Trans Migrant Murders and the Importance of Intersectionality

Transgender asylum seeker Johana Medina, a refugee from El Salvador, died in ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) custody on 1 June, the first day of Pride month. Medina is the 23rd transgender person to die in ICE custody.

The horrific deaths of trans persons detained by Immigration and Customs and Enforcement are murders, and blame for them should be laid at ICE’s feet. Trans refugees, asylum seekers, and other migrants face triple oppression: The binary logic of the sex-gender system is enforced with violence. The migrant is vilified and criminalized. And because in many cases these women were black or brown, racism compounds the motivation of the US state to punish and kill them.

The concept of “intersectionality” is useful to understand the interaction of multiple oppressions in these deaths; the theory also can point the way forward for challenging the systems that generate racist, anti-immigrant, and trans-phobic violence. But rather than thinking about intersectionality as the layering of oppressions, we have to think about how the various systems of oppression generate specific kinds of violence because of the nature of the combination itself.

A recent article in Vox explains that “intersectionality,” a concept that originates with Kimberlé Crenshaw, originated in legal studies’ critical race theory’s attempt to understand the intersection of race and gender in the workplace. The problem was that the “law seemed to forget that black women are both black and female, and thus subject to discrimination on the basis of both race, gender, and often, a combination of the two.”

“Crenshaw argues that by treating black women as purely women or purely black, the courts, as they did in 1976, have repeatedly ignored specific challenges that face black women as a group.

“Intersectionality was a prism to bring to light dynamics within discrimination law that weren’t being appreciated by the courts,” Crenshaw said. “In particular, courts seem to think that race discrimination was what happened to all black people across gender and sex discrimination was what happened to all women, and if that is your framework, of course, what happens to black women and other women of color is going to be difficult to see.”

Since its inception in legal studies, the concept has spread far and wide among scholars and activists trying to get a handle on how oppressed people never face one-dimensional oppression–and how to struggle in the face of the complexity of interlocking discrimination and violence.

Trans migrants face extreme violence (not that others are immune from it) partly because they are “illegally” or “immorally” crossing not one but two borders, one into a nation whose political discourse treats them as criminals, and one across the fluidity of gender identity and expression in a society where such boundary violations are punishable by death.

Add to that mix a black or brown identity and a chosen womanhood, and one enters one of the darkest intersections facing the oppressed today.

Intersectionality is crucial to understanding how a trans migrant is not just a transperson, not just, in this case, a woman, not just an immigrant, not just a person of color, but all of these at once.

As a socialist, I think our approach to intersectionality needs to take one more step, to ask: In whose interests do these intersecting oppressions arise? Who benefits from the horrific violence visited upon people of diverse standpoints? It might be easy to list the white-cis-heteronormative-racist-nationalist-ableist-patriarchy, but the unwieldiness of that list suggests that there is be a system at work that requires and cultivates all of these oppressions, and benefits from their execution: capitalism.

When you ask the question, in whose interest, or who benefits, with the big list you get: white men benefit from the oppression of (white) women; cis people benefit from the oppression of trans and nonbinary persons; white people benefit from the oppression of non-white people; people of one nation benefit from the exploitation of those defined as alien; people who are enabled by the infrastructure and of our society benefit from the exclusion of those labeled as disabled.

But who benefits from any particular intersection? Would the murders of transwomen at the border benefit cis people, nationalists, and white people all at the same time? What about white transpersons? Black men? Cisgender immigrants? Wealthy transgender immigrants? Disabled white women? These (not) hypothetical scenarios point to the incoherence of an intersectionality theory without the element of class, and the system of capitalism underlying the whole shifting map.

One caveat before exploring capitalism’s generative dependence on oppressions: Oppressions based on identities are real; they have a life of their own; they are not crudely determined by economic standpoint. Racists must be held accountable, just as anyone who oppresses, exploits, and violates someone on the basis of identity should. The shooter at the Pulse club in Miami two years ago? Accountable. Each ICE agent behind a death of a trans migrant? Accountable.

It’s when we try to explain where the racists, transphobes, and so on come from and why society turns them out that way that we need a more systematic analysis. Black feminists like Angela Davis and the Combahee River Collective have articulated a socialist analysis of how and why women’s oppression and racist oppression intersect. The Combahee River Collective of Black feminists wrote in 1977:

We are socialists because we believe that work must be organized for the collective benefit of those who do the work and create the products, and not for the profit of the bosses. Material resources must be equally distributed among those who create these resources.

We are not convinced, however, that a socialist revolution that is not also a feminist and anti-racist revolution will guarantee our liberation…Although we are in essential agreement with Marx’s theory as it applied to the very specific economic relationships he analyzed, we know that his analysis must be extended further in order for us to understand our specific economic situation as Black women.”

This view understands oppression based on social identity to be real, and argues for an extension of socialist politics to include fighting racism in the overall anti-capitalist struggle.

Every racist, sexist, heterosexist, transphobic, ableist, and anti-immigrant consciousness has been cultivated in ideology. Babies are not born hateful. But politicians and the wealthy generate bigoted ideas through the media they control. Every institution in capitalist society–the family, the media, the schools, and so on–are saturated with such ideas. The question, again, is why? In whose interest?

The short version is that capitalism as a system–especially neoliberal capitalism and its program of austerity and privatization–requires at least the ideal of a private family that can bear the total burden of care from childbirth to education, housing, and health care. The ideal of the family still relies on the idea that there is a class of people–“women”–who are to bear this burden, which neither the state nor the employer will share. Women’s oppression on this basis still persists despite the always obsolete construct of the ideal family.

Queer identity troubles the familial norm, and the existence and lives of trans persons and those identifying as non-binary really, really fuck with the idea that there should be a gendered division of labor in caretaking. So capitalism produces binaristic ideologies to buttress a regime of care in which the state and the employer bears no responsibility.

Regulating the flow and cost of labor is the point of every immigration policy in modern history; it is the purpose of political and economic borders. Racializing immigrants justifies the exclusion of many migrants, and it rationalizes the hyper-exploitation of immigrants who work informally in the U.S. without citizenship. Capital flows across borders as our rulers allow. But the border is designed to keep global labor in check.

Capitalism by definition relies on the capacity of people to labor and to be productive in particular ways that discriminate against those whose bodies and minds may move differently from the assembly line.

Racism is most clearly tied to its history of service to capitalism. As Eric Foner and others (including Marx) have argued, race-based slavery was the foundation of the accumulation of wealth needed at the start of capitalist society. As with gender, racist ideologies arose to justify dehumanization of slaves while a new society proclaiming the principles of democracy, rights, and reason was coming into being. The ideologies and stereotypes supporting racism today are legacies of that time. Racism is also tied to the ideal of the family; since slavery (which caused separation of families and massive trauma to all of their members), politicians (both liberal and conservative) have defined the black family as “pathological” and black men as irresponsible criminals.

Today capitalism requires the perpetuation of racism for much the same reason as at its beginning: Racist ideas justify the profound inequalities of capitalism (even though all workers suffer those inequalities in different ways). And racism is the most significant barrier to a mass movement against capitalism and all of the oppressions it generates.

It seems like common sense to argue that all men benefit from the oppression of women, that all white people benefit from racism, that all native-born workers benefit from immigrant labor, and so on. And it would be obscene not to acknowledge that the advancement and relative safety of white people works because of the exclusion of others; likewise with the benefits of sex, gender, ability, and nationality. Privilege is real. But it is complicated by intersectionality.

Do all men benefit from the oppression of women? Do all white people benefit from racism? Do all able-bodied (as socially defined) people benefit from the exclusion and stigmatization of the (socially defined) disabled?

Do the privileged benefit from the oppression of others in both the short and long term? For example, in the short term, separate organizing on the basis of oppression by race is necessary to survival and fighting racism specifically. In the longer term, we will need a broad mass movement to win institutional and system-level change that can address multiple, interlocking oppressions and challenge capitalism where it lives: in workplaces.

Understanding how capitalism requires and produces intersecting oppressions has explanatory power; it also identifies a common enemy and suggests a common long-term strategy.

A transwoman seeking asylum at the US border is targeted by sexism; she is targeted by cis-hetero bigotry; she is targeted by labor policy and the vilification of immigrats; she is targeted by racism. A response to all of these at once amounts, basically, to a challenge to capitalism. And we need solidarity across all borders (both political and ideological) against all systemic violence targeting the poor, exploited, and oppressed.

Solidarity with Johana Medina and all of her sisters!

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