Hillary Clinton's Intersectional Politics

The Democratic presidential candidate invokes a term popular with younger voters—but what does she mean by it?

Rebecca Cook / Reuters

Hillary Clinton has taken pains to describe the lead-contaminated drinking water of Flint, Michigan, not only as a public-health and environmental crisis, but also as a crisis of poverty and racism. Along the way, the Democratic presidential contender has invoked the idea of intersectionality, the concept that different forms of inequality and discrimination overlap and compound one another.

Clinton’s use of the term, which was at one time largely confined to academia, signals that it is now a common way of thinking about inequality for a younger generation. Her decision to employ it may also elevate the concept in American politics, and alter the terms of a national debate over poverty, racism and other forms of inequity.

In recent weeks, Clinton has increasingly made reference to the concept on the campaign trail. “We face a complex set of economic, social, and political challenges. They are intersectional, they are reinforcing, and we have got to take them all on,” Clinton declared during a February speech in Harlem. Over the weekend, her campaign tweeted that “Flint's water crisis is an example of the combined effects of intersecting issues that impact communities of color.” An appended graphic draws literal lines between “poverty,” “systemic racism,” “underfunded school systems,” and “crumbling infrastructure.”

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.

“A lot of times we approach politics from the standpoint that every issue we encounter should be thought of and dealt with separately,” said Leslie McCall, a professor of sociology and political science at Northwestern University. “If we have someone who starts to use the term ‘intersectional’ and who is willing to draw connections between things previously thought of as independent from one another, I think that is a more accurate representation of how the world actually works and would be progress.”

Clinton’s invocation of intersectionality may also broaden popular understanding of the concept. In popular culture, it has been variously deployed. Intersectionality has been denounced by conservatives as a form of identity politics. Progressives, meanwhile, have used the term both to conceptualize identity and as a framework to broadly explain how different structural barriers operate simultaneously. Clinton is using the concept to denote an integrated approach to dealing with deeply-intertwined environmental, economic, and social problems.

“It’s tremendously important for new frames to enter our political lexicon to deal with old problems. They mark a space and set of realities that might otherwise slip through the cracks,” said Kimberlé Crenshaw, a law professor at Columbia University and the University of California-Los Angeles who originally coined the term. “It’s refreshing that people are starting to talk about intersectionality in ways that are far more inclusive of the variety of challenges we face as a society, and understanding that this isn’t just about an identity politics.”

Of course, acknowledging the complexity of problems isn’t the same as offering concrete solutions. As Clinton helps popularize the term, there’s risk of it becoming a meaningless buzzword, or being dismissed as an exclusively liberal concern. When Clinton, Sanders, and their supporters talk about intersectionality, they’re simultaneously offering a framework for tying together disparate concerns, and shifting the boundaries of public debate. As progressives contest the specific meaning and implications of the way the candidates deploy the idea, those boundaries will surely continue to shift.