News & Politics

The Color of New Activism

Where is the color in the new activism? Why haven't the connections between issues -- globalization, sweatshops and the environment on one hand, racial profiling, police brutality and prisons on the other -- been made?
April's demonstrations in Washington and the ruckus in Seattle last November announced the arrival of a new spirit of political activism. After three decades of false alarms, the outlines of a new movement finally seem to be taking shape. Finding fault in such a long-awaited and deeply welcomed development may be looking a gift horse in the mouth. But one question must be asked: Where is the color in this new movement?

As the cultural pendulum swings again toward social activism, the monochromatic complexion of the activists sparks the same concern it did 35 years ago. In both Seattle and Washington, observers noted the relative absence of African-Americans from the mix of protesters, despite the fact that many of the contested issues concern policies that directly affect developing countries, especially those in Africa. Yet African-American activists, by and large, seem less concerned about the more abstract issues of globalism than they are the nuts-and-bolts problems of racial profiling, police brutality and inordinate incarceration.

This diverging agenda is easily explained by the differing social conditions black Americans must confront. A recent study sponsored by the National Science Foundation found a five-year decline in African-Americans' net worth and a wealth gap between black and white Americans that continues to expand despite a booming economy. The net worth of the median African-American family in 1999 was $7,000. For the median white family, it was $84,400. This historic disparity of capital is one reason why the issue of reparations for slavery and Jim Crow is gaining such momentum within the black community. Yet reparations have not been linked to larger issues of corporate accountability.

Similarly, the prison-industrial complex, where the scavenger logic of globalism is most crudely expressed, could be aligned with the overall battle against corporate power. As Manning Marable has written, "There is an inescapable connection between Seattle and Sing Sing Prison, between global inequality and the brutalization of Third World labor and what's happening to black, brown and working people here in the United States." Although the connection is plain, it has failed to produce an organization capable of attracting both blacks energized by recent struggles against police brutality and whites newly lured to the fight for global justice.

Back in 1966, the student activism movement split between the black power advocates and the anti-Vietnam/cultural politics axis. The fuse for this stark separation was lit when black members of the integrated Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee voted to oust white members and transform the group into a black power organization. Issues of cultural autonomy and positive self-definition were imperative to African-Americans during this period, as they came to grips with the legacy of internalized oppression and self-hatred. However, these issues were less important to their white colleagues. Inevitable differences in emphasis prevented SNCC from acting as a unified force, and white students were urged to form their own organizations.

In retrospect, it's clear that both blacks and whites were challenging the same enemy. The imperialist logic that justified the slaughter of the Vietnamese was akin to the bigoted logic that justified racial exclusion. Some radical black organizations attempted to make that link explicit, but they were drowned out by nationalist impulses coursing through black America at the time. Because of its failure to grasp black America's need for nationalist expression (and to understand that it wasn't necessarily hostile to the growing progressive movement) the left -- even the black left -- was reflexively repelled.

We still haven't overcome that divide. Here's our opportunity.

Salim Muwakkil is a senior editor of In These Times.
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