Brown University

Polarization, Intersectionality, and Activism: The March for Racial Justice, RI by Rachel Risoleo @Brown University

On October 1, 2017, protestors in twenty cities across the country mobilized for the March for Racial Justice (“M4RJ”), a national effort that was spearheaded by activists in Washington, DC.  I attended the Rhode Island chapter of the March, which took place at India Point Park – spitting distance from Brown University. One of many nationwide, coalition-based demonstrations that have taken place over the past year, the March for Racial Justice represented a movement towards “social polarization” within the context of activism. At the March for Racial Justice Rhode Island, this “social polarization” was demonstrated by wide issue representation, a large presence of allies, and intersectional, coalition-based issue area advocacy.

Lilianna Mason defines “social polarization” as a polarization that is distinctly separate from issue-area polarization, and is driven by partisan identity and political identity alignment.[1] Over the past year, this social polarization has apparently increased throughout the country, particularly in the activist sphere. Erica Chenoweth’s MonkeyCage series “In Trump’s America, who’s protesting and why?,” for example, chronicles US political activism in each month following the inauguration of Donald Trump. For most of the months since the series began, the answer to Chenoweth’s proposed question, “who is protesting and why” has been overwhelmingly “citizens protesting in opposition to President Trump.” While this is by no means the only source of political demonstration, it is representative of a correlation between increased partisan alignment and increased political activism. From this data, the increased presence of “partisan identity,” that Mason supposes is likely associated with social polarization, indeed seems to be present in the current climate of US activism. As this trend has increased across the country, socially polarized groups now form broader coalitions that support a wider range of issues. Thus, the need for issue-specific protests has decreased and their presence has diminished; now, demonstrations often consist of a host of issue-areas that align with a particular socio-political group. This, again, highlights Mason’s definition of social polarization, which emphasizes an increase in both partisan identity and activism. [2]

The March for Racial Justice Rhode Island was very consistent with Mason’s definition of social polarization in the context of activism. According to the M4RJ website, the mission of the March was as follows:

“Our mission is to harness the national unrest and dissatisfaction with racial injustice into a national mobilization that supports organizations and local efforts fighting for civil and human right and equity.”

Thus, the March for Racial Justice itself acknowledged its own commitment to showcasing a broad range of equity and civil rights “efforts,” rather than just those in one particular issue-area. Indeed, the March did accomplish this goal of supporting a broad coalition of local, social justice campaigns by actively showcasing them in a public forum. However, perhaps this level of hyper-intersectionality was at the cost of achieving some more tangible goal.

In the activist community, “intersectionality” has become something of a buzzword. This is for good reason: actively addressing the interplay between different social issues is undoubtedly imperative to fully combatting cases of social and political injustice. The organizers of the March for Racial Justice very successfully highlighted the intersection of various issue-areas related to social and racial justice; from environmental justice, to education equality, to immigrant rights.

At the March, one speaker who stood out as a shining example of the March’s intersectional approach to racial justice was David Veliz, chair of the Environmental Justice and Equity Committee for the Sierra Club in Rhode Island. Veliz immediately explained precisely why “we can no longer separate environmental justice from social justice.” Devastation caused by climate change is –  and will continue – disproportionately impacting communities of color. He specifically referenced two examples – the campaign against the implementation of an LNG plant in a Providence community of color, and the devastation caused by Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico – and provided resources to the crowd to help further these campaigns.

Veliz’s speech at M4RJ Rhode Island exemplified the merits of social polarization. His combination of two typically “liberal” activism issue-areas – environmental justice and racial justice – could easily be both connected and supported by March attendees. Additionally, he provided resources to attendees, through which they could immediately contribute to active campaigns. However, this speech also represented what was perhaps the pitfall of the March for Racial Justice as an advocacy campaign: it lacked one concrete goal.

After Donald Trump won the presidential election a year ago and nationwide protests erupted, Erica Chenoweth wrote an article assessing the circumstances which protests are actually effective.  Among other things, her conclusion emphasized the necessity of a strategic, offensive strategy for an advocacy campaign rather than a reactionary, defensive one.[3] While the March for Racial Justice was not inherently reactionary, it nonetheless did not seem to have a particularly concrete goal – it was not in protest of any one thing, nor was it a reaction to any event. Rather, as stated in its mission, the March was aimed, at most, at bolstering “support” for existing “local efforts.”

The March did succeed in bringing attention to specific instance of racial and civil injustice, particularly within the Providence community. However, because the March’s resources were spread so thin across many different specific issue campaigns, I suspect it did not further many of these campaigns individually. Additionally, M4RJ RI differed from many other advocacy events I have attended in Providence in that most attendees were allies of these campaigns – for example, many college students and many wealthier, white residents – rather than members of the communities most affected. Allyship is an imperative part of any advocacy campaign, and is necessary to the success of them. While examining M4RJ RI through the lens of social polarization, however, locating the event in a wealthier, removed part of Providence – coupled with the focus on a plethora of issue areas – may demonstrate a more shallow (and consequently, less effective) engagement with the issues at hand.

The March for Racial Justice Rhode Island is an interesting case study for social polarization in the context of political activism. As a Brown student at this March – one who is relatively unaffected by the campaigns at hand – I was reminded that solely attending the March would not contribute nearly enough to helping the various advocacy campaigns. Social polarization at M4RJ created an environment in which specific issue campaigns could reach a broader, supportive audience, myself included. However, this model of activism is unfocused and lacks a goal-oriented strategy, and only engages with issues on a very shallow level. Thus, per Chenoweth, it is much less likely to be effective. With this limitation in mind, perhaps the March for Racial Justice is an example of the dangers of social polarization in political activism.


[1] Mason, Lilliana. “’I Disrespectfully Agree’: The Differential Effects of Partisan Sorting on Social and Issue Polarization.” American Journal of Political Science, 59(1), (January, 2015), 128-145.

[2] ibid.

[3] Chenoweth, Erica. “People are in the streets protesting Donald Trump. But when does protest actually work?” The Washington Post, November 21, 2019.

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