Panel discussion: Overcoming race and class divides

Faith for a Fair New York Conference, hosted by the Labor-Religion Coalition of NYS
Binghamton, NY
October 18, 2017

Panelists: Barbara Smith, Willie Baptist, John Wessel-McCoy.
Moderated by Manolo de los Santos.

Rev. Emily McNeill: We have to spend some real time talking about race in this country, and about organizing across race and taking racism and white supremacy seriously.

Manolo de los Santos: We need to give each other a round of applause because what we’re doing today is part of something very radical. I’ve been saying it all morning. I was saying it last night, and I’ve been feeling it for so many days now. What a powerful combo we have here. Poor folks from all over New York State with one agenda on our minds. We are not just talking about changing narratives here — we are talking about how we are going to change this country.

As we build the unity of our people, which is essential to this struggle, we cannot forget to talk about race. But I don’t like talking about race without talking about my class, because I know where I come from. I am an immigrant. My family was forced to migrate from the Dominican Republic to the U.S. We sometimes forget the connections between what the U.S. does to poor people in its own country and what it does to poor people all over the world. My family was forced to migrate: poor people from the Dominican Republic forced to be poor people in the United States.

The only white people I knew growing up were the cops, the social workers,  and the teachers, who we all considered enemies of the working people, because they were never on our side. But these times require us to look again at the picture. Part of it is coming out of my comfort zone. I’ve been comfortable for a long time, thinking that it’s enough for me to say that I’m black and Latino. Yet it’s very uncomfortable to say that I’m black, Latino and poor in this country. It bothers people.

And the more I see why it bothers people, the more I’m interested in hanging out with other poor people. This unity we’re building here today is a dangerous type of unity. It’s an uncomfortable type of unity. It’s a unity that would actually require us to look in our faces, look at difference, understand where difference comes from, who imposes it, who started it, and why is it functioning?

We are blessed to have here today a panel of fighters who are thinkers and thinkers who are fighters. People who have been at the forefront of many struggles in this country, have seen evil with their own eyes, and actually looked back at it, and are not afraid to speak up. Today we want to look at what is this history of identity politics in the United States? Why is it so important? Why is it that we place so much energy and resources to the issues of identity? Why is it easier in the United States, in certain moments, like right now, to get funding as a nonprofit organization to bring together black people in the South Bronx than it is to bring together poor people in the United States?

I want to introduce first of all our dear sister, fighter, thinker, Barbara Smith, who’s going to share with us.

Barbara Smith: Hello, everyone. I was asked to speak about identity politics and the history of the Combahee River Collective. How many people have heard about intersectionality? Today I’m going to tell you where intersectionality actually came from, because most people do not know that.

The Combahee River Collective was a small group of black feminists. Usually we were about ten or less, who came together in the mid 1970s in Boston, to do black feminist organizing at a time when even the white women’s movement, was not mainstream or was not that well accepted. But certainly, organizing this — and many of us were also lesbians — we were persona non grata. We were marginalized, demonized, vilified, you name it. But we persisted.

We named ourselves the Combahee River Collective after the river in South Carolina. Harriet Tubman was a scout with the Union Army during the Civil War, and she planned and led the only military action in U.S. history, probably up until even now, that was planned and led by a woman. It was an action that freed over 750 enslaved Africans.

We were founded in 1974. In 1977 we wrote the Combahee River Collective Statement, and that statement is still read, taught, talked about, and used. It was in the statement that the term “identity politics” first appeared, as far as we know. There were three co-authors of the Combahee River Collective Statement: my sister Beverly Smith, Demita Frazier and me.

I’m going to read to you the section of the Combahee River Collective  Statement that talks about identity politics.

This focusing upon our own oppression is embodied in the concept of identity politics. We believe that the most profound and potentially most radical politics come directly out of our own identity, as opposed to working to end somebody else’s oppression. In the case of Black women this is a particularly repugnant, dangerous, threatening, and therefore revolutionary concept because it is obvious from looking at all the political movements that have preceded us that anyone is more worthy of liberation than ourselves. We reject pedestals, queenhood, and walking ten paces behind. To be recognized as human, levelly human, is enough.

Now the reason we asserted that was because we were writing this in the context of black power or black nationalism. This was a legacy of the politics of the civil rights movement, and although black women were central to the success of the movement, we got very little credit. During this period of black nationalism going into the late ’60s and early ’70s, black women’s roles were more proscribed and constricted. Kwame Ture, whose birth names was Stokely Carmichael, was asked, “What is the position of the black woman in the political black movement?” His response was, “The position of the black woman is to be prone.” Now he actually meant supine. But either way you’re on the ground, right?

The reason we asserted that identity politics were so important was because we thought it was critical for us as black women and women of color to define a political agenda based upon our actual experiences — not just being female, that is, female and white, or being black and having no gender — we thought it was important to bring all of that to the table and that’s exactly what we did. If you want to read the Combahee River Statement, it is online an easily available. Also in a few weeks, we’ll be bringing out a 40th anniversary edition of the Combahee River Collective Statement with interviews with each of the three authors, edited by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, the author of From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation. It was her idea to do that. It will be available and hopefully it will be easier for people to find out this history.

We considered ourselves to be revolutionary then, and I think some of us still see our politics that way. You can’t really say that you’re a revolutionary — someone else has to say it about you. Somebody has to agree besides you.

One of the things that made the Combahee River Collective unique was that we were part of the left. We had been involved in other movements. We had a lot of experience before we began to build our version of black feminism. We had been involved in the movement to end the war in Vietnam. We had been involved in the Panthers. We had been involved in the Civil Rights struggle. We had been involved in student organizing. We had been involved in a lot of moments that were critical during that period.

What we meant by ‘’identity politics” was not to be exclusionary. We believe in coalition. We were committed to coalition, and we actually worked in coalition with various kinds of people in Boston during that period. Keep in mind, that period in Boston history was a period of racial warfare, because that was during the school busing crisis of the 1970s. Court ordered, school segregation. Yet we thought it was important to work across our differences. So the way identity politics is used now is very different than what we actually intended.

Willie Baptist: I was asked to speak for eight minutes. Many of you know it takes me more than eight minutes to say hello. I came of age out of the ghetto uprisings of the late 1960s. I was raised in Watts, California. On August 11, 1965, some 60,000 people hit the streets in violent protest against the conditions that existed in the black ghettos. Over the course of the last half of the ’60s, somewhere in the area of 300 cities went up in flames and outrage. It has been called the most violent social upheaval since the Civil War. What developed out of that was an all-class, all-white law-and-order movement. Alongside of that was the black power movement. I came out of the black power movement.

I was so black nationalist that I didn’t wear white underwear. I didn’t like white folks. Watts, California was the most impoverished community in the state. I thought for a long time, like Manolo said, that white people had money. That they were rich, because all I knew were the white folks on TV and the police. They looked like they had some money. They had money, and I didn’t have any. I thought that was true until I met this guy right here [gestures to John], and I found out that was a damn lie.

Over time I began to appreciate the problem of race and class. A lot of the mistakes I’ve made over the years — and I’ve been involved for over 50 years in poor communities — have had to do with race and class. This question of race and class is pivotal, and I think the idea of the Poor People’s Campaign is an idea that addresses this question. If it doesn’t address it, it won’t be successful. Society has maintained control through the mechanisms of race and other differences such as gender and other inequalities.

Malcolm X once stated, “Of all our studies, history is best qualified to reward our research.” A historical perspective is very important if we are to solve these problems, and what I’ve learned throughout the years is that our U.S. education system has done a disservice. If you don’t know your history, there’s no way you’re going to be able to deal with such a complicated question as this formula of control.

In history we study ruling classes, from the Roman Empire all the way to today. Ruling classes have never, never, exploited and oppressed equally. There’s always a disproportion. There’s always an isolation of one section of the oppressed and exploited as a way of controlling the other section. The other thing is that the ruling class has always represented a minority in society. The 1 percent. How is it that 1 percent has control of 99 percent? They’ve done it by emphasizing our differences and obscuring what we have in common. Our differences are very important, because we bring different things to different problems, which can contribute to a struggle moving forward if we understand our differences in relation to what we have in common. The Poor People’s Campaign is about bringing forth those things, our hurt and pain, that we all have in common. It’s dangerous. Look around the room. These kind of meetings are meetings that you don’t have.

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King had this kind of meeting in Atlanta, Georgia in the spring of 1968, called the Minority Meeting, where he had invited poor whites, poor Latinos, and poor blacks to come together. He talked about that being the only meeting he ever had, in all of the Civil Rights meetings he had had up to that point. It was a meeting that looks like this. Three weeks after that, he was assassinated. You do not unite the bottom. That’s the lesson from history. In our inequality and the disproportions, the isolation of one section to control another section, is a formula of power they have used historically. It is something that we have to understand, because the question of what we have in common is something we have to put in the foreground if we are going to solve this problem of race and class.

The Nazis used the experience of how race was used in U.S. society to do what they did in Nazi Germany on the question of the Jews. People see movies, and they hear about the heroics of the struggle against the Holocaust, but rarely do we hear about the isolation that preceded that attack. Never do we hear that the point of anti-Semitism wasn’t only about the isolation of the Jews, but it was, ‘How do you control?’ For the ruling class, ‘How do you control the German masses?’ Racism is just as much about how you control the white masses as it is about isolating the black masses. Are people hearing what I’m trying to say?

We’re living in a period where that all-white unity, based on the isolation and attack on another section of society, is being threatened by this economic crisis that they say was over in 2009 but is still here. People are getting jobs, but they’re jobs like slave jobs. Under slavery, everybody had a job.

I just want to stress that this problem of class and race is a very complicated one. It’s one that we have to study, we have to learn from, and we have to understand who benefits from our division and the way they have of controlling us. We should learn history, and learn how to deal with this problem and not get into a position like we did in the ’60s. We had what we called “Oppression Olympics.” Who is the most oppressed? I’m more oppressed than you. We got into these arguments. And as a result of that, we were unable to unite in a way that directed our energy toward the people who benefitted from our oppression and our division. These are questions we should discuss, and the Poor People’s Campaign gives us the opportunity to talk about these things, learn from each other and to go forward.

John Wessel-McCoy: I’m really struck by the choice of name for the Combahee River Collective, and in the same way as the Poor People’s Campaign, holding up the leadership of the poor and dispossessed. Thinking about Harriet Tubman: John Brown called her General, and others called her Moses. I appreciate Barbara for bringing that into the space here.

I’ll start with a bit of a personal thing. Before I got into this work with Willie and others at the Poverty Initiative at the Kairos Center, I was a union organizer. I organized parking attendants  in Washington D.C., and home healthcare workers in Chicago and childcare providers in New York City.

So my entry into this work was through organized labor, and the reason why I went that direction was because of what was going on in my hometown when I was in high school in the ’90s. I grew up just outside of Decatur, Illinois. Decatur is a small industrial city and has a lot in common with cities you find across Illinois where the Rust Belt comes together with the Corn Belt.

When I was in high school, the workers at three of the four big factories were on strike at the same time. Well, I should be more accurate, in the case of Staley the workers were locked out for three years. Some people don’t know what a three-year lockout means. It tears families apart. It was incredible — it was a war zone. That was actually how people described it then. ‘Decatur was a war zone,’ is what people would say. Tear gas, beatings on the picket line, and it’s not a very big town. Everyone had people on both sides of the fight.

Decatur is right in the center of the state, between St. Louis and Chicago. It leans a little bit more southern because of the migration patterns, both black and white migration up from the south. My family, in part, came up from the south. The town was about 20 percent black, and so the racial antagonism, the role of white supremacy, in my hometown was always there. Not many people talked about it, but I was always aware of it, you know.

It was also one these towns where for a couple of generations — it was true, in particular for the white working class — that you could graduate from high school and go to work at Caterpillar or Staley or ADM or Bridgestone/Firestone, and you could get a job that made it possible for you to buy a house, a truck, and a bass boat if you wanted. Everyone needed a bass boat. That was part of the culture there.

When I was in high school that was the beginning of the end. Things have declined a great deal, and it was always twice as much of what was bad, and half as much of what was good, for black folks in Decatur. But also, you have white folks, and members of my family, who have been incarcerated. I’ve got members of my family who have fallen prey to the opioid addiction. I’ve got members of my family who have been laid off and struggle making ends meet.

And so there’s a dynamic, which I think has been brought into such sharp relief over these past couple years: this idea of a notorious, terrible white working class that’s out there voting against their self-interest. It’s true, there are elements of that out there, but most of what I see when I go back to my hometown is people who are disorganized, disconnected, the vast majority, and hurting.

I often think about how with the original Poor People’s Campaign, Dr. King was definitely ahead of his time. In 1968, the standard of living in this country — again, disproportionate for the white working class — was at an all-time high. We’re in a different situation now, and all I can think is that we’re in this sort of crisis situation, and it’s both extraordinarily dangerous as well as a time of opportunity.

My family can be won over. I’m not running away from it. I love them, and I see them hurting. Illinois is the kind of place that’s a lot like New York. New York has the city, and then there’s everything else, and Illinois has Chicago and downstate. That’s coded language: black folks and brown folks are in Chicago, and white folks are in downstate, pitted against each other. During this moment of real crisis, where there’s danger and opportunity, we have to figure this out. How to unite? Not to disregard the differences, not to disregard the disproportionality of oppression, but also, this is the direction our entire country is going if we don’t do something about it.

Manolo de los Santos: This is a good start to a difficult conversation that needs to be had, and hearing you all speak, I think about the capacity of the system to accommodate us to a certain extent, on an individual level. If I need to see a black Latino president, I’m sure they can work it out — eventually. If I need to see more young people coming from the South Bronx in positions of authority, at least what they call symbolic authority, I’m sure they can figure that out. Can they accommodate us a whole? I don’t think so. I have a feeling that they’d have a hard time finding how to accommodate the needs of all of our people.

I have more questions for our panelists in order to begin the larger discussion with everyone here, with the audience. One question is, from your experiences as organizers, as  thinkers, as fighters, have there been concrete examples of this coalition building? Is this the first time we’re doing this? Are we bound to fail? What are the possibilities that actually build the unity of the poor? Also, when we talk about recognizing our differences, what does this mean? Do we shut down identity politics? Do we lift up identity? What identities are we talking about? What purpose do they serve? To what limit can we take them? These are some questions I’ll throw back at you.

Barbara Smith: I want to elaborate on what I said about the term “identity politics”: the way it’s used now is very different from what we meant. The way it is being used now has been reduced, and the right wing has also taken to defining it, too. What we meant was that it was legitimate for us as women of African heritage living in the United States, for us to define and create a political theory and practice, a political agenda, that would address the situations and the realities that we faced as black women and women of color.

For example, the issue of sexual assault, rape, and violence, those were not going to be the issues taken up by, at least at that time period, by black political movements, because those issues were just beginning to be defined. We got involved in looking at sexual assault, domestic violence and violence against women. We didn’t look at it the same way white women did. Our first thought was not, “Let’s call the police. The police will make everything all right.” Because we knew that by and large that was never the case. Our communities had never relied on the police for safety. And, in fact, we had often been targeted by the police in very violent ways.

So how do you build a movement to address interpersonal violence? And violent rape? Rape is violence. Not sex, but violence. How do you build a movement in communities of color that take that into account? Those are the kind of subtleties, fine tuning, that we pushed to take into account. As I said, we were very very committed to coalition-building work. We also were completely committed to toppling white supremacy.

See, people think that people like us didn’t exist. We were stereotyped and called all kinds of names, “man haters” and what have you. But the thing is, they didn’t realize that, yeah, you could actually hold all these things together in one set of interventions and build off of that. We defined ourselves as socialists and anti-capitalists. So, how does that work? These are politics that a lot of people won’t even get involved with today, let alone back in the 1970s.

What has happened with identity politics is that people see it as, “if you’re not just like me, if you don’t have the same experiences that I do, then I don’t want anything to do with you and if you say something that I find oppositional then we have nothing to talk about further.” So it’s being used to beat people up both ways. No one should go anywhere and have their humanity decimated and destroyed. And if the basis on which you decimate people’s identity are to decimate their values based on their various identities, then you have to bring identity into the conversation. On the other hand, we work with people whose politics we share. So  there are white, cis-gendered, heterosexual men who I have more in common with politically than with some idealized lesbians of color. I still use that old-fashioned term, I know that people say queer now, but I use the term we used when I came out. We work with people whose politics we share, and that makes for a wonderful and incredibly strong possibility for making deep change.

Willie Baptist: The problem presented last night at the Poor People’s Campaign Mass Meeting was presented as a systemic problem, one in which individuals participate, but it’s systemic. Racism has historically evolved out of a culture that is all around us.

I’ll give you an example of how systemic it is. Just before I became homeless on the streets of Philadelphia with my family, I lived in a community in Philadelphia called University City. One morning I got up to go to the store to buy some groceries. As I’m walking to the store there’s this middle-class white lady who’s approaching me, walking in the opposite direction. And as we approach each other, I see the most god-awful fear and terror in her eyes. As we came closer, it became more and more pronounced. I didn’t take much mathematics in school, but I kind of figured out that whatever she’s afraid of is closer to me than her, so I turned around to see what it was!

I, a black male, have been created and stereotyped as a monster. I don’t know her stories, and she doesn’t know my stories. But the experience was so excruciating to me that I walked across the street so she didn’t have to deal with the prospect of having to engage with me. This is happening in America — it’s systemic. I know some Italian and Irish brothers that can do you dirty, but the image you see out there is one of me being a terror to this young lady. This is what we’re dealing with.

I’ll share another story: We marked the 35th anniversary of Dr. King’s Poor People’s Campaign by retracing the the tracks of the Poor People’s Campaign Mule Train. We had poor blacks, whites, Latinos, and children on the march from Marx, Mississippi, which is the poorest city in the poorest state, and it’s where the original Mule Train started.

I tend to be one of the oldest ones at these kind of things. My feet hurt and I couldn’t march, so they put me in a car. My role was to go ahead of the march and if I came back okay, then we could go that way. I was like the canary.

I noticed as I’m doing security that I’m scared as hell in the south. I was coming from Chicago. I notice that there’s this white patrolman constantly going back and forth as we’re marching along the curb. I mean, this guy is white. If you look up in the dictionary the definition of a white person, you see his face. And I’m thinking that everyone’s a Klansman, because all the images I see of the south are those images. I’m an old person who’s trying to act like I’m brave, but I’m scared.

So as we’re marching, we get to a point near the next city where the curb had diminished. Once it had almost disappeared, the patrolman circles around and pulls over in front of our march. And he says, “Look, you guys got to find another way to go, because there’s no curb and you have all these children. My job is to keep you safe, but also to keep the people who are driving safe, and so they don’t have to deal with this kind of situation.” So we went back and forth with the patrolman saying, “Look, officer, we’re just trying to get to the next city and we’re just a little ways away. We don’t know where we are, and we’re just trying to get to the next city. Can we continue to march?”

Then we told him, “Officer, we understand what you have to do. Can we wait for a moment and pray?” The officer says, “Pray?” We say, “Yes, officer, we’re going to pray.” He went back to his car and called not the leadership within his department — he called his pastor!

He had been talking all that time to his pastor about our posters, which were calling for healthcare and all of the other things that had been hurting us. And then the pastor just came out of the woods. He just came out of nowhere and walked over to where we had stopped. And the preacher said, “Let us pray.”

While we were praying, an army of patrol cars came. The patrolman called all of the other patrolman, and they escorted us to the next city in safety.

These are the stories that people don’t hear, and these are the relationships that you don’t see on the TV. And so, we are taught systematically to fear each other and to stay disconnected from each other. Why? Because the rulers know that if we get together, all hell’s going to break loose. That is the danger of the Poor People’s Campaign. That is the reason for the Poor People’s Campaign, so we can make this country a better country, because it can be a better country, provided we unite.

John Wessel-McCoy: I think we need to switch up the order — I can’t keep following this guy. I’ll start by saying, if uniting the poor and dispossessed across lines of race, gender, sexuality, and ethnicity and geography — if that were easy, we would have done it already.

This question we’ve been asked is, “Has it been done before?” Yes, it’s been tried. There have been incredible experiences that we as a society don’t know very well.

We can go back to Jamestown, we can talk about Bacon’s Rebellion. We can talk about the moments in the Abolitionist Movement, where you have figures like Harriet Tubman, and John Brown, and Frederick Douglass. These are moments where unity has been attempted.

We can talk about Reconstruction, which Rev. Barber speaks a lot about. I think this is a critical moment that we’ve been lied to about. Most people have no knowledge about what was maybe the one and only time democracy was attempted in the South, for which there was a counter revolution to destroy it.

More examples of unity across race in our country’s history: The Southern Tenant Farmers Union, former Klansmen and Garveyites — they united as tenant farmers.

There were the coal miners of West Virginia. They went by the name of the Redneck Army — named after the red handkerchiefs they wore. There were black rednecks, and there were Italian rednecks, and Croatian, as well as good old hillbillies. So there is this history.

One of the things I notice when I give these examples, most of the examples I have of moments of people united across lines of division, color lines, were within the labor history of this country. I’m inspired by this history. But I think there’s something to learn in terms of the shortcomings of the labor movement. Miners organized as miners, and the tenant farmers organized across color lines, but they weren’t able to organize something that broke their isolation as tenant farmers.

As I go around the country, I hear people saying, “we have to break out of our silos.” So I think the Poor People’s Campaign could provide an element to answering this question of building something that could actually transform, beyond a bunch of small groups fighting on separate fronts.

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