|RaceWire Article - August 2003|
Does "Anti-War" Have to be "Anti-Racist" Too?
By Elizabeth (Betita) Martinez
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The education, mobilization, organization, participation, and leadership of people of color in the anti-war movement have been recognized as important far more today than previously. More people of color can be seen at demonstrations than during the Vietnam War. We find people of color in the leadership of anti-war organizations, for example, composing half of the steering committee of the national coalition United for Peace and Justice. Anti-war teach-ins in Spanish are happening and bilingual publications are being produced.
Such changes are good, but questions persist. Why, for example, is there not more color in the anti-war movement nationwide, when the troops who fight and die are disproportionately black, brown, and red? Why isn't there more color when those who pay such a heavy price for cutbacks in vital social services due to military spending are people of color?
The most immediate answer is racism: how white supremacy conditions the attitudes and conduct of many anti-war activists, often without their realizing it.
"Diversity is Not Our Job"
Throughout history, U.S. peace groups have been primarily composed of and led by older, middle-class whites, mostly men. That still holds true today, even in racially diverse San Francisco and its four major coalitions that put on the big February 16, 2002 demonstration (Feb. 15 elsewhere). At meetings of their coordinating committee, out of 25 representatives you might find a half dozen of color and an even smaller proportion under 40 years of age (few of whom played a leading role in the discussion).
Far too many cases occur of white activists acting with ignorance, indifference, and arrogance toward people of color. They might be as major as the Washington, D.C. protest against the World Bank and the IMF on April 16, 2000, when no black or Latino leaders were even asked to speak at the main eventan amazing omission, given the colors of Washington, D.C. Or they might be brief incidents as when a Chicano in Sacramento, California encountered a peace activist leafletting at a food co-op. When he asked if there would be speakers of color at the event she was promoting, she replied, "Diversity is not our job."
Often the problem is a cultural clash. It might be marginalizing non-English speaking immigrants and rarely thinking of the need for translation of literature, meetings, slogans. There can also be conflicts about style of work as basic as how and by whom a meeting is chaired. Participants of color may end up feeling that a meeting had a very "white style"meaning a tendency to move in a strictly linear direction, with no time allowed for building trust and new leadership. The problem can be hard to explain in racial terms. A person of color at a mostly white meeting may feel that veiled power relations are in operation but be unable to identify just how. One Chicano student activist commented that while white-dominated meetings may be supposedly "leaderless," informal and therefore unaccountable leaders are actually calling the shots. Those same dynamics can be observed in all-white meetings but the feeling of exclusion usually intensifies for a person of color.
Some problems involve tactics. For example, whites planning civil disobedience may forget that immigrants and others of color risk jail, deportation, and special police violence for participating. As that same Chicano organizer commented, "We have young white activists who do not think beyond the fact that they can get arrested and be out of jail overnight with no serious problems. They do not recognize that white privilegecombined with class privilegecan make this happen." Such practices led to sharp criticism on a KPFA (Pacifica) program. Several hip-hop activists discussed whether the anti-war movement was a whites-only mission. One said that organizers will call for peace around the world but "when it comes to people of color here, they just want Peace on the Plantation."
The War Resisters League Resists What?
A striking example of shameless racism confronts us when we look at the War Resisters League. For 80 years an all-white organization with a handful of exceptions, it has harbored a persistent debate about whether it should define itself as not only anti-war but also anti-racist. This eventually led David McReynolds of its executive committee, who had been on the National Office's staff for almost 40 years, to announce his resignation from all posts. McReynolds resigned after the WRL's National Committee voted last February to maintain a project called ROOTS (originally Youth Peace) intended to increase its young membership. ROOTS is staffed by people of color, with Asif Ullah, a South Asian, its current director; its program includes workshops for whites and others, organizing against military recruitment, and AWOL, a hip-hop magazine and CD, published for youth.
In his letter of resignation, McReynolds said he saw that vote as setting the League "on a course which I think, unless reversed, will result in the end of the organization. That course was to shift our primary focus from being a peace and disaramament organization to a broader focus in which the League would be not only an antiwar organization, but also an anti-racist organization."
The letter also stated the vote meant retaining ROOTS even though almost all of its material "is clearly not pacifist." McReynolds said, "In one sense we always been anti-racist-but our focus has been social change through nonviolence." The strong implication here, confirmed last July at a National Committee meeting, is that people of color do not adhere to the WRC's pledge of non-violence and are violent in their pursuit of social change. (Gandhi? Martin Luther King? Cesar Chavez? Hello!)
Other comments by McReynolds at the WRCs National Committee meeting last July also shocked guests. When pressed to have the WRL take an anti-racist stand, "Were not the NAACP." And "racism ended in the 60s." And "white working class people are worst off than people of color."
No one challenged his position except ROOTS. Letters responding to McReynolds resignation show that debate continues within the WRL on the issue of racism. One letter supported him for opposing "capitulation to such political correctness"; another said "if we wish to end war, we need to both be more diverse and work with more diverse communities." Others questioned why being officially anti-racist was so controversial in the WRL when not long ago it had no great problem agreeing to declare itself anti-sexist.
Today the WRL continues as a quiet member of the United for Peace and Justice coalition, attending a few meetings and contributing to the big national protests. We can hope it will return to its strengths, which some of us remember from the Vietnam war years, and undertake the basic restructuring needed. We can urge it to unite with the need expressed by David Graham DuBois, grandson of the revered scholar and visionary, in his "Open Letter to the U.S. Peace Movement."
DuBois wrote that confronted by the Iraq war, Black Americans "are generally silent largely because there has been so little evidence that those who call us into the streets to demonstrate for peace understand how color racism and white supremacy are used in the United States against the interests of peace, justice and the pursuit of happiness for all peoples. It is not enough to call up the peace legacy of Martin Luther King, in speeches and slogans You must organize to end racism with the same enthusiasm and determination as you organize to stop the war."
Dr. DuBois made our basic point forcefully: we cannot work to end U.S. militarism and its wars without simultaneously challenging racism. A quick look at the last 40 military actions or wars by this country says it clearly: Since World War II, they have all been against countries of color. Not to mention those who fight and die in these wars are disproportionately people of color, along with still more evidence.
The Open Letter About Racism in the Movement
The position taken by the WRL and McReynolds compelled the preparation of an "Open Letter About Racism in the Movement" that was circulated among thousands of activists shortly after the Feb. 15/16 rallies. Issued by a multi-racial group in New York City, the Open Letter discussed white supremacy as experienced by its authors over a one-year period.
Cases of whites refusing to acknowledge and accept leadership from activists and organizations of color headed the list. There were times white activists started coalitions without input from or serious outreach to people of color and then called the coalition "citywide." White activists used their greater resources to dominate a coalition. Not calling on activists of color at meetings or favoring those deemed by whites to be the most "articulate," were more examples.
"Theres a War at Home, Too!"
Historically the U.S. peace movement has not recognized that it must be anti-racist as well as anti-war. Angela Davis once commented that when the black community did not oppose the Vietnam War as much as expected, one reason was that it did not see white peace activists energetically defending the Black Panthers, who were fighting a war for survival here.
In a similar way, peace activists today have often failed to recognize that there is a "War at Home" as well as the wars abroad, and that they are linked. People of color suffer severely from their effects, such as denial of immigrant rights in the name of "security," social program cutbacks for the sake of gigantic military spending, youth seeing the military as their only economic hope, and others. One reason why the national organization ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism) attracts many people of color to its actions despite a largely white leadership is its constant affirmation of that linkage.
A related blindness is white anti-war activists not recognizing that communities of color are engaged, as peoples, in lifelong struggles for self-determination within U.S. society. The "Open Letter" notes that two promising coalitions in New York collapsed because "predominantly white forces failed to grasp the importance of self-determination and certain concerns in communities of color."
Self-determination is also denied in the way many white activists relate to Palestines struggle against occupation and fail to see its connection with the U.S. drive for control in the Third World. Instead of solidarity, Arab American activists have noted, some whites say those who support Palestines struggle are anti-Semitic; some fear alienating Jews if they do support Palestine; some dismiss that struggle out of total ignorance about Israeli, Arab, and Islamic history, or they think all of Islam oppresses women so too bad for Palestine.
White Efforts to Diversify
It is not unusual to hear members of predominantly white anti-war groups express regret that their meetings include too few people of color. But to correct this, they have usually not gone beyond good intentions or tokenism. They do no more than agree, "yes, weve got to get more people of color involved." As Tonto might have said to the Lone Ranger, "Who is we, white man?"
More serious recent efforts by todays white anti-war activists to combat racist tendencies date back to September 2001 when the Stand for Peace Anti-Racism Committee (SPARC) was formed "to build an anti-racist, multi-racial movement for justice and peace" in Albany, NY and the surrounding region. It decided to hold a forum on Aug. 13, 2003 "to discuss ways to support the involvement and leadership of people of color who are working for peace," and strategies "about how we can make connections between and ultimately end the wars at home and the wars against people of color" worldwide.
In November 2001, New York City (70 percent people of color) saw a group of 10 young(ish) white organizers and activists put out a powerful letter called "An Anti-Racist Coalition?: We have a long way to go." They included members of mostly local groups working for the rights of welfare recipients, workers (UNITE), gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people (FIERCE) and others who had attended meetings to plan for an Oct. 7 march.
The letter sharply criticized those meetings for marginalizing people of color as well as youth and working class participants. It also presented many excellent, practical suggestions for improvement, including the proposal that "white folks seek out an anti-racist training (preferably led by younger folks)."
Other suggestions have come from longtime white anti-racist organizers like Chris Crass of the Bay Area. Instead of that eurocentric "come join us" approach, he suggests that white activists should check in with anti-war organizations of color and ask what support they could provide. This might include tasks like childcare (and don't you look down on it!). Chris also emphasized the importance of accountability: doing what you say you will do-which lays the groundwork for trust. We could add that nothing in this process is simple or easy; complications arise when, for example, someone plays an opportunistic role instead of one that helps the struggle itself to grow all around.
A promising example has been set by United for Peace and Justice, now 51 percent people of color at the leadership level. (It remains for each organization in that coalition to combat racism on its own turf.) Such developments encourage the hope of widespread white support for working with people of color as equals against the wars and all empire-building.
Those of us who remember the black civil rights movement know it is possible for vast numbers of white people in this land to say a loud NO to anything that excludes, demeans or marginalizes people of color. Everyone should remember William Moore, Mickey Schwerner, Andy Goodman, Jonathan Daniels. Viola Liuzzo and other white activists who gave their lives in the southern freedom struggle of the 1960s. Their lives were not worth more than any black life lost of which hundreds could be mentioned, but their commitment set an inspiring example for anti-racist whites.
The time is more than ripe to show that commitment again. White activists should not only say NO to racism but also carry out energetic campaigns of YES to specific measures that will advance genuine collaboration. This is no simple or easy task, but what is more worthwhile?
A young white friend wrote last year, "Wouldnt it be beautiful if we could get thousands of white organizers all over the country to reject those old racist habits? To stop thinking of their work as the center of everything and educate other white folks too? To see why they have to fight racism along with militarism so the solidarity we talk about is real? Then we could truly proclaim: another world is possible!
"Wouldn't that be beautiful?" said my young friend.
A Chicana writer, teacher and social justice activist for over 40 years, Elizabeth (Betita) Martinez has published six books on popular struggles in the Americas. Currently she is director of the Institute for MultiRacial Justice, co-founder of Latinos Contra La Guerra, and an editor with War Times.