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Date: Thu, 3 Dec 1998 13:30:33 -0500
Reply-To: Forum on Labor in the Global Economy <LABOR-L@YORKU.CA>
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From: Charles Brown <CharlesB@CNCL.CI.DETROIT.MI.US>
Subject: Robin Kelley on integration (in The Nation);annotated

Integration: What’s Left?

By Robin D. G. Kelley, The Nation, [3 December 1998]

The term racial integration has always sat rather uncomfortably in left circles, especially among black radicals. Antiracism, racial justice, desegregation, even racial equality enjoyed greater favor among leftists than integration. During the postwar period, the term was associated with liberals who conceived of integration as a means of creating racial harmony without a fundamental transformation of the social and economic order. Although black civil rights activists had always emphasized desegregation—the removal of all barriers that kept black people from enjoying full access to public facilities, decent housing, education and so on—in most white liberal circles racial integration came to mean solving the Negro problem by bringing black people into formerly all-white institutions. White liberals believed black people would benefit from social interaction with whites, that these poor, disadvantaged folks would adopt their middle-class values, their work ethic and sense of self-esteem. The goal was to produce fully assimilated black people devoted to the American dream. Sharing power was rarely part of the equation.

Leftists, on the other hand, no matter their ideological stripe, consistently framed the struggle for racial justice in terms of dismantling racism—one of the legs upon which capitalism stood—in order to build a more powerful challenge to corporate rule. Writer and playwright Lorraine Hansberry, who spent the McCarthy era in the political and intellectual company of Paul Robeson, Julian Mayfield, Louise Thompson Patterson, W.E.B. Du Bois and Esther Cooper Jackson, among others, embraced a radical vision of integration. As Ben Keppel points out in his insightful book The Work of Democracy, Hansberry understood integration to be the removal of all barriers to the construction of solidarity among the children of the American working class—both white and black. Hansberry...understood the push for integration not as a sign that African-Americans wished to be ’absorbed into this house,’ but rather that, as Hansberry put it, ’the Negro people would like to see this house rebuilt.’

James Boggs and Grace Lee Boggs, contemporaries of Hansberry’s but from a different place on the left ideological spectrum, concurred that only a radical transformation could overthrow racism, but insisted that this would not happen by integration or the democratic process itself. A black auto worker and a Chinese-American scholar of philosophy turned full-time revolutionary, respectively, the Boggses had a history in the Trotskyist movement and were committed leaders among Detroit’s black working class. From the outset, they struggled, in the words of James Boggs, to create a system which assures the equal right of all, regardless of race or class or nation, to live as full human beings.

While those on the left have never spoken with one voice, the origins of the left’s critique of integration can be traced in part to the antiracist struggles of the thirties. Before the war, the Old Left did not have our modern language of integration. Indeed, after 1928, the Communist Party USA—the dominant force on the left during the thirties and forties—adopted a position that appears at odds with the goal of racial integration as we know it. Compelled in part by the Communist International as well as some black comrades within their ranks, the party argued that the black majority in the Black Belt counties of the South had a right to self-determination, including the right to secede from these United States if they so desired. Because of this slogan, which was rarely promoted and quietly abandoned during the Popular Front years of the late thirties, the Communists were accused of advocating a red version of Jim Crow.

The reality, however, was far more complicated. Party activists, in theory and practice, never stressed secession; the point was not to promote separatism but to insist on black people’s right to choose. In fact, Communists were at the forefront of fighting Jim Crow labor union locals, racial barriers at the workplace, segregation in housing, even the exclusion of black people from social and sporting events.

Although the Old Left did not advocate a post*Brown v. Board of Education type of racial integration, it helped to lay the groundwork for the modern civil rights movement by providing foot soldiers in desegregation campaigns across the nation. And it was on the bloody battlegrounds for racial integration that the New Left was born, and where, ironically, it spawned its own critiques of integration. Radical feminists, Third World Marxists, revolutionary black nationalists, the Chicano, Native American and Asian-American liberation movements and other tendencies rooted in New Left politics rejected integration into the existing order and spoke more in terms of revolution and self-determination. Although they fought fierce battles with their forebears on the left and with each other, they all agreed that integration without revolution—without fundamental changes in power relations, without dismantling capitalism—is not enough.

While the radical left’s critique of the liberal conception of integration is, in my view at least, fundamentally correct, many contemporary left-wing movements have often erred in the other direction, ignoring the problem of racial segregation altogether. Even some movements committed to antiracism have offered little or no analysis of how segregation strips communities of resources and reproduces inequality. The decline of decent-paying jobs and city services, erosion of public space, deterioration of housing stock and property values, and stark inequalities in education and healthcare are manifestations of investment strategies under de facto segregation. Money flows into white suburban or gentrified communities while poor black and Latino neighborhoods have experienced at least two decades of persistent divestment in almost every area except criminal justice. The consequences have been devastating. Black and Latino communities are depicted as dangerous, violent and crime-ridden while suburbs are sold to us as safe havens populated by decent families. This ideological edifice gives what George Lipsitz calls the possessive investment in whiteness its salience and power. And as Vijay Prashad points out, it compels too many Asian-Americans to embrace both the model minority myth and antiblack racism. In other words, segregation was not simply a mean system predicated on fear of the Other but an elaborate racial political economy by which the creation of the modern ghetto and postwar suburbs were two sides of the same process.

Left movements must confront the consequences of segregation. Take the issue of environmental justice: It is residential segregation that enables companies and government institutions to get away with placing landfills, hazardous waste sites and chemical manufacturing plants dangerously close to black, Latino and Native American communities. The evidence that poor communities of color are singled out for toxic waste sites is overwhelming. And a 1992 study concluded that polluters based in minority areas are treated less severely by government agencies than those in largely white communities. Also, federally sponsored toxic cleanup programs, according to the report, take longer and are less thorough in minority neighborhoods. While international organizations like Greenpeace have said very little about racial segregation, local grassroots movements have consistently pointed out how segregation allows corporations to literally get away with murder. Some of the most impressive progressive efforts include Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice, organized in part by Grace Lee Boggs; the Harlem-based New York Environmental Justice Alliance; the Labor/Community Strategy Center in Los Angeles; the Southwest Organizing Project in New Mexico; and the Southern Organizing Committee for Economic Justice, led by veteran Southern radical Ann Braden.

Certainly a radical conception of integration is worth fighting for if it means dismantling racism, bringing oppressed populations into power and moving beyond a black/white binary that renders invisible the struggles of Latinos, Asian-Americans, Native Americans and other survivors of racist exclusion and exploitation. While the left, in my opinion, should resist a liberal conception of integration that merely promotes assimilation and celebrates diversity without demanding a radical transformation in the relations of power, the battle for access to basic institutions is as pressing as ever. While corporate boardrooms and the halls of government might appear more integrated, racism continues to cut across class lines. From Texaco to Denny’s, from the New Jersey Turnpike to the groves of academe, middle-class blacks face discrimination every day. We constantly hear stories of so-called minorities and women experiencing glass ceilings in the world of business, of talented black professionals second-guessed because of affirmative action, of black executives having to endure racial slurs at work or harassment from those who police the exclusive clubs of the bourgeoisie.

These incidents raise a fundamental question: Should the left take up these battles if its broader agenda is radical transformation? Should the left support the efforts by Jesse Jackson and others to get more minority representation in corporate boardrooms? Abso- lutely! There is no contradiction between fighting to dismantle racism in all its forms and struggling for a more just, humane society in which corporations do not dominate our lives. While it is na=EFve to believe that black and brown faces in power automatically translate into justice for all (think of Clarence Thomas), it is equally na=EFve to believe that black and Latino elected officials and corporate leaders never make a difference. One of racism’s great contradictions was the emergence of a black elite whose class allegiances tended to waver at times. Indeed, the aggrieved black petit-bourgeoisie has been a major fount of radical opposition in America.

Moreover, supporting desegregation and standing up to antiblack racism no matter who the victims might be is the right thing to do. Of course, a growing number of leftists (mostly white) will disagree, insisting that we’ve already overcome, the black middle class is now our enemy and the real issue is class. These critics tend to support the replacement of race-based affirmative action policies with class-based remedies, often promoting the spurious argument that the black middle class benefits from affirmative action at the expense of the white working class. Such an argument not only ignores the power of white-skin privilege and the pervasiveness of structural racism but it wrongly presumes that race and class are in competition.

Where do we go from here? First and foremost, the left needs to return to the problem of segregation, its history and its consequences. Fortunately, the brilliant scholarship of George Lipsitz, Melvin Oliver and Thomas Shapiro, Grace Elizabeth Hale, Michael Goldfield, Noel Ignatiev, Ted Allen, Toni Morrison, David Roediger, David Wellman, Neil Foley, Vijay Prashad, Lisa Lowe, Rosalyn Baxandall and many others reopens the problem of racial exclusion, past and present. They demonstrate why addressing segregation is fundamental to any attempt at revolutionary transformation. Building on the critical insights of James Baldwin, W.E.B. Du Bois and Richard Wright, they recognize that the so-called Negro Problem has always been a white problem. The issue is not that capitalist trickery or some innate, unalterable fear of the Other keeps us divided but that white people reap benefits from segregation whether they acknowledge it or not, and people of color ultimately pay the price.

Rather than a new integrationist movement under a left-wing banner, I would like to see a new, revitalized left launching a full-scale assault on white privilege—a new divestment campaign in which white people refuse the benefits of a racist society. At the very least, we ought to defend and insist on expanding affirmative action. We might also think of ways of reinvesting white dividends into poor black and Latino communities. For example, we know from Melvin Oliver and Thomas Shapiro’s work that the significantly slower rate of appreciation for black-owned homes is a result of redlining, outright discrimination by private lending companies and the Federal Housing Authority’s history of low-rating black or mixed neighborhoods. We also know that lower black home values not only reduce gross equity but make it difficult for blacks to use their residences as collateral for obtaining loans for other investments, such as in college or business. De facto segregation and institutionalized discrimination, in other words, have enriched white homeowners at the expense of African-Americans and other people of color.

As long as public education is paid for through property taxes, why not return a large percentage of tax revenues from suburban and gentrified communities to poor urban school districts? Also, given the devastation caused by the war on drugs, a war targeting black urban communities rather than the entire country and made possible by racial segregation, isn’t it reasonable to demand battle pay of some sort? We might consider, for example, an equivalent to a Marshall Plan or GI Bill for those communities drawn into this protracted war.

I am not talking about reparations for slavery per se (we will never recover those lost wages, lost lives, lost sanity, not to mention money lost in the Freedman’s Savings Bank during Reconstruction), but for past and continuing discrimination, for the massive profits generated by segregation.

These proposals, however, will never move beyond the realm of science fiction as long as white people continue to embrace and benefit from white identity politics, as long as people of all racial and ethnic groups (including black folk) fail to see the fundamental role antiblack racism plays in maintaining the status quo. As Grace Lee Boggs keeps reminding us, we simply don’t have the luxury to wait on government and/or corporate interventions to solve our problems. We need to build a movement. Lots of white folks are making mad dollars off of segregation—even as I write this—and perhaps it’s time to ask for our money back with interest. End affirmative action as we know it! *