Monday, December 12, 2016

Good Words From A Local Activist On Racial Justice Organizing

Yesterday I posted about two events held in Salem---a great Standing Rock solidarity event and Salem's Human Rights Day. We were privileged to receive a thoughtful response from a local racial justice activist which gave me some pause. His response and my response to him are below. We want to strongly encourage local activists to use this blog for discussion, and we will do our best to have all left-of-center views represented here. Please, everyone, feel free to respond to what you read here!

A Local Activist's Response

It so happens I'm clearing out my inbox and came across an email exchange I had a few years ago with a woman from an Racial Justice Organizing Committee-like organization in Seattle. A bit from that exchange seems relevant to your blog post. She wrote, "As white people, we can lack a sense of immediacy and groundedness when it comes to racial justice changework, which can lead us to getting hung up on philosophizing or perfectionism."

A lot of folks seem fond of an alleged Gandhi quote: "Be the change you wish to see in the world." Well, Gandhi never said that. And Gandhi was about much more than personal transformation.

I think a lot of people take pride in being a non-racist but aren't sure how to be an anti-racist. Some may even think that by being a non-racist they are somehow effecting change.

What do we mean, though, by "organizing?" That seems like an abstract term. Do we mean rallies/marches? I generally question their efficacy. We feel solidarity with fellow rally-goers, and then what? We go home. Do we mean civil disobedience? To what end exactly? Do we mean helping to pass legislation? If so, what does that look like?

For me, one of the most interesting moments of the presidential campaign was when BLM activists confronted Clinton. A few of the things Clinton said in that meeting make quite a bit of sense to me. Here are some quotes:

"All I'm saying is, your analysis is totally fair, it's historically fair, it's psychologically fair, it's economically fair. But you're going to have to come together as a movement and say, ‘Here's what we want done about it,’."

"Because you can get lip service from as many white people as you can pack into Yankee Stadium and a million more like it," Clinton adds later. "Even for us sinners, find some common ground on agendas that can make a difference right here and now in people's lives."

“I don’t believe you change hearts. I believe you change laws, you change allocation of resources, you change the way systems operate. You’re not going to change every heart. You’re not. But at the end of the day, we can do a whole lot to change some hearts, and change some systems, and create more opportunities for people who deserve to have them.”

Anyway, that's where my mind went in response to your post.

Moving The Discussion Forward

Our friend hits a really good point when he says, "I think a lot of people take pride in being a non-racist but aren't sure how to be an anti-racist. Some may even think that by being a non-racist they are somehow effecting change." We have spent lots of time on dealing with the personal, and we have tried to connect it to the structural and the political, but that reach doesn't always get made, or at least not in equal measure for all of us. Many people in our movement are turned off when we talk about politics and capitalism, in fact.

Our friend's comments raise the question which frequently dogs me: why should white people be anti-racist? A part of our movement seems to think that the answer is obvious to most white people, but it isn't; it's better to be anti-racist than racist, or you are a better person for all of that work. People of color frequently question the sincerity of that formulation, and have a right to, but let's assume good intentions for a moment and think about how we work with this.

The world needs good and better people, but goodness does not fall from the sky. And if we have to wait for goodness to arrive, or if it arises through individual action, the world will perish before we reach a tipping point between the good and the bad. Now, if we assume that some level of goodness is innate in most people, then we have to talk about how to encourage that and bring it out---and the only convincing way to do that is through struggle with oneself and in society carried on at the same time. This is political and it is personal. "If you want to know the taste of a pear, you must change the pear by eating it yourself. If you want to know the theory and methods of revolution, you must take part in revolution. All genuine knowledge originates in direct experience," said Mao.

For me, the importance of anti-racism lies solely in its ability to build support for self-determination among people of color and, by extension, in its ability to therefore win democratic demands and win the kind of social change which will abolish capitalism and the state, or government, as we have known it. If I become a better person in the process, great. But I'll never be complete or whole or free until everyone is, and that is a constant struggle and an unending task. I'll die far from my goals, the personal and the political ones, and be quickly forgotten, but the struggle will continue. Others are entitled to their views on these matters, but that's mine.

The "ditto" point here is that much of the same logic applies in other fights as well: self-determination applies to women, LGBTQIA people and any oppressed people. What is meant here by self-determination? It is the ability to determine one's destiny through collective work. See the Ten Point Program of the Black Panther Party for a practical lesson on what this involves. 

Our friend is thinking a step ahead of me when he asks about organizing. For me, organizing is about building organizations necessary to build workers' and peoples' power, having the daily conversations and building the activism needed and learning how to think and make corrections in order to build organizations which can transition into taking power and holding on to it. Building anti-racist groups, coops, political parties, environmental organizations, solidarity groups, unions, neighborhood committees, serve-the-people organizations---that's organizing. Protests and civil disobedience and other tactics are mobilizing, the fruits of organizing. Like our friend, I often doubt their efficacy because they are so often removed from an organizing strategy. And if you're not organizing or joining in, you may be disempowering people.

Where our friend and I start to differ is on this matter of Hillary Clinton, and predictably so. I found her comments self-serving and condescending and took them as a challenge or insult. She seemed to be deliberately speaking past the BLM people, as if there are not movements organizing and as if the activists are about changing hearts and don't have a political program. Who is Hillary Clinton to define the terrain of struggle for people of color or give advice on organizing? In this post-election period it appears that she might have benefited from taking her own advice. On the other hand, there is much to be said for a hard strategy of winning changes in law and enforcement of certain laws and pushing the contradictions between the law and our lived reality to the max. Discounting the importance of what the law says and how it is enforced can be a matter of privilege, and often is.

There is a legitimate difference of opinion here, but my overriding concern is that we build principled unity across the center and the left in this period and give it the practical form of a united front based on organizing. The need for this principled unity should overcome many differences as we move forward in the fight against racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, transphobia, ageism, classism and take on Trump and the state.

Thanks to our friend for his thoughtful and thought-provoking words!

Another Intervention

Our friend has responded with the following:

It's taken me a while to get around to responding to your response. I'll address the Clinton issue first to get it out of the way. I can see how Clinton's comments could be taken as condescending. Maybe she was being condescending. Maybe she, like many I would imagine, is simply not aware of, say, the very detailed platform of The Movement for Black Lives. Regardless, I think there are those who do, in fact, think that an organization's primary focus should be on changing "hearts and minds" rather than changing laws, changing "the allocation of resources" and changing "the way systems operate." So, it's for that reason that I think Clinton's comments relate to your initial post about the 2 events in Salem on December 10. As Jackie Robinson wrote in a letter to Dwight Eisenhower, "17 million Negroes cannot do as you suggest and wait for the hearts of men to change."

I really appreciate your definition of organizing. That makes sense to me, and it jibes with the dictionary definition of "organize" that I found online: "make arrangements or preparations for an event or activity."

Why should white people be anti-racist? Honestly, the only time I consider that question is when some lecturer or article raises it. Because, for me, the answer is 'because it's right'. It really is that simple for me. And I guess I wish it was that simple for everyone. I see how one might interpret what I just wrote as a holier than thou attitude, but I don't really have any other explanation as to why I'm an anti-racist. I don't know any other way to be and have never found myself contemplating a different position. None of which is to say I've never fallen victim to implicit bias, or subconscious racism. Or that I've done all that I can do to combat racism. What has been done to persons of color is beyond horrifying and I've gotten involved in racial justice organizations because I know I should be doing more to combat racism. As Tim Wise says, being an anti-racist is not about guilt but about responsibility.

That said, are there other reasons why white people should be anti-racist? Absolutely, though those reasons can be tricky to convey. One of the most basic reasons is that when people are divided, they are conquered. I highly recommend a lecture by Professor John Bracey, who offers a historical perspective on "How Racism Harms White Americans." If one prefers to listen to the lecture, you can do so here:

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