Manolo de los Santos: 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, social workers and 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. It’s comfortable 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 unity that actually requires us to look in our faces, look at difference, understand where difference comes from, who imposes it, who started it, and why it’s functioning.
We are blessed to have here today a panel of fighters who are thinkers and thinkers who are fighters. Today we want to look at the history of identity politics in the United States. I want to introduce first of all our dear sister, fighter, thinker, Barbara Smith.
Panelist Barbara Smith
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.
The Combahee River Collective was a small group of black feminists. We 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.
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’ll read the section of the 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 name 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.
One of the things that made the Combahee River Collective unique was that 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, in the Panthers, in the Civil Rights struggle, in student organizing.
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.
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.
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.” It’s being used to beat people up both ways.
Willie Baptist: 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 white folks on TV and the police. All white folks looked like they had some money. I thought that was true until I met 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 if we don’t address it, we 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.
If we study the ruling classes in history, they 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.
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 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.
These are questions we should discuss, learn from each other and to go forward.
John Wessel-McCoy: 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., 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. In the case of Staley, Tate and Lyle, 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 a war zone. That was actually how people described it then. Tear gas, beatings on the picket line, and it’s not a very big town. Everyone had people on both sides of the fight.
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 EDM 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 opioid addiction. I’ve got members of my family who have been laid off and struggle making ends meet. My family can be won over. I’m not running away from it. I love them, and I see them hurting.
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.
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.
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.