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Five Race and Gender Justice Lessons Learned from This Marathon Election Cycle

Its important for us to reflect on what we’ve learned along the margins of this everlasting campaign.

Confetti falls during President Obama's election night rally at McCormick Place, November 7, 2012.

President Barack Hussein Obama will have a second term. And with this victory we’ll see lots of expansive spin about what it all means. As pundits debate the electoral importance of the Latino vote, pay equity for women, and other flashpoints, it’s important for us to reflect on what we’ve learned along the margins of this everlasting campaign. Here are my lessons:

1. The Republican-led war on abortion, Title X-funded reproductive health care and contraceptive access was – and still is – a war on poor women of color and their families.

Traditionally speaking, defending reproductive health rights has been the (good, strong) work of feminists. Ironically, this allows some people who don’t identify with or know the ins and outs of feminism—particularly men—to be silent on an issue that directly impacts their own households.

The truth is, reproductive health rights and access are inherently raced and transcend gender because they affect a disproportionate number of people (not just girls and women) of color. We are less likely to have private insurance; less likely to be employed; more likely to be poor; more likely to die of HIV/AIDS and the list goes on.

For example, Latinos make up about 16 percent of the population but a whopping 29 percent of those who use Title X-funded family planning services. Black people make up about 12 percent of the population but 19 percent of users. Family planning services include screenings and treatment for sexually transmitted diseases that can limit fertility or cause death; birth control that allows prospective parents to determine the timing and size of their families; and breast exams that can reveal a mother, daughter, sister, aunt’s or grandmother’s cancerous lump. These are family issues.

Also, black and Latina women undergo abortions at a much higher rate than white women, a fact widely attributed to a lack of birth control access and the potential economic strain of having a child.

It’s easy to get caught up in the political gamesmanship and the right-wing rhetoric of sex, sin, the sanctity of fetuses and the Christian roots of American government. But we must keep the people who actually use these sources of health care at the center. County by county, state by state, ideologically driven and misogynist lawmakers are chipping away at our access to it. A presidential election won’t make or break that fact. More of us need to woman/man up and fight for it.

2. Political speech and policies that trivialize sexual violence against women are an assault on ourcollective safety and humanity.

White, male politicians such as Missouri’s failed U.S. senate candidate Todd “Legitimate Rape” Akin, Washington’s thwarted congressional candidate John “The Rape Thing” Koster, and Indiana’s U.S. senate washout Richard “God Intended It” Mourdock have given us clear evidence of the deep misogyny of the radical anti-choice movement. For people of color, this misogyny is compounded by race. From yesterday’s plantations where rape was literally used as an economic driver, to today’s Native American reservations where one in three women will be raped in her lifetime to the routine rape of immigrant farmworkers and ICE detainees, we know that rape is one of many tools of oppression. This is not to suggest that individual rape survivors of color have a premium on pain. It is to say that structural racism and immigration status belong in anti-rape conversations, activism and storytelling.

3. We should continue to counter narratives that assume that people of color are exceptionally homophobic and transphobic.

Remember when Obama endorsed same-sex marriage and the immediate (and dumb) assumption was that black folks would no longer support him? And remember how post-cosign polls and statements from folks such as Jay-Z and Ice Cube complicated that particular meme? Well, we should continue to examine and expose the full spectrum of our attitudes.

Although mainstream media still love a good POC’s vs. the gays story, we’ve been building on the real-life intersections between race and immigration status and LGBTQ issues including marriage equality.

And, as trans activists of color such as Janet Mock and Danielle King remind us, we are making some progress. We can’t forget to talk about good news!

4. We need to stay engaged in state and local politics and policy.

Like the attacks on voting rights, teachers and organized labor, assaults on reproductive health rights often occurred on a state and local level. Of course national strategy is important, but as Jamel Bouie points out, we exert the most influence in our own backyards:

A seat on the school board, or the city council, offers much more influence than you might think. You can push new approaches to education, affect curriculum and push ideas for how to run schools. You can influence zoning decisions, clamor for tax cuts and tilt policy in your town or city to favor business and other interests. Local and state officials have a tremendous influence on the lives of ordinary people, and over time, Republicans have used this to build support for conservative policies.

There’s a second reason to focus on the local and state: today’s city council members, mayors and state legislators are tomorrow’s congresspeople, senators and governors. Conservatives built a deep bench of like-minded candidates by first electing them on the local level, and then grooming them for higher office.

5. We need to get some rest.

Maybe it’s just me, but between Hurricane Sandy and this election, it has been an intense seven days. That’s on top of the last four years of increasingly nasty politics. I’m thinking you’re probably tired, too. Movement people, allow yourself a little bit of rest—right after you’ve shared what you’ve learned in the comments section!

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