Intersectionality of identity and disciplines: race, gender, sociology and development

September 24, 2015

by: Phoenicia Lewis, MA SID/COEX’16

Image of Phoenicia Lewis

Phoenicia Lewis, MA SID/COEX'16, attended the 45th Annual Meeting of the Association of Black Sociologists in Chicago, Illinois on August 20-22, 2015. While there, Lewis gave a presentation titled “Strangely Undemocratic Doings in the Shadow of the World's Greatest Democracy: Concepts of Progress Through the Lens of a Black Female Development Practitioner." The following are her reflections on the conference proceedings. 

The first session I attended at the Association of Black Sociologists conference was a screening of a film, Reflections Unheard: Black Women in Civil Rights. As I watched footage of female civil rights leaders talk about the feelings of minimization they experienced from black male civil rights leaders, my excitement for my own panel on the last day grew. It is a story all too common in social movements: those who experience marginalization often marginalize others.

The hard work, sacrifice, and enthusiasm of female civil rights organizers and activists was exploited by men, who used their presence and eagerness to persuade politicians to focus on the discrimination they faced as black men. Black women were encouraged to continue the fight with the promise that their issues would be addressed later. Over 40 years after Dr. Martin Luther King was killed--sparking riots that begin to decelerate intensity that characterized the movement--the Black Lives Matter movement emerged.

The Black Lives Matter movement, created by two black queer women, Alicia Garza and Patrisse Cullors, and a black woman who emigrated from Nigeria, Opal Tometi, has become the rallying cry against police brutality and mass incarceration of black men. Black immigrant issues, LGBTQ issues and the continued abuse black women face by the state and in intimate relationships have taken a back seat to those which predominantly, but do not exclusively, face men. Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Freddie Gray, and Eric Gardner, young black men who were taken too soon and senselessly, have sadly become household names. Tanisha Anderson, Janisha Fonville, Natasha McKenna, and seven year-old Aiyana Stanley-Jones--young black women who faced the same fate--are largely unknown and forgotten.

The theme of the conference this year was Race and Inequality in the Obama Era and Beyond. Held in Chicago, the home of the First Family, sociologists at the conference discussed all of the ways social interactions, policies and performative actions weave their way into organizational practices that enable continued discrimination. 

I listened with great interest as Jessica Ayo Alabi, who teaches sociology at Orange Coast College, explained how hip-hop could be used to geographically map how discrimination manifests in specific areas. The timely discussion of hip-hop was complex. The premiere of the biopic Straight Outta Compton triggered a discussion of the violence that the most iconic rappers of NWA were on social media trial for. The movie’s premiere brought to the surface allegations from women assaulted by Dr. Dre. These abuses were not reported, though many of them were recorded or occurred in the presence of numerous witnesses.

This is common, particularly surrounding men in powerful positions. Black women who suffer abuse are less likely than women of other races to report abuses they suffer from men. Key among the reasons for silence is the fear that the community will view allegations against an abuser as allegations against black America at large. The law and the community do not support black women who stand up to abuse, as time and again women have been ridiculed and minimized for speaking out against their abusers. The black social movement’s inability to address the issues of women of color has spurred gender-specific movements, which do not get the same media traction as movements that focus on men or white women.

Seen through the lens of a development professional, this represents a breakdown in policies that should ensure equal treatment by the law. This is not unknown to the government and policy makers. The media of the civil rights movement and social media of the Black Lives Matter movement have made available research on inequality and continued segregation. Black women, in the century that has seen the greatest rise in incarceration rates of particularly black men, are increasingly responsible to financially support black families. Nonetheless black women make 64 cents for every dollar a white man makes, even less than what white women are paid. As a development professional I see the patriarchy that economically values black female contribution as less economically viable, and the social as well as economic impacts that this has had on black Americans. My presentation used data to expose the hypocrisy of this occurring in the nation often considered the greatest democracy in the world, which funds global projects to address such inadequacies with American tax dollars, black American tax dollars included.  

The session closed with a presentation by critical race theory scholar, law professor and creator of the concept of intersectionality, Dr. Kimberlé Crenshaw. Professor Crenshaw addressed these issues that my panel had begun to unpack. She examined the silencing of black women’s voices by the emergence of an overwhelming force that seeks to address the fear that black men elicit in white America by throwing money and programing toward socializing black men to American standards of masculinity and concepts of success. She accomplished this by focusing on President Obama’s initiative My Brother’s Keeper. This program aims to give access and opportunities to young black men for education and jobs to which they are often overwhelmingly denied access.

The focal point of the program identifies and addresses problems that are equally common to black girls as they are to black boys. Black girls sit in the same classes as black boys and are subject to the same underfunded, under-resourced, and under-performing schools. It is these same school systems that disproportionately suspend and expel black boys and girls. These children will all become adults who will seek higher education and look for jobs with the same poor education. Yet there are no initiatives that focus specifically on young black girls and women, who are not faring much better than black men.

As a development professional at a sociologists’ conference, I was able to observe the sense of urgency that is common to both fields. Seeing the work that sociologists are doing to address inequality in the U.S. has enabled me to see the holes we often miss when we do work viewed through our specific lenses. The overlap between development and sociology may help those who are working toward collective social justice to shed light on the areas that have been missed and silenced by those fields, which have risen to the top of our interest.