November 28, 2016

Beyond identity politics

Alyssa Rosenberg, Washington Post -   One of the bitterest parts of looking back into the history of American radicalism is imagining what Illinois Black Panther party chairman Fred Hampton might have been had he not been killed by a police tactical unit in 1969 at age 20. At the time of his death, Hampton was organizing a multi-racial political coalition that included members of the Young Lords, a Puerto Rican nationalist organization, the Native American Housing Committee and the Young Patriots Organization, which worked with white migrants from Appalachia... In “The Black Panthers,” [is] footage of one of those coalition meetings, which lingers on a middle-aged white man declaring “I’ll stick with the Black Panthers if they’ll stick with me, and I know they will.” It’s a scene that carries with it the terrible sting of a foreclosed opportunity.

Sam Smith, 2013 - If you want to scare the establishment, get people together who it doesn’t think belong together. If you are students having a problem with your principal don’t just go to his or her office with the usual troublemakers; walk in with some of the smartest kids, some jocks, a few punks, blacks, whites, latinos, and, best of all, the kids who never seems to be interested in doing anything at all. Once when we were fighting freeways in Washington, I looked up on a platform and there was the Grovesnor Chapman, chair of the white elite Georgetown Citizens Association, and Reginald Booker head of a black militant organization called Niggers Inc., and I said to myself, we are going to win. And we did.

My old friend, the late Chuck Stone, really knew how to get along with other people. When he was columnist and senior editor of the Philadelphia Daily News, 75 homicide suspects surrendered to him personally rather than take their chances with the Philadelphia police department. Black journalist Stone also negotiated the end of five hostage crises, once at gun point. “I learned how to listen,” he said. Stone believed in building what he calls “the reciprocity of civility.” His advice for getting along with other Americans: treat them like a member of your family.

Show everyone respect and you’ll walk comfortably among every class, subculture and ethnicity in this land. Don’t show respect and you’ll live a lonely life.

Part of that respect is towards yourself. Don’t apologize for who you are. Don’t be afraid to argue with someone just because they are of a different ethnicity. Arguing with someone is a form of respect too, because it means you really care about what they think. But bear in mind that in a community, your view is just an opinion and not a rule.

If you are a member of an ethnic or other minority, remember that as an activist your role is to provide solutions to problems and not merely to be a symptom of them. To be a survivor and not a victim.

During the civil rights movement, black leaders spoke not only to those of their own culture but to many whites, especially young whites like myself. The most influential book I read in college was Martin Luther King’s ‘Stride Toward Freedom’ and it wasn’t on any required reading list. Cesar Chavez had a similar cross-cultural appeal. But then as African Americans became more successful in politics there was a understandable but unfortunate tendency to retreat to a constituency you knew you could rely upon. And so black leaders became much less influential in the white community.

So don’t let your story be ghettoized; instead take that story and find the universal in it, and use that story to move those who don’t look like you but can understand the story because you made it theirs, too. The greatest ethnic success stories in America have come when a minority learned to lead the majority, as the Irish and Jews often did in the past century. 

Sam Smith, March 2016 - Today, it too often feels like both liberal and conservative America considers politics an evangelical religion where there are those who have been saved and those who will go to hell. And the ones that don’t think like you are in the latter group.

Which is why so many liberals are willing to define their faith as encompassing things like gay marriage and abortion, while ignoring the economic issues that once made their politics powerful.
For more than three decades, as their own social and monetary status has improved, many liberals have been drifting away from concern over economic matters, creating a huge cultural gap between themselves and the middle and lower class. This has opened the way for the right wing success now peaking with the candidacy of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. Liberals didn’t lose the support of the less successful white American; rather they tossed it away. 

Part of the secret of successful politics is not to condemn those whom you’re trying to convince. Especially since there aren’t enough liberals around to have a majority just by themselves. They may get into heaven, but they won’t make it to the White House.

Besides, insisting on the rights word and right symbolism at best only gets you that. Picking the right issues and the right actions and forming alliances even with those who don’t think and talk right about everything can get some really important change. 

I learned this as an admirer of the community organizer Saul Alinsky, someone who wouldn’t be too well regarded in liberal circles these days. A short time before his death in 1972, he was interviewed by Playboy. A few excerpts:

PLAYBOY: The assumption behind the Administration's Silent Majority thesis is that most of the middle class is inherently conservative. How can even the most skillful organizational tactics unite them in support of your radical goals?

ALINSKY: Conservative? That's a crock of crap. Right now they're nowhere. But they can and will go either of two ways in the coming years -- to a native American fascism or toward radical social change. Right now they're frozen, festering in apathy, leading what Thoreau called "lives of quiet desperation:" They're oppressed by taxation and inflation, poisoned by pollution, terrorized by urban crime, frightened by the new youth culture, baffled by the computerized world around them. They've worked all their lives to get their own little house in the suburbs, their color TV, their two cars, and now the good life seems to have turned to ashes in their mouths. Their personal lives are generally unfulfilling, their jobs unsatisfying, they've succumbed to tranquilizers and pep pills, they drown their anxieties in alcohol, they feel trapped in long term endurance marriages or escape into guilt-ridden divorces. They're losing their kids and they're losing their dreams. They're alienated, depersonalized, without any feeling of participation in the political process, and they feel rejected and hopeless.
They're the first to live in a total mass-media-oriented world, and every night when they turn on the TV and the news comes on, they see the almost unbelievable hypocrisy and deceit and even outright idiocy of our national leaders and the corruption and disintegration of all our institutions, from the police and courts to the White House itself. Their society appears to be crumbling and they see themselves as no more than small failures within the larger failure. All their old values seem to have deserted them, leaving them rudderless in a sea of social chaos. Believe me, this is good organizational material.

The despair is there; now it's up to us to go in and rub raw the sores of discontent, galvanize them for radical social change. We'll give them a way to participate in the democratic process, a way to exercise their rights as citizens and strike back at the establishment that oppresses them, instead of giving in to apathy. We'll start with specific issues -- taxes, jobs, consumer problems, pollution -- and from there move on to the larger issues: pollution in the Pentagon and the Congress and the board rooms of the mega-corporations. Once you organize people, they'll keep advancing from issue to issue toward the ultimate objective: people power. We'll not only give them a cause, we'll make life goddamn exciting for them again -- life instead of existence. We'll turn them on.

PLAYBOY: Mobilizing middle-class America would seem quite a departure for you after years of working with poverty-stricken black and white slum dwellers. Do you expect suburbia to prove fertile ground for your organizational talents?

ALINSKY: Yes, and it's shaping up as the most challenging fight of my career, and certainly the one with the highest stakes. Remember, people are people whether they're living in ghettos, reservations or barrios, and the suburbs are just another kind of reservation -- a gilded ghetto. One thing I've come to realize is that any positive action for radical social change will have to be focused on the white middle class, for the simple reason that this is where the real power lies....

The the ultimate key to acceptance by a community is respect for the dignity of the individual you're dealing with. If you feel smug or arrogant or condescending, he'll sense it right away, and you might as well take the next plane out. The first thing you've got to do in a community is listen, not talk, and learn to eat, sleep, breathe only one thing: the problems and aspirations of the community. Because no matter how imaginative your tactics, how shrewd your strategy, you're doomed before you even start if you don't win the trust and respect of the people; and the only way to get that is for you to trust and respect them. And without that respect there's no communication, no mutual confidence and no action.

… The middle class actually feels more defeated and lost today on a wide range of issues than the poor do. And this creates a situation that's supercharged with both opportunity and danger. There's a second revolution seething beneath the surface of middle-class America -- the revolution of a bewildered, frightened and as-yet-inarticulate group of desperate people groping for alternatives -- for hope. Their fears and their frustrations over their impotence can turn into political paranoia and demonize them, driving them to the right, making them ripe for the plucking by some guy on horseback promising a return to the vanished verities of yesterday. The right would give them scapegoats for their misery -- blacks, hippies, Communists -- and if it wins, this country will become the first totalitarian state with a national anthem celebrating "the land of the free and the home of the brave."

I got my activist start with help from an Alinsky trained Presbyterian minister, learning early not only good strategies but the importance of treating everyone  with respect, finding unity in specific issues rather than a general ideology, and approaching problems as a friendly human and not as a sociology professor sternly parading theories.

As I wrote some years later, “What if we were to start with the unhappy truth that humans have always had a hard time dealing with other peoples, and that much ethnic and sexual antagonism stems not from hate so much as from cultural narcissism? Then our repertoire of solutions might tilt more towards education and mediation and away from being self-righteous multi-cultural missionaries converting yahoos in the wilds of the soul. We could turn towards something more akin to what Andrew Young once described as a sense of ‘no fault justice.’ We might begin to consider seriously Martin Luther King's admonition to his colleagues that among their dreams should be that someday their enemies would be their friends.”

It’s not a bad way to start bringing middle and lower class whites to the progressive agenda. Dump self righteous liberal evangelicalism and find issues that, by pursuing, can make friends with those they have been trained by the right to despise. Talk about middle class white pain instead of white privilege. Teach ethnic commonalities. Find what we share. And choose issues that will make things better for most - regardless of the color of their skin. 

One of the other ways the 1960s were different was that we believed that if we worked hard enough in the right way things would get better. We have to recover that sense. And working together on things you didn’t realize you had in common is a great way to start. 

It’s not our own virtue that need protecting; it is our common goals that need to be discovered and acted upon.


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