Monday, November 22, 2004

The White Left

One of the things that has surprised me about the political culture in the United States is the place held by race and racism in white progressive/radical discourse. On the one hand, race and racism as issues are more visible here than in Canada and have space in the mainstream in a way that they do not have there, where a peculiar brand of (sometimes) polite racism and denial of same keep most white activists happily ignorant that it is even worth thinking about. Racism gets mentioned in mainstream newspapers more consistently here than in Canada, and mainstream book stores have more space devoted to books on the subject. This is not because racism is any less important in the basic structuring of Canadian society, but rather has to do, I think, with superficially different ways that racism manifests and differences in history of struggle between the two countries.

Despite what appears to be greater space open to discuss issues of racism in the U.S., that does not seem to translate into it actually getting talked about any more often than in Canada, at least in the white progressive spaces I have been in here. Those spaces include the corner of the peace movement that I'm familiar with, much of the progressive U.S. blogosphere that I have surfed, and the Americans for Democratic Action conference/book fair I attended (Eric Mann's interventions excepted). Perhaps all of this shouldn't surprise me, but it does.

In particular, as I have surfed parts of the post-election discussion in the blogosphere, outside of Paul Street's post-election analyses, white bloggers I have seen have given issues of racism far less attention than they deserve.

I happened, yesterday, to come across what I think is an important article on The Black Commentator site. It reminds the white left of a charge placed before it three decades ago by the the Black liberation movement: go forth and organize the white working class.

A few select paragraphs:

In between sobs, many Kerry supporters have condemned and ridiculed those who voted for Bush, but this only compounds the errors that led to the election results. Although Africans have been pointing out the strategic errors of the white left for more than 30 years, this advice has been largely ignored.

By abandoning even the evangelical right, the white left ignores some of the most decent people the U.S. has produced. Many white evangelicals may be intolerant, racist and reactionary, but they often arrive at those positions out of an honest, good faith belief that they are doing the right thing. Because the white left has not been present to counter the vile lies of the right wing, white evangelicals are left to accept the right wing’s theology and agenda as gospel.

The white left’s reluctance to undertake this task is not solely because of stubbornness. They understand intuitively, if not consciously that the consequences of trying to organize Middle America are great. Capitalists understand that if white workers can be persuaded to adopt a radical agenda, dramatic, fundamental change is inevitable. Therefore, the full might of the state and corporate America will be unleashed without mercy on anyone who makes significant headway in changing the analysis of white workers. It is safer for the white left to organize in communities of color.

I definitely agree with the basic point: Unlike, say, a worker in London, England in 1935 who might have joined a fascist party after being exposed to arguments from across the political spectrum (while many more of his co-workers joined leftist parties), I think most people who make up the radical right populist movement in this country have never had a chance to hear a left argument. They may have been exposed to liberal perspectives -- albeit in the context of the current media environment that demonizes liberalism, the neglect of class and other justice issues by much of organized liberalism, and the inherent limitations that have always been a part of liberalism -- but never leftist ones. As the article says, just presenting such a challenge, such a different analysis, in a sustained way in working-class white contexts, particularly in Middle America, could have significant impacts.

But I'm not sure the diagnosis of the problem presented in the article captures all of the angles. I've been trying to write at least an outline of what some of the other important facotrs might be, but I have run up against my own ignorance of the facts on the ground. I can't say for sure, but I have a feeling that at least to a certain extent the problem is not only a white left that has made poor decisions but also a white left that is tiny and scattered, a white left that is constantly (and often for very compelling, material reasons) pulled away from its agenda by a stronger but still beleaguered liberalism, and a white left that (outside of those activists actually organizing in communities of colour) is still pretty clueless about issues of racism.

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