The tinkling of glass has proven a resonant sound effect for Hillary Clinton’s campaign this election cycle. She has deployed it to loud cheers at rallies across the country; at the Democratic National Convention, the campaign added a video clip of a glass ceiling splintering into shards before the impact that was the former Secretary of State’s nomination as the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate.
That milestone was perhaps most celebrated during Clinton’s acceptance speech itself when she took to the stage dressed in the all-white that the early 20th century suffragettes used to wear at protests for (White) women’s enfranchisement.
“Standing here as my mother's daughter, and my daughter's mother, I'm so happy this day has come,” Clinton said, “happy for grandmothers and little girls and everyone in between. Happy for boys and men, too – because when any barrier falls in America, for anyone, it clears the way for everyone. When there are no ceilings, the sky's the limit. So let's keep going, until every one of the 161 million women and girls across America has the opportunity she deserves.”
For Hillary’s supporters — both the enthusiastic and the reluctant — her nomination does represent a significant step forward for women’s representation in the structures of political power in the United States. Her ascendency to the presidency, which now seems precariously probable, would mark an even more substantial, if limited, advance. A recent study ranked the United States 97th worldwide for the proportion of its elected officials who are women, a stark decrease from the 52nd rank that the country held back in 1997. (And coming in 52nd is certainly not anything to phone home about.)
Yet it is hard to accept the notion that Hillary’s victory is an achievement for all women. What we have before of us seems to be more of a limited arrival, one that caps off the decades of progress that have allowed White women to move towards equalizing their relationships with White men while leaving women of color, transgender and LGBTQ women, and other marginalized groups out of the political debate.
As a White woman born into an upper middle-class family — whose childhood and upbringing can best be described as uneventful in all the ways that privilege makes possible — I certainly acknowledge Clinton’s nomination as a milestone of how far we as relatively well-off White women have come over the past century. Affirmative action programs intended to redress centuries of unfair discrimination, exclusion, and violence against Blacks, in fact, have benefited White women in aggregate more than they have men or women of color. Tonight could mark the falling of a symbolic barrier, and perhaps signals the crumbling of institutional barriers to political office, for people like me. But what about women who did not attend Yale and have little means to speak of? What about women of color? About transgender women or for women who are differently abled? Would Hillary’s election represent a victory for them too?
There is no easy answer — at least not yet, with the expanse of her (still unsecured) presidency left before us.
In an election cycle that has drawn misogyny and patriarchal hate out of the electorate like an infection from the gaping wound that is the U.S. hetero-patriarchy, I too would relish Clinton’s success as both a vindicated blow to white male angst and as a political barrier against the impending crisis that Trump would inaugurate and oversee. But until we see what sort of president Clinton might be, which policies she pushes for and which communities she treats as deserving and worthy of state support, it would be more productive to view her election as a sort of a promissory note rather than as a victorious triumph for gender equality.
Movements for gender and racial equality have long led egalitarian efforts directed at achieving equal representation in key political and economic institutions. This political outlook assumes that without women in positions of power, women’s specific interests and rights will go unattended; a similar stance undergirds campaigns to elect more people of color or to see them appointed to positions with state authority and control over the disbursement of public resources.
Equality requires equal representation, and equal representation will bring us closer to actualizing equality for all, regardless of their race or ethnicity, gender identity or sexual orientation.
Or so the logic goes. But does equal representation on corporate executive teams or in elected office necessarily translate to policies that deconstruct gendered and racialized hierarchies? Are we conflating these two phenomena? Should we organize an egalitarian agenda around achieving more proportionate representation in the halls of Congress or the White House? Will we be creating true equality, or we will just be adding to the line outside the tiny women’s restroom outside the U.S. Senate Chamber?
Representation is a thornier issue than it first appears. It’s hard, in today’s radically hierarchical environment, to deny that our legislature needs more White women, more women of color, more men of color. More LGBTQ and transgender representatives. More people of different abilities and from different professional and socioeconomic backgrounds. But that doesn’t mean that electing a (White) woman to the presidency necessarily qualifies as a victory for women’s rights or equality more broadly.
To take a stand for equal representation raises all sorts of complicated questions about who counts as a representative and for which communities. In an age of “authenticity” politics — where politicians play up all the details from their personal biographies that might convince voters that they too are “everyday Americans”— we ought to think carefully about what is at stake in democratic representation.
First, what does it mean to represent another group of people? Elected officials are generally expected to either make policies that track their constituents’ best interests or to push for items their districts actively want. Neither is a straightforward task. The former invites an elitist approach to governance that presumes one person, who is often white and male, would know what is best for all his flock. And the latter seems practically impossible, unless a representative conducts continuous and inclusive public polling on all sorts of policy options — which sounds to this voter like it would quickly become drag. That approach, too, presumes that opinion polling accurately reflects what people think.
The matter becomes even more complicated when we consider whether a politician from a marginalized social group ought to have a special obligation to those who share her marginalized social identity. It is controversial, to say the least, to assert that women elected to public office have an extra duty to act in the interests of women. One need only look at the heat that President Barack Obama has received from both Whites, who claim that he has worked too much for Black communities rather than for all Americans, and from Blacks, who argue that he has in fact not done enough to remedy and redress institutional racism and structural forms of inequality that plague minority communities. Obama himself has seemed hesitant to assert his racial identity, presenting himself as a president who happens to be Black rather than as a Black president. (Of course, Whites never worry about whether or not a White man is doing enough to represent their interests as Whites; the preferential treatment of White folk is generally an unstated given.)
Black economist Bernard Anderson summed up the sentiment when speaking at Howard University after Obama’s second inaugural address failed to deal with race head-on: “I believe now is the time for the president to find his voice, summon his courage, and use some of his political capital to eliminate racial inequality in American economic life…We cannot let the president off the hook in the second term.”
The connection between a politician’s social identity and his political agenda is not straightforward. People who don’t look like you can still represent policies that you agree with and can still work for changes that benefit your community. Similarly, not every Black politician will push for policies that will include Black families more fully within the welfare state’s beneficence.
Even just assuming a place in the upper echelons of political power changes an official’s claims to authoritatively represent her least well-off constituents. After all, many politicians originally from disadvantaged backgrounds no longer live in the same neighborhoods in which they were born or move in the same social circles in which they were raised. If someone grew up in a poor community of color outside of Baltimore but now enjoys a position of comparable social rank and material privilege by virtue of being elected to the U.S. Senate, do they still speak with the same degree of authority about and for the communities in which they grew up? What about the appointed president of a public university system who worked her way through college and now claims to know what it’s like to earn a college education without state support? The easy response to the latter scenario is that times have changed, and changed significantly, since Margaret Spellings, now the president of the UNC system, could afford a University of Texas’ education by working part-time at a grocery store. Her past experiences as a working woman no longer represent today’s college students, many of who are encumbered with thousands of dollars of debt. We are right, then, to be cautious of politicians who seek to score political points by establishing their credentials as “working class folk.”
In turn, the easy solidarities of gender, race or ethnicity are not enough to make up for a candidate that pushes a political agenda that would further neglect marginalized communities. After all, simply sharing a social identity with a public official does not mean that they share your problems or your political commitments. And even if they did experience similar struggles, there is no guarantee that they will interpret those experiences in the same way or understand which policy outcomes might alleviate those disadvantages. Some low-hanging fruit here: Sarah Palin touted the importance of her identity as a woman and a mother to her politics, designating herself the champion of all the “Mama Grizzlies” out there. Yet she doesn’t support abortion rights; when serving as the governor of Alaska where incidents of rape were more than 2.5 times the national average, she took steps to prevent the expansion of legal services to sexual assault survivors. Clarence Thomas, who was born into a poor Gullah family in Georgia and now holds Thurgood Marshall’s former seat on the Supreme Court, has proven a staunch opponent of affirmative action programs in higher education and minority voting protections in the Voting Rights Act. And then there is Republican presidential candidate Sen. Ted Cruz, who rejected any immigration reform that included a pathway to citizenship.
This point is rather obvious. Not all Black or Latinx people have the same set of beliefs, interests, opinions and political preferences. They are not some monolithic entity, as much as commentators and political strategists like to talk about the “Black vote” and the “Latino vote.” Nor are all women a coherent, homogenous block, even if White progressive women often fall back into talking about women’s issues as if that were the case. As Black feminists have hammered again and again, the women’s rights movement in the United States has consistently trained its political attention on the White woman’s predicament while erasing the struggles of women of color.
This raises the question of how we draw the boundaries of belonging. All too often, how we determine which people are included involves power struggles over political deservingness. How and when do social identities matter for the sake of political representation?
People generally partake in and hold more than one social identity. When we say that a woman represents women, does that mean she speaks for or has a special connection to all women or just the women who share her racial identity? The women who share her socioeconomic background? Her educational level? Her regional affiliation? Her sexual orientation? Her profession? Her preferred snack food? These confusions and complications fuel conservatives (and some liberals) opposed to what they term “identity politics.” They often make this argument about social identity: since we can slice and dice identity markers into smaller and smaller groups as we become more particular, a quest that they argue ultimately slides into absurdity if taken to its logical extreme.
It is true that some shared social positions are not foundational to a person’s identity, nor do they mark that individual out for violence, neglect or exploitation. Nurses might share similar experiences and thus have similar interests in the market as a labor force or in the political arena as a lobbying group; some of them might even identify personally with their career choices. But at least in the contemporary United States, the social and professional role of “nurse” does not demarcate a particular “kind of person” who is somehow treated as less than others simply because of their day job.
But to narrow questions of social identity to elective affiliations like one’s profession or one’s hobbies is to deflect from very substantive discussions about the social cleavages that divide people into those who are normal and those who can be marked deviant, those who are valued and those who can be neglected. (Let’s just say that when conservatives worry over identity politics, we know that they aren’t anxious about the “divisive impact” of certain forms of professional membership.)
We can all acknowledge that there are certain social groups that do exist in the U.S. today whose identities are of astounding political relevance, both because it conditions how they are treated by others and because it often is a constitutive aspect of how they understand themselves. The Black Lives Matter Movement’s urgent campaigns have drawn attention to the ways in which the carceral state and its police disproportionately survey, imprison, and kill Black men and women. And the consequences of antiblack stigma leave no Black individual untouched, regardless of socioeconomic class or social status. (See all of the vitriol thrown at Serena Williams, arguably one of the best athletes ever; see the Harvard professor Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. being arrested as he tried to enter his own home in Cambridge, Mass.) To be Black in the United States is to constantly have to assert one’s own humanity and one’s deservingness against a White institutional structure that seeks to deny both.
Ascertaining which social identities are politically salient requires understanding what those identities mean in particular contexts. By analyzing what those identity constructions mean in certain socio-historical moments, we can better recognize which social identities mark people out for unfair discrimination, structural inequality, injustice or violence. After all, to be Black means and brings different forms of domination in the United States than it does in Panama or Brazil.
Thinking of social identities not in terms of essential characteristics, but in terms of similar social positioning helps us understand when identity politics can be . Otherwise, we too often end up with a superficial politics of solidarity that erases serious political and material differences under the guise of a shared label. Male-dominated institutions and patriarchal ways of interpreting the world make women more vulnerable to sexual abuse and domestic violence, but not all women are exposed to these risks in the same ways and to the same extent. White women “discovered” sexual harassment once they began to take office jobs; Black women had been struggling to avoid White men’s unwanted sexual contact for centuries, often times in White women’s homes with their knowledge. In turn, half of transgender women in the United States will be sexually assaulted over the course of their lives, according to a 2005 survey cited by the U.S. Department of Justice. Similarly, White women have long equated a feminist agenda with taking women out of the home and into the workplace where they ought to be treated as equally capable of earning a living for their families. Yet this White feminism overlooks the fact that Black women have been laboring out of their own homes for centuries and often saw it as a sign of privilege to escape from the demands of the exploitative labor market.
To truly put together a viable coalition of women from all walks of life, we must recognize the differences that bring us to a shared commitment to expanding reproductive health and child care supports rather than sweeping the specific struggles that Black, brown and Latino women face under the political agenda designed for White women of means. As a poetry teacher once told me, what makes a metaphor work is not the likeness that you are attempting to draw between two separate things, but the differences between them that are thrown into relief by the comparison. That is what the reader pays attention to — the creative tension of difference, not the false unity of sameness.
This is not to say that we shouldn’t be pushing for more equal representation of those groups who were historically denied any political say and are often still overlooked by elites. After all, to understand how politically and economically dangerous the ballot can be for upsetting established hierarchies of wealth and rank, we need only to look to the centuries of strategic manipulation and violence that Whites have deployed (and continue to use) in order to keep Blacks from voting. To see how threatening the White establishment regards the possibility of being governed by someone who doesn’t look like them, we need only recall the vitriol, antagonism, and hate that (mostly) White conservatives have thrown against our first Black president — both in the halls of government and across the webpages and airwaves of media outlets.
There is considerable evidence that demonstrates that, in aggregate, giving people of color a say in their governance will result in better policies for their communities. (Or at least, will give them more of an opportunity to obstruct Whites’ efforts to monopolize economic resources and political capital.) The same appears broadly true for what is generally considered women’s issues, including sexual and reproductive health initiatives, better childcare and family support, and provisions aimed at the pay equity gap. As one Georgetown study found, liberal women elected to legislatures nationwide sponsored 5.3 more bills supporting women’s health than their liberal male counterparts; conservative women legislators sponsored on average 2.8 more of such bills as did conservative men.
And so while all elected representatives ought to use their political capital to attempt to meliorate the neglect of marginalized communities, there is something to be said for having a representative that inhabits, or once inhabited, a social position similar to yours. Two distinctive advantages to increasing minority representation stand out: first, the symbolic power of uplifting disadvantaged people to positions of state authority; and second, the practical benefits that such a person might bring to the office by virtue of better understanding the specific problems that an often-neglected constituency faces.
It is hard to overstate how significant it is to elect a president from a stigmatized and disadvantaged group. Obama’s election in 2008 subverted (but of course did not end) hundreds of years of American racism, institutionalized and interpersonal. First Lady Michelle Obama perhaps summed up the symbolic power of that narrative for Black Americans in her DNC speech when she told the audience, “[T]oday, I wake up every morning in a house that was built by slaves, and I watch my daughters — two beautiful, intelligent, black young women — playing with their dogs on the White House lawn.” That symbolic victory, in turn, may inspire other people from that social position to follow suit. As former Labour MP Oona King put it when asked whether conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had done anything for women in British politics: "She cleared the path for women (and men) to think that leadership was gender-neutral.” With a victory in today’s contest, Clinton could clear that same path for women in the United States.
But aside from the symbolic power that a Black president holds for a racially stratified United States, officials who are from disadvantaged backgrounds also might be better positioned to represent those communities because they have often experienced firsthand their everyday difficulties. They are more likely to be disposed to thinking of these struggles in political terms as issues that the state should be working to redress rather than just dismissing them as the “natural order of things” or as a problem internal to the group itself.
This is not to say that all Black women will understand and value the problems of the Black community in the same way. Instead, what I am hoping to make clear is that, in general, we are susceptible to the forms of knowing and valuing that accompany our social position. The police tend to invoke very different reactions in Whites and Blacks; for White communities, officers are generally viewed as neutral arbitrators of the state. They are there to protect you and your family. When you are in trouble, you have no problem calling them to come help out without fearing for what they will do in a split-second decision. When you see them patrolling your neighborhood, you tend to feel safer, not more precarious. The police mean something much more unstable and threatening in Black communities.
How do these interpretations of the police diverge so widely? It’s a complicated question, but to get us started: People who share a stigmatized social identity often have similar experiences of mistreatment. (Just check out the statistics on the percentage of Black drivers who have been stopped by police for minor reasons or no reason at all compared to White drivers.) But they also participate in a community that makes possible shared interpretations of those experiences. Black parents teach their children to be afraid of cops and to treat them with the utmost respect because they have been mistreated or their neighbors have; each instance of unjustified police violence or another White vigilante who goes after a Black teenager is read against an ongoing history of antiblack violence. The White community, which has largely sought to minimize its complicity in racialized violence against Black Americans, often reads these same deaths as isolated instances of misfortune or individual prejudice.
And these situated forms of knowledge matter. Which speakers our political leaders find credible and which stories they find believable matter. The narratives we use to explain the relationship between the state and its citizens, who suffers from violence and who bestows it, condition what we think our government ought to do to protect people’s rights and how our legislatures should distribute public resources. If democratic representation is intended to reflect the people’s interests and serve their needs, then we should elect leaders who understand the problems that the dispossessed are fighting against. Sheriffs and prosecutors and judges that see antiblack police brutality as a systemic and structural issue that deserves our immediate attention. Legislators who prioritize paid childcare and expanded social welfare support because they see that White and Black women are struggling to provide for their families in the increasingly precarious, low-wage labor market. Presidents who don’t speak of Black neighborhoods in criminal, blighted terms but instead uplift all the ways in which Black communities have and are working together to provide for their own.
To be clear, it is possible for Clinton, as a White woman, to listen to other perspectives, to attend to communities that do not look like her family or benefit from her resources and status. But that knowledge will always come secondhand. She has not lived the existential fear of seeing blue lights in the rearview mirror late at night. She can listen to the stories of how hard her mother worked as a housekeeper and a nanny beginning at age 14, but she cannot live it. These listening tours that Clinton embarks on as part of her campaigning process are a good sign, then, that she is aware of the limitations of her own understanding and seeks to understand what is different for Black and brown and differently abled women when it comes to the everyday burdens of getting by. Whether those listening tours will translate into policies and executive actions that work to mitigate and redress these institutional violences and structural inequalities remains to be seen.
For that is the ultimate goal of an egalitarian politics — to remove people from positions of domination and exploitation, to redress longstanding inequalities that target certain groups because of their skin color or gender or sexual orientation. We ought not to confuse this democratic project of equal representation — attempting to ensure that our government doesn’t just look like a small privileged minority of the people it is supposed to be looking out for — with equality itself. When we talk about gender equality or racial equality, we don’t simply mean the numerical equality of a proportional House of Representatives. Electing more women of color to Congress might very well be a necessary step towards achieving political equality and equal access to material and social resources for communities of color and other marginalized constituencies. (I, for one, think this is the case in the United States.)
Whether or not the presidency is occupied by a woman, whatever her race – to date, it never has been – is a proxy for real political questions: whose children we care for and whose we neglect; which families we grant loans to at good rates and which ones we redline; which mothers we give state resources to and which ones we demand go to drug testing before distributing aid; which businesses we support and which we exclude; which laborers we protect and which we deny paid sick leave and overtime and injury compensation and regular hours; which boys we lock up for petty mistakes or no mistake at all and which boys we let roam free over college campuses with drugs and alcohol; which deaths we mourn and seek justice for and which deaths we barely notice or can chalk up to “bad parenting” or “it’s just their culture.”
Electing a woman to the country’s highest office may, in many respects, force us to engage with those substantive questions because it dislodges the easy functioning of a man’s public sphere for the benefit of and continued privileging of men of means. Provided that the U.S. electorate does not fall sway to a candidate who has built his campaign off of white male alienation, tonight could break new ground for women and all those people, men and women, that they support and care for.
As the confetti settles and the sound of glass shattering dissipates over the coming days, it is important that we all work to hold Clinton accountable to more than just the women who share her skin color, educational background and socioeconomic standing. Rather than reward the sort of easy solidarities that make for great sound bytes, we ought to focus instead on the sorts of policies that would lead to change for working and poor women of all races. Doing so will require that we think more carefully about what is at stake in democratic representation over the coming months. The relationship between an elected official’s social identity and her political commitments is far from straightforward. Any representative that seeks to work for the interests of all her constituents must first acknowledge her own blind spots when it comes to understanding how policies, institutions and power relations constrain different groups’ possibilities to build lives of their own choosing. And then she must actively listen to those on the margins when it comes to understanding the unfair disadvantages and deprivations that vulnerable communities are grappling with on a daily basis. We should not presume that those of us who enjoy the most freedom know how to govern for those for whom equality and emancipation remain only partially realized promises. Instead, I hope that elected officials look to and respect those voices on the margins as sources of knowledge — these communities who have fought and continue to struggle for their own liberation have something substantive to say about what true freedom means and how it might be accomplished, not simply for some of us, but for us all.