Beyond Color-Blindness

By Manning Marable, The Nation, 14 December 1998

In Chicago this past June, some 2,000 African-American activists came together for several days to map strategies for rebuilding the black freedom movement. The Black Radical Congress attracted many veterans of Black Power, antiapartheid and Rainbow Coalition campaigns, as well as hundreds of college students and young workers who were just beginning their involvement in black activist struggles. Ideologically and politically, the two dozen well-attended workshops and the massive plenary sessions reflected an impressive spectrum of viewpoints. There were Communists, lesbian and gay rights activists, democratic socialists, revolutionary nationalists, radical feminists, labor union activists and many others in attendance. Yet among conference organizers, speakers and nearly all participants, there was one common denominator: We were black.

During the months preceding the congress, a number of non-black activists, journalists and others made inquiries about the event, and whether they would be permitted to attend. Members of the National Continuations Committee, the leadership body of more than 100 people, held a common position—all were welcome regardless of race. The congress was being held in a public center at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and anyone who was interested in the program and had $25 for the registration fee could come.

At the Saturday afternoon plenary session, moderator Jamala Rogers reminded the audience that while the congress was designed to focus on the specific problems and concerns of people of African descent, other people of color and whites were not to be excluded in any way.

What was striking, then, was the fact that almost no whites showed up. There were, at best, forty whites in the audience of more than 1,600 at the opening plenary on Friday night, many of whom were journalists. The only racial flashpoint that weekend occurred when several arrogant white would-be revolutionaries briefly disrupted the Youth Caucus. Even then, the response of young African-American activists was remarkably restrained.

One might be tempted to say that the relative invisibility of whites at the BRC was a good thing. It is true that most black people usually have more focused, productive discussions on serious issues affecting African-Americans when whites are not around. This is because many white Americans, despite years of racial etiquette acquired in the post–civil rights period, still feel uneasy talking honestly about race.

What used to be called the Negro problem is now subsumed under a murky series of policy talking points, such as affirmative action, minority economic set-asides, crime, welfare reform and the urban underclass. The concept of a black public policy agenda is rarely mentioned in either the media or in integrated, informal settings.

Sadly, this is also usually the case on the democratic liberal-left. For many years environmental organizations have had difficulty recruiting black members or developing effective working relationships with groups led by people of color. Race becomes something to be overcome, or perhaps even ignored, rather than used as a central starting point for interrogating the dynamics of structural inequality throughout society. If anyone talks about the increasing significance of race as a core theme in contemporary American life, voices within the largely white male social democratic left warn against sliding down the slippery slope of identitarianism.

But what is also intriguing, and requires some explanation, is that the overwhelming majority of black organizers and co-conveners at the congress were themselves members of multiracial political organizations. Among the speakers at the Saturday morning plenary were lesbian activist Cathy Cohen, Communist Party vice chairman Jarvis Tyner, welfare rights organizer Marian Kramer and multiracial labor organizer Tyree Scott. Bill Fletcher, the activist most responsible for initiating this entire project, is the director of the AFL-CIO’s education department. Angela Davis, a prominent speaker at the Congress on Friday evening, is a leader of the multiracial socialist group the Committees of Correspondence.

At the same time, the paradox that each of us, as activists and theorists of color, must confront is that race-based organizing remains necessary to dismantle institutional racism. To eradicate race as a force of social oppression requires race-conscious formations that advocate the integrity and empowerment of racialized ethnic minority groups. The difficulty with this approach, of course, is that we are mobilizing people in part around a concept that is morally repugnant and shouldn’t exist. Yet even though race is socially constructed, it nonetheless sets the parameters of how most Americans think about politics and power.

Many of my white liberal colleagues, especially in academia, think about racial progress in terms of traditional racial integration. In other words, hypersegregated, racialized inner-city communities are symbols of the nation’s failure to overcome institutional racism. The more racially integrated neighborhoods are, the less likely it is that poverty, unemployment and other social problems will be as heavily concentrated in brown and black areas. While this basic idea is true, it ignores the historical fact that the vast majority of white middle-class Americans have only rarely taken mass, collective actions to end the socioeconomic consequences of racism.

All-black or all-Latino neighborhoods in themselves aren’t the problem; the destruction of jobs, substandard housing, inadequate public healthcare, deteriorating schools and public transportation systems in those neighborhoods are. Racial integration shouldn’t be the goal of the black freedom movement. Equality—dismantling all institutional barriers to human development and the redefinition of the social contract to be fully democratic and egalitarian—is the goal. If integration helps us get there, fine. If not, other tools must be employed.

Because institutional racism remains pervasive within the organization and structure of work and political and community life, social conflicts often manifest themselves in racialized ways. Black and brown workers in labor disputes will share many grievances and interests with their white co-workers, but frequently have another set of concerns shaped by the racial stratification of the labor force.

For example, in last year’s successful strike by the Teamsters against United Parcel Service, the central issue was the fight to move more part-time workers into full-time jobs. In a recent article by John Anner in the journal Third Force, the UPS strike was described as a victory for racial justice. Only about one in five full-time UPS employees were people of color, while 39 percent of all part-time workers in the Teamsters bargaining unit were nonwhite. The importance of race as a factor in organizing, and in how workers may see themselves and their own interests, clearly cannot be ignored by progressive organizers.

While the Nation of Islam has long recognized the importance of working extensively in prisons and jails, mainstream integrationist organizations like the Urban League and the NAACP have rarely seen the penal system as an important site for organizing black people. Yet increasingly, that’s where an entire generation of young black people is located. Between 1983 and 1998 the number of prisoners in the United States increased from 650,000 to more than 1.7 million. About 60 percent of that number are African-Americans and Latinos. More than one-third of all young black men in their 20s are currently in jail, on probation or parole, or awaiting trial. We are now adding 1,200 new inmates to US jails and prisons each week, and adding about 260 new prison beds each day.

To reach this crucial section of the black population, black radicals must develop innovative projects that give greater emphasis to prisoners’ rights and the rampant racialization of the criminal justice system. This means, in part, the creation of all-black radical initiatives inside prisons to provide a meaningful alternative to the reactionary nationalism of the Nation of Islam.

The dismantling of legal segregation in the sixties created almost as many problems within the African-American community as it resolved. With the rapid expansion and assimilation of the black middle class into white suburban culture, and the simultaneous economic meltdown of central cities, the traditional institutions of black civil society were profoundly shaken. State-supported historically black colleges and universities, which had been created to preserve racial segregation in higher education, are being either dismantled or pressured to integrate. The black-owned newspapers and journals that were filled with lively political discourse several decades ago have been largely replaced by cable television and mainstream publications. Many black elected officials want not to be designated a black candidate but rather to be a representative of all groups.

The paradox of desegregation is that most working-class and poor blacks live in a society that still remains deeply racialized, but they seemingly lack leaders and organizations capable of devising new strategies and programs for collective empowerment. This is largely why hundreds of thousands of black Americans from divergent social classes participated in the Million Man and Million Woman marches in Washington, DC, and Philadelphia, respectively. That’s also the reason thousands of black young adults were inspired and mobilized around the recent Million Youth March. As black progressives, we roundly criticize and condemn the sexism, homophobia and anti-Semitism of demagogues such as Khallid Muhammad, but unless we construct a meaningful political counterforce that can speak to the real conditions confronting poor and working people, we will continue to be marginalized and largely irrelevant.

I truly wish I could say that race as a social force has declined in significance during my lifetime. It hasn’t. Legal segregation, the Jim Crow system of rigid racial oppression that I grew up with, has indeed disappeared. The legal victories and reforms that produced affirmative action and greater opportunity for millions of black people should not be minimized. But the leviathan of institutional racism and its racial stereotypes have mutated into new forms of inequality. The frontlines in the battle for racial justice for African-Americans are increasingly located in our prisons, in community-based coalitions struggling against police brutality and in efforts to organize the unemployed and welfare recipients forced into workfare programs.

Radical race-based formations like the BRC should stimulate dialogue and encourage cooperation with other racialized ethnic minority groups and Euro-Americans. Cooperation around the practical tasks of organizing campaigns on issues as widely diverse as reproductive rights, the death penalty and a living wage creates contexts where people born into different racial identities begin to see themselves in new ways. If we think about whiteness as the social expression of racial privilege, then to some limited extent whites who are actively engaged in such struggles cease to be racially white. It is only here that integration, for me, has any relevance as an ideal worth fighting to achieve. For black people to have any confidence in the willingness or ability of white comrades to transcend elitist behaviors shaped by centuries of privilege, we must renegotiate the political priorities and even the theoretical tools used to define the objectives of social change.

New formations composed primarily if not exclusively of racialized ethnic minorities have a special responsibility for crafting new strategies of political intervention and mobilization. What we should seek is not a color-blind society but a more democratic social order where race disappears as a fundamental category for the distribution of power, material resources and privilege. White progressives can help that process along by working closely with us, but not always in the same political movements and organizations.