Movement Building

Supreme Court Decisions and the Need for Intersectional Movements

Hopefully Organizing Change isn’t the first place you heard this, but…the U.S. Supreme Court struck down DOMA and dismissed the Proposition 8 appeal!

Countless changemakers have dedicated years to helping make this significant event a reality.

Even amidst the celebrations, people across the nation are already gearing up to continue pushing for marriage equality.

Not only do these organizers show the need to push for the expansion of rights, but they also start to highlight the mixed results of the Supreme Court’s decisions this week.

Mia McKenzie at Black Girl Dangerous (BGD) noted both in her important, yet sobering post, 6 Things That Happened While Y’all Were Preoccupied With Gay Marriage and on the BGD Facebook page how the focus on marriage equality has diverted attention from other crucially important issues.

She wrote on the BGD Facebook page

“Yes, queer and trans* people without race and/or class privilege will be able to get married the same as other queers. But that doesn’t mean that we will have the same benefits. If two poor people with no healthcare marry each other, they don’t suddenly get healthcare. And a black queer couple can’t get a break on estate taxes for a property they can’t buy because the owner will only sell to white folks.”

Mia McKenzie illustrates how events that should be a “move forward,” have a vast disparity in impacts depending on one’s privilege.

As Mia McKenzie and others have pointed out, this divergence of justice is one of the biggest reasons we need an “inclusive and intersectional movement” (i.e. one that meets the needs of people of multiple identities and directly address the interconnection between different types of oppression).

The other major Supreme Court cases this week, to me are a clearly demonstration of what happens when we focus solely on single issues (e.g. marriage equality), instead of seeking out this more cross-issue movement with an analysis of privilege.


What this week’s decisions teach us about the dangers of single issues


Photo: RLHyde via Flickr (Creative Commons)
Photo: RLHyde via Flickr (Creative Commons)

While the anticipation around DOMA/Prop. 8 and the excitement over Senator Wendy Davis’ filibuster of abortion restrictions in Texas (which came after a long period of activism from many other Texas legislators) caught most of the attention this week, we have to remember four other cases that pose great challenges.

These four cases show how the issues we strive to address get segmented and, thus, harder to defend as a movement.

1. Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl

At it’s core, this case was about tribal sovereignty to decide who it counted among its tribal membership.

In this child custody case the court decided in a 5-4 decision that the child, Baby Veronica, did not qualify under the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) “because she is 1.2% (3/256) Cherokee” and thus not Native enough according to Justice Alito. Even though the Cherokee Nation considers her to be a member.

The court decided not to uphold tribal rights and now the father and the Cherokee nation are working to continue seeking custody.

2. Fisher v. University of Texas

This case focused around the constitutionality of race-based university admissions policies that seek to address years of institutionalized oppression.

The Supreme Court’s decision to send the case back to the lower courts left a lot of questions.

However, it stated that affirmative action could still be used, but only in a very strict and rigorous manner.

Since the court did not make a final decision, the threat of ending affirmative action remains ever present.

3. Shelby County v. Holder

With one major decision, the Supreme Court highlighted a sharp divide about the court’s views of contemporary racial injustice. One side believing racism is nearly a thing of the past, and the other recognizing the vigor of institutionalized racism.

The most common description of the 5-4 decision was as the “gutting of the Voting Rights Act,” because it allowed states (mainly Southern) with a history of racial discrimination to change election laws without obtaining federal approval in advance.

This result sets the stage for increased voter disenfranchisement and reduced access to the polls.

4. Vance v. Ball State University

In an extremely regressive outcome, the Supreme Court handed out a decision which effectively decided harassment only counts when it comes from a supervisor who has the ability to fire, reassign, demote, etc.

So it seems that supervisors and co-workers without the option to directly control a job status, such as firing, can conduct harassment without legal repercussions.

This continues the Roberts Court’s history of extremely pro-business decisions at the expense of workers’ rights.

If you want to know about other detrimental Supreme Court decisions recently, check out the roundup of cases over at Think Progress.


Lessons for intersectional organizing after Supreme Court’s decisions


These court cases will deeply impact our initiatives for racial justice, workers’ rights, indigenous sovereignty.

But how would a more cross-issue or intersectional movement help us in our efforts?

For example, the issue of power and white privilege/culture showed up strongly in all of these cases (not to mention colonialism, patriarchy, etc.)

A robust movement that explicitly showed the connections of racial justice, workers’ rights, indigenous sovereignty issues in these cases under the banner of dismantling white privilege would have a much easier time convincing the media and the public of how prevalent these forms injustice remain.

When we break things up into small issues, they become easier to ignore and break down.

Even if the majority of folks wish to dismantle injustice (e.g. ending climate change, ableism), we lose a little of our strength when we spread out.

We have the passion and dedication to bring about this “inclusive and intersectional movement”, we just need to start moving in that direction.

So as we celebrate the accomplishments of the ending of DOMA/Prop. 8, we must remember to keep pushing until we are celebrating the end of the other regressive Supreme Court cases this week and the recognition of intersectional justice.

If you’re interested in “inclusive and intersectional movement building”  make sure to go Like Black Girl Dangerous on Facebook or Follow on Twitter.

By Drew Serres

Drew Serres began working on Organizing Change to combine his dedication to showing impactful organizing practices with his passion for learning. Find out more about him at the About Page and see his updates on Twitter and Google+