Columns, Op-Eds, & Interviews

Intersectionality is essential for today’s diverse society

WLA Guest
Written by WLA Guest

by Emily C. Williams & Dion-Cherie Raymond

Social scientists recognize that different people view issues differently and these perspectives are determined by their lived experiences. A white male rural farmer will approach the issue of education differently than a Black, single urban mother. Respect for these differing perspectives is what makes our country the unprecedented pluralistic experiment that it is today.

Social scientists understand it is important to design and conduct research in a way that enables respondents to voice their perspectives, and by doing so, inform decision makers about myriad issues like homelessness, public safety and social support services. Depending on the research, ignoring a particular viewpoint can threaten the validity of a study.

For example, research about discrimination that ignores the unique perspectives and experiences of a large demographic subgroup such as Black or Asian American/Pacific Islander women, would be categorically flawed. Stated differently: diversity matters. Its absence could carry significant consequences in all areas of public policy.

That’s why California’s Senate Bill 1137, sponsored by state senator Lola Smallwood-Cuevas, of Senate District 28, represents an important step in the right direction. SB 1137, which is currently being considered in Sacramento, seeks to prevent discrimination through the lens of intersectionality.

Specifically, legislation aims to amend California’s Unruh Civil Rights Act, which provides that all persons are entitled to full and equal accommodations regardless of, among other things, sex, race, color, sexual orientation, religion, or ancestry. If passed, it would revise the Act’s definition to include any intersection or combination of two or more characteristics.

Intersectionality, which was first coined in 1989 by UCLA and NYU legal scholar Kimberlé Crenshaw, explains how different social identities coincide and converge to cause unfair treatment based on a given combination. Black women could encounter bias based on a combination of their race and/or gender, that was not shared by Black men or Asian women. This is why the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission recognized that biases and negative stereotypes motivated by two or more protected traits could constitute intersectional discrimination under Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Similar judgements have been made by civil and criminal courts.

In its Batson v. Kentucky case, involving the dismissal of four Black men from a jury pool, the U.S. Supreme Court found that the rights of defendant James K. Batson, a Black man, had been violated because prosecutors dismissed all four prospective Black jurors. By removing those jurors, prosecutors not only denied Mr. Batson a fair trial, but the discriminatory jury selection process also caused harm to the prospective jurors and the public’s confidence in the justice system.

A pending case before the 9th Circuit Court of Appeal, USA v. Mark Ridley-Thomas, seeks a dismissal on similar grounds.

Dr. Ridley-Thomas’ legal team maintains that during his 2023 trial’s jury selection, the government used two of its peremptory challenges to purposefully exclude the only two Black women from the jury. In doing so Ridley-Thomas’s legal team argues that Black women face discrimination on two major counts – both race and gender – and their lives are uniquely marked by this combination.

While other U.S. Courts of Appeal have accepted this intersectionality argument, the 9th Circuit has not. It’s time to fix this lack of recognition as there is an abundance of legal decisions, scholarly research, gender studies, and social policy that make the case for recognition of intersectionality in a compelling manner.

Building upon the Supreme Court’s original Batson decision, SB 1137 seeks to include any intersection or combination of characteristics that could lead to discriminatory practices or a diminution of rights afforded and protected under the law – be it housing, school admissions or being selected to serve on a jury.

Senate Bill 1137 is a necessary step forward. Its enactment is an important milestone seeking a more just society, specifically equity in the classroom, workplace, and courtroom.


Emily C. Williams is a lecturer at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs and the CEO of the UCLA-UCSF ACEs Aware Family Resilience Network (UCAAN). Dion-Cherie Raymond is a Los Angeles-based attorney and co-founder and former director of UCLA’s Discrimination Prevention Office. 

This essay first appeared in Capitol Weekly. Capitol Weekly covers California government and politics.

1 Comment

Leave a Comment