Who will fight for Black lives?

August 18, 2015

Steve Leigh joins in the ongoing discussion of the BLM action in his hometown.

ON SATURDAY, August 8, two Black Lives Matter (BLM) activists interrupted a rally celebrating Social Security and Medicare in Seattle just as Bernie Sanders was beginning to speak. The upshot was that Sanders left the stage without giving his speech.

The activists were not concerned with winning over the mostly white audience, even though it had already heard speakers on racism and gave them warm applause. Instead, they wanted to disrupt an event that they felt didn't sufficiently address the crisis of Black people in the U.S.

Since then, there has been an ongoing controversy in the media and among activists on many issues raised--disruption as a tactic; Sanders' politics and the Democratic Party generally; racism among white progressives; the goals of the Black Lives Matter Movement; and strategies and tactics in the movement.

Some of this discussion has been constructive. Some of it has exposed racism among Sanders supporters and devolved into nasty attacks on Black Lives Matter; and, on the other hand, dismissive race-baiting of anyone who disagrees with the activists' tactics. This letter is an attempt to address only one aspect of this controversy--the application of a moralistic rather than politically strategic approach to these issues.

Image from SocialistWorker.org

One of these activists, Marissa Johnson, explained her lack of concern about upsetting rally-goers by saying that "liberals and the left" are "white supremacist." While raising the Black Lives Matter issue forcefully at the rally was important, the wholesale dismissal of potential supporters raises deep questions about how we can build a movement to overcome racism.


THE U.S. is a racist society--no one reading SocialistWorker.org would disagree.

Institutional racism--from education and housing to mass incarceration and employment; from health care to environmental degradation--clearly affects and impacts the lives of people of color. The "age of color-blindness," as author Michelle Alexander has called the current era, has not eliminated the dominant racist structures in society. On the contrary, both major political parties perpetuate these racist institutions. Hence, targeting politicians makes sense.

This country was founded on two major acts of racial destruction--the enslavement of Africans and the dispossession and genocide of the indigenous people. These laid the basis for the institutional racism that still dominates today, and that produces racist attitudes--white racism, internalized racism among people of color, and prejudices between people of color groups. Of these attitudes, the most dangerous, of course, is white racism.

What else to read

Socialist Worker readers debated the Black Lives Matter action in Seattle that disrupted Bernie Sanders' speech. Read the Views and articles related to this discussion.

Todd Chretien
We want to win the debate

Crystal Stella Becerril and Trish Kahle
Black Lives Matter and the strategy question

Joel Reinstein
Making Sanders discuss racism

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor
Winning talk isn't winning action

SocialistWorker.org editorial
Black Lives Matter and the 2016 election

Steve Leigh
Who will fight for Black lives?

Though everyone is affected by these attitudes, the wholesale dismissal of liberals and leftists as " white supremacists" misses something: There is a big difference between those who wave the Confederate battle flag and those who would like to see it taken down; between police who brutalize and kill Blacks and those who march or sympathize with Black Lives Matter. The former must be vigorously opposed. The latter can be won to being part of a broader movement to challenge institutional racism and racist ideas. To dismiss and denounce everyone who is at all influenced by racist ideas leaves no one to fight back.

Was John Brown free of all prejudice when he led the attack on Harpers Ferry before the Civil War, in the hope of sparking an uprising of slaves? Probably not. Was Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. immune from the influence of internalized racism when he led the civil rights movement? Again, unlikely.

If we are waiting for pure people, uninfluenced by bigotry, to rise up and change society, we will be waiting forever. Social structures shape individuals from birth. No completely color-blind people can arise in a racist society. People free of these attitudes will only arise generations hence, when institutional racism has been smashed and racist ideas have been thrown into the dustbin of history. Today, we need to build a movement with the flawed people who actually exist.

The most important thing is what people do--not the often horrible ideas everyone is raised with, and that have an influence, to greater or lesser extents on everyone.

Of course, ideas impact action. Therefore, the battle over ideas is a key part of the battle to change and overthrow social institutions. Debate and discussion, including challenging each other over questions of strategy and tactics, goals and plans, etc., is an important part of any vibrant movement for social change. But the reason for debate and discussion should be to determine how to most effectively take action against racist institutions--not just to expose people's imperfections.

Institutions need to be confronted. Activists need to be debated and convinced to do this. Unfortunately, the goal of the action in Seattle was to "expose" and confront Sanders supporters, rather than to engage them, with the goal of convincing them. As Marissa Johnson said, "I don't give a fuck about the white gaze."


IF PEOPLE have racist ideas, then how can they ever fight racism? This is a fair question. The beginning of the answer is that racist ideas contradict the most fundamental material interests of poor and working class people of all races. Racism is one of the most important ways that the 1 Percent divides us and keeps its power over us. As Frederick Douglass wrote of the slave owners' grip on poor whites and Blacks: "They divided both to conquer each."

Even though white people get obvious advantages over people of color in a racist system, the system of racism does hurt working-class whites as well. Does it help any poor people, of whatever race, when the U.S. spends tens of billions on prisons instead of on health care, jobs, housing, education and environmental protection?

What Michelle Alexander has called "the New Jim Crow"--mass incarceration and the denial of rights to prisoners and ex-prisoners--affects Blacks the most. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, in 2013, 2,805 Black men out of every 100,000 in the total population were in prison or in jail--nearly 3 percent.

But does the New Jim Crow help whites, incarcerated at the much lower rate of 466 white men out of every 100,000? Before 1975 and the onset of the era of mass incarceration, the incarceration rate for the entire population was around 100 people out of every 100,000. So while Black imprisonment has gone up astronomically since then, white imprisonment has also gone up by many times.

The New Jim Crow is one the most important structures of racism today--but as Michelle Alexander points out, it also has "collateral damage" among whites. White racism and the advantages that whites get over Blacks unfortunately blinds many people to this reality.

The material interests that all poor and working-class people have in opposing the system that promotes and perpetuates racism can be the basis of a multiracial movement against it. Racist ideas can change in the course of struggle. For example, when workers go on strike, they will see the need to unite across racial lines against the boss. The same is true for struggles for better schools, housing, etc.

To make these general struggles more effective, people must be convinced to directly confront racism as well, taking up the special demands of the oppressed that directly improve the status of people of color--for example, winning them to participating in the Black Lives Matter movement. Dismissing liberals as "white supremacists" points in a different direction.

We need to try to unite flawed people against the racist social structures that created those flaws. That doesn't mean excusing racist or ignorant ideas that people may come into the struggle with--on the contrary, they should be challenged. But we want to argue against those ideas with the hope of winning them to participation in a movement against racist institutions.

Building a multiracial movement is not a pipe dream. Thousands of people of all races have come out over the last year for Black Lives Matter demonstrations. We need to be prepared to argue with and try to win over potential supporters to make these protests even bigger in the future.

E-mail alerts

Further Reading

Latest Stories

From the archives