A strange and unnecessary argument has developed over a supposed conflict between the fair demands of cultural equality and that of economic decency. This has been accompanied by a growing tendency to lump all whites into the same category through such phrases as “white privilege” that ignores the fact, for example, that there are 80% more whites in poverty than blacks. Meanwhile the ethnic debate has increasingly centered on symbolic rather than substantive change which again, is not an either/or matter, but should at least take into consideration that removing the statue of Robert E Lee is not likely to affect real discrimination in the city where it sat. It seems at times that politics – both liberal and conservative – has become reduced to a matter of how smug it allows one to feel rather than its actual results.
As one who was involved in the 1960s civil rights movement, I find the evolution of ethnic discussion and debate odd. Sure, take away Robert E. Lee but couldn’t we also find time to push reforms to improve our urban police departments? There has been a generous listing of their faults but a stunning absence of organizing around specific improvements. There is similar attention given to the past failings of white culture, even with an unspoken and ironic suggestion that this is, in fact, a genetic racial defect, but little interest in bringing the white working class back into the liberal coalition as it was in both the New Deal and the Great Society.
Much of the way that we approach our problems bears a similarity to what one finds among those children in dysfunctional families who have defined their life and its possibilities by the past with which they were burdened when they were young. It is not that this history did not exist but those who survive best in from such an experience are typically those who proceed to write a new history for themselves in a new place and/or in a new way.
Those obsessed with the past remain its prisoner. This is not what generally happened in the 1960s. There was, in no small part thanks to Martin Luther King Jr, an understanding as he put it, that capitalism “was built on the exploitation and suffering of black slaves and continues to thrive on the exploitation of the poor – both black and white, both here and abroad.”
Writing for Alternet, Zaid Jilani recalled that King “wrote an article in the Saturday Evening Post explaining the urgency of the problems he was working to solve. He laid out his proposal of a ‘grand alliance’ between blacks and whites aimed at ‘eradicating social evils which oppress both white and Negro.’ He pointed to high youth unemployment among both groups, and said economic competition would become self-destructive if the two groups did not cooperate.”
And King was not alone. Adrian Wood & Nutan Rajguru described Black Panther leaders Bobby Seale and Huey Newton:
In forming the Panthers, Seale and Newton made a clean break with both the integrationist and the separatist approach. They argued instead that the economic and political roots of racism were in the exploitative capitalist system and that the Black struggle must be a revolutionary movement to overthrow the entire power structure in order to achieve liberation for all Black people.
[The African-American activist community] must also be able to realize that there are white people, brown people, red people, yellow people in this world who are totally dedicated to the destruction of this system of oppression, and we welcome that. We will always be open to working with that.
Cultural nationalists and Black Panthers are in conflict in many areas. Basically, cultural nationalism sees the white man as the oppressor and makes no distinction between racist whites and non-racist whites, as the Panthers do. The cultural nationalists say that a Black man cannot be the enemy of the Black people, while the Panthers believe that Black capitalists are exploiters and oppressors. Although the Black Panther Party believes in Black nationalism and Black culture, it does not believe that either will lead to Black liberation or the overthrow of the capitalist system, and are therefore ineffective.
I was one of a handful of whites in the Washington office of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee when Stokely Carmichael announced that we were no longer welcome in the movement. Yet in no small part because of what DC whites and blacks had learned working together in an often successful battle against more freeways, cultural nationalism – or identity politics as it’s called today – didn’t really catch on and within a few years we had formed a bi-ethnic third party that would hold a seat on the city council and/or the school board for 25 years.
I am not bitter about Carmichael nor about those loyal to identity politics. I just grew up in a time when politics was not about theories but about what was happening right around you. It early became clear to me that issues rather than identity allowed you to build a force that could not only write nice articles but actually produce change.
And as King noted in 1967, “Effective political power for Negroes cannot come through separatism. SNCC staff members are eminently correct when they point out that in Lowndes County, Alabama, there are no white liberals or moderates and no possibility for cooperation between the races at the present time. But the Lowndes County experience cannot be made a measuring rod for the whole of America’’
He tried to exemplify this with the multi-cultural Poor People’s Campaign and its Resurrection City on the National Mall. In an interview, Jesse Jackson Jr. described King’s goal:
Well, the context of it is the Saturday morning before Dr. King was assassinated, he called this emergency staff meeting at his office in Atlanta, Georgia. He had this vision we should wipe out poverty, ignorance and disease, that you couldn’t do it on an ethnic basis. That was not, that was never going to be in the plan to wipe out Black poverty that would leave the Hispanics in poverty or Whites or women in poverty or Native American in poverty.
Twenty years later, Jackson put some of King’s principles to test as he ran for president in 1988. The Wikipedia account is worth reading because so many have forgotten this remarkable moment:
In early 1988, Jackson organized a rally at the former American Motors assembly plant in Kenosha, Wisconsin, approximately two weeks after new owner Chrysler announced it would close the plant by the end of the year. In his speech, Jackson spoke out against Chrysler’s decision, stating “We have to put the focus on Kenosha, Wisconsin, as the place, here and now, where we draw the line to end economic violence!” and compared the workers’ fight to that of the civil rights movement in Selma, Alabama. As a result, the UAW Local 72 union voted to endorse his candidacy, even against the rules of the UAW….
Jackson ran on what many considered to be a very liberal platform. Declaring that he wanted to create a “Rainbow Coalition” of various minority groups, including African Americans, Hispanics, Middle Eastern Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans, family farmers, the poor and working class, and LGBT people, as well as white progressives, Jackson ran on a platform that included:
- creating a Works Progress Administration-style program to rebuild America’s infrastructure and provide jobs to all Americans,
- reprioritizing the War on Drugs to focus less on mandatory minimum sentences for drug users (which he views as racially biased) and more on harsher punishments for money-laundering bankers and others who are part of the “supply” end of “supply and demand”
- reversing Reaganomics-inspired tax cuts for the richest ten percent of Americans and using the money to finance social welfare programs
- cutting the budget of the Department of Defense by as much as fifteen percent over the course of his administration
- declaring Apartheid-era South Africa to be a rogue nation
- instituting an immediate nuclear freeze and beginning disarmament negotiations with the Soviet Union
- giving reparations to descendants of black slaves
- supporting family farmers by reviving many of Roosevelt’s New Deal–era farm programs
- creating a single-payer system of universal health care
- ratifying the Equal Rights Amendment
- increasing federal funding for lower-level public education and providing free community college to all
- applying stricter enforcement of the Voting Rights Act and
- supporting the formation of a Palestinian state.
- With the exception of a resolution to implement sanctions against South Africa for its apartheid policies, none of these positions made it into the party’s platform in either 1984 or 1988.
Jackson captured 6.9 million votes and won 11 contests: seven primaries (Alabama, the District of Columbia, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Puerto Rico and Virginia) and four caucuses (Delaware, Michigan, South Carolina and Vermont). Jackson also scored March victories in Alaska’s caucuses and Texas’s local conventions, despite losing the Texas primary
What Jackson had done was to follow a greatly ignored rule of thumb about America: If you are in a minority you can still lead the majority. In fact it’s one of the best things you can do. There are all sorts of ways. The moral leadership of civil rights activists, political leadership, leadership in the arts and literature, or in a high school.
Or creating cross-cultural spaces such as the traditional Irish bar As one politician said in Chicago many years ago, “An Italian won’t vote for a Jew and a Lithuanian won’t vote for an Pole but all four will vote for an Irishman.”
The Irish did it politically, the Jews did it culturally and blacks – thanks to those like King and Jackson – did it with a movement that spoke across cultures. More recently Rev. William Barber with his Moral Majority has shown how in North Carolina.
It can happen again but to do so, blacks and latinos need to stop accepting the limited role of what Bobby Seale called cultural nationalism and see themselves as those with the greatest chance of becoming the new moral voice for all of America, regardless of ethnicity or gender. And the great common ground is an economic system that now screws too many Americans regardless of their ethnicity.
It is true that, thanks to the lies and machinations of people like Donald Trump and large corporations, a lot of white guys have been taught the wrong way to solve their real problems. They don’t need condemnation, they need help. And true friends.