Prior to Tuesday evening, it’s difficult for me to recall the last time news from the American political arena brought me hope. Wednesday marked one year since Donald Trump was elected president in a devastating blow to not only Hillary Clinton — a woman who had dedicated her life to public service — but also, ultimately, to our nation’s most basic notions of human decency. Put simply, it has not been an easy year. For undocumented families made to live in fear of separation; for low-income women forced to brace themselves for new limits on their reproductive options; for LGBTQ people made uncertain of what Trump’s promised, new era of religious freedom would mean for their right to equal treatment — this first year of Trump’s term has felt like a lifetime.
But Tuesday was a day carved out of the rest of Trump’s presidency — it was special, not only a day of hope but also a much-needed reminder of the political power vested in this emotion. Former President Barack Obama ran and won on this particular sentiment — hope — in 2008 and 2012, and in Virginia, New Jersey, Washington and states and cities across the country, a diverse group of Democratic lawmakers brought it back to a fractured party, and more importantly, to a hurting nation.
And yet, hope was not the only thing Tuesday brought us — it also delivered a crucial reminder of what, exactly, “identity politics” is, and its increasing importance in the Trump era despite an influx of bipartisan hostility directed at it.
On top of governors-elect Ralph Northam of Virginia and Phil Murphy of New Jersey, Tuesday’s victors included Danica Roem, a former journalist who will become the first openly transgender member of the Virginia General Assembly come January; Andrea Jenkins, who will become Minneapolis’ first openly transgender woman of color elected to office; Vi Lyles, who will become Charlotte, N.C.’s first black female mayor; Joyce Craig, who will become the first female mayor of Manchester, N.H.; and more — so many more — inspiring and historic firsts. As news of their triumphs reverberates throughout social media, their identifiers on the basis of their marginalized identities will be spread along and celebrated, too, and it’s important to remember that we should not be silent about this.
Notably, earlier this year, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders chastised a young Latina candidate for having the audacity to speak about her experiences and their impact on her politics, saying of her, “It is not good enough for someone to say, ‘I’m a woman! Vote for me!’”
Sanders semed to imply that female, minority candidates try to gain advantage in America’s white, male-dominated political sphere by screaming their race or gender from the rooftops, that they offer nothing of substance beyond this, and that he, as a white male, gets to unilaterally say what makes a candidate “good enough.” Of course, this is not only offensive, but also plainly inaccurate — if Sanders is suggesting that being a marginalized identity makes winning elections easier, I’d love to hear him explain Congress’ 80 percent white, 80 percent male makeup to me.
But to the point, his words seemed to be part of a greater trend that, following the loss of the first female nominee of a major American political party, liberals ought to rally around non-identity related issues. Tuesday night — which saw the election of two trans women, a black woman and a first female mayor of her respective city — functioned as a reminder of why this would be a mistake.
Here are some unsettling realities that everyone should be aware of: Trans women are 4.3 times more likely than cisgender women to be murdered, 87 percent of trans people murdered from 2013 to 2015 were people of color and the homicide rate toward trans people in America has steadily been on the rise, according to the most recent available data from the Human Rights Campaign. Trans youth are more likely than any other group to wind up homeless, and of the 40 percent of trans adults who report having attempted to commit suicide, 92 percent of these attempts took place before they turned 25.
Myriad statistics reflect an overarching, national issue of racially biased policing and a mass incarceration crisis built on punishing people for the color of their skin. African American women are incarcerated at twice the rate of white women, and the majority of prisons subject pregnant women — who constitute roughly 4 percent of women who arrive in prisons — to inhumane conditions. Across the country and in the state of New Hampshire, which, as previously mentioned, just elected the first female mayor of Manchester, the debate about public funding for abortion — whether or not low-income women should have the same rights as their economically privileged counterparts — is picking up steam.
None of the aforementioned issues would be neatly solved with a $15 minimum wage, tuition-free college or universal health care. Many marginalized groups would disproportionately benefit from such policies, but the idea that their suffering would be eradicated with the implementation of these policies is laughably out of touch.
The concept of “identity politics” has always emerged from the notion that issues that disproportionately affect women, people of color, the LGBTQ community and other historically marginalized groups are softer, less relevant. That “identity politics” entails issues that should be ignored because they are “divisive,” that implementing a few progressive economic policies would somehow make all of the problems related to identity evaporate into thin air.
The simple truth is that our identities affect the things we care about, the things we understand, the things we experience. Representation matters because it critically affects politics — and politics critically affects our everyday lives.
Tuesday’s Democratic victors will enact policies that benefit the people they represent. That’s important, but there’s no need to downplay the symbolic magnitude of their victories after a year of watching Trump empower bigots to score point after point.
In January, the month of Trump’s inauguration, The Atlantic’s Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote about Obama’s symbolic importance to the black community in a country built on the backs of slaves. His words remind us that when Roem — who was repeatedly addressed with male pronouns by her Republican rival — and Jenkins won their respective elections, they didn’t just win for themselves. They won for all of the trans and non-binary children who now live in a country where they know that they can grow up, run for office and win.
The promise of America has always been that anyone, regardless of any facet of their identity, can achieve anything that they are willing to work for. I would be lying if I said Nov. 8, 2016 didn’t feel like the death of a collective national dream — it certainly felt like the death of mine. And yet, here we are, one year later: hopeful.
Kylie Cheung is a sophomore majoring in journalism and political science. She is also the editorial director of the Daily Trojan. Her column,“You Do Uterus,” runs Thursdays.