How To Win With Identity Politics

Moral Monday protestors in North Carolina in 2013. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Forget what the pundits are peddling — identity politics can play a key role in shaping a better future.

Identity politics is dead.

That’s the story arising from the media pundits and elected officials after Trump’s presidential inauguration. The Democratic Party too narrowly focused on the issues of under-represented people of color, LGBTQ, and immigrant communities. This niche focus came at the expense of a broader economic message appealing to the newly coveted white, rural voter.

At least, this is what we’re being told. But the reality tells a different story.

Organizers across the country — many of whom are queer, people of color, people of faith, and all the above — are actively embracing identity politics. And they’re making impressive gains as a result.

Nowhere is this more evident than in North Carolina. In 2013, the state elected Pat McCrory, a man whose far-right leanings would make him a natural fit in today’s White House, as Governor. McCrory went on to advance several dangerous policies — most notably HB2, aka the anti-LGBTQ bathroom bill, legislation so wildly encompassing in its discriminatory intent that the New York Times derided its sponsors as pioneers in bigotry.

When McCrory entered the Governor’s mansion, state activists immediately took action. And they helped achieve a stunning victory as a result.

In his 2016 re-election bid in November, McCrory was defeated. He was the only Republican gubernatorial incumbent to lose nationwide, and the first sitting Governor in North Carolina history to relinquish his seat. Weeks before his election, the Washington Post surmised that if defeated, McCrory’s loss would represent “a watershed moment for gay rights.”

Former Governor Pat McCrory (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Public Policy Polling credits McCrory’s defeat to the Forward Together Moral Movement (FTMM). Founded by the Dr. Reverend William J. Barber, II, the president of the North Carolina NAACP, FTMM has been joined by more than 200 organizations and thousands of individuals. It incorporates multi-issue framing and creatively uses cultural expressions such as storytelling and personal testimonies to elevate the struggles of the LGBTQ community, people of color, immigrants, and the working poor. Leaders with identities spanning these communities hold significant leadership positions in the movement’s efforts. While activism is focused in North Carolina, the movement and its key leaders are supporting similarly styled efforts in numerous states in the south, northeast, and midwest.

As we contend with the Trump regime, activists are contending with some fraught questions. What will the national revival of civic energy ultimately become? How can we be successful in the face of oppressive, one-party-ruled government?

Thanks to efforts in North Carolina, we have answers on both fronts. Here are some crucial lessons we can learn from the state and its activist organizations to shape a future Democratic revival that doesn’t rebuke identity politics.

Keep Making A Ruckus

North Carolina had been dealing with far-right extremism since long before HB2 and McCrory’s election. A majority of North Carolinians, in a tale now familiar across the country, awoke in 2011 to a severely gerrymandered political reality and an ascendant hyper-conservative government in control of all three branches of state power. As districts were carved up, so too was everything else: voting rights, education funding, environmental protections, reproductive rights, and the state’s cherished reputation as a fair-minded beacon in the South.

Worse still, McCrory took office in 2012 with a 12 point win over his Democratic opponent. But his honeymoon with voters was short-lived. McCrory supported unpopular, extremist legislation from the start — passing a restrictive abortion bill, cutting unemployment benefits, and refusing to expand Medicaid.

The movement seized on opportunities to drill home the economic impact these policies were having on communities statewide. It cost McCrory. Within eight months of taking office, his numbers cratered, never to recover fully.

One powerful tool of resistance was Moral Mondays, a civil-disobedience movement led by FTMM’s Barber. Tom Jenson with Public Policy Polling says:

“The Moral Monday Movement pushed back hard. Its constant visibility forced all of these issues to stay in the headlines. Its efforts ensured that voters in the state were educated about what was going on in Raleigh, and as voters became aware of what was going on, they got mad.”

Mad is an understatement. The movement clocked in on the national news scene in 2013 when over 1,000 people were arrested in what is thought to be the largest civil rights, state-house focused demonstration in U.S. history. These protests have continued across the state ever since. In early February of this year, at the annual Moral March, organizers estimate nearly 80,000 activists were in attendance.

These activists made gains, alongside heartbreak. As they were pressing the case against McCrory, earning national and international praise for their rallies and sit-ins, the state passed a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage in 2012.

In the face of this significant setback, activists did not give up. HB2 is a different legislative beast, but in five years time, this particular anti-LGBTQ bill has not been a slam dunk for its supporters.

As of January 2017, Public Policy Polling found that 51% of North Carolinians support its repeal. Major corporations including Paypal, Apple, Facebook, and Bank of America, to name a few, joined forces with the Human Rights Campaign and other equality organizations in the state openly critiquing the law and its discriminatory intent. Celebrities from Beyonce to Bruce Springsteen to the Dixie Chicks have either boycotted playing concerts in North Carolina, and/or have helped raise money and support for the law’s repeal. The NCAA and the ACC have pulled championship games, and if the law is not repealed this year will preclude North Carolina from competing to host championship games until 2022.

In total, the law has cost the state an estimated $630 million and counting. An Associated Press analysis released this week showed that the bill, if unrepealed, will cost $3.76 billion over the course of the next 12 years.

The lesson? Playing the long game pays off, but not usually all at once. As the anti-Trump resistance evolves, it will be important for activists to not let apathy set in after victories, or lose hope in the face of setbacks.

Compete For Hearts Everywhere

The author of Brown is the New White and founder of Power PAC+, Steve Phillips has made the case for more investments in local organizing year round in states with an emerging majority of progressive whites and people of color. States like North Carolina, Virginia, and Georgia, to name a few.

One such organization on the front lines of a distinctive style of relational organizing is Southerners on New Ground (S.O.N.G.). For 24 years, the organization has connected and supported a network of queer people of color, immigrants, undocumented people, people with disabilities, working class, and rural and small town people in the South. A Forward Together Movement partner, S.O.N.G. is on the front lines rapidly responding to current policy conditions like protecting members subject to potential ICE raids, and combatting increased harassment and discrimination as a result of HB2.

Southerners on New Ground members protest outside former Governor McCrory’s mansion in North Carolina. (Credit: Facebook)

S.O.N.G’s Communications Director Hermalinda Cortez is a mixed-race, queer millennial and daughter of a Mexican immigrant. Growing up in the rural South, she moved away to a mid-sized city early in her twenties, only to realize later that rural communities are her cultural home. Despite the hardship she sees and experiences, Cortez says, “There is just so much possibility in small-town places, particularly when we talk about shifting power and culture.”

She sees this possibility in her community in Shenandoah Valley. “There are many rural towns,” she says, “totally abandoned, that are home to not only white people, as the media frequently portrays, but to refugees, people of color, descendants of freedman and sharecropping communities. We feel abandoned in many ways by both parties. The Republicans have simply done a better job tapping into that abandonment.”

‘There are many rural towns that are home to not only white people, as the media frequently portrays, but to refugees, people of color, descendants of freedman and sharecropping communities.’

To combat these feelings of abandonment, progressive leaders must show up. On this front, too, the Forward Together Movement provides crucial lessons.

The small town of Belhaven, North Carolina — sitting within a deeply red county — has been embroiled in a multi-year-long fight to save its only hospital, which unfortunately was demolished in December. The nearest hospital is now 30 minutes away. Regardless of political affiliation, people in this community deeply understand that their lack of access to health care is potentially a life and death matter. At the request of and in partnership with an unlikely ally, Republican Mayor Adam O’Neal, the FTMM has hosted numerous Belhaven Moral Rallies for Healthcare Justice and pursued legal remedies in an effort to work together to find a solution.

Other organizations, too, have focused on inclusive, progressive efforts in communities that have been lost to Democrats in recent years. The Arena, a candidate recruitment effort and incubator for social and civic entrepreneurs, has hosted events in locations designed to spotlight the challenges in cities and states often overlooked in the national discourse. The Victory Fund, an organization that assists and funds LGBTQ candidates nationwide, in 2016 honed its efforts to advance candidacies in “low-equality” states — states with legislative bodies that have no more than two LGBTQ legislators or none at all. And Run for Something, started by former Clinton digital team members, is recruiting millennials under 35 to run in key districts in both North Carolina and Virginia — where upcoming legislative races will be held in 2017.

Own The Moral High Ground

When it comes to values, extremists and the Republican Party have long dominated the discussion. Progressives are often wary of religious and moral language. Understandably so. Variants of religious traditions are routinely used to demonize those whose lives fall outside of the supposed mainstream. Yet, morality is not owned by any one religion or any religion at all.

Nancy Petty is bridging this gap as the lesbian minister of Pullen Memorial Baptist, an iconic civil-rights focused house of worship in downtown Raleigh, a few blocks from the state capitol.

A founding leader in the FTMM, Petty offers:

“This movement is not about our religious faith. This movement is about our faith in one another and in our ability to treat each person with dignity and respect. The moral piece, of the moral movement, is about honoring the dignity of all people, that all people are created equal. Some of us put that within a faith tradition. But many don’t. Some of us speak out of that faith tradition. Many don’t. This is another part of our diversity that we should celebrate. No one should feel less than, if their starting point is not a religious set of values and beliefs.”

The FTMM rejects false binaries, scrambles stereotypes, and takes a both/and approach. At Moral Monday Marches, speakers may read from the Bible, the Torah, the Quran, and also from State and Supreme Court precedents.

An evangelical preacher may speak about the fight for $15, a push to raise the national minimum wage. A restaurant industry worker may talk about how black lives matter. A white teacher from the suburbs may speak out on voting rights for black women. An African-American business owner may make the case for a woman’s right to health care. A Muslim Imam will encourage folks to stand with undocumented workers. A queer tech entrepreneur calls for a bipartisan approach to gerrymandering. At the recent annual march, Joan Baez called in and sang a song to activists. The cultural arts are given a place of prominence and treated with sacredness. In doing this, the movement connects the dots from one policy to another and these same policies to numerous communities and causes.

William Barber at a Moral Monday rally in July 2013. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Clinton Wright, the National Organizer for Reverend Barber’s Repairers of the Breach, self-identifies as queer and says:

“I don’t necessarily consider myself a religious person, but I have a moral compass. I organize around political issues and what’s going on locally. Everyone is impacted in some way by the laws being written here in North Carolina or in their respective state. This is not a left or right thing. It is not a partisan thing. It is a right or wrong thing. We always ask the question, ‘Is the law good for people or bad for people?”

It is immoral to allow a kid to go hungry at night, or for someone to die because the closest public hospital closed. Preventing the suffering of our neighbors is what progressive policy is all about. Let’s own that.

Alongside Petty, Bishop Tonya Rawls is leading cutting-edge social justice efforts through her Trans Faith and Action Network. Based in Charlotte, Rawls is an African-American Minister, lesbian, and founder of the Center for Social Justice. The network provides research, resources, training, and support to trans-affirming seminaries and houses of worship. Through conferences and retreats, upwards of 300 trans people and allies come together to forge new solutions for local communities.

Preventing the suffering of our neighbors is what progressive policy is all about. Let’s own that.

Elevating queer voices of faith like that of Petty and Rawls is a smart strategy — but not one utilized frequently. “The progressive movement hasn’t always done a great job of creating space for queer people of faith, who don’t feel entirely at home in the LGBTQ community, nor in traditional houses of worship,” says Laura Meadows, an associate professor of Communications at UNC-Asheville, who specializes in social movements.

These leaders can directly counter the narrative pitting LGBTQ people against the religious and against religious freedom.

Embed Solidarity Into Every Action

It is dangerous and wrong to blame the staggering losses of the Democratic Party up and down the ballot on the very people who have long supported this same party. Pitting different demographic groups against each other is at best not constructive, and at worst betrays our values.

We are ready for an identity politics that is as expansive, meaningful, and multi-faceted as the lives we actually live. We need an identity politics that intentionally embeds solidarity into every action, message, and decision-making process. Party operatives and pundits need not act as if there is no path forward on how best to do this.

Pitting different demographic groups against each other is at best not constructive, and at worst betrays our values.

The FTMM has united queer individuals, people of color, rural communities, Republicans and Democrats, and people across faith traditions in pursuit of humane policies. These organizers moved the needle in as tough a battleground state as there is right now, with significant legislative and political barriers to overcome.

If it can be done in North Carolina, this can be done anywhere.

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