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Excerpted From: Catherine Powell and Camille Gear Rich, The “Welfare Queen” Goes to the Polls: Race-based Fractures in Gender Politics and Opportunities for Intersectional Coalitions, 108 Georgetown Law Journal 105 (June 2020) (268 Footnotes) (Full Document)


PowellandRichAs Americans celebrate the 100-year anniversary of the Nineteenth Amendment's ratification, our celebration would be premature if we failed to reflect on the ways that race has been used to fracture women's efforts at coalition politics and our understanding of women's rights. Indeed, a careful reading of U.S. history and contemporary politics shows that although similar rights claims are made across a diverse community of American women, women's shared interests are often obscured by the divisive manipulation of race. Notably, 2020 is also the 150-year anniversary of the Fifteenth Amendment, which granted the right to vote to Black men. In this Article, we use the coinciding anniversaries of the two amendments as a critical opportunity to direct feminist attention to intersectional questions-- to frame this historical moment as a pivot point that explores the mutually constitutive nature of gender and racial subordination in American politics.

In service of these goals, we use this Article to explore a toxic racial construct often used to distract American women from our shared rights claims--the political trickster known as the “welfare queen.” This construct was born as a result of fiscal conservatives' attacks on government anti-poverty subsidy programs in the 1980s. It relied on antipathy toward Black women--characterized as “welfare cheats” or frauds--and pathologized women of color to call for aggressive cuts to social-safety-net programs. This Article explores the remobilization of this construct in present-day electoral politics and the ways in which it compromises cross-racial coalitions and obscures the path to reform. We take as our object the 2016 presidential election and its aftermath, for in 2016, then-presidential candidate Donald Trump and his surrogates reanimated the welfare queen construct and alleged that she was stealing American democracy through voter fraud. The visceral power of this construct allowed this group of Republicans to transform Americans' understanding of voting rights and American democracy. In so doing, their representations simultaneously sidetracked feminist efforts to build strong cross-racial coalitions. This Article explores the various paths out of our current discourse, dispelling the distracting haze generated by the welfare queen construction. In the process, we also hope to advance our conceptual understanding of intersectional identities and their relationship to political change.

To harness this potential, in Part I we explore the welfare queen construct and the way it has been most recently deployed in contemporary American politics. This recent deployment has transformed the welfare queen into what we call here the “voter fraud” trickster--still Brown, female, and poor, but now out to steal American democracy. The welfare queen or (here) “voter--fraudster” serves four critical purposes in the election context. First, the construct cements the view that American democracy is fragile and that the right to vote is a scarce commodity that must be secured from those that would steal this right and upset the proper democratic order. Second, the construct distracts Americans from the very real, large-scale voter fraud occurring at an institutional level (for example, wrongful voter purges from electoral rolls) and focuses them instead on the minor, relatively rare phenomenon of purposeful individual voter wrongdoing. Third, the construct pathologizes the voting-rights claims of immigrants, parolees, and others who have sought to raise questions about restrictions on the right to exercise the franchise. And fourth, voter-fraud-trickster language naturalizes the idea that America should expect to have a large pool of nonvoting, lesser- or near-citizens who occupy a space of liminal legality in American democracy. The consequences of each proposition for our understanding of democracy and coalition politics is explored in detail.

After highlighting the costs of the welfare queen and voter--fraudster constructs for coalition politics following the 2016 presidential election, in Part II we look at historical examples of how an analogous notion of the political trickster was used to alter our idea of democracy and fracture coalitions between white and Black women in earlier periods. Specifically, given the focus of this special-edition issue, we examine the period leading up to the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, when Black women (and men) were similarly scapegoated in American politics and charged with voting-related crimes. We explore the potential of organizing true cross-racial coalitions during this preratification period as well as how the political trickster construct ultimately weakened these coalitions. This historical treatment builds off important earlier work that recovers the role of Black women in the preratification period, but adds a new dimension by focusing on how the image of the political trickster fractured important feminist alliances and thereby reveals a deeper understanding of gender and the right to vote. We demonstrate how these earlier voter--trickster narratives (and related narratives of illegitimacy) were used to render marginal populations (Blacks and women) as suspect and unworthy of the franchise. Combined with claims of Black mendacity, waste, and incompetence, the trickster construct branded Black voters in particular as unfit to exercise the franchise. These charges of illegitimacy, in turn, alienated Blacks and women from one another and locked them into states of legal liminality, with no voice in American politics. Although the roots of today's welfare queen construct can be most directly traced to the late twentieth century, the voter--trickster trope of the Nineteenth Amendment's preratification period offers an important historical antecedent. Here, we suggest that once women understand how the political trickster construct has been used as a distraction historically, they will be empowered in multiple ways. For one, this historical understanding could help feminists reground intersectional coalitions in a thicker rights framework--as Nineteenth Amendment suffragists Frances E.W. Harper and Frederick Douglass did in the nineteenth century. This thicker human rights frame-work emphasizes (i) intersectional rights and identities (as Black suffragists did nearly a century before the term “intersectionality” was even coined); (ii) the unalienable nature of fundamental rights, such as the right to vote (regardless of the state's formal recognition of such rights); and (iii) a more robust notion of rights that recognizes how rights, like voting, are made particularly meaningful by being embedded in a particular social and collective context.

In Part III, we return to the present to examine the ways we might think about coalitions between white women and women of color moving forward. We turn our attention to critical-race and feminist-theory tools for conceptualizing cross-racial coalitions or critiquing their operation--to further refine the new intersectional feminist frame articulated in this Article. This new perspective capitalizes on the special vantage point created when we look at so-called reviled figures as an opportunity to surface key value questions that popular culture has encouraged us to disregard by stigmatizing them. As Rich has previously argued, caricatured figures like the welfare queen--boogeymen that are meant to be reviled--are mobilized by political players precisely because they know that by associating certain rights questions and values with reviled figures, they can convince most Americans that these rights claims are entirely beyond the pale. By taking the values associated with these reviled figures seriously, we gain access to new ways of understanding government's rights obligations. Indeed, we gain fresh insight on possible political perspectives. For example, just as the welfare queen's demands for social safety nets and reproductive freedom for poor women are cast as a threat to American society, the so-called voter--fraudster's demand for easy, open, and simple ways to exercise the franchise is transformed into a threat to democratic order rather than seen as a path to full and equal democratic participation. Indeed, both the welfare queen and the voter--trickster figure provide opportunities to rethink the rules of democratic engagement and the opportunities we afford marginalized figures to articulate a legislative agenda and constitutional-rights claims. On the whole, we seek to deepen possibilities for cross-racial coalition politics and law reform, highlighting the role the Internet could play in these coalitions. We conclude with an argument about regrounding our understanding of intersectionality in a human rights frame.

Our aim in this Article is not purely to provide a descriptive recap of the damage the trickster construct worked on American politics; rather, the Article also serves a diagnostic purpose; it can assist in analyzing future divisive political campaigns. Understanding the ways this construct impacted the 2016 presidential campaign helps us understand how President Trump's dog whistles to both race and gender in claiming “voter fraud” as a widespread problem, giving a green light to the proliferation of voter suppression measures. We cannot know where the construct will emerge next. Thus, the goal of this Article is to expose the construct, evaluate its costs, and imagine ways to move beyond it, should it resurface again.

Our general point is quite simple: Because of their position at the margins of American politics, women of color have the opportunity to develop a range of intersectional perspectives that illuminate certain mainstream political claims differently. In order to harness this potential source of insight, stereotypes created to limit the political potential of women of color should be challenged and interrogated. To this end, this Article moves beyond a simple critique of the shortcomings of current strategies for cross-racial alliance-building and instead articulates a new vision of how progressive politics might flourish by mining voices from the margins. Although this Article makes a unique analytical contribution to our understanding of gender equality and voting rights, it also offers practical and political insights about what it would mean to truly center the political interests of women of color, a critical project given their role as the most reliable voters for progressive, pro-feminist candidates.

In the Conclusion, we provide final thoughts. Despite the challenges of coalition building, we must forge powerful alliances and “refashion both feminism and law to speak to the position of all peoples at the bottom, on the margins, and in the intersections, and not seek only the assimilation of privileged people at the top.” As historian Martha Jones reminds us, by “pivoting the center”--and centering our gaze on women of color--we can bring multiple voices into view and empower linkages between people of color and whites, women, and men.

[. . .]

The year 2020 is an opportunity to celebrate the 100-year anniversary of the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment and the 150-year anniversary of the ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment. However, Americans must also bear in mind that there still are many forces that threaten the ability of Black and Brown persons to vote and all women's right to vote. Moreover, the institutional practices that threaten the ability of these vulnerable groups to vote will ultimately threaten all Americans' voting rights and interests. Our ability to name and upend the social and institutional forces that erode Americans' voting rights depends on two critical moves. First, we must resist the allure of the welfare queen and voter--trickster stereotypes, because it alienates us from key allies and encourages us to minimize the rights and pain of Brown and female voters. Second, we must be willing to look to the values perspectives of women caricatured as welfare queens, because these women give America the opportunity to radically question and reconstruct our notion of what we owe government and what government owes us. If we take these two steps, we can recraft the American dream in a manner that is inclusive and empowering for all Americans.

Technology can play a key role in this process. Recent campaigns, such as the #MeToo movement and the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) campaign, have shown us that Internet- and coalition-based strategies will allow us to cut across physical and spatial geographic borders, as well as conceptual borders of difference such as race and gender. Women of color are at the center of today's campaigns for ratification of the ERA and challenging voting restrictions on former felons the importance of a more robust human rights perspective grounded in intersectional politics.

The path to coalition politics is brighter than ever. With the right coalitions we can build a world in which women currently demonized as welfare queens find it safe to go to the polls. Equally importantly, these women will see their interests more fairly represented on the ballots they cast in service of democracy.

Professor of Law, Fordham University School of Law. 

Professor of Law and Sociology, University of Southern California Gould School of Law, Associate Provost of Student and Faculty Initiatives in the Social Sciences and Director PRYSM, the USC Initiative for the Study of Race, Gender, Sexuality and the Law.

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