Forging a Movement on Shifting Ground: Reflections on Anti-Racism as a Catalyst for Global Justice Organizing

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By Chris Crass

"It's like coming home", I thought as over 600 peopleconverged at this year's National Organizers Alliance (NOA)Gathering in Sonoma, California. NOA's mission is "Toadvance progressive organizing for social, economic andenvironmental justice, and to support, challenge and nurturethe people of all ages who do that work." From all over theUnited States, people organizing in communities, workplaces,campuses and diverse constituencies came together to shareexperiences, laugh and celebrate and struggle over difficultquestions. NOA, which was started in 1992, is multiracial,over half women, multigenerational, family positive (thechild-care rocked), and working to be pro-queer.

The theme of this year's biannual gathering was, "Dancing onthe Fault Lines: Forging a Movement on Shifting Ground." Oneof the gathering's goals was to explore the relationships,connections and tensions between local and globalorganizing, for example, questioning how struggles forcommunity control opposing gentrification can be understoodthrough a global analysis.

There was also a focus on how momentum from theanti-globalization protests can strengthen and developcommunity organizing projects. In addition to discussionsessions, there were also many examples of work that isactively bringing local/global analysis to the forefront.The National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rightsdebuted their latest documentary "Refugees of the GlobalEconomy", which explores how global economic inequality isdirectly linked to international migration and how immigrantrights struggles are central to working for global justice.

The main question throughout the gathering was, "What arebarriers to forging a movement on shifting ground?"Responses included: "The need to actively engage with race,class and gender politics" and "The need for open dialogueabout different styles of organizing and discussion ofentirely new ways to organize." For myself the question was"what roles can I, as a white, male, mostly heterosexual, 27year old organizer play in building the kind of movement Iwant to be a part of?" There was an overall agreement aboutthe need for anti-racist, multiracial, anti-capitalist,feminist, queer liberationist politics to be at the core ofthis justice movement which moves from the local to theglobal while challenging that false dichotomy and developingfresh accompanying analysis. One of the barriers that Iheard about repeatedly at NOA is racism and white privilege.There were also discussions on the responsibility of whiteradicals to engage in anti-racist work with other whitefolks.

On the first day of the NOA gathering, there was an'Anti-Racism for Global Justice' workshop and an anti-racistwhite organizing discussion group. There were also caucusesof Immigrant Community Organizers, Organizers of AfricanDescent, Latino/a Organizers, Asian Pacific Organizers inaddition to the Jewish, queer, and youth caucuses. Theanti-racist work by white people was guided by the beliefthat, historically, white supremacy has been a major barrierto radical movement building. The 'Anti-Racism for GlobalJustice' workshop by the Challenging White SupremacyCollective looked at white privilege and racism as itrelates specifically to the anti-global capitalismorganizing of the past two years. White organizers in NOA,including Dara Silverman of United For a Fair Economy,Cheryl Brown of Tennessee Industrial Renewal Network, KellyWeigel of the Rural Organizing Project, and others tookpro-active steps to lead with anti-racism. A group of whiteorganizers from various backgrounds and organizations puttogether an 'anti-racist white discussion group' to look athow race acts as a barrier to organizing and how whiteradicals can act as allies to people of color in thestruggle to end white supremacy. Anti-racist organizer andmentor to many, Sharon Martinas of the Challenging WhiteSupremacy collective, commented that the anti-racist whitediscussion group, which she collaborated on, was "like adream come true".

It was a dream come true because of the many ways in whichracism has consistently undermined social movementsthroughout the history of the United States. The anti-racistwork at NOA is aimed at turning racism as a barrier intoanti-racism as a catalyst for movement building. This is byno means arguing that anti-racism is the only consideration,barrier, or struggle to face while working for socialtransformation. Rather, I'm suggesting that the more whitepeople focus on doing anti-racist work, the more space opensup for new possibilities to overcome the other barriers.Similarly, I'm arguing that when men take on anti-sexiststruggle, the movement benefits. Additionally, whenheterosexuals work to become allies in queer liberation andmiddle class folks work as allies to working class and poorpeople, the movement benefits. How does the movementbenefit?* Well, for one, the leadership of women, people ofcolor, working class and poor folks, and queer folks is coreto working for collective liberation, and you all have beenat the forefront for many years.**

If the ideas and visions leading movements come only fromwhite, middle class, males like myself, then organizing forsocial change will be limited and narrow. Writer andorganizer Chris Dixon adds insight into this dynamic,writing, "And in the same vein, the outcome will be limitedand narrow. That is, with ideas and visions chiefly fromrelatively privileged people, social change may barely touchthe lives of the least privileged, at least not in anymeaningful way."

Does this mean that folks like me have no place in socialmovements? No, but it means that folks who are white or maleor hetero or middle/upper class or all of the above, need tobe critically working to recognize the ways that oppressionand privilege operates in their/my life and affects their/mypolitics.

For instance, in the 1930s, radical worker organizing wonthe National Labor Relations Act, which formally recognizedthe rights of workers to form unions. However, a compromisewas made and agricultural and domestic workers, who areoverwhelmingly people of color, were excluded from therights granted by the act. Was this Act of 1935 a victory? Iwould argue that it was. Was it also a significant setbackin winning rights for working people and a furthering ofracism in the United States? Yes. Were there workers ofcolor and anti-racist white workers fighting to get unionrecognition for all people? Yes, and they argued that thispartial victory would be a way for bosses to continue to pitpeople against each other and that ultimately it weakenedthe labor movement in the long run. By no means is this anargument against reforms, but rather a critical look at howreforms impact social movements. Tim Wise, an amazinganti-racist writer and organizer, has said that reforms canact as anesthesia or adrenaline depending on who controlsthe debate. In the 1930's, hundreds of thousands of workerswere organizing with the CIO and militancy was high. Byformalizing union recognition through the state and leavingout huge segments of the workforce, the bosses were able tocontrol the debate and divide workers. However, officialunion recognition could have been used as a spring board tocontinue organizing workers regardless of what the laws saidand thus build working class power.

This brings me back to my central question: What my role, asa white/male/middle class organizer. (I want to emphasizethat this is where I'm at in thinking about my personalrole. I have way more questions than answers, which is how Ithink it should be.) My role, as I currently see it, is toact in solidarity with women, queer folks, working class andpoor people, people of color to struggle for collectiveliberation of all of our lives. Does that mean that I thinkI need to go organize in communities of color? No, but Ihave much to learn from organizing coming from communitiesof color. Does this mean we all work together? I think thatalliances and relationships that bridge differences arecritical, necessary, and potentially revolutionary, but Ialso think that I need to organize and work with people frommy communities (mostly white, mostly middle class). Why?

The more work being done in middle class white communitiesto challenge white supremacy, patriarchy, heterosexism andcapitalism, the more power and space exists for thosecommunities most negatively impacted by these systems ofpower. Am I saying that white middle class people will thencreate power for communities of color? No. I'm saying thatcommunities of color have historically generated bothresistance and power, but that self-determination has beenpushed down and crushed by the state, with the majority ofwhite people either looking the other way, being supportiveof the state from the sidelines, actively participating inrepression or being completely unaware of what's happening(all of which keep the wheels of white supremacy turning).Working with white people to connect their/my own liberationto anti-racist struggle is key. I want to be accountable toboth people of color and to white people.

Do I think that I have answers to these questions of how tomake social change and build movements for global justice?No, but being at the National Organizers Alliance gathering,I was reminded of how powerful and satisfying it is to askthese questions, not with the expectation of finding theanswers, but to learn through dialogue and exchange ofexperiences and to experiment with applying knowledge gainedthrough theory, practice and reflection. It is throughengaging in theory, practice and reflection that anti-racistanalysis is developed.

Thoughts on how white privilege impacts organizing forsocial change

In thinking about my role and place in organizing for socialchange, there are many useful concepts and ideas that havehelped guide me. Looking at how universalizing whiteexperience can influence activism and lead to thederacialization of issues have been instrumental todeveloping anti-racist politics and practice.

Universalizing White Experience

I grew up believing that white people where responsible forall of the good things in life. On television, in thenewspapers, in the textbooks at school, everywhere I lookedI saw white people occupying positions of respectability andpower. There were some exceptions to this: my third gradeteacher was African American and the Cosby show broughtBlack people into my house every Thursday night for manyyears. There were also many people around me while I wasgrowing up who were not white. I had lots of friends inelementary school who were Latino/a. However, when I studiedpeople who had contributed to society, most likely they werewhite - from inventors to presidents, from authors and poetsto policemen and scientists.

I grew up with a mindset of this being a white society, withsome folks of color here and there who were just whitepeople with different colored skin.

What do I mean by that? I mean that I did not learn aboutother people's cultures, languages, histories. Mostsignificantly, in a white supremacist society, I did notlearn about the histories of racial oppression andresistance and how that impacts the reality that we live in.It was as if everyone who lived in the US traced theirhistories back to the Mayflower.

So I went through life thinking that my experience as awhite person was the universal experience of all people.This is an important aspect of internalized superiority: ifall people experience reality as white folks do, then ifthere are disproportionate numbers of people of color livingin poverty, then it can only mean that those folks havethemselves to blame. Growing up with this mindset, it becamelogical to have ideas like, "Mexicans are just lazy", "Blackfolks are just criminals". The underlying logic of racistsocial policy was socialized into me without anyone everspeaking a word directly about it.

As I became politically active in high school, myunderstanding of racism can best be summarized by a T-shirtthat I used to wear, "Love sees no color". I didn't seepeople as Black, Latino/a, Asian American, they were alljust people, or so I said to myself, trying hard to pretendthat I actually didn't notice what color people were. Now, acolorblind worldview, combined with universalizing whiteexperience, meant that I acted like everyone was just white.I never once thought of it like that, but it is result, notintent that help us understand how power operates. Beingwhite and operating from a colorblind perspective reinforcesracism.

How did this manifest? First, I thought of racism only interms of individual behavior. For example, there was ashort-lived gang at my school called PAGAN (people againstgays and nig..., quickly changed to nips, when confronted bysome Black folks at the school). This was the racism that Isaw on campus. I didn't notice that every assigned book thatI read in four years of English classes was written by whitepeople. I didn't think about the fact that Latino/as whospoke English as a second language, about one third of theschool, were in under-funded programs and ignored on campus(in the newspaper which I worked on and in the annual andschool activities).

The first real challenges to my understanding of racism camefrom friends of mine who were folks of color. My friendDaniel was Latino, but I didn't think of him like that,which was the problem. He busted out one day and talkedabout how he had spent his entire life trying to fit in. Hetalked about elementary school and how his white friendswould say, "we don't think of you as Mexican" or "you're notlike those Mexicans, you're one of us". He told me about howhard he tried to be "one of us" and how much shame and guilthe felt for being Mexican. Another friend of mine, Lucy, whois Iranian, told me about the experience her family had whenthey first moved to the United States. It was during theIran Hostage Crisis and they were living in a mostly whitesuburb. A brick was thrown through their window along with ascream of "go home". The only Black family in theneighborhood opened their home up to provide safety for herfamily. The act may have been individual, but the popularimage of Arab/Middle Easterner as terrorist and criminal issocial.

The major challenge to my universalizing of whiteexperience, to my unconscious thought that everyoneexperienced reality as I did, came from my friend Jonathan.I met him at a party at his house. Our first conversationrevolved around a poster on his wall, which I had beenstaring at for a long time. The poster was of twelveimportant leaders in the Black community. I could recognizetwo of them, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X (I knewvery little about either of them). Jonathan came over and Iasked him who these people were. He threw out names -Harriet Tubman, Marcus Garvey, Martin Delany, FrederickDouglas, W.E.B. DuBois, Mary McLeod Bethune, SojournerTruth. I had no idea what he was talking about, but I wasfascinated and wanted to memorize their names. Jonathan, myfirst friend who's Black, and I quickly became close.

A few months later the Rodney King verdict was announced andshortly thereafter Los Angeles was on fire. I had justfinished reading W.E.B. Du Bois's 'The Souls of Black Folk"that morning (the first book by a person of color that I hadever knowingly read). I was full of rage and sadness when Iheard the verdict. I wanted to join the protest at theParker Center Police Station in LA. I couldn't fullyarticulate why I was enraged, my mind was spinning with somany thoughts and images. That night a group of friendsgathered together at my house and we talked. Jonathanstarted schooling us white kids. He said that he needed usto understand what it was like for him. He told us about thetime that he was on his way to school, which was mostlywhite. He was walking onto campus, when he was stopped bythe police. He was searched and they made him prove that hewent to the school. I was beginning to make the connections,from the police thinking him suspect to my lack of knowledgeabout African American history to the rage in LA after theverdict. I knew almost nothing about Black history, yet mymind was inundated by images of Black criminals from themedia. My mind was split between "but, Jonathan, you're notlike other Black people, you're one of us" and seriousconfusion. I went with serious confusion and decided that itwasn't about memorizing names of Black leaders on thatposter, but rather, it was about understanding the movementsand the histories in which they played important roles.

Jonathan gave me Langston Hughes's book, "Simple's UncleSam," shortly after the explosion of rage in LA. In theinscription he wrote a quote from Martin Luther King, Jr.:"If you can't fly, run. If you can't run, walk. If you can'twalk, crawl. But by all means, keep moving." I had to learnthese histories myself. It was not Jonathan's role toeducate me about all that it means to be Black; it was myresponsibility to seek knowledge. I want to be clear aboutwhat this means. It is not the responsibility of people ofcolor to educate white people. If and when folks of colorschool white people it should be on terms set by people ofcolor (and all the while, white people must always rememberthat people of color did not set the terms of whitesupremacy). Ultimately white folks need to take up the workas their/my own, as if their/my liberation depended on it -cuz it does.

Deracialization

Universalizing white experience plays a significant role inhow white activism operates. It impacts how strategies aredeveloped, goals are set, tactics decided upon, and the wayissues are talked about.

The first time that I heard this concept was during aworkshop lead by organizers of Critical Resistance East.Critical Resistance was a conference held in the Bay Area in1998. Over 3000 people came together to critically examine,discuss and take action against the prison industrialcomplex (PIC). The PIC includes the prisons, the criminaljustice system, the police, the legal system and how lawsare created. The PIC also involves racial profiling and theenormous impact incarceration has on low-income communities,particularly communities of color. Out of the conference in'98 working groups were formed to organize against theprison industrial complex. From there a similar conferencewas organized on the East Coast. There is currentlyorganizing underway for a Critical Resistance Southconference.

At this workshop about the upcoming Critical Resistance Eastconference, the term deracialization was used inrelationship to anti-prison organizing. The concept iscertainly not limited to fighting the PIC; it's just thatsome of the most path-breaking anti-racist work amongstwhite folks is being done by white, mostly queer,anti-prison activists. With that said, deracializationimpacts every issue that I can think of.

The prison system in the United States is enormous. The USlocks up more people than any other country on the planet.While there has been important work around these issues fordecades, prison activism has grown dramatically since thefirst Critical Resistance (CR) conference. Which brings usback to this term, deracialization: to de-racialize anissue, to look at a situation without an analysis of raceand racism. The workshop that I was at was about theupcoming CR East conference and it was being presented to amostly white audience. The organizers of the CR Eastconference talked about the recent influx of white activistsinto anti-prison work. They said that while it was good thatmore white people were organizing around prison issues, itwas also cause for concern. The concern being that if whitepeople start working on prison issues, the issues could bede-racialized. For example, white activists might organizearound the ways that corporate power is benefiting fromprisons and how prison labor is being exploited bycorporations. Certainly these are important aspects of thePIC, but corporate power is only part of the story. It iscritical to analyze prisons in historical context; themodern prison system grew significantly after the Civil War.While the Emancipation Proclamation sanctioned the ending ofslavery in Southern states loyal to the confederacy, it wasactually African slaves themselves who ended the chattelslavery system. The largest general strike in United Stateshistory took place as hundreds of thousands of former slavesabandoned the plantations. Furthermore, African soldiers inthe Union army marched through the states excluded from theEmancipation Proclamation and brought liberation with them.This was the beginning of Reconstruction, a period of timein which Black folks were not only on the move but takinghold of power in society (see Vincent Harding's There is aRiver: the Black Struggle for Freedom in America). Thegrowing prison system, backed up by what became known as JimCrow laws, were directly intended to contain and underminethe Black freedom struggle. It is not coincidence that the15th amendment ends slavery, except as punishment for acrime.

Thus the prison system and the criminal justice system haveplayed key roles in maintaining not only capitalism, butalso the racial oppression that capitalism was built upon inthe United States. This was not just the case in the South,but throughout the country. What this history shows is thatit is a misnomer to say that racism exists in the prisonsystem or the criminal justice system; rather they were bothdeveloped to maintain white supremacy and capitalism.

In short, talking about prisons means talking about racism.The concern about white activists coming in is that thecommunities most impacted by the prison system will nolonger be the ones framing the issues and putting race frontand center. This is compounded by the fact that media ismore likely to cover an action by white groups than oneorganized by groups lead by people of color. The solution isnot for white activists and organizers to stop working onprison issues, but rather for white activists to showrespect for organizing in communities of color around theseissues. Respect is a word that means many things, but inthis context it means looking at the organizing alreadyhappening, listening to how the issues are being talkedabout and learning what the strategies are. It isn't aboutuncritically accepting what someone says because they're aperson of color and it isn't about, if you are white folk,not developing one's own analysis. It's about engaging in astruggle that is coming from and being lead by people ofcolor and respecting that by listening, learning, andgetting involved. White folks certainly need to developtheir own leadership in talking about and organizing aroundthese issues, particularly talking with other white folks.

Challenging deracialization doesn't mean throwing in theword racism wherever possible, but rather having anunderstanding of how racism shapes the issue so that itshapes the way you talk about it. For example, if I onlytalk about the privatization of prisons as the issue, thenit would sound like I just want the state to continuerunning prisons. But if I talk about privatization in thecontext of corporations getting rich off of a prison systemthat disproportionately locks up youth of color while theeducation system crumbles, then it's a different picture.How issues are talked about also impacts the ways thatallies in that struggle are seen or not seen. If I focusexclusively on privatization and corporations - what othergroups come to mind who fight around these issues? If youthink about privatization, corporations, education, publicschools, youth, racial justice and social inequality - whatgroups come to mind?

There are many other aspects of white privilege and itsimpact on social change organizing, but universalizing whiteexperience and deracialization are concepts that I've beentrying to understand for a while. Each represents both thebarriers to movement building, and also the ways thatanti-racism can act as a catalyst for building theanti-racist, multiracial, feminist, queer liberationist, andanti-capitalist movements that we need to create radicalsocial change.

As the National Organizers Alliance gathering was titled, weare "Dancing on the Fault lines: forging a movement onshifting ground." As I engage in these questions aboutworking for social change and my role, I am comfortedknowing that I am part of a movement for collectiveliberation. As radical educator Paulo Freire says, "We makethe road by walking".

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Movement building through Mad Props

Part of building movements for social justice is recognizingthe amazing work going on around us and giving it therespect that it deserves:

National Organizers Alliance
http://www.noacentral.org

National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights
http://www.nnirr.org
310 8th St. Suite 307 Oakland, California. Write to get acopy of their new documentary on globalization andimmigration and get information about BRIDGE (Building aRace and Immigration Dialogue in the Global Era)

Critical Resistance
http://www.criticalresistance.org
Find out more about organizing against the prison industrialcomplex. You can also send a message to Critical ResistanceEast and thank the organizers for putting out awesomeanti-racist analysis like the concept 'deracialization'.

People's Institute
http://www.peoplesinstitute.org
1444 North Johnson St. New Orleans, LA. 70016. PI have beendoing anti-racism and community organizing workshops forover 20 years. They are located in New Orleans and havebranches in Minnesota and Oakland. The People's Institute isa multiracial training group and they do workshops acrossthe country.

The following organizations are mostly or entirely white.

United For a Fair Economy
http://www.ufenet.org
UFE has been doing excellent popular economics workshops andtrainings all across the country to develop economicliteracy so we can fight global capitalism. Contact themabout workshops in your area. They are located in Boston,Massachusetts.

Call to Action
http://www.calltoaction.org
CTA is a group of activists who travel across the countryworking with campus and community groups. They do workshopson anti-racism, consensus decision making, media skills anddirect action. Contact them about workshops in your area.They are located in Prescott, Arizona.

Tools for Change
http://www.toolsforchange.org
Margo Adair and William Aal have been doing anti-racism,anti-oppression trainings all over the country. They workwith individual organizations and also do work on alliancebuilding and internal transformation of organizations. Theyare located in Seattle, Washington.

Challenging White Supremacy Collective
http://www.prisonactivist.org/cws
CWS is a group of anti-racist organizers and trainers doingworkshops in San Francisco and around the country.

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Special thanks to Clare Bayard, Chris Dixon and SharonMartinas for critical feedback and editing.

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* Throughout this essay I ask questions and respond to them.These are mostly questions that I ask myself and/or thatwhite radicals have asked me.

** I have been experimenting with the use of words like"you, we, us, their, ours, my" in relationship to who isincluded and excluded when these words are used. Theaudience that I envision writing to in these essays is themostly white, progressive/radical, student/youth/workinghard for little pay, organizer/activists of the broadermovements for justice in the United States and Canada. It isnot that this essay is intended for those audiences only,but that those are the people with whom I work with andorganize with. Thinking about these issues of language andinclusion/exclusion comes from critique of my comrade, NishaAnand.

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Collective Liberation on My Mind is a recently released 64p.collection of essays by Chris Crass and is available bywriting to info@kersplebedeb.com.

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