Leading the majority: how minorities change America

Sam Smith

Political scientist Milton L. Rakove credits Irish dominance in Chicago partially to the fact that the Irish ran saloons that “became centers of social and political activity not only for the Irish but also for the Polish, Lithuanian, Bohemian and Italian immigrants. . . As a consequence of their control of these recreational centers of the neighborhoods, the Irish saloon keepers and bartenders became the political counselors of their customers, and the political bosses of the wards and, eventually, of the city.”  As one politician put it, “A Lithuanian won’t vote for a Pole, and a Pole won’t vote for a Lithuanian.  A German won’t vote for either of them — but all three will vote for an Irishman.”

The Irish, rare among American minorities, had stumbled upon the great secret to ethnic success in a country so often prejudiced and discriminatory and, even more often, just indifferent: minorities have to lead the majority.

I came of age when blacks were doing it, too. The book I most remember from my college days wasn’t on any course reading list. It was Martin Luther King’s Stride Towards Freedom, which came out in September 1958, the fall of my senior year. In the early 1970s I wrote:

[The book] affected me a great deal, especially the sixth chapter in which King described his pilgrimage towards nonviolence. I had only recently graduated from a Quaker high school, half impressed by and half cynical of the experience. Now I had left the peaceable kingdom of the Friends for the oscillating values of college tumult and King’s book proved more than an introduction to the civil rights movement. It helped straighten out messages I had received about a lot of things, but had never quite understood.

Pacifism and nonviolence for one. The Quaker concept seemed a bit mushy to me. I was too lusty and too enthralled by politics to think that simply being good and not bopping people on the head was a sufficient approach to life. King helped to explain it in new terms; “My study of Gandhi convinced me that true pacifism is not nonresistance to evil. . . Gandhi resisted evil with as much vigor and power as the violent resister, but he resisted with love instead of hate.”

He read Niebuhr’s criticisms of pacifism, which he rejected in part but noted: “Niebuhr has extraordinary insight into human nature, especially the behavior of nations and social groups. He is keenly aware of the complexity of human motives and the relationship between morality and power. . . While I still believed in man’s potential for good, Niebuhr made me realize his potential for evil as well. Moreover, Niebuhr helped me recognize the complexity of man’s social involvement and the glaring reality of collective evil.

“Many pacifists, I felt, failed to see this. All too many had an unwarranted optimism concerning man and leaned unconsciously towards self-righteousness. It was my revolt against these attitudes under the influence of Niebuhr that accounts for the fact that in spite of my strong leaning toward pacifism, I have never joined a pacifist organization. . . I felt then, and I feel now, that the pacifist would have a great appeal if he did not claim to be free from the moral dilemmas that the Christian non-pacifist confronts.”

His four pages on Marx also appealed to me. I had just been introduced to Marx and, unlike college students of a later generation, thought him dreary and opaque. I found it difficult to understand how revolutions had risen on his words. My classmates who were interested in Marx I found somewhat dreary and opaque as well, but since they were getting better grades, I listened to them and tried to remember what they had said for my exam blue book.

King approached Marx with curiosity and analysis and when he was through, concluded , “My reading of Marx also convinced me that truth is found neither in Marxism nor in traditional capitalism. Each, represents a partial truth. Historically, capitalism failed to see the truth in collective enterprise, and Marxism failed to see the truth in individual enterprise. Nineteenth-century capitalism failed to see that life is social and Marxism failed and still fails to see that life is individual and personal.”

So that was how Martin Luther King came to me. Not so much. as a civil rights leader but as a philosopher-friend, the first non-mushy pacifist I had met, and helping me get through Marx. Not that civil rights and race weren’t important. I was an anthropology major and that experience combined with a Quaker education helped form a strong revulsion against the cultural myopia of white America. I knew from anthropology that there was no scientific basis for segregation and discrimination, and from the Friends I had learned there was no moral one either. But King synthesized wandering feelings, giving them a point, and words: “When a subject people moves towards freedom, they are not creating cleavage, but are revealing the cleavage which apologists of the old order have sought to conceal.” Try to say that as succinctly when you’re writing a college paper.

Of course, King would touch me many times again though I never got closer to him than the lawn of the chapel at Howard University when he spoke a year or two later. There were too many people for the church so .loudspeakers were mounted outside and my date and I sat on the grass, moved but not fully understanding how much more we would be moved before it was over.

In the wake of his assassination, I almost lost him. King the leader still remained, but King the philosopher was being discredited at every turn. The tough guys had moved in, with their revolutions in the barrels of guns, actions that assumed principles would follow, the conscious resegregation on new terms. Agape was for white flower children; King was a Tom; and new leaders proliferated. There was progress, yes. There was necessity, too. Black nationalism was part of the unfinished business. But there was also a hollowness.

It was not a question of old style integration. It was a matter of rediscovery of friendly turf, the reintroduction of decency as a value, a mutual regard for cultural differences and a mutual recognition of common aspirations. I knew it was true because Martin Luther King had told me. He said, “Something must happen so as to touch the hearts and souls of men that they will come together, not because the law says it, but because it is natural and right.”

That’s how the most famous black leader of modern times affected one young white guy in the 1950s. He brought me into his movement not by making me feel ashamed or angry, but in part by helping me with my own problems.

A few years later I would find myself the public relations adviser to a fellow twenty something who was running Washington’s SNCC. Marion Barry had seen something I had written about SNCC’s  DC bus boycott that kept 100,000 people off the system to protest higher fares. I had driven 70 people that day riding up and down a major bus route, Those on my route were mostly black, but across the city thousands of whites had listened to the same twenty-something black guy and stayed off the buses.

Some years later, Barry would be elected mayor with the aid of a white vote so large that the Afro American newspaper ran a column accusing him of being part of a plot by whites to take over the city. It seems funny now, but it also is a hint of how different things can be.

And were. A few years later, Stokely Carmichael showed up at the SNCC headquarters in DC and said that whites were no longer welcome in the civil rights movement. The black friends of white activists like myself disappeared.

Then a year or so later came the DC riots and all hope seemed to disappear as well.

But two years after the riots that had torn the city apart, ethnically and otherwise, a group of blacks and whites met in the basement of a Capitol Hill church and we formed the DC Statehood Party that would hold a seat on either the school board or city council for the next 25 years.

The leader was a black man, Julius Hobson, perhaps the most underrated civil rights leader of modern times.

Between 1960 and 1964, Julius Hobson ran more than 80 picket lines on approximately 120 retail stores in downtown DC, resulting in employment for some 5,000 blacks. He initiated a campaign that resulted in the first hiring of black bus drivers by DC Transit. Hobson and CORE forced the hiring of the first black auto salesmen and dairy employees and started a campaign to combat job discrimination by the public utilities that led to a permanent court injunction to prevent Hobson from encouraging people to paste stickers over the holes in punch-card utility bills.

Hobson directed campaigns against private apartment buildings that discriminated against blacks and led a demonstration by 4,500 people to the District Building that encouraged the District to end housing segregation. He conducted a lie-in at the Washington Hospital Center that produced a jail term for himself and helped to end segregation in the hospitals. His arrest in a sit-in at the Benjamin Franklin School in 1964 helped lead to the desegregation of private business schools. In 1967, Julius Hobson won, after a long and very lonely court battle that left him deeply in debt, a suit that outlawed the existing rigid track system, teacher segregation, and differential distribution of books and supplies. It also led, indirectly, to the resignation of the school ‘superintendent and first elections of a city school board. Beyond all this, Hobson was repeatedly involved in peace, police, and transportation issues and filed a major suit in 1969 accusing the federal government of bias against blacks, women, and Mexican-Americans.

He was, in short, no Uncle Tom. He was tough on “pasturized Negroes” and black “ministers, preachers, deacons, deaconesses, Eastern Stars, and other assorted heavenly bodies.” And he would say things others didn’t dare utter such as “The struggle isn’t whether you like a nigger or a nigger likes a cracker or whitey is a pig or any of that stuff. I’ve called people whitey and pig and the FBI never said a word. All I have to do is put on a dashiki, get a wig, go out there on Fourteenth Street, and yell, ‘Whitey is a pig and I’m going to take care of him’ — the FBI will stand there and laugh at me. But the moment I start to discuss the way goods and services are distributed and I start talking about the nature of the political system and show that it’s a corollary of the economic system, that’s when the FBI comes in for harassment.”

Hobson, in short, understood that class could be even more important than race and was one of the few black leaders in Washington who could lead an effective biracial coalition.

Thus, until I was in my late thirties, three of the most important people in my white life were black leaders.

And then it stopped.

As often happens, success had something to do with it. Marion Barry, for example, soon realized that he could solidify the black vote and didn’t really need whites any more. Other black mayors and congressmembers found much the same thing. The physical segregation of our cites and congressional districts made it easier for black politicians to stay in a safe niche.

Then there was the problem that those who break through the glass ceiling often forget those still left behind. The black elite began to have less interest in those still losing in their culture.

More broadly, our politics was becoming corporatized, computerized, and cable TVized. Community organizing and the people whom it organized were no longer as important.

There were a few exceptions. A dramatic one was Jesse Jackson’s 1988 presidential campaign. For while its headquarters was even in Greenfield IA, whose population was over 99% white. As Wikipedia reports:

During this period of the 1980s farm crisis, rural people responded positively to Jackson’s embrace of policies that would have restored New Deal-era supply management/price support farm programs designed to stabilize family-scale farm enterprises. Adair County dairy farmer Dixon C. Terry, leader of the National Family Farm Coalition, had invited Jackson to visit Greenfield and deliver a major speech in January 1987. It triggered considerable interest. Jackson, the first truly viable African-American presidential candidate in US history, ultimately came in second place for the Democratic Party nomination. He exceeded expectations in Iowa (and then went on to win several major state primaries and caucuses. A number of Adair County area people staffed Jackson’s campaign office in downtown Greenfield.

Under the headline “Jesse Jackson seeks white vote,” the NY Times reported:

Mr. Jackson is proclaiming a new gospel for a new South. The challenge now is not racial inequality, he declares, but rather economic injustice, an injustice that blacks and whites should join together under his banner to fight….

”One of our goals is to bring out the white vote like we did in Iowa, New Hampshire, Maine and Minnesota,” said Joe Liu, a press aide in Mr. Jackson’s North Carolina campaign…

”Friendship begat friendship,” Mr. Jackson said today at the Springfield Baptist Church in Greenville, explaining his support among whites. ”Why am I getting their vote? I stood with them. Now they’re standing with me.” Later the candidate joined his mother and grandmother for dinner at the family home here.

But won’t it be different in the South, a local television reporter asked Mr. Jackson Monday as arrived in Fayetteville, N.C.?

”Not necessarily so,” Mr. Jackson replied. ”I’m from the South. I know its ways. I worked real diligently and effectively to help bring about the new South and in this region we now have a higher sense of social justice. We have a public accommodations bill, the right to vote, open housing.”

”The new South challenge is an economic challenge and it transcends race,” he added. ”This is the region where we have nearly half of the nation’s poor children. In the South we have the highest rate of infant mortality. There are 13 million people from the South with no health insurance.”

In an interview as his campaign plane crossed Virginia, Mr. Jackson said his showing among white farmers in Iowa and paper mill workers in Maine has helped increase ”the comfort level” for whites who might think about voting for him.

”Race relations is always described in the worst of terms,” Mr. Jackson reflected. Violence in Howard Beach in New York and Forsyth County in Georgia grab the attention, he said, as indeed it must. ”But there’s something else going on. There’s another flower blooming.”

Of course, now that seems a long time ago. These days we know, and talk about, so many reasons why blacks and whites can’t work together, that we don’t even try all that much. Instead, we just come up with new ways to express anger over the George Zimmerman trial and engage in endless post-modern dissections of the past as if, with enough facts, fussing and fulmination, the bad guys will admit they’re guilty and we can finally move on.

It’s like a dysfunctional family going over the same problems for the one thousandth time and thinking that this time it will work.

History suggests that progress is found elsewhere. Susan Eaton in the Nation provided examples as black activists got involved in the immigration fight in the south

“It is a new kind of Southern strategy,” says James Evans, a five-term Mississippi state representative, AFL-CIO organizer, minister, and leading member of the legislative black caucus.

“This is a fight against a kind of venom that black people in Mississippi understand on that heart level,” Evans says, tapping his heart. “But this is hearts and minds working together. Walking together is how we all win, now and further down this long road.”

Richard Nixon pioneered the old Southern strategy through which Republicans pandered to racism and won over Southern white Democrats disaffected after desegregation and civil rights legislation. Now, though, Latinos’ growing presence and electoral clout in the South and other regions, coupled with the moral authority of civil rights, has yielded a new game plan. This one depends not on racial and cultural division but on unity. In Mississippi, a methodically constructed alliance of African Americans, immigrants, and their supporters has grown downright formidable and, Evans suggests, “can help show the country a better way, a path to higher ground.”…

In the 2011 legislative session, Mississippi lawmakers introduced 33 bills that sought to make it easier to deport immigrants, or else make life more difficult for them. They included bills that would have: denied undocumented people access to public benefits (which is already prohibited under federal law),  restricted immigrants’ ability to rent apartments (federal courts have ruled similar bans unconstitutional), and mandated “English-only” in conducting government business. By April, all the bills were dead, including an Arizona copycat—SB 2179—which, after it passed both chambers, advocates had assumed was unstoppable….

Black caucus members are regular speakers at immigrants’ rights rallies. They take to talk radio and attend community forums, urging constituents to oppose harsh immigration bills and to join pro-immigrant marches. In recent years, African American legislators have used the power of their committee chairmanships in the House to let anti-immigrant bills languish and expire—despite the fact that their own legislative heft has hardly come easily in Mississippi, the only state whose official flag incorporates the Confederate flag…

As journalist David Bacon documents in his book Illegal People, African Americans in Mississippi have seen themselves displaced by employers who have hired more easily exploitable Latino workers. But as Bacon also points out, the true villains are the less visible forces undermining economic security for all low-wage workers….

Sadly such stories get little play in the media and not much attention from the national black or latino leadership. The typical story is one of unrequited misery combined with a silent assumption of nearly impossible relief.

But you when you dig deeper into cultural conflicts you can often find a different tale. For example, looking into my own cultural heritage – in part that of Irish Protestants – I was surprised to find things that challenge a widely held presumption of endless futile conflict with Irish Catholics. For example:

– 1791 saw the creation of the multi-denominational United Irishmen. Its members initially merely sought political and economic reforms, but within four years had begun arming themselves and talking of liberation. They also revised their oath to read: “In the awful presence of God, I do voluntarily declare that I will persevere in endeavoring to form a Brotherhood of affection among Irishmen of every religious persuasion.”

–  Some Irish Protestants and Catholics joined in support of the French revolution and in encouraging a French invasion of Ireland on behalf of the Irish cause.

– Among pro-nationalist Protestants of the time was Theobald Wolfe Tone, who wrote an early “Argument on Behalf of the Catholics of Ireland.” He also served as secretary of the Catholic Committee.

– A 20th century Protestant fighter for the Irish cause, Erskine Childers, was executed on charges of possessing a small pistol after helping Eamon de Valera and other IRA members lead a rebellion against the Irish free state government. His son would become president of Ireland in the 1970s. Childers, regarded as the father of the modern spy novel (“Riddle of the Sands”), used his 50-foot ketch to smuggle arms to the Irish rebels. In support of his execution, Winston Churchill said, “no man has done more harm or done more genuine malice or endeavored to bring a greater curse upon the common people of Ireland than this strange being.”

– Although he would later become far more conservative, Protestant poet WB Yeats as a young man was a member of the Irish Republican Brotherhood.

We are raised to believe cultural conflict is inevitable and the establishment and major media have a vested interest in promoting struggle over resolution, especially they stand to benefiteconomically from the conflict.

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But what might an alliance of various American minorities look like today and what might it achieve? A few possibilities:

Black and latino America is now approximately 30% of the country’s population (13% and 17% respectively). By any normal political standards, 30% of a population should have an immense influence on Congress and the White House.  Obviously, the system is rigged – from our voting rules to the one of the most segregated institutions of power in America – the US Senate. But another factor is that blacks and latinos have not taken advantage of their sleeping strength even though the mere announcement of a clear black-latino alliance at either the state or national level would cause real anxiety in the political establishment.

But, you say, blacks and latinos don’t get along with each other and latinos come in all different flavors. As the foregoing suggests this is not  really true, primarily but it is in the interest of the establishment to make it seem  true, carefully hiding the fact that economic suffering is the strongest de facto DNA that the two groups have in common.

And besides, one reason politics differs from religion is that you only need to agree on one commandment to launch a coalition. It is what you have in common that matters, not what the differences are.

And how do you find this out? Well, back in 1996, a group of us in the Green Politics Network, brought together over a hundred activists and leaders from a broad range of political groups. The conference was run on the notion that we should discuss what we had in common, not what divided us. There were Greens, Marxists, former Perot backers and conservative libertarians. The mood was gentle, the technique consensual and the outcome generally encouraging. At one point several of the libertarian attendees even offered to leave the meeting so that consensus could be maintained; instead it was agreed to simply have different levels of consensus. More than a dozen points found full agreement, including issues of democratic process and reduction of the military.

I strongly believe that blacks and latino activists sitting down together could do even better. And, with the right names and groups included, all you would have to do, say, is to put out a news release announcing a Ohio black-latino coalition in state comprised 30% of one or the other and you’ve started to change things.

And that’s just for starters. Next, go after the groups that have common interest especially on economic issues. Labor unions for example. Add union members, their spouses and those closely related and you’ve got another ten percent or so. Then add Walmart’s staff and other nonunion workers and you’ve got yourself a real movement. There are also seniors threatened with reductions in Social Security and Medicare. That’s another 14%

And then young white males. Those 20 to 35 years old account for about 15% of the population. Young white males? They’re part of the problem, aren’t they? Only in how it plays out now. Check the stats and you will find young white males have a lot in common with a young black and latino males. Not anywhere near as bad off, to be sure, but they share high incarceration, low employment and nobody really gives much of a shit about them. So we send them to Afghanistan to fight the Taliban or to prison for smoking pot, Just like young black men.

The University of Washington reports a new study says that 90 percent of “young white male workers can expect to have lower lifetime wage growth than the previous generation.”

As Jean Toomer put it a hundred years ago, “It is generally established that the causes of race prejudice may primarily be found in the economic structure that compels one worker to compete against another and that furthermore renders it advantageous for the exploiting classes to inculcate, foster, and aggravate that competition.”

But why should some of the weakest among us – like ethnic minorities – be expected to produce change? In part because they are actually stronger in some important ways. They know the real stories and have lived the facts. And while the depth of their pain may be greater than that of many whites there is no acceptable level of such pain. They have been less corrupted by power. They have relied on moral faith more than immoral convenience. Their dreams are better than the greed of those who suppress them.

And all of this can be shared by anyone of any shade who still cares.

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3 thoughts on “Leading the majority: how minorities change America

  1. Sam, the growing sound of a movement building somewhere on the horizon has moved a lot closer now than at any time over the last decade. So many more have seen through the media babble and what passes for “political disputation” and recognize the organizing mandate of the open economic collapse. The challenge of a society worthy of human beings is inspiring millions of dreams – and organizers. Your articles help to ferment the mash.

    • Many thanks, Sam Jordon

      It’s hard at a time like this to maintain a good viewpoint – not too depressed and not too naive. One thing that cheers me is the realization that you seldom can predict just when things will turn. And I also like the line used by Peter Ustinov in a movie: “I’m an optimist, I know how bad the world is. You’re a pessimist, you’re always finding out.”- Sam Smith

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