Intersectionality was coined in the late 1980s to explain how different markers of identity coalesce to yield unique forms of discrimination. A black woman, for example, might experience not only racism and sexism in her daily life, but could also confront additional barriers that white women and black men do not. It became a way of making visible the experience of individuals that had previously been caught between the feminist and civil-rights movements.
Today, the term has been embraced by many of the younger voters flocking to Bernie Sanders, whom Clinton has so far struggled to win over. Deploying the concept could help Clinton appeal to a younger generation. An intersectional agenda also lends itself to a set of talking points that dovetails with the central argument Clinton has been making all along: That she is better qualified than Sanders, with his focus on tackling economic inequality, to confront the wide array of challenges facing our country. The campaign subtly leveled that critique when it tweeted: “It's not enough to talk only about economics. We have to tackle racial, economic, & environmental justice—together.”
Still, Clinton isn’t the only Democratic presidential candidate advocating the approach. Sanders has also invoked intersectionality, even if he may not be talking about the concept quite as explicitly. Sanders has outlined the argument that minorities are uniquely vulnerable to multiple forms of violence, including physical, economic, and environmental violence. His recognition that communities of color are not only subject to overt and physical acts of racism, but also disproportionately suffer from economic deprivation and environmental pollution, likewise stands as an implicit acknowledgement of intersectionality.
Clinton has been winning over black voters by a wide margin, but faces lingering distrust over tough-on-crime policies signed into law by former President Bill Clinton, a legacy that she has worked to distance herself from. Talking up intersectionality on the campaign trail could help, though it’s hard to say how far that will take her. Clinton narrowly edged out Sanders in Genesee County, home to the city of Flint, but lost the Michigan primary on Tuesday despite her effort to shine a spotlight on the water crisis. She is also sure to face charges of opportunism as she advocates intersectionality, and has already been accused of politicizing the Flint water crisis.
At a certain point, though, it doesn’t matter whether Clinton’s motives in talking about intersectionality are cynical or pure. Her public advocacy of an intersectional approach to politics brings the concept further into the political mainstream. It could introduce the term to new audiences, and shape the way politicians, particularly on the political Left, think and talk about, as well as offer solutions to, inequality and discrimination.