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Left-Wing Segregation and the Movement for Social Reconstruction

There's been a recent plethora of pundits bemoaning the inability of the Left of this country to formulate a cogent and well-organized response to the rising tide of right-wing government control. Now that borderline fascism has succeeded in defining the parameters of the Congressional discussion about our future during the "debt ceiling debates", and the still influential mass media has exposed itself as little more than a propaganda machine, the need for that action seems greater than ever. So the analysis of why we can't get things going has become more urgent and more frustrated.

But much of that analysis neglects the one crippling problem that may be at the core of our immobility: the racial segregation of the progressive movement of this country. To put it plainly and with admitted generalization, people of color are congregated in one movement in this country and white people are, for the most part, in another.

The problem has been identified before and, in fact, much of the left accepts it as fact. Indeed, the attitudes towards it sometimes border on the blase: "Well...yeah...there aren't any black people here. That's been the case for years. We'll just have to keep working on it."

But we don't work on it and ignoring the problem's destructive, painful and ultimately self-defeating character guarantees that the progressive movement in this country cannot and will not win its struggle. We are doomed not only to defeat but to increasingly bitter and useless flailing. And the United States will soon become a right-wing anachronism whose life and future is tandential to that of the rest of the human race.

We desperately need a plan of movement integration and that means we need to define the two very different, separate and organizationally exclusive communities we're talking about: the progressive mobilizing movement called "the left" and the social justice movement which is dominated by younger men and women of color.

You can tell what the left is by names on mastheads or lists or petitions: the ones that say "initial list...organization for identification purposes only". There are about a hundred white people and a couple of other African-American leaders and writers. Maybe an indigenous person (although not always) and a Latino or two (probably Mexican or Chicano).

It's not that this is the real Left (the one on the streets) but this "selected list" reflects the vision the Left has of what a movement leadership should be...and the myopia it has about what the movement's leadership actually is.

That said, let's be clear: the Left of this country has accomplished more in the past century than any other social movement. So very much that is decent about our lives was brought to us by the progressive movement of the United States and, given its leadership of anti-war and anti-nuclear movements, I think we owe it our lives. Period. And it continues doing that kind of critically important work.

The problem is that, given the conditions in this country and the way oppression has developed, it is no longer possible to successfully struggle in a segregated movement. The attack on people of color is now the strategic centerpiece of capitalism's survival strategy. And so the Left's past accomplishments will prove increasingly difficult and then impossible if it stays mainly white.

On the other hand, the "social justice movement" can be found by looking at who is getting funding, asking for funding or pissed at not getting funding. And its politics sometimes reflect the "don't rock the funders' yacht" perspective that emanates from the funding chase. In any case, it's a movement which seldoms uses the term "revolution" and is often careful to not "get close to" those who do.

Yet this is our country's Grass Roots Movement, an inspiring and truly remarkable array of thousands of organizations, led by innovative, courageous activists who are on the front lines of this country's struggles -- and who are often people of color and often women. These are people who have no hesitation going daily into highly challenging, dangerous and frustrating situations to organize against a backdrop of harshly decaying cities, desperate and frustrated people and relentless violence.

Despite those obstacles, they never lose faith. They never give up. And their presence has prevented much of the oppressive deterioration in those conditions. You can't make things better without major social change but the work the Social Justice movement does often prevent certain things from getting worse and, in the process, identifies areas of importance and struggle and works on modeling how to approach those. In fact, using that experience, it has produced a goldmine of information on how these struggles are critical, what they mean to people's real lives and to the larger society and how you organize them.

Based on all that, we have the tools to remake this society. We can bring a fullness to the progressive movement and new energy, courage and thinking by absorbing the experiences and knowledge of the movements of color. We can engage those movements of color in discussions that raise the issue of our social future and importance of revolution within it. We can win because we have all those tools. We will fail because those tools are separated in very distinct toolboxes in different houses and we haven't integrated them.

By now you may be screaming at me that I am being unfair and bombastic. Let's see. If you are part of the first group (the left with the list), tell me the names of 10 of the over 60 organizations on the National Planning Committee of the U.S. Social Forum in 2010. That's a pretty important event, after all, and one you probably know about or even attended. It was organized by a very integrated leadership where people of color predominated (maybe 85 percent). So give me ten names.

To make clear how "distributed" the problem is, I have asked members of that same NPC about the progressive movement or "left" of this country. I have a dozen names of big and important left organizations that I pull out (you can guess who they are) when I do my experiment on the other side of the divide. Almost none of the people who put on the U.S. Social Forum know most of those organizations.

If you are part of this country's Left movement, you don't know many grassroots organizations of color and most of them have no idea who you are, what the organizations you belong to do or what you are about. They couldn't care less, any more than you care whether any of them are on your list of 100.

That sound like a pre-revolutionary situation?

And a pre-revolutionary situation is pretty much what we need. Federal policy has now openly declared war on youth and seniors and elders -- the two poles of our demographic. War, our society's poison, has become such an ingrained political and social reality that it's tough to imagine a United States without war and the government no longer has to provide a reasonable pretext for it. The government and our mass media has the gall to talk about "an ongoing economic recovery" with unemployment ravaging the entire country and destroying millions of lives and no plan or prospect for creating jobs.

All of this is facilitated by the attack on people of color. We get it first and hardest and more relentlessly. We are the test subjects for the eventual crushing of an entire population. And so the struggle in communities of color has to be engaged and fought fiercely and we need to consciously remake our movements for that to happen.

Maybe we can start thinking about this in three areas.

The first is how we build coalitions, Third Parties and fronts of struggle.

The tactic of building a coalition of white people and then inviting people of color into it is fatal. Very few people of color will enter anything already dominated by white people because decisions have already been made and nobody believes a room full of white people can make decisions that are sensitive to and respectful of people of color.

You build a coalition by being in touch with leading activists of color and asking them to work with you on a list of people of color organizations and leaders who might join such a coalition. Then you get in touch with them and listen to what they have to say about the politics of it. Then you make the changes necessary to bring them in. And then, and only then, do you invite the white people.

The progressive movement will never build a real opposition coalition without at least half the members being people of color. We will never build a third party, an increasingly obvious necessity, without the same percentages. Masses of African-Americans, Latinos, Asians and Indigenous people are not going to follow a coalition, an electoral party or anything else that looks like the people who have always oppressed us. That's because, if you don't see our leadership as critically important to your victory, then you have the same attitudes towards us as our oppressors.

So let's be clear: if the first time people of color learn about a new Third Party is when some smiling white person sticks a leaflet in our faces and encourages us to "sign this form", the Third Party is going to lose. We are all going to lose.

The second point is about issue selection. The major issues for people of color today are the protection and reconstruction of devastated communities; the protection of immigrants' rights; and the defense against genocidal institutions (prisons, schools and the military). The matter is simple: this society cannot allow most young people of color to survive. It doesn't have the resources to support them under this sytem. So it is killing them and we have all kinds of statistics to demonstrate how the unholy triumvirate of prison, poor health and terrible education are much more destructively active among young people of color than any other group.

I'm not advocating that our Left abandon its priorities because I don't think they are separate from these "social justice" issues. I'm advocating that we build a movement based on the connections between those various struggles.

Everything that concerns us can be unified under the banner of "Social Reconstruction": the rebuilding of communities that will address unemployment (since somebody has to rebuild them), stop wars (since we need that money to rebuild them), fight racism and sexism (because it attacks those specific oppressions head on) and restore democracy and rights because social reconstruction can't happen without full protection of rights (including the right to full Internet access).

This channels our energy away from the begging, disappointment, and bitter feelings of betrayal so many of us feel after being "let down" by our President and channels toward taking responsibility ourselves for the situation in the country. No President, including the legendary Roosevelt, ever did anything productive without a very strong left movement pushing it. We need to push this social agenda.

What's more, this direction gives us the opportunity to engage in alternative planning; actual development of resources, systems and structures that can model a large alternative society; and the kind of democratic decision-making necessary to bring this to fruition. In short, we can start building alternatives and uniting in support of those who are already doing that work.

Most of all, this will join us together because framing the struggle this way will force us to seek a fully integrated leadership. Otherwise, you can't do any of this.

Finally, change the mindset. There are, when all is said and done, huge cultural differences between people of different backgrounds and the differences between white people and many of the cultures of color are significant and, if not recognized, deeply divisive.

This is the most difficult part because it's the most difficult to pin down and talk about reasonably. And, if we do these other two, the interactions that flow will help address this. People of color can take a lot of racist grief. The reality, not well known or publicized, is that most people of color I know do not blame white people for their racism. At worst, most I know will simply shrug and say "it's how they were taught".

But combatting racist interaction is really revolutionary work because racism is the lynchpin of this society's oppression and it victimizes us all. Every second of a white person's life, this society is banging into his or her consciousness the jaded and mutilating message of supremacy. To struggle against that is, indeed, a heroic effort and I am continuously inspired by the willingness of so many of my white friends to take it on.

They deserve movement support and the movement's priority has to be to avoid interactions that block unity. There are many of them. The main cultural rule of an integrated movement should be "white people ain't all that". You don't know that much so stop preaching. What you own has been stolen so stop acting like it's yours exclusively. You didn't bring culture to this world so stop acting like yours is the only one. Don't interrupt us during group discussions. Don't laugh at us unless we're joking. Don't join one of our conversations without asking first and listening for a while.

In short, stop acting like you are better than us or smarter than us or more worthy than we are. Think every time you address one of us: who am I in this conversation and what is my relationship to this other person? Try doing that every time and, because your own decency and commitment will correct you when you are encountering a problem, you will see your interactions start to shift. You'll see the tension and suspicions dissipate. You'll hear people of color differently and you'll start learning from us. And you'll feel lighter and stronger and more hopeful because the burden of carrying the world on your shoulders (an outcome of owning it) will be lifted.

So maybe we can start thinking about those three things. Immediately. The reality is that, as difficult as it is, we need to do this now. Because, as difficult as it is to admit, we all need each other.