Can the Left Come Together?

Early on December 7, a black couple was brutally murdered while walking down a street in Fayetteville, N.C. The alleged killers, two white members of the U.S. Army's 82nd Airborne Division, apparently chose their victims for no reason other than their racial identity. The soldiers are reportedly adherents of a neo-Nazi ideology that has found a home among some members of the nation's armed forces. A day later in New York City's Harlem district, an enraged black man with a gun and a can of paint thinner burst into a Jewish-owned store, shouted "brothers get out," and fired on fleeing customers. He wounded four people before igniting the paint thinner and shooting himself. Seven people died of smoke inhalation. The attack followed weeks of bitter demonstrations protesting plans of the Jewish owner to evict a longtime black tenant.

These two events aptly symbolize the past year's dominant motif: racial polarization. Many of the prominent events of 1995 could serve as equally appropriate symbols. The racially diverse reactions to the O.J. Simpson verdict, Detective Mark Fuhrman racist spewings and the Million Man March all helped strengthen the perception that the race gap in America is widening.

Of course, one major story seemed to suggest otherwise. The widespread support that Ret. Gen. Colin Powell received among whites as he contemplated a presidential run seemed to indicate that an important new milestone had been reached in American race relations. But, in truth, Powell's non-candidacy spurred surprisingly little honest discussion about race. With affirmative action programs under fierce attack, few Powell supporters were willing to acknowledge that the general had risen to power with the help of the military's special race-conscious programs. Without fair recognition of that fact, many read Powell's achievement as proof that race is no longer a significant deterrent to advancement in America. And that reading encouraged an even more dangerous line of reasoning: If Colin Powell could become chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, then what excuse did less successful blacks have for their condition?

It was a schizophrenic year for black Americans, who saw their role in 1995's racial drama defined by the good guy-bad guy tandem of Powell and Million Man March-convener Louis Farrakhan. Ironically, both men share similar personal histories. They are children of Caribbean immigrants and grew up in working-class neighborhoods. With the obvious exception of Farrakhan's racial preoccupations, the two men's belief systems -- which stress patriarchal "family values," an emphasis on self-reliance and a fondness for military discipline and uniforms -- are also remarkably similar.

Thus, black progressives found 1995 to be a year of marking time. What else could it be, when the leader of the largest black demonstration in U.S. history finds such broad agreement with an African-American Republican icon? And the situation was not much different for white progressives, who watched the right-wing militia movement appropriate the last remnants of their populist rhetoric. The right's angry response to the actions of federal officials in Waco, Texas, and Ruby Ridge, Idaho, for example, almost exactly echoed the left's reaction to the "neutralization" of the Black Panther Party and the infiltration of other leftist groups a generation earlier.

The right's success in framing political debate has placed progressives in the odd position of defending a government they once attacked with abandon. In many cases, progressives simply seem dumbfounded by the populist appeal of these hard-charging right-wingers. And so far, the American left has failed to offer a vision that can compete with the racially charged narrative that attracts individuals like James Burmeister and Malcolm Wright, the two neo-Nazi soldiers charged in the Fayetteville killings of Michael James and Jackie Burden.

Some progressives, sensing their precarious position, are urging the left's far-flung constituency of feminists, civil-rights advocates, gay-rights activists, and others to abandon the politics of identity for the good of the commonweal. Identity politics not only imperils the notion of community by fetishizing difference, they argue, it also diverts energy and attention from more immediate causes that cry out for action. Todd Gitlin's new book, The Twilight of Common Dreams: Why America Is Wracked By Culture Wars (Metropolitan Books), makes this argument most eloquently. "Instead of moving to organize against rock-bottom class inequalities and racial discrimination," Gitlin argues, "many activists [have chosen] to fight real and imagined symbols of insult." There is much to recommend that view.

In a fragmenting nation, the duty of progressives seems clear: halt the fragmentation. The logic of identity politics, and its multicultural offspring, seems to lead to chaos. If African-Americans can insist on Afrocentric curricula, for instance, what's to stop Lithuanian-Americans from demanding their own specific version of history? What about Korean-Americans? This cacophony of relativism would feed directly into the right's xenophobic agenda, progressives fear. Instead of uncritically celebrating the politics of difference, they argue, the left should be exploring ways to more effectively bridge those differences.

The tragedy at Freddy's Fashion Mart on 135th Street in Harlem is a potent example of identity politics gone awry. For many weeks prior to the torching, demonstrators protested against Jewish owner Fred Harari, who wanted to expand his business by evicting the Record Shack, a popular black-owned store that carried music from all over the African diaspora.

The protesters viewed the conflict as part of a larger struggle against a conspiracy to restrict black businesses on the famous thoroughfare. As the dispute heated up, the use of anti-Semitic slurs became common among demonstrators, whose number included Roland Smith, the 51-year-old gunman. It may be inaccurate to make causal connections between that inflamed rhetoric and Smith's murderous arson, but it's hard to deny that one helped set the stage for the other.

African-American leadership has a stake in denouncing the racial scapegoating and casual anti-Semitism that have become common among some black activists. But the racial atmosphere has become so highly charged in recent years that any talk of conciliation or coalition seems almost traitorous. This, too, is a function of racial polarization. The call of the tribe is an alluring summons; it is especially compelling when there seem to be few other lines of defense. And in an era of largely uncontested conservative hegemony, other lines are dropping fast. How can black activists be persuaded to ignore racial distress signals when African-Americans are so clearly, and so desperately, in distress? The economic restructuring that has transformed the American workplace has particularly devastated black communities, most of which rely on industrial jobs that have all but vanished. Many black leaders are convinced that while this devastation may originate outside their communities, it can best be mitigated by internal efforts.

"The nationalist project aims to improve the lives of black Americans by concentrating the scarce resources of time, money and political will on reconstructing the institutions of black civil society," explains Eugene Rivers III, a fellow at the Center for the Study of Values and Public Life at Harvard Divinity School and a longtime community activist. Rivers' evolution from a 1960s integrationist to a 1990s nationalist exemplifies the spirit of the times: "The civil rights movement assumed the health of black communities and churches, and the integrationist approach to racial equity built upon them. But we can no longer make that assumption."

Mature nationalists of Rivers' stripe have concluded that integrationist strategies can only work when the targeted group has the cultural and economic wherewithal to compete equitably. "What does civil rights mean for a people psychologically debased by its own internalized racism?" he asks. This rejection of civil rights methodology recalls the movement in the late 1960s that was led by the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a group that occupied the youthful cutting edge of the civil rights movement. Chaired by Stokely Carmichael (now Kwame Ture), SNCC adopted "Black Power" as its rallying cry and the civil rights movement was dealt a blow from which it has never recovered. The first action taken by Carmichael and his vice-chair, H. Rap Brown (now Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin), was to purge whites from SNCC, thus placing identity politics at the center of the black protest agenda. It's remained there ever since.

Although current media coverage of black nationalism tends to focus on Farrakhan's authoritarian brand, nationalism encompasses a wide variety of political strategies. The defunct Black Panther Party, for example, referred to themselves as "revolutionary nationalists" but aggressively sought coalitions with white activists ("mother country radicals") and other like-minded groups. Many members of today's resurgent nationalist movement have learned from the lessons of the 1960s. While stressing self-reliance, they were not opposed to forming alliances with others.

Some of this emerging activity is chronicled in a soon-to-be-published book entitled Beyond Identity Politics: Emerging Social Justice Movements in Communities of Color (South End Press). The book features essays about organizations that have successfully "merged some of the power and advances of identity politics with the immediate concerns of bread-and-butter organizing, often based on class." The book's editor, John Anner, who also edits Third Force magazine (in which the essays originally appeared), believes a merger of class and identity politics is the most important task in developing a new movement for social justice.

"Progressives have been hampered from creating such a movement, in part, because they've lacked the vocabulary for talking about how class and race intersect," Anner says. But several groups profiled in Beyond Identity Politics are directly addressing the problem. The Oakland, Calif.-based Center for Third World Organizing, which publishes Third Force, bills itself as being "located at the intersection of class and race." According to Anner, "There is a great deal of creative, militant, and successful social justice organizing going on at the grass roots in communities of color. The fights are often small in scale, but they point the way to guiding a large movement. We need to let the world know that the lack of a massive social movement and the general despondency among left intellectuals in this country does not mean that regular people have given up struggling for justice and decent lives." Those struggles, he's found, are most successful when people are mobilized around specific, localized issues; such actions set the stage for workable coalitions and larger possibilities.

Anner acknowledges the limitations of identity politics. "Having failed in the beginning to figure out how to effectively merge identity politics with the class struggle, identity-based social movements have, to some extent, turned their backs on class." The result, he says, has been an unprecedented opening of opportunity for middle- and upper-class women and people of color "while the working class and poor -- finding that class trumps race after all -- suffer increasing deprivation."

But part of the reason that practitioners of identity politics have shunned the class-based politics of the traditional left is because so many old-line leftists have been hostile to their concerns. Many African-American activists were driven into the arms of chauvinistic nationalism by the European chauvinism of their putative allies. The progressive movement has been slow in deconstructing its own white supremacist tendencies. The Village Voice's recent examination of the progressive media, for example, revealed a wide disparity between the rhetoric of racial inclusion and the reality of employment.

Left activists also tend to downplay the special concerns with identity that slavery's legacy has thrust on African-Americans. The white supremacist biases of Western culture are active and debilitating sources of racial oppression but seldom are they targeted by progressives. In the salons of the left (the few that remain), there is still a residual notion that such cultural struggles are "superstructural." But the search for cultural identity is more than just a middle-class campaign for personal affirmation, as it is often caricatured -- though it can easily descend to that level. It is an essential identity quest for people crippled by 350 years of chattel slavery and 400 years of white supremacy. The exceptionalist nature of the slave experience has forced a peculiar mission on the descendants of enslaved Africans. Progressive whites must understand that before any meaningful coalitions can emerge.

Many white -- and black -- progressives saw Louis Farrakhan's leading role in the Million Man March as a sign that the event was irredeemably flawed. But they failed to understand that the vast majority of marchers weren't there to endorse Farrakhan's politics. Rather, they gathered to make a statement of hope, an expression of faith that African-Americans possess the strength to become the people they need to be. If that sense of agency is tempered with a realistic appraisal of the need to join with other groups around issues of mutual concern, then the crippling tendencies of identity politics can be overcome.

Nationalism fills a powerful human hunger and has both progressive and reactionary potential. Progressive nationalists understand the importance of curtailing the scapegoating excesses that lately have tainted the movement. And the torching of Freddy's in Harlem easily could serve as a wake-up call to less progressive nationalists. Indeed, there are many reasons to be hopeful. As Beyond Identity Politics reveals, leftists are finally forging strategies to counter right-wing influence, and progressive nationalists are a part of that struggle. As the disparity between rich and poor becomes wider the anti-democratic tendencies of the radical right will become more apparent. More and more Americans will begin searching for an alternative to the right's scorched-earth politics. For progressives, the time to develop that alternative is now.

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