“Political leadership is a matter of program, strategy and tactics, and not the color of those who lead it, their oneness of origin with their people, nor the services they have rendered.”
CLR James, The Black Jacobins
Probably the most educational year of my life was the year that I spent in the U.S. prison system following a conviction for a non-violent raid on Selective Service and FBI offices in Rochester, N.Y. in the fall of 1970. This was during the height of the peace movement against the war in Vietnam. Over the course of 11 months I spent time in three federal prisons and five county jails.
In every joint I spent time in the majority of my fellow inmates were African American and Latino. This was a new experience for me. I was 20-21 at the time, and growing up I had had almost no close social contact with those of another culture or color.
I can still remember some of the individuals I met and the strength that they gave me by their kindness and interest in my life. There were very few whom I interacted with who seemed like “criminals” to me. The more I got to know them, the more I came to realize that racism and a class system which kept many people poor were, without question, the real reasons for why they were there.
I also learned that if you treat others with respect they will virtually always treat you with respect.
Since getting out of prison 33 years ago I have tried to keep faith with those brothers from whom I learned so much.
I have made a conscious effort to be a good anti-racist ally as I go about the work of helping to build a popular movement for fundamental social transformation in the U.S.
There are many things that go into being such a good ally:
serious study, learning to be humble, building friendships with those from other cultures, following leadership from people of color especially on issues most important to them, and being willing to risk damaged relationships, conflict or worse by being outspoken about racist statements or actions when among people of European descent.
But perhaps the hardest thing is to reject liberal paternalism when interacting with other activists of color.
Liberal paternalism is keeping quiet when a person of color says something that you strongly disagree with or proposes a course of action you feel is wrong. It is “going along to get along,” being afraid to engage in frank and upfront, while respectful, discussion over important issues, instead deferring too easily to the viewpoint of the person(s) of color you are talking with out of fear of being thought of as too pushy or arrogant.
I find this the hardest because I am totally aware of the personal experiences that most people of color have had with too many white people who interact with them arrogantly or dishonestly. I try very hard to function differently, and this can make it harder to openly disagree because of the fear that the disagreement will be taken in a wrong way.
I do think there is the need for what someone once called a “bending of the stick.” That is, when there is such a long history of white supremacy in our society, to get us back to a situation of equality and straight-up-ness, there does need to be some bending of the stick back past the midpoint for a time so that social and personal relations can then straighten themselves out.
But CLR James’ words above cannot be forgotten. There are far too many examples of progressive activists of color (and
whites) becoming corrupted and bought off. Those who come from backgrounds of oppression and exploitation can raise themselves up to become oppressors and exploiters themselves. And those who have once given freely of themselves for the cause of human liberation can lose their courage and go backwards.
Sound “program, strategy, tactics”-yes, those are critical.
As critical is the continuing development of a humane and truly alternative, multi-racial, resistance culture that can help all of us grow and learn, keep grounded, become better people in all aspects of our lives. We can’t function in our personal and political interactions in ways similar to those of the corrupt and inhuman capitalist system that is literally destroying our ecosystem, many of its life forms and many of its people. We must be known as people who can deal with differences and disagreements in a way which is affirming and constructive, not dishonest and destructive.
In the words of the late Fred Rogers (Mr. Rogers): “At the center of the universe is a loving heart that continues to beat and that wants the best for every person. Anything we can do to help foster the intellect and spirit and emotional growth of our fellow human beings, that is our job. Those of us who have this particular vision must continue against all odds. Life is for service.”