Kimberlé Crenshaw speaks on rhetoric of backlash politics

Samantha Ye

One of the most influential leading experts on civil rights, race, gender and law delivered the kickoff keynote address for the 19th annual Diversity Symposium at Colorado State University, setting the stage for a week of discussion on diversity. 

Kimberlé Crenshaw spoke to the realities of the United States and the “violent, oppressive realignment happening in this country today” — one which threatens the peace, security and democratic institutions of the nation, Crenshaw said. Resisting that wave is the driving force behind her current activism and rallying. 


“Trying to politely avoid the landmines that litter our terrain these days with an antiseptic discussion of diversity and inclusion is just a little bit too hard for me to pull off at this moment,” Crenshaw said. 

Rather, Crenshaw dove into the crisis itself and the rhetoric of identity used to frame oppression and violence as an act of justified political defense. She also spoke on how it can be understood through a framework of baselines, which establish different expectations of society. 

We need new ideas to help us see new problems. Because if you can’t name a problem, you can’t solve it.” -Kimberlé Crenshaw, leading authority on civil rights and law

Although the U.S. has never fully eradicated the contemporary consequences of its history of racial harms, the rhetorical registers of today bellow as if “the world has been turned on its head,” Crenshaw said, noting the manifestos of white supremacist mass shooters and the racist tweets from President Donald Trump

“The narratives we see suggest that even the softest, least confrontational, mostly symbolic efforts to address our continuing dimensions of our past have instead amounted to an assault on the dominant race and gender group in the country — those who are straight, cisgender, white and male, who purportedly represent what they call ‘the new pariah class,’” Crenshaw said. 

This narrative asserts that the identity markers that once made straight, cis, white men powerful now allegedly make them victims of modern politics. Crenshaw clarified that not all straight, cis, white men believe this narrative, nor are they the only group that promotes it.

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Kimberlé Crenshaw presents to a very attentive crowd. The University of California Los Angeles Law professor received a standing ovation as she took the podium. (Luke Bourland | The Collegian)

But these “backlash politics” stem from people measuring society against different “baselines,” Crenshaw said.

If a person’s baseline is an idea of what equality should look like, then it makes sense to take corrective actions to fix the existing inequalities, Crenshaw said. 

“If your baseline is the status quo, if that is fair and just, you’re going to think that diversity, affirmative action, actions that are meant to address that inequality, are preferential and problematic,” Crenshaw said.

Baselines can even affect people within social justice movements.

Crenshaw focused on how the issue of police brutality against Black women is forgotten or ignored because it doesn’t meet the baseline narrative that police violence is committed against Black men. 


The #SayHerName movement pushes advocates and allies to break that baseline and integrate Black women’s stories into the discussion. 

The debates around and within intersectional justice now and during the Civil Rights era have also revolved around baselines, Crenshaw said. Most recently, the rhetoric to remove diversity from campus conversations catches many diversity advocates off guard — but the concept of baselines can help them understand it. 

(The) sharpest and most potentially consequential conflicts will take place in institutions like these.” -Kimberlé Crenshaw, leading authority on civil rights and law

“We need new ideas to help us see new problems,” Crenshaw said. “Because if you can’t name a problem, you can’t solve it.”

Crenshaw is no stranger to putting a name to the models necessary to comprehend injustice. She coined several of these field-changing terms, including “intersectionality” in 1989.

Intersectionality, as Crenshaw explained, is the idea that structures of discrimination hit people in different ways based on multiple aspects of their perceived identity. 

You can imagine it like an intersection, as Crenshaw did 30 years ago. The roads and cars are structures like sexism, racism and homophobia. A person whose identities stand at the intersection of those roads would get hit by both structures.  

She came up with the framework after the district judge in one of her cases, DeGraffenreid v. General Motors, essentially found that a Black woman could not prove GM was discriminating against her on the basis of her race or her gender. As the company was hiring Black men and white women, the district judge discounted the fact that the plaintiff was being discriminated against specifically as a Black woman. 

“The value of her work cannot be undermined,” senior communications major, Claudia Perez said of Crenshaw. “Her theories and language have not only validated the experiences of people of color in America, but have also called us all to be agents of change in the path for equality.”

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Kimberlé Crenshaw addresses Fort Collins community members during her keynote presentation. (Alyssa Uhl | The Collegian)

The place where those ideas will be created is at institutions of higher education, which, far from being “bubbles” of society, are centers of historical drama then and now, Crenshaw said.

Fourth-year Keiko Friar, interdisciplinary liberal arts major, said Crenshaw’s speech was deeply relevant because the issues going on politically and nationally outside of campus still affect people on campus.

“Academia is the site of knowledge production, so we have an obligation to integrate current events and multiracial perspectives into the classroom,” Friar said. “It can’t be ‘apolitical.’”

Today, the “sharpest and most potentially consequential conflicts will take place in institutions like these,” Crenshaw said. “So, if we understand universities as places where political discourse that shapes our future takes place, then we need to be aware of the fact that the wars that are happening out there are actually being amplified here.

“We’ve probably only seen the beginning of it right now.” 

Samantha Ye can be reached at or on Twitter @samxye4.