Apology to people of color in the ISO

April 9, 2019

Delegates at the ISO’s 2019 convention in February voted to direct the outgoing and incoming Steering Committee (SC) to publish a letter of apology to comrades of color for deficiencies in the organization’s internal practices.

Because a significant number of the outgoing members of the SC remained silent on this question, it was always going to be difficult to produce a unified document. Then came the revelation that the 2013 Steering Committee grossly mishandled an accusation of sexual assault, which led to a crisis that culminated in the vote last month by 70 percent of ISO members to dissolve the organization.

These developments make it impossible to fulfill the exact letter of the resolution calling for an apology letter, but the current Steering Committee believes it is important, even as we wind down the organization, to fulfill the spirit of the convention resolution by publishing the following statement.

MERRIAM-WEBSTER defines an apology as “an admission of error or discourtesy accompanied by an expression of regret.” This letter will address both aspects.

First, the admission of error.

For much of the ISO’s existence, its leadership adopted a hostile attitude toward challenges from comrades from oppressed backgrounds regarding aspects of political priorities and the organization’s positions on issues of racial oppression. Proposals for caucuses based on racial (or gender) identity were met with suspicion and were systematically blocked — often accompanied by accusations that those who raised questions about caucuses, independent study groups or formal affirmative action measures were being unduly influenced by “identity politics”.

The ISO devoted enormous organizing work throughout its history to anti-racist initiatives: fighting the KKK and apartheid; marching against deportations; standing strong for Palestine and BDS; campaigning against the death penalty and working alongside families whose loved ones were beaten or murdered by racist police. But this very real commitment to fighting racism existed alongside an internal culture that wasn’t open to the self-organization and self-advocacy of its own members of color.

In fact, the organization’s external track record was sometimes deployed to deflect calls for changes to an internal culture in which perspectives were largely managed by parameters set by leadership and narrowed in relation to other struggles and organizational priorities. Numerous examples abound, but we will refer to some specific instances to make it clear that these were not isolated occurrences.

IN 2010, several NYC comrades of color proposed very sensible ideas for focusing on training and educating members from especially oppressed backgrounds, including:

The explicit mention of recruiting and developing members of color as a serious project in our organizational perspectives.

Development of a systematic approach to membership development, with conscious effort made towards members of color.

An educational plan that develops our understanding of the socialist arguments on racism and capitalism so that all ISO members are confident in leading in anti-racist fights and are confident in making our arguments around racism with contacts of color.

Affirmative action-type approaches to invite developing cadre of color to convention — a period when the highest decision making body of our organization meets to discuss, debate, and vote on political and organizational perspectives.

ISO leaders in NYC responded defensively, mobilizing the trope that such proposals were concessions to “identity politics.” The leadership’s hostile reply and intellectual bullying intimidated the members who raised the proposal, leading them to doubt their own judgment. Although the NYC ISO leadership admitted its mistake and apologized to these comrades in 2013, the national Steering Committee took this as a sign of weakness and insisted it was wrong for the NYC leadership to apologize.

At the ISO’s 2015 Convention, one leading comrade of color, developing the recommendations made by NYC comrades in 2010, made the following proposal:

That a working group of cadre of color be formed with the members of the working group chosen from the Convention delegates and guest of the ISO’s 2015 Convention. This working group will continue to develop and organize, between Convention and Socialism Conference and in collaboration with SC and NC, a meet-up scheduled for members of color at the Socialism Conference 2015, with a possible follow-up meeting at the ISO’s 2016 Convention for cadre of color.

Thought not attacked with the same overt hostility as the 2010 proposals, the motion was subjected to similar suspicious and bad-faith arguments and was ultimately sidetracked and diverted into a promise for more focused education and training. In the ensuing years, any efforts by comrades of color to meet independently (much less form a recognized caucus with standing in the ISO) were either undermined or blocked.

THERE ARE also ways in which major weaknesses in the ISO’s culture of debate had a disproportionately harmful impact on people of color inside the organization.

For example, at the same 2015 convention, two senior members of the Steering Committee presented a one-sided analysis from the podium about the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris that January. Members who raised concerns about the approach of the French left towards Islamophobia, anti-immigrant racism and secularism (and ISO leaders’ defense of this approach) were sharply criticized without any significant right to reply.

Instead of recognizing the situation as one in which study and reflection and comradely discussion was critical, the Steering Committee approached the ISO’s official response to the killings as a litmus test. Arab and Muslim ISO members were some of the most prominent comrades raising these concerns — and the needlessly polarized atmosphere created by the Steering Committee’s approach to the debate had a lasting impact on some of these members’ confidence in the organization.

The organization could also take problematic approaches to debates over organizational priorities, with similar disproportionate impacts on members of color.

One example of this bad method was how the 2013 Bay Area district leadership and Berkeley branch committee handled the “Pivot to Asia” (PTA) study group, which had been formed the year before and organized primarily by Asian American members, with the goals of providing leadership on issues having to do with Asia and U.S. imperialism and helping to train and recruit more Asian American socialist cadre. Through the PTA’s existence, members spoke at meetings and conferences, wrote articles and helped to advance the politics in the ISO.

But when the ISO attempted to make a “sharp turn” to prioritize building ISO branch meetings after the collapse of Occupy and began pulling back from our members’ work movements, some PTA members who had different ideas of how to recruit to the ISO and who also wanted to continue PTA as a key political space to build an Asian American periphery were labeled as having “identity politics.” This experience contributed to Asian American members leaving the ISO.

A similar dynamic occurred in Chicago last summer, as the city prepared for the verdict in the trial of killer cop Jason Van Dyke for murdering Laquan McDonald. ISO leadership and members of color came into conflict over organizing priorities.

Despite years of dedicated organizing (by comrades of color and white comrades alike) against police brutality, including the Laquan McDonald case itself, ISO leadership prioritized publicizing semester kickoff meetings in place of preparing for potential mass protest. This conflict exposed long-running tensions in the district in which members of color reported mistreatment and repeated questioning of their commitment to the organization’s overall project.

THE ACTIONS described above were wrong, and they marginalized and silenced too many comrades of color. Worse, they were of our own making. The revolutionary socialist tradition abounds with examples of socialists from oppressed backgrounds coming together to caucus, study together, develop recruitment paths, prioritize anti-racist work and more.

In the ISO we polemicized against economic reductionism, championed the historic role of C.L.R. James and the Black Panther Party, studied books like Communists in Harlem, Hammer and Hoe and Women, Race, and Class and saw our own members produce books like From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation, and Radicals in the Barrio. And yet a major contradiction existed between our studies of this theory and history and our organizational practice.

While these serious mistakes shouldn’t erase the important work that many ISO members of all races accomplished over the years — or that a number of members of color were able to develop themselves and others inside the ISO as revolutionary cadre — our positive accomplishments only goes to show how much more we could have done with a healthier political culture where more members of color felt full ownership and respect.

So we extend a frank apology to comrades who were harmed by our errors and actions. To current and former ISO members of color, we are sorry, and we commit ourselves to use this public reckoning as a basis for learning from our mistakes and building a stronger left that internalizes the principle that the oppressed will lead the way in fighting for their own liberation.

Our expression of regret stems from recognizing that our deficiencies set back comrades of color individually and as a collective, and they undercut our explicit goal of creating a multiracial, revolutionary organization led by people of color — especially young people of color.

Worse, rather than recognizing these destructive tendencies when they were raised and correcting them, criticisms of our mistakes were suppressed, compounding the damage. Thus, despite the fact that comrades of color (along with white comrades who supported them) finally won the debate at the 2019 convention, years of unresolved frustrations made acting on those intentions difficult because of a lack of mutual trust.

The 2019 convention decisions and leadership elections were the first step along a long path of restoring mutual trust and developing new practices. Unfortunately, the ISO’s dissolution will short-circuit that process.

However, hundreds of ISO members will continue our dedication to building a multiracial revolutionary movement, and we remain hopeful that our mistakes can offer useful instructions for the new socialist movement and social movements in general. No organization or movement has all the answers. We hope that some of our work offers positive examples, while the errors we have reviewed here provide useful warnings.

We are convinced that there can be no socialism without liberation of the oppressed, just as we believe that there can be no genuine liberation from oppression without the overthrow of the capitalist system. If aspects of our internal practices diminished our collective capacity to fight for those goals, then recognizing our past mistakes, and openly and publicly apologizing for them with resolve and humility, can be part of recovering our strength for the battles to come.