Speaking of Race

Speaking of Race

“We’re in This Together” An interview with Danny Glover

2008 marks the 40th anniversary of the struggle to institute Ethnic Studies at San Francisco State. What do you see as some of the similarities between your work then and your current efforts to get African American history represented in films?

Danny Glover: I was a student and an activist in the Black Student Union (BSU) at San Francisco State in the mid-60’s. We were doing a lot of outreach into the community—tutorial programs with students who were not doing well in public schools, and trying very hard to make what we were learning in college relevant to the issues and problems confronting our communities. We were also engaged in protests on campus and raising issues around race and racism and the need for greater inclusion on campus.

When Imamu Baraka (Leroi Jones) came out to San Francisco as part of the Black Arts movement, he needed somebody to act in one of his plays. He challenged us by saying something to the effect of “Can any of you so-called revolutionaries act?” Since nobody else seemed willing to take the challenge, I timidly stepped up. So my introduction to acting was as a social medium. As my work progressed, I came to see activism and art as integrally linked.

As a student, I, along with a group of other young people from various backgrounds, ethnicities, and experiences, was involved in bringing together what would become a powerful movement for transformation and change. The coalition at that time was very broad: visionary and progressive white students involved in organizations like Students for a Democratic Society, black students from the Black Student Union, Hispanic students from La Raza, and The Third World Liberation Front.

The successful struggle for these programs resulted in the longest strike on a college campus in United States history. We were committed to creating a larger sense of democratic possibility in which everybody’s voice, culture, and history was honored and valued equally. As a diverse community, as a diverse group of students, we were trying to learn about the world and how and where we fit individually and collectively. In attempting to do that we kept running into these institutionally constructed divides—that privilege some realities and marginalized others.

It was a hard-fought struggle that would forever alter the educational landscape in the United States. It resulted in the creation of the first black studies program and the first College of Ethnic Studies in the country. Forty years later, it remains the only College of Ethnic Studies in the country.

We came together and we struggled together to create something that did not previously exist. The campus was closed down for several months as we organized to challenge the fundamental assumptions of the educational model that we were being required and forced to participate in. One of our most important demands, which sometimes gets lost, was to increase community access to education—particularly greater access for students from underserved communities. So, in addition to the content of the education that we were receiving we were also attempting to create a much more level playing field in terms of access. Who is allowed the privilege of participating? Whose stories? Whose voices? Whose vision? Whose interests?

And as you know, in the work that you do at Urban Habitat, those issues are as relevant today as they were then—perhaps even more so.

One other thing about how and why I got involved, even before I got to college. I remember seeing images of young people who were not that much older than me being beaten at lunch counters. Their dedication, their courage, their heroism in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles made an enormous impression on me.

Q. And how do you see all of this related to your current work in film?

Glover: For me—as you can imagine— it’s extremely related. For me, the personal and the political don’t represent separate realities. Who I am as a human rights activist is as important to me as who I am as an artist. Perhaps other people are able to separate those realities and those roles, but I’m not able to. I have difficulty with being described as an activist. What I strive for is to be a better citizen. And my definition of citizenship isn’t limited to the geographic confines of the United States. Whether we like it or not, the earth is our collective home and I believe that our responsibilities as citizens (whatever country we happen to reside in or whichever block our house happens to be located on) is to protect and sustain (in whatever way we can) this small fragile blue planet that we call Home (with a capital H).

A lot of the work that I do as an actor and filmmaker is about grounding and affirming a broadly re-imagined and re-envisioned sense of what we mean when we say community. And within that space, what are the stories that need to be told?

The kinds of projects that I’m interested in spending time, energy, and money on (at critical junctures) are films that are beautifully executed, intelligently conceived, and more importantly, films that remind us of our connectedness as human beings. The geography might differ, the issues and themes might differ, but the underlying connectedness is what really matters. And at this point, for me, much of that work is collaborative. At Louverture Productions, for instance, we’re dedicated to collaborating with, mentoring, and supporting filmmakers from around the globe—including the United States.

The third anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and the devastation of New Orleans, also marks the release of a wonderful film that Joslyn Barnes and I are the executive producers of called, Trouble the Water. It’s an empowering film from the perspective of a young woman (and her husband) who basically became internal refugees after the levees broke. Kimberly and Scott Roberts, with a video camera they bought for $20, document their harrowing struggle for survival against both the natural elements and the government’s appalling ineptitude. But what starts out as a story of two people stuck in New Orleans riding out the storm because they didn’t have money to leave, quickly turns into a story of towering heroism as people join forces to help each other.

When the film premiered at Sundance, the audience stood and cheered. They recognized their own humanity and their own connectedness. They were able to see themselves and they were able to do that across the “divides” of race and class. That’s art that inspires.

Q. What can United States residents and particularly, African-Americans learn from Haitian history? Why are you making a movie about Touissaint L’Ouverture?

Glover: Bringing Touissaint and the Haitian Revolution to the screen is a dream that I’ve been working on for the last 20 years. Touissaint led the only successful slave rebellion in history and in the process defeated Napoleon’s army, as well as the imperial armies of Britain and Spain. It’s an amazing story in part because it rounds out what we know about the United States and French Revolutions. The United States revolution brought us the Declaration of Independence, the French, the Declaration of the Rights of Man.

The Haitian Revolution represents the third leg: universalizing these principles to all men—not just privileged, landed, wealthy men of European ancestry.

In terms of world historical movements and revolutions, it was actually the most important of the three because it extended the ideals enshrined in the American and French Revolutions. The Haitian Revolution successfully established a republic based on more broadly inclusive universal principles. Unfortunately, women were not part of any equation back then.

A critically important question for African-Americans is, “Why has this monumental achievement been so erased from our history and from our consciousness?” So, that for me is why it so important and has been such a passion.

What about a film like Bamako?

Glover: Bamako is, as you probably know, a film that graphically dramatizes how the IMF and the World Bank are actually exacerbating poverty in the developing world—rather than eliminating it. It’s also important because it represented an opportunity for us to collaborate with Abderrahmane Sissako, a Mauritanian filmmaker who is not only one of the most important filmmakers on the African continent but we believe, one of the most important filmmakers in the world.

The film is imaginative and exciting on so many levels, beginning with the setting. The action takes place in the courtyard of a walled house in Bamako—the capital of Mali. The courtyard—rife with chickens and goats, as well as the personal drama involving a couple on the verge of break-up—provides the backdrop for a very public drama aimed at putting the World Bank and the IMF on trial. It’s beautifully shot, culturally rich with a great deal of inspirational music. And in terms of story, again it’s inspirational and touching and powerfully transformative.

One last note, we recently released a feature documentary co-produced with the Marley family about the life of Bob Marley, Africa Unite, which focuses on issues related to African unity and youth empowerment, filmed in Ethiopia.

Well, I think you have a sense of where I am at this stage in both my creative and my personal journey—recognizing that we’re in this together, and it’s part of a powerful process of re-imagining the future and future possibilities. And that’s true whether we are trying to re-imagine the future of our cities or of our planet. It’s important that we each recognize that our voice matters and that our vision of hope and possibility is a critical piece of the puzzle.

Danny Glover has worked as an actor, producer and director in dozens of films and television shows. In addition to many other activist commitments, he is the chair of Trans Africa Forum and president of the Vanguard Foundation.

Race and Regionalsm | Vol. 15, No. 1 | Fall 2008 | Credits

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Is Integration Possible?

When we look at where we are in society on issues of race, regionalism, and segregation, sometimes it seems like we’re really going backwards. I want to talk about why I think that is so and how we can move forward.

In 2004, we commemorated the 50th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education. In 2005, we commemorated Brown II. In Brown I, the Court condemned Jim Crow and called for moving towards integration, but then, before we got into the actual game plan, it said, “Let’s come back and talk about the remedy.” That was Brown II.

Brown I was a great inspiration but Brown II was a great mistake. Brown II was where we got the infamous and deathly slow “all deliberate speed.” In a more cynical perspective, I suggested Brown II was decided before Brown I; that in order to get a unanimous decision on Brown I, there was an agreement in court that there would not be implementation under Brown II. And there’s a lot in history to suggest that.

In the last few years, there have been dozens of books about Brown. If you read those books—and I think I’ve read all of them—most of them, at best, are very ambivalent about the idea of integration. Take What Brown Should Have Said, for example, a compilation of opinions by nine scholars. In it, Derick Bell, a profound thinker considered by many to be the father of critical race theory and the first African American tenured professor at Harvard Law School, says that Brown was wrongly decided and that Plessy was the right decision. Just think about this: an African American scholar who worked at the Legal Defense Fund is embracing segregation!

Segregation, whether imposed by others or self-imposed, can only be understood in the American context against the background of white supremacy. It cannot be understood as just a free-floating idea of individual choice. It is false symmetry to ask: “Why is it that when we have an all-white community we don’t say it’s segregated and needs to be fixed; yet, when we have an all-black community, we say there’s something wrong with that?”



Oftentimes, public discourse around segregation quickly turns into a discussion of choice. You can hear people say, “Well, you know, blacks and Latinos and Asians, they don’t even want to be integrated anymore—maybe they never did. People are self-segregating.” When Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas—not a great scholar or intellect, but a very powerful person, nevertheless—poses the question, “Isn’t it racist to say that black children have to go to school with white children to get an education?” he is, like many others, conflating black segregation with white segregation. So I want to just tease that out.

We did a study at the Institute on Race and Poverty where we looked for what we called “truly integrated schools.” You won’t be surprised to learn that we found no such school in the United States. We found a lot of schools that were desegregated. But most schools, in various forms, were segregated, or else, in various states of desegregation or resegregation. When I talk about truly integrated schools, I mean something quite profound; schools that do more than just put people together. I mean schools that integrate structures and norms. Mere desegregation and assimilation is not true integration.

When the powerful and the elite, say: “There’s something wrong with the racial other, so keep them away from us,” that’s segregation. When they say: “There’s something wrong with the racial other, we need to fix the other and make them more like us,” that’s assimilation. Both models are predicated on something being wrong with the “other.” But the second model often gets conflated with integration. So, it’s not surprising that black scholars—and black people in general—are truly repelled at both of the models. James Baldwin talked about this in an essay, “The Price of the Ticket,” where the title refers to the “cost” of becoming a member of white society. Baldwin concludes that the price is too high.

What segregation means, in addition to being separated by phenotype, language, or religion, is segregation from opportunity. Since Jim Crow and formal racial hierarchy have decreased, spatial racism has become the most important and functional way to distribute opportunity. So, when they talk about inner-suburbs, rather than inner-cities, you know that many of those suburbs are in trouble. Why? Not necessarily because white folks are leaving or blacks and Latinos are showing up, but because opportunity is leaving. We are structuring opportunity spatially so that certain populations do not have it.

We create suburbs and exurbs, and try to structure them in such a way that all of the tax capacity, all of the schools, all of the high-functioning children, all of the new development, all of the jobs, all of the transportation money, all of the parks, in short, everything we associate with opportunity and making a good life, are heavily concentrated or monopolized in these communities.

What’s the function of segregation? In what ways do we distribute opportunity? In her book, The Failures of Integration, Sheryll Cashin looks at Prince George’s county, Maryland just outside of Washington D.C., which has the highest concentration of wealthy African Americans in the country, and asks, “Is segregation working there?” Usually, when we talk about segregation of black people, we’re also talking about concentrated poverty. But Cashin decided to look at concentrated wealth among blacks and found that they are not doing so well either. I am not suggesting (and neither is she) that they are not doing well because they are black folks. Rather, I am suggesting that they are not doing well because of the way that the larger society distributes opportunity, even to an affluent black community.

Most of us—scholars, thinkers, academics—would agree that race is socially constructed, which suggests that racial hierarchy and racial disparities are also socially constructed. How? In part, through the distribution of space and opportunity. But there’s something even more profound to which we have not paid enough attention—that is the construction of race. I would suggest that segregation is part of the way that we distribute racial identity and bring meaning to racial identity. So, it’s not simply white folks over there and black folks over here, and how do we distribute goods and services to them? We are actually using this mechanism to distribute identity itself.

In a piece I wrote recently, I suggest that the creation of whiteness and white identity and the creation of the modern self occurred at the same time, and is really the same event, especially in the Anglo-American tradition. And what are the attributes of that modern self in the Anglo-American tradition? In his book, The European Dream, Jeremy Rifkin suggests that Hobbes, who may be considered a founder of the Anglo-American identity, looked out at the world, found it a scary place and set out to find a way to manage it. His solution was to accumulate power, accumulate private property, dominate and control the world and, to exclude the scary other. That exclusion, that domination, that scariness, is the Anglo-American white self.

Toni Morrison has said that after 300 years of being a racist society, we’ve looked at how racism and slavery have distorted and marred people of African descent, but we haven’t paid enough attention to how that process has marred and scarred people of European descent. What I want to suggest is that segregation hurts all of us, but it hurts us in different ways. What we really need to create is an alternative space for whiteness.

Let me close by just saying that when we talk about integration and segregation, it’s often something disturbing: the school may be integrated but the black kids are in the basement, while the white kids are upstairs in the AP classes; or the black kids are being ignored by their teachers in the integrated schools, so they are getting a worse education than they did in the segregated schools; or the black families are being pushed out of neighborhoods in transition. People look at these things and say, “Maybe integration isn’t such a good thing.” I want to clarify that this is not integration. And as long as we have racial hierarchy, we will continue to have segregation.

john a. powellis director of the Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in the Americas at Ohio State Uiversity and the Gregory H. Williams Chair in Civil Rights and Civil Liberties in the Moritz College of Law. This is an excerpt from a speech given at a University of Minnesota, Institute on Race and Poverty converence on race and regionalism in 2005.

Race and Regionalsm | Vol. 15, No. 1 | Fall 2008 | Credits

Pride and Prejudice

In the winter of 1981 or thereabouts, I was sitting on a box of bottled liquor in Lamar Dawkins’ package store in Orangeburg, South Carolina, talking with Mr. Dawkins about Strom Thurmond. Mr. Thurmond was much on our minds because of his recent announced opposition to renewal of the Voting Rights Act, and we were planning a series of protests across the state against the old unreconstructed segregationist and United States Senator.

I was trying to get a fix on Mr. Thurmond’s character for strategy purposes from Mr. Dawkins, who was a native South Carolinian and a longtime civil rights leader. Somewhere along the way he remarked that Mr. Thurmond, you know, had a black daughter.

Although this was years before the Essie Mae Washington revelations made the national news, I’d heard such stories about Mr. Thurmond before—heard, in fact, that he had several black half-brothers living in Aiken, on the Georgia border. But you always heard such stories about white Southern politicians—the more segregationist and anti-black the politician, the more outrageous the stories—but so far, despite all of my inquiries, no-one had ever provided more than speculation. Mr. Dawkins, however, was not one to speculate.

“How do you know Strom Thurmond had a black daughter?” I asked him.

“Because she used to board with us, when she went to South Carolina State,” he answered.

“How do you know it was Thurmond’s daughter?”

“Because he used to come and visit her.”

By that time, I had been working full-time in the African-American Freedom Movement for 15 years, most of them in the Deep South, some of them fighting directly against Strom Thurmond. I had been studying race and racism in America since my high school days. I had come of age on the West Coast watching Mr. Thurmond and other anti-black politicians on television rail against civil rights, accompanied by stories and images of the related torture deaths and church bombings and police beatings against demonstrators and black neighborhoods. My image of anti-black racism was one of white people who hated African-Americans, didn’t want us around them, and beat us or murdered us if we got too close. And yet, I went home that night after my conversation with Lamar Dawkins, marveling at how little I actually knew about the subject. Race and racism were far too complicated to be painted in black and white.

After Strom Thurmond died and Essie Mae Washington came forward with the revelation that she, indeed, was the African-American daughter who the Senator had fathered, most of the talk centered upon the scandalous shame of it—a man who hated “Black People” lying in bed with a black woman to produce a child. For my part, I always saw the other side as well, a white man who so loved his black daughter that he risked exposure—and political scorn and ridicule, possibly the loss of office and all the related power—to visit her during her college days.

I wonder, sometimes, what Thomas Jefferson actually felt when he looked across the grounds at Monticello and saw the children he had fathered through Sally Hemmings, the woman who he professed to “own” in chattel slavery. Did he feel shame at having laid down with a daughter of Africa, or pride of parentage, or some complicated combination of the two? For my part, I risk scorn and ridicule from my African-American brethren every time I bring this side of the issue up. As with all nations and all peoples, we like to serve our enemies up uncomplicated. It makes them easier to skewer.

“Great To Be A Negro”

But that is ever the contradiction of race in America, isn’t it? So integral a weaving inside the American fabric, race is the source of both our greatest shame and some of the things about us most to be admired. Race and racism. The two sometimes run together, like two parallel creeks, so close that sorting them out, and picking our way through the racial morass, is sometimes too difficult a task for the nation to take on. And so, too often, we simply let them flow and find their own way, to the good or the bad end, depending on their own whim.

Because of the nation’s soiled and sordid history surrounding race—slavery, the obliteration of the Native American nations, the lynchings, the burning of Chinese communities, and the sometimes-violent prejudice against Mexican immigrants—much of the progressive community often sees the issue as a problem to be ferreted out and obliterated.

But that ain’t necessarily so, as the old Porgy And Bess refrain used to go. Or, more properly, there is a different side of the racial equation to be considered.

In the early 60s, when it used to be the premier and highly-influential national African-American social and political photo-and-article magazine, Ebony used to run a center-spread editorial every month. Sometime in 1964, I remember them publishing a picture of a dark-skinned African-American man in a white shirt, sunshaded, smiling broadly into the camera (an intelligent, confident smile, not the old simpleton buck-and-wing toothy grin that used to be the staple of the minstrel shows), and, unaccountably, a white handkerchief draped across his head, as if he was out in the sun somewhere having a ball, and was trying to ward off the sun’s rays. The title of the accompanying editorial, set out in a bold headline, was “It’s Great To Be A Negro.” I remember nothing about the editorial, but I will never forget the picture or the headline. It was published in that period when African-Americans were still knee-deep in the pool of imposed black self-hatred flowing out of slavery times, and there were still people around who could remember when “coon, coon, coon, I wish my color would fade” was the refrain to a popular song (“coon” being one of the early disparaging acronyms for African-Americans).

The Ebony Magazine “Great To Be A Negro” photo-editorial presaged the Black Pride era that exploded in the mid-60s, capped by the great James Brown anthem, “Say It Loud, I’m Black And I’m Proud,” which reverberated in black communities across the country.

For many of my fellow African-Americans, that is what we think of—in part—when we think of “race,” a source of pride and comfort and safety and belonging. It is not an issue of being exclusionary, or even of being antagonistically competitive, but of being part of one of the many, sometimes intersecting, social and human circles that are the nature of human beings to construct. This summer, on the 4th of July we held our annual gathering of friends and family to eat barbecue and listen to good music and trade stories. Later, we held our semi-annual family reunion, to which friends were not invited. Does this mean we have abandoned our friends who are outside the family? Certainly not. It only means that this is simply a different circle of belonging.

“Thank God for the Niggers”

It is the same way, I believe, that most African-Americans—as well as most ethnic and racial minorities in the nation—view their membership in and association with their respective ethnic and racial groups.

Unfortunately, that is not always the case with the majority white population and that, it seems, is one of the major sources of the, sometimes bitter, conflict swirling around race and racism in America.

Too often, white pride is not connected so much with white uplift but with non-white oppression, such as in the story old black Southerners used to tell about poor white folks and the “thank God for the niggers” syndrome. A white political leader once went through the Mississippi backwoods, so the story went, trying to stir the poor white folks up and get them to do something about their horrendous economic condition. “Look at y’all!” the politician thundered, “You’re most at the bottom on everything that counts. Healthcare. Sanitation. Life expectancy. Wages.” At each category he called out, however, the crowd shouted back, “Thank God for the niggers!” Puzzled, the politician asked a local after the meeting for the meaning. “This ain’t no nigger-loving territory, is it?” he asked. “No,” the local shot back, “but if it wasn’t for the niggers, we’d sure-enough be on the bottom of every one of them things you was up there talking about.”

“I’m White and I’m Proud”

For many white folks, however, race itself has now become the problem, with an odd convergent agreement on the left and the right that it ought to be eliminated in American life. Many white conservatives believe that the concept of race should be eliminated because it is too often turned into a tool used by otherwise unqualified minorities to vault themselves into positions they don’t deserve and responsibilities they can’t fulfill. Many white progressives, on the other hand, believe that race should be eliminated because it is a pariah, and is a barrier to a more egalitarian, multi-cultural world of diversity and common humanity.

Myself, I think the concept of humanity is far too big a meal to take on in one big bite, and we have to approach it in easier stages, in smaller portions. One of those portions is race, and if we use that in which to forge a greater understanding of and participation in the human race, then it is a positive thing. If it is used in a negative way, as a bludgeon with which to beat down all those who do not look or sound or act or smell exactly like us, then it is a negative.

This year’s American presidential contest, with the election of the first African-American president in our history, revealed a lot about ourselves, some of it exemplary, some of it tawdry, mean-spirited, and vicious. Race has a way of doing that. It is at the core of our humanity, one of the ways in which we practice the distinctly human habit of defining ourselves. Rather than eliminating it—even if it were within our power to do so—we ought to understand and embrace it, neutralizing its bad factors, celebrating and encouraging its good.

I live for the day when my white progressive friends can say aloud, “I’m white and I’m proud.” And they will have a reason, and no one will shun them or laugh at them or ridicule them, least of all their non-white friends, and they will feel no shame. As contradictory as it seems, on that day, I believe, we will be far along on the way towards a united humanity. 

J. Douglas Allen-Taylor writes for the Berkeley Daily Planet, Alternet, and numerous print and web publications. He lives in Oakland.


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Black-Brown Dialogue on Immigration

It a training for activists from the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), a labor educator at a diversity workshop demonstrated the extreme wealth inequality in the United States with this tableau: 10 chairs were set up for 10 people; however, one person commandeered seven chairs, leaving three chairs to be shared by the other nine. Amusing though the sight was, it very vividly illustrated the point the educator wished to make: “We don’t have a diversity problem… we have an inequality problem!”

The discomfort experienced by the nine people sharing three chairs was recognized by participants as a common experience among people who feel the “economic squeeze” and deal with it by lashing out at folks perceived as “other.” So, we have situations, such as white vs. black; Christian vs. Muslim; men vs. women; straight vs. gay; native-born vs. immigrant; and documented vs. undocumented immigrant.

Many companies, unfortunately, are not above using these divisions to assert power over their employees. One union representative told the story of an immigrant worker who filed a grievance against his firm for violating the union contract. The violation was clear, but in this situation, the firm had helped the worker obtain his legal documentation and the supervisor was able to intimidate the worker into withdrawing his complaint with frequent allusions to this fact.

Similarly, political elites are taking advantage of the turmoil caused by a combination of changing demographics, growing inequality, and overall insecurity to split communities of color and low-income workers and solidify their power.

The Regions, They are a’Changing

Many older inner-city neighborhoods have been transformed into gentrified areas populated by the middle-class and rich of all ethnicities, or serve as gateway communities for newly arrived immigrants. Some inner-ring suburbs have taken the look of older industrial cities. Blacks of all economic strata have moved from central cities to suburban areas. Parts of the South and Midwest have become magnets for immigrants from Latin America.

The situation is rife with potential for discomfort and division among people of color and workers.

In response, the University of California, Berkeley, Labor Center has developed a six-hour training on immigration for the C.L. Dellums African American Union Leadership School. Its goal is to enhance participants’ knowledge of why immigrants are in this country and the conditions under which they live. The hope is that they will use this information to heal possible splits within their union membership.

The two most important features of this training are:

n It does not attempt to delve into the policy battles taking place in Washington D.C. These battles are complicated and one’s analysis of what is the best compromise is very much dependent upon one’s values and self interest.

n It starts from the perspective of the black community. Too often, attempts to engage native-born workers and communities on immigration issues begin from the perspective of new immigrants, leading to the unintended consequence of alienating native-born workers who feel that they are asked to empathize with others while little concern is shown for their own lives and struggles.

The training begins with the black experience and asks how participants (or their families) arrived in California, followed by a short video, Up South, on the black migration from Mississippi to Chicago. The idea is to place the black experience in the context of a migration experience—the push of racial and economic exploitation in the South, alongside the pull of new job opportunities and greater racial freedom in the North and West—to make it easier to understand the social, political, and economic forces that cause migration from the Global South to the United States. Participants are also asked to talk about the loss they have suffered in leaving home. Understanding the loss that comes with migration and relating it to loss suffered by immigrants allows participants to see the “others” as human beings and not just as people who “take jobs.”

The training then continues with a video (Uprooted) that highlights the experiences of three families that come to the United States from different parts of the Global South. The documentary looks at the lives of these individuals in their home countries and the economic forces that caused them to immigrate.

In conclusion, participants watch a PBS video on New Orleans immediately after Hurricane Katrina, which tells the story of a black union member who wishes to re-build his city. He finds a good paying job through his union but is soon replaced by immigrant workers receiving half the wage. The story then shifts to the plight of the immigrant workers and the exploitation they face at the hands of contractors. The documentary does a great job of highlighting how workers—native or immigrant—are used by corporations.

The training always generates intense discussions among participants, many of whom learn the real story behind immigration for the first time. As one participant remarked, “The comparison between black workers migrating north in the early 20th century and Latin Americans migrating north now was instructive. We can see ourselves in each other.”

Since completing the training, participants have tried to inject lessons learned into their daily dealings within the union.

According to one union member: “At first, I didn’t think the dynamics between trade unionists and immigrants (who were exploited and worked for lower wages) in Louisiana connected to my work [in the union]. But then I thought about a grievant I worked with who wanted [the union] to make a case out of her losing out on a job to a non-citizen. I think it would be useful for our union to help our members understand the stories and struggles of immigrants so that we can organize together and not be pitted against each other.”

This captures the challenge facing social and economic justice activists: how do we find ways to talk to others who see their economic plight as caused by the presence of immigrant workers?

I think the answer lies in engaging people on their own terms and helping them see that foreign workers are not enemies but allies in their struggle to live dignified lives and achieve their dreams. 

Steven Pitts is a balor policy specialist at the University of California Berkley Center for Labor Research and Education, where he focuses on strategies for worker organizing and labor-community alliances. 


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American Babylon: Black Panthers and Proposition 13

In 1969, the Black Panther Party warned that fundamental change must come to the United States, lest it “perish like Babylon,” the biblical city that fell under the weight of its own corruption and imperial ambitions. “Babylon” as place and concept passed into the lexicon of radical black politics, borrowed from African American religious tradition, as well as from the Jamaican Rastafarians for whom Babylon denoted Western capitalism and imperialism. In the hands of the Panthers, Babylon acquired a new rhetorical provocativeness: “in the concrete inner city jungles of Babylon” men and women would join together “to cast aside their personal goals and aspirations, and begin to work unselfishly together.” So, Babylon stood for both, the inevitability of imperialism’s demise and for the possibility that something better might be erected in its place, something more democratic. “The people of Babylon” could, through struggle, throw off oppression and create a new day.

Babylon provides a powerful metaphor through which to think about a particular moment in postwar American urban history. Indeed, it reminds us that black power, and contests over its meaning and implications, are a fundamental part of the political history of urban America. Facing a national crisis of unprecedented dimensions—following decades of segregation and industrial restructuring—African American radicals and liberals alike responded politically. Black communities were not solely victims of an “urban crisis”; they were burdened with, and engaged in, conceiving remedies. In Babylon, black power advocates found an urban referent through which to conceive the plight of the black nation and evoke the essential realities of the postwar American city: poverty amidst wealth, national economic growth with urban decline, and the hardening of apartheid within the liberal state. The journey through those seeming paradoxes inevitably takes us to the connections between the city and political power and to three decades of intense contest over the uses, value, and nature of urban space.

The Twin Ideologies of Space

The most significant political, economic, and spatial transformation in the postwar United States was the overdevelopment of suburbs and the underdevelopment of cities. As ostensible signifiers of this transformation, “white ?ight” and “urban decline” mask volatile and protracted social and political struggles over land, taxes, jobs, and public policy in the 30 years between 1945 and the late 1970s. Such struggles dominated postwar Oakland, California, and its nearby suburbs, ultimately giving rise to two of the nation’s most controversial political ideologies: a politics of community defense and empowerment among blacks, and a neopopulist conservative homeowner politics among whites. As the home of both, the Black Panther Party and the tax revolt, California’s story is postwar America’s story—black and white, urban and suburban, rebellion and backlash— narratives that are inextricably linked and demand to be told as one.

In Oakland and the East Bay, as the tax revolt and black power evolved together, in tension, they faced off over how the region’s assets and prosperity would be distributed. Suburban city building drew homeowners, almost exclusively white and Anglo, into political battles to shape their new communities. In con?icts over land, taxes, and housing, a combination of federal policy, homeowner self-interest, and the real estate industry’s profit-driven embrace of racial exclusivity encouraged suburban residents to take narrow views of their social responsibility. When black Oaklanders undertook the postwar struggle for racial equality, they challenged the inequities of this suburban city building and accompanying signs of urban underdevelopment: residential segregation, job discrimination, urban renewal, and deindustrialization. Over time, those challenges grew increasingly urgent and militant, precipitating among many East Bay African Americans a break with liberal assumptions and strategies in favor of community empowerment. African American–led political movements thus interpenetrated with a suburban politics focused on homeownership, taxes, and a retreat from connections to a larger social collective.

In the workplaces and communities of midcentury West Oakland, African American residents forged a distinct laborite culture that blended class politics with civil rights. Based in the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters and other black railroad unions, as well as the left wing of the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union (ILWU) on the docks and the Marine Cooks and Stewards Union (MCSU) on the ships, this culture extended its in?uence through the East Bay. It was by no means universal and never enjoyed the endorsement of the majority of whites. But it nonetheless ?owered in the working-class districts of the Oakland ?atlands—and north into Berkeley—nurturing through the dark days of Cold War anticommunism a social and political milieu in which antiracism and progressive ideas, debate and struggle, were the order of the day.

Within this milieu, Pullman porters joined with University of California law graduates in Democratic political clubs. African American women, many of them daughters of southern Jim Crow, engaged in an activist homeowner politics that subverted the prescriptions of postwar white domestic femininity. And calls for black economic rights and a broader welfare state for all California workers defined the political agenda. This culture extended its reach across time. Black longshoremen, veterans of the brutal class wars on the docks in the 1930s, articulated an internationalism that would, in the 1960s, in?uence Oaklanders Huey Newton and Bobby Seale as they founded the Black Panther Party. Black leaders from the railroad unions established political strategies in the 1940s that would guide a generation of activists in the late 1960s and early 1970s. From one decade to the next across the second half of the century, these neighborhoods were home to a rich range of laborite, community, civil rights, and eventually, black liberation politics.

A Politics of Welfare by Exclusion

In East Oakland, and other similar neighborhoods, another political tradition developed in the postwar years. Skilled workers joined with merchants and other small business interests, all largely white, in a diffuse populism that counterposed “the public” against big business and downtown property owners. Adherents of this midcentury populism were vehemently pro-union, resistant to high taxes, and wedded to the ambition of suburban homeownership that the “amazing New West” promised. In the 1940s, these politics embraced a commonsense notion of what constituted a “fair share” for “working people” on a range of economic matters, from wages to taxes and leisure.

These politics, which emerged at the same time in nearby suburban cities like San Leandro and Milpitas, led in multiple directions. In one of those directions lay an individualist conception of property rights that buttressed calls for low taxes throughout the postwar period and provided the ideological grounding for the emergence of the so-called tax revolt of the late 1970s. Oakland and the East Bay thus incubated two of California’s most important postwar political traditions: a broad liberal one that sought expansions of the social wage and racial equality; and an equally broad populist-conservative one that celebrated private rights and understood liberalism’s limits through property and homeownership.

In the 1950s and 1960s Oakland planners, developers, and capitalists turned to the instruments and technologies of postwar urban design to remake their city. They hoped to restore property values by redeveloping land, clearing slums, constructing highways and rapid transit, and mechanizing the port—a broad engineering of new urban forms. They sought to revive the city, and downtown in particular, as a site of capital accumulation. At the same time, African Americans sought a different sort of urban renaissance, one shaped by the goals of economic opportunity for the growing black community: jobs, development, and neighborhood investment. The two visions clashed, as the reengineering of Oakland, coupled with structural economic changes, further disadvantaged the city’s black working class. To resolve the tension between divergent views of the city, liberal reformers focused on remaking citizens, reconstructing people themselves through a variety of measures, from juvenile delinquency programs to the War on Poverty. Instead of a resolution, a new politics was born—a struggle over control of urban resources in the late 1950s and 1960s that dominated and convulsed the city like nothing since the organized labor campaigns of the 1930s.

Much of the modern civil rights movement, and its emphasis on economic rights, was dedicated to a critique of and confrontation with the two-tired welfare state instantiated in the New Deal—especially its segregationist housing policies, its lack of fair employment and full employment provisions, its exclusion of hundreds of thousands of black workers from the protections of labor laws, and its deeply biased forms of social insurance, including what is now called “welfare.” This required a massive engagement with the major institutions of the nation—especially the state, finance and real estate capital, and industrial employers of all sizes—that coincided with and was propelled by the largest internal black migration in American history: the movement of four million African Americans from South to North and West. Moreover, the New Deal state’s intimate involvement in urban policy meant that the federal government, municipal politics, and metropolitan development converged during these decades to a degree unprecedented in the nation’s history. This made the federal government an adversary as often as an ally. In this sense, the postwar black struggle in America represented one of the world’s most sustained and militant engagements with the modern state apparatus.

The Birth of Strategic Opportunism 

African American activists in Oakland, San Francisco, and Los Angeles fought to secure a place for black communities within the shifting patterns of metropolitan geography and economy that accompanied the vast spatial transformation of midcentury urban America. They engaged the processes and institutions responsible for the second ghetto and the urban crisis as no other group in California. Industrial restructuring, redevelopment and urban renewal, highway and rapid transit construction, and suburban city building became the pivots around which black politics turned. These issues were not merely the backdrop to the black liberation struggle. Through them, the movement itself was constituted.

In Oakland in particular, the political discourse and strategies of the long postwar African American rights movement stressed the failure of urban and metropolitan political economy to secure the promise of democracy and opportunity. In this sense, the movement, including liberal, radical, and nationalist variants, was not primarily a response to southern mobilization, but a parallel development that sought to redistribute economic and political power within the increasingly divided metropolis. When local, state, and federal political efforts had failed to do this, when liberalism came up wanting, many African Americans turned to black power and radical liberation politics.

White suburbanites did not “?ee” Oakland. They were drawn to suburban communities by the powerful economic and cultural incentives behind city building: new housing markets subsidized by the federal government; low taxes underwritten by relocating industry; and the assurance that a new home, spacious yard, and garage signaled their full assimilation into American life and its celebration of modernity and consumption. That process generated expectations: homeowners came to expect, and later demand, low property taxes; they came to expect and rationalize racial segregation; and they came to accept as natural the con?ation of whiteness and property ownership with upward social mobility. To secure those expectations, suburban homeowners were not shy about entering electoral politics over the course of the postwar decades to assert their property “rights” and to contain the benefits of suburbanization. Lifted into the middle class by the federal welfare state, white residents of southern Alameda County fought the extension of those same benefits to African Americans.

Urban Space as Metaphor

One of the most powerful political movements of the second half of the twentieth century in California—and ultimately the nation—came about through a synthesis of two venerable traditions within American political culture: low-tax fiscal conservatism and booster promotion. Its adherents, legion by the 1960s, came from virtually every economic station, united by their status and interests as homeowners. Indeed, postwar suburbanization had the effect of creating a proto-class, the members of which might have had dissimilar political loyalties (as well as different incomes, jobs, etc.) but could be united on the single issue of property taxation. Postwar suburbanization helped to instantiate, in place, a tax-conscious voting bloc. That bloc competed with advocates of liberalism and radicalism to define the direction of the state in the postwar decades.

The new postwar metropolis in California and its political economy undergirded by segregation failed to deliver upward mobility to the majority of black workers. This realization spawned revolts in Oakland, led by African American community activists and the Black Panther Party. Together, they articulated a radical critique of the whole of metropolitan development since World War II and implicated liberalism in continued black poverty. In contrast, in nearby suburbs, they reacted to the mounting costs of California’s rapid postwar development by attacking and limiting the liberal state. Homeowners embraced tax reform for an enormous variety of reasons, but they nonetheless produced a dramatic convergence of political ideology around an antistatist, property-owning individualism that would have enormous consequences for California and the nation.

By 1978, Oakland civic authority had passed into the hands of the black bourgeoisie, and Proposition 13 had signaled the emergence of a new suburban order.

Space is not the whole story, but it would be a strange and incoherent one without it. Class and race are lived through the fabric of urban life and space. Civil rights, black power, and tax reform movements did not call for rights in abstract terms. They called for very specific things in relation to very specific places. We cannot separate historical actors and events from their spatial contexts.

Robert Self is an associate progessor of history at Brown University. This article is based on an excerpt from his book American Babylon: Race and Struggle for Postwar Oakland 2003 Princeton University Press, all rights reserved. Reproduced by permission of Princeton University Press. 

Race and Regionalsm | Vol. 15, No. 1 | Fall 2008 | Credits

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