Date: Tue, 30 Jun 98 10:30:54 CDT
Some Thoughts On The BRC, The ‘Post-Civil Rights Era’, And The History Of Black Radicalism
By Robin D. G. Kelley, 20 June 1998
The following are just some thoughts I threw together very quickly on issues raised in various position papers by BRC members as well as conversations I've been having. Forgive the disjointed nature of this "paper" but I just wanted to put a few ideas on the table and offer my own peculiar historical perspective on these matters. There are really two things I want to comment on: 1) how do we assess what has happened to Black communities over the past 25 years or so and where has the "mainstream" Civil Rights movement been on these pressing issues? 2) Where have been the some of the critical points of struggle taken up by Black Radicals during the last 25 years, and are they still relevant?
Implicit in my comments is the notion that neither nationalism nor integrationism as labels really capture the complexity of Black radical politics, and that Black autonomy and independence as well as coalition-building and multiracial alliances are not at all mutually exclusive. Obviously this is not some new revelation, and I believe most BRC comrades agree, but I wanted to put it out on the table since so much of the discussion - from my vantage point - seems to still pivot around these political categories. On the one hand, I strongly believe that NO ONE should be excluded from the BRC if they are willing to unite around the agenda and struggle over shaping it. That, of course, includes Nationalists (whom I've always thought represented so much more than can be contained in the "nationalist" label). On the other hand, I think we should try to disentangle the political agenda from these narrow categories, because if we don't we may end up trying to balance out representation from different "schools" or political tendencies.
Where Did We Go From There?: Thoughts On The Current Crisis And The Civil Rights Agenda
We are all familiar with the many changes in the post-Civil Rights era - too many to name here. The Black middle class expanded as corporate board rooms became slightly more integrated and Black college-educated professionals moved to the suburbs. In the realm of electoral politics - thanks to the Voting Rights Act and, indirectly, white flight from the cities, Black politicians won mayoral races in several major cities, including Los Angeles, Atlanta, New Orleans, Newark, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C. African American representation in Congress increased significantly, too. On the other hand, the period was marked by massive social, political and economic changes that adversely affected Black communities. The issue of school desegregation was hardly settled, particularly after court-ordered busing was proposed as a solution to integrate public schools. Tied to this has been a general backlash against Civil Rights legislation, anti-poverty measures, affirmative action policies.
We also know that changes in the economy have been disastrous for us. Deindustrialization and globalization have led to the disappearance of heavy industry, the flight of American corporations to foreign lands, and the displacement of millions of workers across the country. Permanent unemployment and underemployment has become a way of life. A few years after the War on Poverty had been declared a victory, the number of Black poor grew dramatically. And despite the growing presence of African Americans in political office, city services declined, federal spending on cities dried up, affirmative action programs were dismantled, blatant acts of racism began to rise again, and the U.S. entered a seemingly endless economic recession. Although many of these changes can be attributed to the globalization of the economy, the Reagan/Bush revolution ushered in a new era of corporate wealth and callous disregard for the poor.
Now, the classic question is: has the Civil Rights movement failed us? Did it simply fade away as a relevant force in American politics, or was it always so focused on integration that it missed the most fundamental issues confronting Black folk?
I suppose it all depends on how one defines the traditional "Civil Rights" agenda. In some ways, desegregation of particular public institutions is no longer the most important issue relevant to today. But was it ever? Poverty, the right to organize, political power, equal rights, jobs, even support for African and Third World liberation movements have been on the Civil Rights agenda from its inception, even if activists did not always agree on the agenda. From the days when Paul Robeson was active in the Council on African Affairs to Dr. King's pronouncements against the Vietnam War to Fannie Lou Hamer's work on behalf of the rural poor, the Civil Rights movement has always had a broader agenda then how it has been represented. Indeed, the roll back of affirmative action, I believe, is part of a dismantling of the movement's victories, not to mention the slow elimination of the welfare state. As we talked about in the seminar, people like George Wiley and advocates of the welfare rights movement came directly out of the Civil Rights movement and Poor People's campaign.
The real question is: have the traditional Civil Rights guard continued to fight along all of these lines? Most have not, but there are several organizations that have emerged over the past ten years that have taken on a new range of "civil rights" issues: immigrant rights, labor rights (including the right to work and the right to a decent wage), access to decent public transportation, environmental justice, etc.
Interestingly, many of these issues were laid out in the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 - a document that most Civil Rights leaders at the time took to heart and used to inform their own movement. One of the most important organizations taking on all of these issuses is the Labor/Community Strategy Center in Los Angeles. Its core membership is Latino and Black and they see themselves as solidly in the tradition of the radical civil rights movement. Besides, there has been a kind of re-birth of several traditional Civil Rights organizations - i.e., the renewed NAACP now under Julian Bond's leadership is full of potential that, I think, we can't afford to ignore.
Finally, some issues just won't go away no matter how much has changed. Institutions created to enforce Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and police workplace discrimination have been stripped of any notable power under Reagan, Bush, and Clinton. The appointment of conservative justices led to major reversals in laws pertaining to equal rights and affirmative action. In several landmark cases during the 1988-1989 term, the Court severely limited some key Civil Rights statutes that protected African-Americans from discrimination at the work place, in schools, and at the polls. More recently, we've had Hopwood v. State of Texas (1996), which prohibits the use of race-based admissions criteria to achieve diversity at the University of Texas Law School. Hopwood helped legitimize Proposition 209 (the so-called "California Civil Rights Initiative"), which will effectively dismantle all state affirmative action programs in California. CCRI's recent passage is merely a foreboding of what is to come.
Toward A Black Radical Agenda
In thinking about issues fundamental to a Black Radical Agenda (the original call, by the way, is great, broad and comprehensive - difficult to argue with) I wanted to go back in time to the early 1970s. Its interesting to reflect on that moment because we can point to at least four crucial developments that has shaped the history of Black radicalism since then:
1) Prisoners' Rights: With the emergence of George Jackson as an important theoretician and revolutionary, the incarceration of growing numbers of Black activists such as Angela Davis, and the organized struggles of prisoners (e.g., Attica and other uprisings), prisoners became a key issue around which Black radicals mobilized. The number of Black political prisoners during this period (and even today) is staggering: besides the obvious - Geronimo ji Jaga Pratt, Dhoruba Bin-Wahad, Jamal Joseph, Sha Sha Brown, Herman Bell, Sundiata Acoli, Assata Shakur, Johnny Imani Harris, Imari Obadele, etc., etc., A number of left movements regrouped around the struggle to free Black political prisoners: the African Peoples Party, The Republic of New Afrika, Prairie Fire Organizing Committee, The National Committee for the Defense of Political Prisoners, the Network of Black Organizers, etc. The most prominent movement right now, of course, centers around Mumia Abu Jamal.
2) Internationalism: Pan-Africanist and internationalist politics is obviously as old as the slave ships. We all should know by now that anticolonialism shaped protest politics throughout the U.S., deeply affected the rising Civil Rights movement, and made facilitated many trans-Atlantic alliances between African nationalists and activists in the U.S. and the Caribbean. Internationalism was always crucial to radical movements, and Black politics is certainly no different.
Nevertheless, African liberation took on renewed interest with the solidarity movement in Southern Africa. Most important movement was the African Liberation Support Committee founded in 1971. The ALSC reflected the radical orientation of the liberation movements in Portuguese Africa; its Coordinating Committee consisted of representatives from several nationalist and Black left organizations, including the Youth Organization for Black Unity (YOBU); the All-African People's Revolutionary Party (AAPRP) headed by Kwame Toure; the Pan-African People's Organization; and the Black Workers Congress. Because the ALSC brought together such a broad range of Black activists, it became an arena for debate over the creation of a Black radical agenda. Unfortunately, it fell apart due to internal squabbling and sectarianism, exacerbated by all types of state repression. Within three years the ALSC had utterly collapsed, bringing to an inauspicious close perhaps the most dynamic anti-imperialist organization of the decade.
3) Workerist movements: The Left turn also manifested itself in the factory movement. The African liberation movements in Portuguese Africa are becoming more explicitly Marxist-Leninist, and their leaders call on African Americans to fight in the belly of the beast. Marxist-Leninists, irrespective of race, begin to go into the factories to organize. Some became excellent trade unionists; others developed cadre on the shop floor and push for a radical agenda, still others got caught up in sectarian politics and Left in-fighting.
4) Radical Black Feminism: In an age when the metaphors for Black liberation were increasingly masculinized and Black movement leaders not only ignored but perpetuated gender oppression, even the most Marxist of the Black nationalist movements belittled the "woman question". Concerned about the rising tide in Black male sexism and chauvinism, many African-American women active in political and social movements spoke out. Some African-American women were drawn to small radical feminist groups such as the Redstockings and WITCH. However, during the early to mid-1970's most Black feminists avoided the predominantly white women's movement. They found their white counterparts unaware of the importance of race and racism, and some really resented the way white women equated their plight with Black people. When white women appealed to sisterhood, African-American women were quick to point out that historically their relations with one another had been as domestic servants or in some capacity as an employee. More importantly, most Black women activists did not separate their fight for women's rights from issues affecting the entire Black community. The majority of Black feminists did not believe, as many of their white counterparts did, that all men were the enemy. In January 1973, fifteen African-American women active in San Francisco and Oakland, California, founded Black Women Organized for Action (BWOA). By the end of the year approximately 400 African-American women gathered in New York City to attend the first conference of the National Black Feminist Organization (NBFO). It became clear from the speeches that the NBFO's emphasis would be on combatting sexist and racist discrimination against Black women and struggling for greater involvement in the political process. Many journalists and activists took special note of the diversity of participants. Black women from all walks of life, from lawyers to domestic workers, welfare rights organizers to polished elected officials.
Although the different backgrounds of these women enriched the discussion from the floor, it also created tensions. After its first year, Black women active in the welfare rights movements felt the NBFO side-stepped the problems of poor women, and many African-American lesbians criticized the NBFO for ignoring homophobia (fear of, and discrimination against, homosexuals) and for speaking only to issues affecting heterosexual women.
The lesbian community, having fought very hard to build an inclusive Black woman's movement that considered the needs of all - irrespective of class or sexual orientation, felt the NBFO abandoned the movement's initial goals. Partly in response to the NBFO's shortcomings, and partly in response to a series of unsolved murders of African-American women in Boston during the early 1970's, a group of Black feminists in Massachusetts formed the Combahee River Collective in 1974. They split from the NBFO and developed a radically different political philosophy. For the Combahee River Collective, Black women could not be completely liberated until racism and homophobia are annihilated, and unless capitalism is replaced by socialism. Equality with men under the current economic arrangements was not enough, they argued.
I don't think its too much to say that the emergence of radical Black feminism in this period was perhaps the most important contribution to a revolutionary agenda. Across the globe Black and "Third World" women have challenged Western feminism and the very category of a universal "woman"; raised issues about differences in experience by race and class, but also went a step further suggesting that in some cases the relationship between white feminists and poor women of color has been one of exploitation and oppression. Moreover, Black feminist and gay and lesbian politics offers one of the most comprehensive radical vision I can think of, one that recognizes the deep interconnectedness of struggles around race, gender, sexuality, culture, class, and spirituality. Too many so-called radicals have falsely presumed that Black feminist movements are necessarily narrow simply because Black women and their concerns are central to them. Nothing could be further from the truth. One vital outgrowth of radical Black feminism has been the Black women's healthcare movement, its most notable manifestation being the National Black Women's Health Project. Among other things, they have sought to create a healthier environment for poor and working-class women and reduce women's dependence on a health care system structured by capitalism and run primarily by men. If they succeeded, imagine how such a transformation might benefit all of us, irrespective of race or gender? Similarly, we need to understand how gay and lesbian movements might also contribute to our collective emancipation. Some things are obvious: the continuing struggle of gays and lesbians against discrimination in public and private life have important implications for national civil rights law; other movements have made AIDS visible - a disease that's killing many more heterosexual people, especially poor Black women.
Moreover, as Black radicals we have to recognize the degree to which sexuality is a vital part of human existence, and that how sexual identities get defined (and policed) has to do with social relations of power, the role of the state, public institutions, and social movements. Thanks to gender analysis, we know that there is nothing natural or inevitable about male dominance, the overrepresentation of men in positions of power, or the tendency of men to use violence as a means to resolve conflict. These are all obvious points, to be sure. But how many heterosexual men and women stop to think about the emancipatory potential a more flexible sexual and gender identity could have on all of us? Besides reducing homophobic anxieties, freeing up self-expression, and enabling us all to reconstruct our relationships to one another (isn't that what revolution is all about?), a less rigid definition of masculinity may actually reduce violence - from police brutality to domestic abuse. (Obviously, there are many more components to the story of the post-1970 Black radicalism, such as efforts to develop a National Black Independent Political Party, the Black United front, specific Black trade union initiatives proposed by Black Workers for Justice, the Black Workers League, etc. etc. etc., but this is not meant to be a history - just some points for discussion and some historical perspective on what we are trying to do.) When we examine this brief list of critical movements coming out of the 1970s and into the 1980s, the most important issues, seems to me, defy the simple categories or integrationist, nationalist, etc. Again, if we revisit the last 25 years, although movements sometimes fell apart over sectarianism or even debates over whether a particular movement would adopt Marxism or not, or identify with particular regimes, the issues that were - and still are - urgent are not owned by nationalists or integrationists. What should Black radicals focus on? Obviously, the agenda for the BRC needs to be debated and struggled over, but off the top of my head I can think of many urgent issues that defy simple political labels: besides the obvious ones (jobs and improved working conditions, decent housing and education, etc.) let's talk about prisoners' rights; inequities in sentencing policies for people of color; the rights of people who are HIV infected (a large proportion of whom are poor Black women); cruel and unusual forms of punishment such as forced sterilization for alleged child abusers (an unusual sentence that disproprotionately affects young women of color); toxic dumping and other environmental hazards that disproportionately affect poor Black, Native American and Latino communities; resisting the rightward turn within and without the Black community - the increasing stress on self-help policies while our tax dollars are used to bail out the wealthy; attacks on gays and lesbians and single mothers by Black conservative groups such as Project 21, Concerned Citizens for Traditional Family Values, and the Traditional Values Coalition, and publications such as The Black Chronicle; etc.
We should also follow the footsteps of our Black radical predecessors and actively join forces with other oppressed people of color (not to mention, break down this Black-white binary we sometimes fall into). We should work with other activist organizations in the Asian-American, Native American, and Latino communities. (Latinos have already surpassed African Americans as the largest so-called minority group in the U.S.) At the very least we should work toward reducing antagonisms between African Americans and Latinos, Asians, and other ethnic groups. We are all aware of antisemitism and anti-Korean sentiments within Black communities, but prejudice against Latinos also seems to be growing among Black people - as it has within the country as a whole. During the L.A. riots, for example, many Latinos were singled out and assualted by Black participants, and an uncomfortably large number of Black voters in California came out in support of proposition 187 denying undocumented Latino immigrants basic health and educational services. In short, if fighting racism continues to be one our main tasks, then we should defend victims of racist brutality, irrespective of the victim's or offender's color.
Clearly, as independent and autonomous as the BRC will (and must) be, we still need to build and support multiracial grassroots radical movements committed to an internationalist agenda at all times, vigilantly building links with oppressed people world-wide, exposing the ravages of global capital. We need to understand the fundamental importance of developing both a workplace and community-based strategy. We need an agenda that moves beyond single-issue battles to wider struggles: say, in campaigns against a racist criminal justice system, domestic violence and institutional failure to deal with battering and child abuse, assaults on the environment. We must pay attention to ideology, go beyond organizing tactics to questions about how our society works and what else can be put in its place. We need a clear analysis of class-based and gender-based racism and, we need to recognize racism as both a small benefit and big problem for white workers. Racism, after all, has been a noose around their necks since the beginnings of this country, and sexism within the Black freedom movement has been the achilles heel of the movement.
The good news is that there are organizations, often products of the best elements of Third World, feminist and Black Liberation movements, that sustain all of these criteria, or at least are committed to them: we can point to the Southern Organizing Committee for Economic Justice, the Labor/Community Strategy Center, New Directions, etc. Working inside and in support of multiracial progressive movements has been part of the Black radical tradition since we were brought here in chains three centuries ago. That will not change. And it does not conflict with the need for a strong, independent autonomous Black radical organization - a movement that could participate in, criticize, and learn from the organizations that claim to speak for the Black community; a movement that would have its own voice and agenda, that could keep its sights on Black liberation while helping to shape a broader multiracial challenge to capitalism, patriarchy and white supremacy; an independent Black radical movement that could re-connect with the rest of the world, like Malcolm did, or Walter Rodney, C.L.R. James, Robert Williams, and Vickie Garvin, like delegates to the 7th Pan-African Congress tried to do a few years back. (Indeed, the decline of internationalism left a void that Farrakahn has been quick to fill, to the detriment of democratic struggles in Africa).
Some leftists might call such a movement essentialist, or claim that we've reached a point in history where Black movements are obsolete, old-fashioned identity politics and whatnot. I don't believe that, and as we move into the 21st century it is eerily like the turn of the last century. The Second Reconstruction was never completed and the little gains it has made are being overturned rapidly. At the same time, just as the Black freedom movement helped emancipate many others in our century (women, white working class men, other so-called "minorities") I believe it has that capacity in the coming years. I believe C.L.R. James when he wrote in 1948:
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