Are Progressives Blind to Race?

Progressives Blind to RaceI procrastinated in writing this piece. Then I delayed the process by not making it public. Perhaps because the first part of this story got attacked by a bunch of rightwing idealogues.

Few articles spark the level of interest of those written about race. So the last piece I wrote on the lack of diversity at one of the largest annual conventions of progressives  – Netroots Nation in San Jose last month  – didn’t disappoint. It even attracted the attention of a right wing blogger. The result? A slew of conservative comments posted on the LA Progressive giving our regular progressive readers a window into a world they don’t frequent.

Here’s a sample of what the right has to offer:

“I think most people know the truth about identity politics, even if they aren’t willing to discuss it openly. It is basically a trade-off where the chosen group of “victims” trade their votes to get favors, recognition, bread and circuses in exchange for keeping a bunch of white guilt-ridden liberals, progressives and socialists (I know, I repeat myself) in power. The people in the chosen groups know that they will never be allowed into the leadership of the club, but that’s OK. They get their perks. Besides, a few house negros, Uncle Toms, or kept women get put in positions of cosmetic prominence once in a while to make things look good. But like all libs, any success they have is also cosmetic or stolen. That’s why the guilt is always there. NOTHING is earned. You didn’t build that.”  (If you’re interested, you can read all of the comments by clicking here).

While most of the comments were ugly, some, like the one above, provided fodder for deeper discussions  – discussions progressives should be taking on but rarely do at least not in the public sphere.

A small contingent of progressives are concerned about the lack of organizing across racial and ethnic lines and work as anti-racist activists. But not enough put this issue high on the list of causes.  Right-wing idealogues weren’t the only ones who had something to say about the lack of diversity at Netroots. I also got several messages directly through email. These messages had the bigger impact on me because they were from fellow progressives.

Because these friends shared their views privately I won’t make their identity or their comments public, but I will provide a couple of snippets so that you can get a feel for the messages:

  • “The paramount struggle in this country right now IMO is against totalitarianism and fascism which affects everyone. The paramount struggle is not against racism.”
  • “If you fail to see the bigger picture and don’t focus on it and divert people with a hodgepodge of lessor issues, you are not going to be effective yourselves and will become as ineffective as Netroots IMO.”

These are people I know  – people I believe to be rational, unlike some of the right-wing ravers. And based on what I’ve observed over my years of activism, I’d say it’s fair to assume that their sentiments are not one-offs  – what I’ve observed suggests that these sentiments are shared by a fair number of white progressives. They offer comments that lay the foundation for the kind of discussion that won’t be had at most progressive meetings, but that I think it is sorely needed. We, as progressives, need to develop ways to talk about the difficult topic of race. We need to develop racial literacy and cultural awareness if we intend to develop coalitions across racial and ethnic lines.

This past week was filled with stories that highlight our lack of cross-cultural awareness and racial literacy. Here are a few:

George Zimmerman’s Trial Could Become a Racial FlashpointPaula Deen Wants to Have Black Slaves at Her Southern Dinner Party ■ Chief Justice Roberts’ Long War Against the Voting Rights Act Immigration Bill Would Create Radically Militarized BorderThe End of Affirmative Action as We Know ItTexas Executes 500th Inmate ■ Nelson Mandela on Life Support

The characterization  – by a progressive  – that racism belongs to a “hodgepodge of lesser issues” coupled with the slew of sh*t in the news this week  – compels me to ask why progressives don’t seem to understand the importance of being actively engaged in some form of anti-racist work. It seems to me that without uniting all of the components of this movement, you can’t really have a “people’s” movement and the overall progressive agenda will be compromised.

As the publisher of the LA Progressive, I attend quite a few events month in and month out. I can predict with a high degree of accuracy the racial demographic of the attendees, depending on the issue addressed at the event. Issues like fracking, immigration reform, reproductive rights, campaign financing, prison realignment, drones, domestic spying, a living wage and many others are currently being debated within the progressive community. Each of these issues draws support from a distinctly different racial demographic.

This begs the question: How can we mount an effective overall progressive campaign with a movement that is so racially and ethnically fractured?  In his seminal work, Democracy in America, famed historian and political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville asserted that democracy in America is dependent upon our ability to form associations or coalitions. He claims that democracy depends on our ability to organize. Harvard lecturer and well-known political organizer, Marshall Ganz, makes a similar claim. In an essay Ganz published entitled, “Left Behind” Social Movements, Parties, and the Politics of Reform,” he discusses how the movement on the Left has atrophied since the 60s but the movement on the Right has been able to mobilize its base and leverage that mobilization to direct public policy and engage in effective partisan politics.

It’s been widely reported that America  – as a nation  – is significantly more progressive than it is conservative. According to Media Matters, Americans are progressive across a wide range of controversial issues, and they’re growing more progressive all the time. Yet, you wouldn’t guess that by looking at this infographic.Progressives Blind to Race

Marshall Ganz argues that the success of conservatives in moving public policy sharply to the right is rooted in the fact that they have sustained a highly motivated grassroots base since the 1960s and the counterpart on the left has been absent. I’d add that both the success and failure of the right and left respectively is driven, in part, by racial and ethnic divisions. Those divisions have strengthened and energized the grassroots of the Right. But what often goes unsaid is that those same divisions exist on the Left — but instead of energizing our movement has caused it to atrophy.

Another driver for social movement and mobilization, according to Ganz, is a moral imperative. We certainly don’t lack one – just take a look at America’s growing security industrial complex.

Immigration2In a piece written for Salon.com, writer Natasha Lennard claims that if the Obama administration continues its deportation rate it will deport as many people as were deported from 1892 to 1997 combined. According to Lennard, Obama is on track to deport a record 2 million people by 2014.

In the same report, she notes, “the U.S. spends more on immigration enforcement than on all other federal law enforcement combined.” The assault on the immigration community and the crisis this presents in the lives of untold families and particularly children of parents who are deported is nothing short of monumental.

Immigration is but one of the issues exploited by America’s security industrial complex. Another issue being exploited and wreaking havoc in the lives of people of color is our drug policy.  The U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics reports the national rate of incarceration for males as follows:

Ages 25-29 by race as of June 30, 2006:
For White males ages 25-29: 1,685 per 100,000
For Latino males ages 25-29: 3,912 per 100,000
For Black males ages 25-29: 11,695 per 100,000

The U.S. prison population has quintupled over the last 30 years. Farid Zakaria of CNN recently wrote, “The U.S. has 760 prisoners per 100,000 citizens. That’s not just many more than in most other developed countries but seven to 10 times as many. Japan has 63 per 100,000, Germany has 90, France has 96, South Korea has 97.”

Why is the progressive community, as a whole, not up in arms about this. The United States is incarcerating more people than were incarcerated in Stalin’s Gulag and there isn’t a major outcry by progressives everywhere?

In her landmark book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, author Michelle Alexander, makes the claim that the criminal justice system functions as a comprehensive mechanism for social control that is analogous to Jim Crow.  She asserts that because it is no longer socially acceptable to use race as a justification for discrimination, exclusion and social contempt – we don’t.  We now use our criminal justice system to label people of color “criminal” then we discriminate against them in almost all of the old Jim Crow ways.

Jim Crow spawned the civil rights movement which coincided with a period of progressive activism that lead to major victories for progressives on many fronts including employment, education, healthcare. During that era, serious chasms emerged between northern and southern Democrats that resulted in many southern Democrats joining the Republican party. This marked the beginning of the period Marshal Ganz refers to in his discussion of successful rightwing mobilization. But what happened to progressives after this period and after the birth of the “Southern Strategy”?US_incarceration_timeline

Looking for answers to this question, I discovered the writings of Jean Hardisty, a senior scholar at Wellesley and founder of  Political Research Associates  an independent, nonprofit research center that exposes and challenges the Right.  Hardesty urges progressives to look at the collaborations being forged in the South as a model for progressive movement building across the nation.

In an essay written in 2006 entitled, “Why the South“, Hardisty lauds the power of coalitions of marginalized people. Speaking of her observations of the progressive work done in the south she says, “It is a goldmine of ideas, wisdom, strategies and tactics of resistance. The progressive movement neglects this resource at its own peril. As a northern progressive, I am acutely aware of how much I have to learn from Southern activists.”

I began this essay by announcing my reluctance to post it. Obviously I moved beyond that but I’m still not completely satisfied with this piece. It bothers me that I see so much segregation within the progressive movement yet I don’t have any quick fixes. A good friend pointed out that the geography of Sharon Kyle 2013southern California and the lack of a good public transportation system contribute to the problem. I see her point.

For now, I can offer links to reading material and organizations that support anti-racist activism. More than 50 years have passed since Brown v. Board of Education yet our public schools are more segregated today than they were in 1954. Progressives have to do better and we can.

Here are links to sites that provide more information on antiracism:  TimWise.org, The Center for Social Inclusion, Project Implicit, Cracking the Code

Sharon Kyle

Published by the LA Progressive on June 29, 2013
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About Sharon Kyle

Sharon Kyle, J.D. is the Publisher of the LA Progressive which she co-founded with her husband Dick Price. Ms. Kyle is an adjunct professor of law at Peoples College in Los Angeles. She sits on the board of the ACLU Pasadena/Foothills Chapter and is on the editorial board of the BlackCommentator.com. Photo courtesy Wadeva Images. www.wadevaimages.com