“At the same time [post-Civil War], America was giving away, through an act of Congress, millions of acres of land in the West and mid-West. Which meant that it was willing to undergird it’s white presence from Europe with an economic incentive, but it wouldn’t give an acre of land to people who had been in this country 244 years in slavery. Not only that! The nation provided low interest rates so that these people could mechanize their farms. Not only that! Today, many of these people are receiving federal subsidies not to farm. And these are the very people telling Negroes they ought to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. All I’m saying is that some truth must be told here. It’s nice to tell somebody lift yourself by your own bootstraps. But it is a cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps. And it’s even worse when he gets a little boot from the one standing on the boot and telling him to lift himself by his own bootstraps.” Dr.
Martin Luther King, Jr.
The memorial event for brother Arthur Kinoy on November 16th was a wonderful event. The St. John the Divine Episcopal Church Synod House was standing room only. Through singing, poetry, speeches and personal stories, the life of this great man was recreated for all to remember, for all to be re-inspired to carry on the struggle for justice and human freedom.
But Larry Hamm, leader of the People’s Organization for Progress in Newark, N.J., made one of the most incisive observations of the afternoon. Looking out over a room that was multi-cultural but predominantly white, he related two experiences from the day before when he had spoken, first, to about 600 black people in the morning in Newark and then, later in the day, to about 400 mainly white people in a Newark suburb. Both events concerned progressive causes.
Larry reflected back to the movements of 30-35 years ago and how little progress, to any significant degree, has been made since that time as far as building genuinely multi-cultural, activist unity. He challenged all of us present that if we really wanted to honor Arthur’s legacy we would be about building a broadly-based people’s movement that brought together the full strength of all our various cultures and communities, black, brown, red, yellow and white.
I’ve rarely heard any white activists oppose this point of view. We all want to build multi-cultural unity, to have our organizations be more “integrated.” But the problem is not in the wanting, it’s in the doing.
One thing we can do if we have a serious interest in breaking down the barriers is to support the issues and initiatives that are important to communities of color. Reparations, for example, has become a major issue to large numbers of African Americans over the last several years. Martin Luther King’s words above help to explain why. Those of us who are white should be, at a minimum, open to giving serious consideration to this issue, not be knee-jerk in opposition because it’s unpopular among most whites. More of us need to come out to rallies and events in support of reparations.
We need to be present at other events organized by people of color. Two days ago I went to a demonstration in support of the on-going struggle in Vieques. One of the people I saw there, a Puerto Rican man who has been active in the Green Party for a number of years, was glad to see me, knowing of my involvement with the Greens, but he shared with me his disappointment that I was the only other one at this event.
The peace movement is still predominantly white despite the fact that the strongest peace sentiment, as is true on almost all progressive issues, is to be found in black, brown and other people of color communities. There is a critical need for more people within that movement to speak up in support of conscious efforts to undertake outreach to and forms of action which can better connect us to organizations and grassroots people in communities of color. Although progress has been made at the level of national leadership within that movement, and there are certainly some positive local models, there is still much to be done.
Could the Presidential election year 2004 be a year that we take some important strides forward? Perhaps. One initiative that my organization, IPPN, is getting off the ground in combination with other groups is a 2004 Racism Watch. The stated purposes are:
-to strengthen and make visible an explicitly multi-cultural environment and network which understands the obligation to confront racism whenever and wherever we find it;
-to generate political energy and excitement as widely as possible among communities of color which will translate into growing involvement in the actions undertaken by groups part of this project, as well as heightened political mobilization on election day; and,
-to educate activists and non-activists of European descent in the U.S. about racism and all of the various overt and subtle ways that it negatively affects and undergirds ourselves as well as our political/economic/social system.
Our hope is that through various forms of visible and determined action against racism throughout the 2004 electoral period, including demonstrations at the election campaign offices of candidates whose statements, positions or campaign ads are particularly offensive, we will help to make racism a major issue in 2004. And we will find ourselves at the end of the year, no matter who wins office, with a stronger activist network of groups and individuals who see education and action to challenge racism as integral to their day-to-day political organizing.
There are many issues that our various progressive efforts are addressing and that we need to continue to address. But our real power to effect change, fundamental change of the kind we all need if we are not to be constantly on the defensive, will not come about until we experience the strength that comes from a truly multi-cultural, pro-equality, independent and democratic rainbow movement. We must hold fast to that vision and take all possible and necessary steps to make it so.