What to emphasize in building an anti-racist left

November 12, 2018

Fainan Lakha contributes to a discussion about how to challenge anti-racist ideas.

I HAVE been happy to see a discussion emerge around Tess Carter and Leela Yellesetty’s article “Are white women to blame for Kavanaugh?” in part because it provides us with the opportunity to reconsider how the ISO (and, it bears saying, many others on the U.S. left) have traditionally argued around questions of white racism.

Broadly speaking, I am in agreement with Jamie Hadel’s response (“Moving from blame to anti-racism”), which takes the correct approach of acknowledging that while Leela and Tess are in principle correct, ultimately, the article they wrote serves to “obscure more than it clarifies.” How does it do this?

In two ways: First, by assuming the logic of their interlocutors and being caught portraying all white women as either good or evil. And second, by operating from a misunderstanding of which arguments are most worth making at the moment regarding the question of white racism and, in particular, of white women. Jamie has addressed the first question pretty substantively, so I wanted to get at the second in more detail.

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Certainly we have all heard people, especially on the Internet, saying that white women are to blame for Trump. The question is: What is the best way to respond to a climate in which that is an idea held by some people? The response offered by Leela and Tess is essentially that we need to defend the idea that it’s possible to organize with white people.

This is, I think, a typical way that the ISO has responded to arguments about white racism: So often the argument for solidarity isn’t pitched at those who see the fight against racism as playing a secondary role (or even at those who might harbor racist political ideas), but against anti-racists who are perceived to have hesitations about organizing with white people. This is a deeply misguided approach.

Much of this comes down to context: Looking around at the political moment, especially in the wake of #MeToo, I think it is hard to say that it’s a widespread understanding that white women are being treated as the enemy of movements against oppression.

The whole point is precisely that it is to some extent surprising that many white women are supporting Kavanaugh because #MeToo has shown so decisively that this is really against their interests.

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And the extent to which this is not surprising is a direct consequence of the ascendancy of the far right. As Jamie notes, racism is usually caught up in these questions. One need only look at the extent to which Democratic politicians (particularly those in border states) are hesitant to put forward a platform supporting immigrants while Trump is railing against the caravan to see to what extent the racist ideas being promulgated by the far right have an increasing political purchase.

Jamie is exactly right to say that the left needs a way to explain why there is so much white racism. It’s worth quoting her directly:

We never want to be put in the position of glossing over the racial divides in our society by apologizing for some white women’s lack of anti-racist consciousness, which this type of framing often leads to. Instead, our focus should be to try to change consciousness and convince working-class white women not only to be in solidarity with working-class women of color in class struggle, but in solidarity with women of color in fights against racism.

Jamie shows here that having the attitude that people of color and anti-racists need to understand that white people can be on the left might actually stand in the way of asking the more challenging question for us, a question which is more basic but whose answers cannot be taken for granted: How do we most effectively organize a multiracial anti-racist left?

This gets down to our project in the movement, and that is why the context in which we’re arguing makes so much of a difference.

SO IN addition to Jamie’s suggestion of working to directly confront racism or the lack of anti-racist consciousness among white people, it’s also worth considering the arguments we need to be making to build a strong anti-racist left.

I think there are a couple of related questions on principle and strategy for the left that we ought to be considering and discussing on a growing socialist left that could certainly stand to be more multiracial.

One theoretical/political question that is very on my mind today is this: Should the way we should talk about and think about racism have more to do with the way racism divides the working class from exercising its potential, or should we place a greater emphasis on our vision of emancipation and the way this emancipation requires an anti-racist politics, that the necessary contours of that emancipation have its roots in anti-racist practice?

If the latter, what conclusions follow from that? This might even cast some light (although not answer decisively) on the inevitable tactical questions about whether to emphasize autonomous movements against racism or whether we should place our focus on fighting racism in the labor movement.

It is, of course, easy to say in the case of the question that we should do both, which is no doubt true. But the left is only so big, and there are tactical questions about where to place relative focus that are important. Moreover, it isn’t the case that everyone on the left agrees even with that idea, so clarity and sharpness is necessary for us to take up an argue a position effectively.

Similarly, I pose these questions because they might help us think more concretely about the connections we ought to draw and the arguments we make as these things arise, as was the case for the CTU mobilization about Laquan McDonald.

This also brings us to the question of revolutionary nationalism. I think there is likely a meaningful discussion to be had on the left right now along the lines of: Should socialists endorse or collaborate with people who identify most strongly with figures like Malcolm X, who may not identify as socialists, but who believe in the need for a new society and are willing to work with socialists to further our collective fight against our racist capitalist society?

By raising and pressing questions like these, questions which have a direct bearing on our political practice and setting them as debates on the left, we can actively take the steps necessary to create better foundations for the left we need in this country.

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