Human Rights

Keeping the Color Line

Why are many progressive organizations, as well as the Republican and Democratic parties, still so blindingly white?
This election year, both parties are taking credit for their supposed progress on the ever-ticklish topic of race.

The Democrats are giving Barack Obama a prime-time starring role while Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie makes repeated references to "celebrating a milestone achievement in our party's connection with America's minorities." One of the delegates to the Republican Convention, Dominican American Fernando Mateo told me, "In terms of minority representation, the party has grown by more than 70 percent since (2000)."

Of course, a closer look at the convention showed the Republican Party is still an overwhelmingly white institution, a glorified gated community where non-whites (excluding those propped up for photo opportunities) sweep, caretake and do almost everything except exercise power.

The claims of inclusiveness don't stop with the rhetoric of Democratic or Republican leaders. Peace-minded protesters, progressive organizations like United for Peace and Justice (UPJ) and others outside of the politico-corporate consensus claim similar advances.

Judith LeBlanc of UPJ pointed out that the Republican platform (and the hawkish Democratic platform) would continue to put disproportionate numbers of African Americans and Latinos on the squalid floors of abuse-laden prisons and on the deadly desert grounds of Iraq rather than on the green lawns of good schools.

Yet, Leblanc, who is Native American, also acknowledged a "major problem" facing those opposed to the mainstream political agenda – the depressingly low number of non-whites in media, nonprofit organizations, and left-of-center groups and coalitions. One visible measure of the contradictions and depth of the racial problem is that those who make up the new majority in New York probably constituted fewer than 5 percent of the labyrinthine line of those who marched against war, poverty and other injustices disproportionately affecting these same non-white communities. Similar statistics can be found in organizations and marches in Boston, Washington, Los Angeles and most major cities where whites are now minorities.

This lack of concrete non-white power in Republican, Democratic, conservative and progressive ranks bodes ill for social change in the United States. In effect, the central debates of the 21st Century have a "color line" running through them. The "color line" may be less black and white than the one described by W.E.B. Dubois, but it is still with us, and with a vengeance.

The problem in today's struggle is that minorities - white minorities - are running both sides of a fight that will define who succeeds and who suffers, who lives and who dies. The national debate is still run along the same lines as the upcoming Bush-Kerry debates: two or more white people speaking authoritatively about issues affecting the rest of us. With the exception of some labor unions and a few other, mostly local organizations, the internal debates and daily work within 527 organizations like Move-On, within anarchist groups, alternative media and others doing truly important work in left-of-center America also suffer from the lack of voices echoing the new urban majority surrounding their hip workplaces and their ungated but gentrified neighborhoods. The struggle against gated global empire is itself gated off from the majority.

Viewed from inside, it's clear that too many non-white leaders are placing too much emphasis on mobilizing Latinos and other non-whites to vote, their vision has a horizon that doesn't extend beyond November 2nd. These leaders make too little effort to build leadership in their communities at a time when oppositional movements will need even mightier momentum after November.

While efforts to broaden their movement should be applauded, UPJ's and other progressive organizations' efforts aren't enough. Deep change in this country won't take place until large numbers of non-whites, and whites, are marching, protesting and acting to change priorities. While it may take another Bush victory for most to realize this, some, especially those of us in the non-white community, are increasingly cognizant of our own role in the solution to a problem we must all own up to.

"We need to organize ourselves and then step up to the table to negotiate with Caucasians," says Mallika Dutt, executive director of Breakthrough, a New York-based human rights and social justice organization. She adds, "Only then can long-term change take place." For South Asians and other non-whites like Dutt, race cannot be relegated to the back of the progressive bus because we may, in fact, have to take the bus apart and rebuild it after the elections.

"Even within the so-called progressive movement if you're not actively confronting racism and white supremacy you're building a house of cards," says Michael Novick, a veteran education organizer and author of a book on whites and racism. Novick, a white man whose lessons in activism grew out of helping to organize Vietnam War protests at Brooklyn College, says, "It's not just a matter of pointing your finger at the powerful and saying, 'He's the problem.'"

All of us, white and non-white, must fix a broader problem that will vex us as much as national security long after November's elections. Regardless of who wins, we all lose if we forget the color line.

Roberto Lovato is a Los Angeles-based writer.
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