Intersectionality is a term first coined by critical race theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw to describe the linkages between race, class, and gender when applied to the bodies of woman of color. Crenshaw’s term has been widely adopted by ecofeminist theorists such as Carol J. Adams, pattrice jones, Greta Gaard, and Lori Gruen partly to emphasize the social justice component of a theory that critiques binaries where traditionally masculine-identified tropes are arraigned on one side and feminine-defined ones on the other (culture v. nature, human v. animal, mind v. matter, reason v. emotion, etc.), with value judgments about the worth of either falling into depressingly familiar patterns of the former being more “important” than the latter. It should be added that the cooptation or adoption of intersectionality is open to critique, from writers such as Aph and Syl Ko, and other black vegans.
Intersectionality offers a number of critical advantages to an analysis of Vegan America. First, it grapples with the political realities of a United States that struggles with endemic racism, systemic poverty, and economic and political isolation. Neither the creative destruction of the marketplace nor the levers of government and public policy are likely to get to the root of these profound, perhaps ontogenetic realities for the U.S. Intersectionality forces us to acknowledge that a vegan America might not be worthy of the name if it still involves backbreaking work in the fields for immigrant and poor communities, or where people do not have enough (nutritious) food to eat, or where there are few jobs, scarce opportunities, and social exclusion for those who are, or do not feel themselves to be, included within the shiny new “vegan” economy.
Secondly, intersectionality points us toward a model not simply of substituting vegan products for those made from animals and continuing on our consumptive way. How, we might ask, would a vegan America look if the long-deferred promise made to freed Americans after the Civil War of “40 acres and a mule” is recalibrated to acknowledge the bondage that both sets of beings have been subject to and therefore provides genuine and meaningful reparation for both? How might a vegan America reimagine its relationship with the buffalo and First Nations and descendants of both whose land was colonized and expropriated? And how might we foster a vegan America so that those who populate its territories are not merely no longer exploited, but that, collectively, we who brought about such destruction restore and replenish those biotic and human communities and make all of us richer, more diverse, and surrounded by more life than before?
Thirdly, intersectionality presents a profound challenge to the entire Vegan America Project. It asks us to remember that rapid social change, no matter how benign it might seem to those of us who benefit most immediately from it, in and of itself can disadvantage communities who are not socially, materially, or politically connected to agents of that change, and are not able to adapt to or benefit from those changes. Consider the industries, such as coal and oil, that will need to no longer exist if we are to make substantial cuts in fossil-fuel extraction. Those of us fortunate enough not to have to work in these professions may find it perverse that communities fight to keep these dirty, dangerous, and life-shortening jobs; we might say the same about communities that rely on prisons for jobs in their rural areas, or polluting industries or factory farms in their towns.
It’s true that those who are victims of the poisons, pollutants, and other negative effects may feel they have no power to determine their futures and no means to resist corporations siting their operations in their region. But a job and a profession offer more than a paycheck to individuals; they provide genuine pride and familial and regional continuity for many. Where sustainable human, financial, and natural capital is scarce, social and economic change is likely to be much scarier and more destabilizing—whether you’re in the coalfields of West Virginia or the brownfields of the South Bronx. The anxieties of economic displacement amid under-resourced communities who’ve not been invested in for generations are neither trivial nor dismissible. “We”—those of us with agency, education, opportunity, power—cannot simply dismiss these people as “collateral damage” in the creative destruction of a laissez-faire economy or as backward or ignorant losers who perversely refuse to join the March of Progress.
“We” have an added incentive to make social and environmental justice a central component of our thinking about the future of the country. Climate change will affect different regions differently. Vulnerable, isolated, and impoverished communities—whether in rural areas devastated by drought or superstorms or in cities prone to flooding—will likely lack the means to respond to any catastrophes that may befall them. We’ve already encountered this reality in New Orleans, following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, and in parts of New York City, following Superstorm Sandy in 2012. The social, financial, and political costs of ignoring the multiple vulnerabilities of disadvantaged communities are likely to be even greater in years to come.
From its beginnings, industrialization has disrupted rural, settled communities; torn up local, artisanal industries; atomized and deskilled labor; privatized public lands; and placed or disposed of toxins among poor or marginalized peoples. The Environmental Justice movement has long recognized this reality, and a vegan America that simply forgets or ignores the needs and demands of such communities will either fail or not be worthy of the name.
I’m not alone in seeing a commitment to reimagining a way forward for both challenged urban communities and isolated rural communities as a way to knit together a nation where, as Howard Zinn writes in A People’s History of the United States, the working class—perceived as a threat by the landowning class—was deliberately divided along racial lines, in order to ensure that white indentured workers and black slaves didn’t find common cause in the exploitation of their labor. You don’t have to be a Marxist to recognize that the challenges that face communities challenged by poor health outcomes, low wages, and without the social or technical skills to thrive in a technological economy, living in locations that have been deindustrialized and where investment has fled or is stagnant require a new approach.