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Feminist Scholar Barbara Smith on Identity Politics & Why She Supports Bernie Sanders for President

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We speak with the legendary African-American feminist scholar Barbara Smith. She is a founder of the Combahee River Collective and of Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press. Barbara Smith recently wrote a column in The Guardian newspaper titled “I helped coin the term 'identity politics'. I’m endorsing Bernie Sanders.” Her latest book is “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around: Forty Years of Movement Building with Barbara Smith.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue to look at the presidential race following Bernie Sanders’ victory in the New Hampshire primary. The race now moves to Nevada and South Carolina.

We’re joined by the legendary African-American feminist scholar Barbara Smith, founder of the Combahee River Collective and of Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press. Barbara Smith recently wrote a column in The Guardian newspaper headlined “I helped coin the term 'identity politics'. I’m endorsing Bernie Sanders.” Her latest book is Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around: Forty Years of Movement Building with Barbara Smith. She’s joining us from the capital of New York state, Albany.

Barbara Smith, welcome to Democracy Now! It’s great to have you with us. We are speaking to you —

BARBARA SMITH: Great to be with you, Amy. Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re speaking to you on the day after the New Hampshire primary, after, actually, in the last two weeks, the primary, first primary, and caucus, Iowa and New Hampshire, that take place in two of the whitest states in the country. And now we move to states of far more diversity, Nevada and South Carolina, and then on to Super Tuesday. So, you are now supporting Bernie Sanders. You’re a surrogate for Senator Sanders. I was wondering if we could step back and you give us a little of your background. I was recently at the Combahee River in South Carolina, after we did an environmental justice forum in Orangeburg, speaking with some of the presidential candidates, and made that trip to the Combahee River because it is so significant — Harriet Tubman and all that she had accomplished. But talk about your background, before you tell us why you support Senator Sanders.

BARBARA SMITH: Are we starting at birth, or are we going to fast-forward?

AMY GOODMAN: Wherever you’d like to start.

BARBARA SMITH: Well, I think it’s really important for people to know — and I say this in the article that was in The Guardian — it’s important for people to know that I was born under Jim Crow. I was born in 1946, so Jim Crow was the law of the land during that time, during my growing-up years. And the reason it’s important, I think, is because it shaped very much who I was and my perspective on this project of U.S. democracy, that we’re still trying to improve.

I have lived on the East Coast for many years. I teach and write. And probably more important than even those other things is that I’ve been involved in movements for social justice since the 1960s. I joined the civil rights movement as a teenager. And even though I lived in the North, the Congress of Racial Equality and other civil rights organizations were strong in Cleveland. And as I said, I got involved as a teenager, and from that day to this I’ve been politically active in working for positive political, social justice and change.

AMY GOODMAN: And the Combahee River Collective, what it is, what it was, its significance? And also, you are credited with helping to coin the term “identity politics.” And what that means?

BARBARA SMITH: Yes. The Combahee River Collective was a group of black feminists in Boston from the mid-1970s until around 1980. And we are best known — we were political activists. We had been involved in many movements, including the movement to end the war in Vietnam, the civil rights movement, as I mentioned, the Panthers. We had a lot of movement experience, even though we were quite young at that time. It was always a small group. And I’ve always liked working in small grassroots groups.

But what we’re most known for is that we wrote a statement, the Combahee River Collective Statement, in 1977. It was actually for a book that was edited by the wonderful antiracist and feminist scholar Zillah Eisenstein. And the book was titled Capitalist Patriarchy and the Case for Socialist Feminism. So, we wrote something for the book, that she asked us to do, and the something turned out to be the Combahee River Collective Statement, which, seemingly, has stood the test of time. And many people still read it, refer to it. And, in fact, the Black Lives Matter and Movement for Black Lives, those movements actually say that they have relied upon the kinds of ideas of black women’s liberation that were in that statement.

And indeed, the phrase “identity politics” is in the statement. I’ve spent quite a few years — decades, actually — trying to find if indeed that phrase appears anywhere earlier than 1977. And I consult with friends who are scholars and researchers and deep readers, and no one has ever been able to show me or find that it was anywhere else prior to that. We’re still searching. I think computers might help with that.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk today about why you’ve decided to support Bernie Sanders. The corporate media makes a great deal out of saying he doesn’t have the support of African Americans, so important, and particularly African-American women. You almost never see on CNN or MSNBC — I’m not talking about Fox here — a commentator who is a, you know, outright supporter of Bernie Smith — of Bernie Sanders. So, talk about when you decided that he was your presidential candidate.

BARBARA SMITH: I decided in 2016. I supported him then, and I supported him before the campaign reached out to me in 2016 to see if I would be interested in being involved in — and I was — in an LGBTQ steering committee. So, I was asked to take part, to be a part of that. And I also worked on women’s issues. It was pretty late during the primary season, but I worked very hard, as I always do, and we did as much as we possibly could to bring in those constituencies. So, as I said, I didn’t just decide. I decided in 2016, before I even had any working contact with the campaign. And, of course, I continue to support him during this 2020 election cycle.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about what it is that he represents that you feel is most important, and why you’re willing to go out and campaign for him around the country.

BARBARA SMITH: The reason I support Bernie Sanders is because of the fact that he has a theory of change. You know, that’s a popular phrase now. He has an understanding of like why things are not working in our U.S. society, and he has ideas like Medicare and healthcare for all, like changing the criminal justice system, like having access to college for all young people and not just for those who are privileged. He has good ideas about how we can actually fulfill that promise that the Founders supposedly put out, in their very flawed way, since they didn’t really include people like me. They didn’t include women. They didn’t include black people. But they had some great ideas about freedom and justice for all. He has the plans. He has the passion and the compassion. He has the base of support, which is much more diverse than, I think, any of the other candidate at this point.

He just — you know, we’re just in sync. He and I are near the same age, and we were both involved in movements in our younger days, as students. And we just — as I said, I don’t — I’ve only met him once, so I don’t know him. It’s not like we’re like buddies or anything like that. It doesn’t come from that kind of contact. It comes from looking at what he is standing for, what he proposes to do and what he has done, actually. I’ve been aware of him. Someone asked me, “When did you first know about Bernie Sanders?” I said, “I feel like I’ve known about him all of — at least all of his life, and — his political life, because I knew about him when he was a mayor in Burlington.” So, I have definitely followed him through the years.

AMY GOODMAN: In 2016, Bernie Sanders said identity politics distracts from what he considered real issues, like economic inequality and the decline of organized labor. Has he changed his view of identity politics? I mean, you say you’ve only spoken with him once, but what are your thoughts about that?

BARBARA SMITH: I think he’s obviously changed. And that’s manifested in the kind of campaign that he’s running. There’s such a commitment to having a diverse, multiracial, multiethnic, various religions — I mean, I loved the coverage of the mosque, where people voted in Iowa, and how 99% of the people there, many of whom were immigrants, how they voted and supported Bernie Sanders. But that took outreach from the campaign. That did not just magically happen. I think that he has changed.

And I also think that the term “identity politics” has been so distorted, so distorted since we originally coined it. And I should say, Amy — I should tell you what we meant by it. What we meant in 1977 by “identity politics” is that black women have a right to determine our own political agendas, period. That’s all that we meant. All the things that have been attached to the term “identity politics” in succeeding decades, that’s not what we were talking about.

And the reason that we said that back then is because of the fact that it was not thought that black women had any particular political issues or concerns that needed to be addressed and worked on. So, there’s a title of a book. You may have heard of it. It’s my book, All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave. And that was the perspective back then, that black politics and black liberation agendas were one-size-fit-all for both black men and women. And it’s not, of course. I mean, all black people have things in common and have realities in common and injustices in common that we need to address. And women also, regardless of race, have issues in common, like violence against women, for example, access to reproductive freedom. But what we were saying is that there are things that we experience, who are people — as people who are both and simultaneously black and women and also other identities, working-class. Many of us were lesbians in the Combahee River Collective. So, we were really looking at systems of oppression as they interlocked. And subsequently, Kim Crenshaw, the legal scholar, came up with the concept of “intersectionality.” But as I said, we weren’t badmouthing or putting down anyone who wasn’t our identical mirror image. That was not what we meant. We just said we have a right to shape our own political identity — I’m sorry, our own political agenda, that comes out of our political identity. That’s what we meant by “identity politics.”

AMY GOODMAN: Could you speak to young activists who work around issues of identity politics, and what advice would you give them, Barbara Smith?

BARBARA SMITH: Well, the first thing I would say is, you’ve got to work in coalition. You cannot be so — what’s the word? — so immersed in your own particular experiences, your wonderful, multilayered, complex experiences of your identity. You can’t be so immersed in that, that you cannot look out at that person across the room, across the street, in another neighborhood, in another nation, around the globe. You cannot be so immersed in what you are experiencing that you cannot see that wider arc of a need to work for justice and do it in coalition and in solidarity with others. And I think that’s what has been lost. I think that because identity politics and black feminism and some of the things that I have actually helped to establish in academic context, I think that sometimes when they’re talked about in academic context, people don’t understand that, no, what we’re really talking about is positioning ourselves so that we can build a mass movement for positive political change and for justice. So, when people think that the only people we’re talking to are people who have the exact same list of identities that they have, I always say, “Why would I want to work with people who are just like me? That would be boring.”

So, that would be my major advice, is take that risk. Take that risk of joining in coalitions, doing work on the ground where you live. Like, if you live in a city, there’s probably — there are a lot of issues, but one of the issues might likely be gun violence. Another one might be poverty or poor housing. Another one might be schools that are not of sufficient quality so that everybody has great opportunities as they grow up and become adults and get into life. See what it would be like to walk into a school board meeting. Do you see what I’m saying? Maybe you do. I bet you do, Amy. But it’s just really so important that we stretch and that we work for justice across the board. And that doesn’t mean that we can’t be in our own — you know, our own safe spaces, in our own kind of home kind of environments. We can do both.

AMY GOODMAN: As Bernie Sanders now, if you can give him advice, as the senator coming off of a popular win in Iowa and an outright win in New Hampshire, at least with 87% of the figures in at this point, heading down now to South Carolina, the Nevada —Nevada is first and then the South Carolina primary. What advice do you have for him, as he moves from the whitest states in the country to states with a majority-people-of-color population?

BARBARA SMITH: Well, I would not presume to give Senator Sanders advice. I really would not. I’m really happy to be a part of the campaign. I think that he is effective, and the campaign has been effective, in attracting more diverse constituencies. I feel like — and I just said this to someone a few days ago — I feel like if Senator Sanders can get in front of the electorate, if he can connect with them and share his message and his ideas with them, I think they’re going to be really taking a lot of notice. There are a lot of myths going on — well, always — in the society about race and racism and who is who and what is what. And there’s certainly a — there’s a lot of chatter and a lot of talk about who can appeal to black voters in particular. And my feeling is, let’s just watch us. You know, watch us watch him. I think that they’re doing a really good job of connecting with our incredibly beautiful, diverse United States, all the kinds of people who live here. And I just think that the more that that happens, the more effective and the more he’ll be known. And we’ll just see what happens.

AMY GOODMAN: Barbara Smith, I’m going to —

BARBARA SMITH: But as I said, I wouldn’t put it —

AMY GOODMAN: I’m going to ask you to stay with us, as we break and then move on to some other subjects that I think you’d be very interested in. And I also wanted to clarify: South Carolina is actually majority white, but 78% of South Carolina’s Democrats are African-American. More than three-quarters of the Democrats in South Carolina are black. Barbara Smith, author, activist, independent scholar, founder of the Combahee River Collective and of Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press. Her latest book, Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around: Forty Years of Movement Building with Barbara Smith. She’ll stay with us. But when we come back, we’re going to speak to the journalist who unearthed audio of billionaire presidential candidate Mike Bloomberg defending stop-and-frisk. And we look at Pete Buttigieg’s record of overpolicing the black community in South Bend, Indiana. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: Ladysmith Black Mambazo, the South African a cappella group. The founder, Joseph Shabalala, died at the age of 78.

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