Having a Black man on the Supreme Court certainly hasn’t.”

So when we were choosing who to endorse—part of my endorsement process was not just about wanting to see a woman represented, but more importantly, wanting to see a person who respects the notion and idea of woman leadership and understands that is central and important to our ability towards change in this country or anywhere else. And there’s a difference between acknowledgement and respect. And I think over and over again, we see acknowledgement that women need to take space, but not true respect for the totality of our genius, and our ability to actually see real change and our history of actually making change happen in this country. And globally, period. So I think that that is really key. 

And that for me, was the distinction between other candidates and Elizabeth Warren. I too, was concerned about her white female privilege, and the history of white women using that privilege to harm Black women and people of color in general, and to continue to perpetuate systems of patriarchy and white supremacy. I, too, was concerned about that. But what I saw, through her actions, and consistent actions I saw with Elizabeth Warren, is her ability to stop, to listen, when criticized, and to listen deeply. And to engage in a process of taking action based on when she recognized she was wrong. And that, to me, is important. Because to me, it shows exactly why having a Black feminist perspective and actually moving to a Black feminist program is important, because part of it is the fact of deep listening, and action driven by collective processes that require us to be held accountable. And I think Elizabeth Warren did.

Barbara Ransby: I also wanted to address this larger question of who’s on our side. And we all know this right? More than ever before, we see the limits of representational politics only, right? If we were unsure before Barack Obama, we were clear after Barack Obama: having a Black man in the White House did not liberate us, having a woman in the White House will not liberate us. Having a Black man on the Supreme Court certainly hasn’t. Clarence Thomas has been one of the most anti-Black conservatives on the court. All white all male purviews represent something, they represent a patriarchal exclusion and white supremacist exclusion. But simple inclusion doesn’t get us very far, either. 

And I’m preaching to the converted here in terms of this group, but people who may be listening, I think we want quick fix solutions sometimes. To me, you know, the question of Hillary Clinton was a good example of that, actually, maybe we disagree a little bit on this, because I thought she was the embodiment of a kind of white feminist politic, if you will, that was was prepared to forego poor Black and working class folks, including poor Black and working class women, to aggressively advance the interests of racial capitalism and empire as her political practice. And that’s a choice. That was what neoliberalism and the neoliberal policies and the whole super predator language around the crime bill — it was a part of that package, even though she was a woman. We want feminist ideas. We want feminist practice, and we basically want a transformative agenda on the whole, and that comes in many different parts. And we may have different, very different allies over the course of the struggle for those goals.

But we’re not willing to vote for her because we’re moving from a place of fear, where we will win a majority of people probably won’t vote for because she’s a woman, because she’s too liberal—she ain’t even as far left as many of us want to go, you know?”

Brittney Cooper: We disagree a little bit, Barbara, not about the content. I’ve never disagreed about the content of people’s assessment of Hillary Clinton. I always disagreed with the way that we didn’t think about her as the product of a structure, though. What does it mean to be first in this country, all of this is why so many of us work so hard in the academy, not to become the thing that the academy tries to produce, right? Because it tries to produce a particular kind of subjectivity. And when I looked at her, I was like, “Yeah, she spent her whole life trying to basically become the best version of a white man in a white woman’s body…

Barbara Ransby: Right—exactly the opposite strategy, the opposite of your approach in the academy, right? That’s the fundamental difference. 

Brittney Cooper: Sure, the difference also is I am coming through the academy when there are Black women there who could write for my tenure case, and I’m not trying to run for the presidency, which is a white masculinist project that is judging its leaders based upon how well they can sort of achieve or approximate a kind of white masculinist ideal in order to lead the nation. For me, it’s a pragmatic question about when the person who is first, are they able to be radical and still make it to that perch? And we don’t know that because Elizabeth Warren really runs in some ways as sort of diametrically different than Hillary Clinton and gets no traction nationally in any of the primaries that she’s actually in. And so we keep sort of arguing that this kind of progressive vision can actually win in electoral politics in America. Our people vote for Hillary Clinton because they think she can approximate a white male ideal, and then when we get to this election, people en mass still vote for the sort of more liberal, white male ideal, and that to me means that we’ve got to have a more robust understanding of patriarchy. 

The last thing I want to say about this, because I know that people think I’m caping for Hillary Clinton—I don’t trust Hillary Clinton. I understand exactly who she is as a white woman. But the thing that that I care about is here’s this other thing happening in Black feminism, particularly, where and that I see often in online spaces, where there is rage against white women like if I want to get hits, I can just go and do a tweet storm every day about how white women are trash, and you can’t trust them. Like if I was just in it for likes and hits and clicks and shares, that is a hit every day. But I’m like the people who are terrorizing us right now are Donald Trump, Bill Barr and Mitch McConnell. Those three white men have conspired together to ruin and demolish any kind of thing we’ve tried to build. And in our politics, people are so angry because of white women, and that concerns me because it feels like a distraction. And so that was the other thing that sort of shaped my support is— I don’t even think Hillary Clinton is a feminist. She’s just a white woman, but it was for me these broader principles about how does patriarchy work? How does it limit possibility in terms of pragmatic possibility? And why are we willing to make every allowance for white men? 

Barbara Ransby: I don’t know that we’re doing that, but yeah. 

Rukia Lumumba: I mean I don’t know if we’re not. 

Barbara Ransby: Well who’s the ‘we’ I guess? 

Rukia Lumumba: And when I say we, I am talking about like we as a general, we like as a mass of we and not so much as a conscious we in the sense that even realize that we’re doing it, but one of the things is that, you know, one of the things you just mentioned, Brittney is this is that patriarchy is is allowing us to do that. And it’s because patriarchy feeds off of fear. And so it is this fear that I think that is moving us, fear of what could happen that moves us to say that if we don’t vote for a white man, if we don’t get closer to whiteness, to white male proximity, then we are going to lose. That is the reason, you know—many rooms that I was in, when it came down to who people were going to vote for, even Black men, right, were saying—well, I like Elizabeth Warren’s policies and politics, but I don’t think she could win. So I’m gonna vote for so and so and so and so. And it was all about whether she could win, right? And whether she could win is actually about whether we’re willing to vote for her, right? But we’re not willing to vote for her because we’re moving from a place of fear, where we will win a majority of people probably won’t vote for because she’s a woman, because she’s too liberal—she ain’t even as far left as many of us want to go, you know?

Charlene Carruthers: And this was after Clinton won the popular vote. So it’s not that, you know [laughs] it’s like, the logic is, it’s just wild. 

Rukia Lumumba: Yeah, I think we have to really centralize this conversation around feminism, and to really, where that it’s a part of everything that we’re doing in our daily life, right, as an intervention and what is happening all of the time. Because we know that no real change can really happen because we got to shift people’s minds around what is possible, and what is not moving based on the fear that patriarchy teaches us, you know, to grab onto to hold onto, you know? 

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