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Our Future as a Multiracial Society

Barack Obama’s election didn’t launch a post-racial era. But a racially just, inclusive, and even loving society is still possible, says a YES! Magazine panel of visionaries.
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Sarah: Let’s look at the generational divide. What strengths can each generation contribute to the creation of a new American story?

Rob Baker

Rob "Biko" Baker is a Milwaukee-based organizer and national mobilizer of young voters.

Biko: If you talk to African American men under the age of 30, I think most would tell you that they don’t think they will make it to 30. I felt that way. It’s a generational thing caused by the war on drugs and the crack epidemic.

While the progressive movement is doing a lot to tackle the contradictions of race, the lived experience of people of color, especially black males, hasn’t changed much. That’s a testament to how deep structural racism is, and it’s why I do not believe that the new world that we’re trying to build will come easily. It will be a struggle.

Also, my generation is increasingly worried about the future because of the impact of climate change. I’m young, but I’m worried about dying.

Carl: I have to support what Biko said. As an African American man now turning 70, it has been painful to watch the proliferation of progressive, social movements over the last 30 or 40 years that have forgotten African American men. You see people facing homicide and going to prison. These survival issues have been marginalized in the public conversation about progressive causes.

Grace: In Detroit, we have ex-cons coming back to help who had been part of the crime and crack epidemic. Some are coming back in order to redefine family. They remember Malcolm X, and they realize that carrying on the legacy of Malcolm means transforming themselves and transforming their communities.

That’s the sort of thing that we are doing in Detroit, and that’s the sort of thing that we have to begin spreading so that people see that there’s an alternative to this disgraceful and shameful corporatist government.

I like this discussion, because in the movement we’re very privileged to have intergenerational interaction. I think of my own experience, for example, with young people in their 20s—the Millennial Generation—and with the generation that came out of the ’60s.

The walls are breaking down. We’re beginning to see how our work is interrelated as opposed to, “I’m just a race person,” or “I’m just a this person. …”

The 20th century was a fantastic century. It started with the Russian Revolution and in the middle had the Montgomery bus boycott and then ended with the WTO protests in Seattle. We have such an enormous opportunity to share those experiences and make clear that this is an intergenerational movement.

Adrienne: I just want to put in a plug that I moved to Detroit because of the intergenerational dynamics I saw here. They’re so powerful.

One of the things that my generation brings to the table is that we are more and more comfortable with a post-divided world. I’m seeing the walls breaking down. We’re beginning to see the whole picture and how our work is interrelated—as opposed to, “I’m just a race person,” or “I’m just a this person. …”

One of the things I’m learning in the US Social Forum process is that the ease of travel and electronic communications makes it easy for the younger generation to forget the hard work of on-the-ground organizing. It’s helpful to have elders in our lives to remind us what it was like when the work wasn’t about conference calls and going to meetings. Most of your work took place in your city. That way of organizing is something that we need to return to because our planet is demanding that we relocalize and not be traveling all over the place. It’s not aligned with our values to be constantly on a plane.

Many national struggles have to be won at a local level first. It’s going to be hard for us to get the kind of health care we want nationally if we don’t have local, intergenerational struggles all over the country.

Biko: I think our generation is much more willing to go from opposition to proposition. It’s not taking power, but it’s making power. We have to come up with solutions. We can’t just be angry for the sake of being angry.

Carlos Jimenez Head Shot

Carlos Jimenez directs the Young Worker Project at Jobs With Justice in Washington, DC.

Carlos: Young people need elders who can help us younger folks slow down and learn from their experiences. Sit down with us and ask some deeper questions that help us grow strong and reaffirm our commitment to social justice work: Why do we fight? What have you learned? What can you teach others now from your experience?

Sarah: Many of us witnessed in horror last summer’s media attack on Van Jones, the White House green jobs advisor. When spurious right-wing attacks forced him to resign, many asked what we should have done to support him. Is there something we can learn from this?

Biko: I think the attack on Van was a response to an attack on Glenn Beck and FOX News with a strategy that wasn’t based in love. [Editors’ Note: Color of Change convinced some of Beck’s key advertisers to withdraw their support for his show after he accused President Obama of being racist.]

When you push someone into a corner, you’re going to get scratched. As progressives, we need to embrace nonviolence because if we’re going to push our vision of the world into society, we can’t be attacking people, even people as problematic as Glenn Beck.

The other thing is Van and people like him are human beings, and they need our love. As a progressive movement, we need to be more honest with each other and stand up for each other. Maybe it’s because I come from a street background, but you just can’t let your people be attacked like that without stepping up.

Grace: To look at the question of Van Jones in isolation from the general paralysis in relationship to Obama would be a mistake. We haven’t discovered yet how to struggle seriously with Obama, like, for example, when he failed to stand up to the attacks on Van.

Carl: The people who attacked Van are vicious; they made up arbitrary lies about him. But the fact that they got away with it reveals as much about the weakness in the progressive movement as it does about their viciousness. This was an attack on Obama, and the progressive movement has not built the base to sustain the energy that put Obama in office.

Adrienne: Van was attacked in part for the activist work of his youth. If we have a political culture that’s comfortable with multicultural space, then we’ll be comfortable with all of the politics brought to the table and with the whole story. So someone like Van could say, “That’s who I was when I was younger, and I’m not ashamed of it.” And Obama could say, “I met Fidel, and I’m not ashamed of it.” Because we are in this country that is a democracy, and we’re supposed to have a diversity of political opinions. That’s how we’re going to survive.

Sarah: What is it that we still don’t get about how to work together? Why are wedge issues still able to divide us?

Grace Lee Boggs

Grace Lee Boggs has been a Detroit-based movement activist and theoretician for nearly 70 years.

Grace: I think you have to work together on a turf. As long as we’re just talking about different ideologies, we’re going to be hostile to one another or compete with one another. We have to ground ourselves in a place and in a community. Activist work has been successful in Detroit because we have lived and worked here for years.

Robert: It’s not surprising that we have trouble overcoming differences. We live in a society based on hierarchies that are deeply woven into the fabric of our identities. As someone who’s white, male, and belongs to the professional class, I bump into these hierarchies all the time. We are told that they are inevitable and difficult to overcome. But when people commit to common struggles, overcoming them is easier.

In the end, our ecological crises will compel us to overcome our differences. It’s possible that the planetary ecosystem could become unable to sustain human life as we know it, not in some science-fiction future but in our lifetime. We are up against something that real, that scary. Recognizing the depth of the ecological crises has not made me despair; it’s helped me commit to the difficult work of crossing boundaries.

Biko: I agree with all of that. The only thing that I would add is that talented organizers can get caught up in the cult of personality. I’ve seen that in my own career as I’ve gone from the grassroots to the national level. There aren’t enough leaders who are challenging their own privilege. It’s something that I’m trying to get better at, and I think it’s something we all need to do.

Carl: Our social movements are all struggling for a moment in the sun and for our viewpoints. We need to understand that we’re all coming out of a common matrix related to that pivotal moment of European expansion.

All the ecological, human rights, and economic issues that we are facing every day came out of a common matrix: that a few pirates and a few so-called kings managed to conquer the whole Earth and turn it to their own private use. Getting the story right is really important, because if I start asking whether black people are more important than indigenous people, or whether the women’s movement is more important than protecting the Earth—those kind of arguments get really dumb.

Adrienne: There are three things that we need to get. First, none of our issues or our identities exist in a vacuum. The moment we struggle against each other is the moment we weaken our movement. Colonization wasn’t color-blind, so the long-term result of that cannot be color-blind or class-blind; race and poverty go hand in hand.

Second, we need to learn to listen to each other’s stories. People are developing new solutions, but we’re not actually listening to each other enough to develop trust in those solutions.

Third, we need to understand that we’re not moving toward some end goal, some win-or-lose point that will make or break our society. This is something I’m learning from Grace. Instead we’re involved in a process, and we need to continue to improve ourselves and evolve.

Sarah van Gelder mugSarah van Gelder moderated this panel for America: The Remix, the Spring 2010 issue of YES! Magazine. Sarah is executive editor of YES!


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