Sarah van Gelder: In the year 2042, people of color will be in the majority in the United States. They already are in many of our cities and farming areas. Yet America still imagines itself—on television, in advertising, and in political rhetoric—as racially white and culturally European. What would it mean to change our self-image and recognize that we’re made up of a mixture of races, nationalities, and cultures?
Carl Anthony: I believe that the biggest change would be the changing of our imagined community. The Eurocentric view of the world rests on a story that goes back probably five centuries. The fact is, everyone has ancestors that go back 200,000 years. The opportunity is to actually develop a shared story that includes everybody and also includes the Earth.
Carlos Jimenez: We’d have an opportunity to break free from chasing a false expectation about who we’re supposed to be. A lot of people go through self-denial in order to conform to the image of white European society. We start looking down on our own cultures, traditions, and practices.
Biko Baker: The other day I noticed on Twitter that many women of color are using Barbie as their status name. It struck me as horrible because white women can’t live up to the Barbie standard and African American women definitely can’t. I see self-hate on a daily basis in the communities where I work.
But, as Malcolm X highlighted, people of color aren’t the minority—the world population is brown. If we can truly represent what’s going on in this world and not let the Westernized image get in the way, I think we will see a growing self-confidence. But I don’t think this is going to come easily.
Robert Jensen: The changes in demographics may make us a more multicultural society. But politically, we are still Eurocentric. It will not be easy to dislodge the white power structure, in part because society can absorb and co-opt people even when they are not racially white.
Adrienne Maree Brown: Obama’s election brought a black man into office, but does he bring black culture with him? How do we carry culture forward along with biological race—which is not even a scientific reality? How do we learn the lessons from our history of displacement, slavery, and colonization, and discover each other and all the cultural history that we carry?
With the ecological situation we’re in, it’s ancestral knowledge that we especially need to connect with. Then we can access the secrets for taking care of the planet that we’re on.
Grace Lee Boggs: We need to understand the diversity emerging in this society not only in terms of race. For example, people with physical disabilities are giving us insight into a culture of the heart and of the spirit that can help us evolve.
Carl: I think a pivotal point in our story is the period of European expansion and colonization, which touched every single person on the planet and brought about the changes that we’re struggling with today. All our social movements since that time have been a response—the anti-colonialism movement, the struggle against slavery, the labor movement, women’s movement, the ecological movement.
I don’t necessarily agree that this is going to be difficult to topple. With the emergence of India and China, as well as other developing countries, we will be shocked at how swiftly things change in the next century. Nobody thought that the Soviet Union would disappear, but it did.
I think we need a new story and we need it to be an inclusive story that has all of these dimensions in it: race, class, gender, generations, as well as our relationship with the natural world.
Sarah: Do you see signs of this new culture and this new story emerging?
US Social Forum, the number one thing I see is the emergence of wholeness. Folks recognize that health care cannot be separated from the environment or the economy. And direct-action strategy can’t stand alone—it has to be part of a holistic strategy that includes negotiation, relationship building, and what happens after there is some success. This wholeness is coming from leaders who are getting more comfortable showing up in their whole identity.Adrienne: In my work with national organizations like the Ruckus Society, the Allied Media Conference, and now the
Carlos: I agree about restoring wholeness. At the last World Social Forum, the indigenous Aymara people from the Andes brought the concept of buen vivir, which is about living life in harmony and equilibrium among men, women, different communities, and above all between humans and the natural world.
I was blown away. And when I talked with folks from different countries, with different economic, political, and social realities, we discovered that we have a shared agreement of where we want to go. We will take different roads, but ultimately, we have a shared idea about harmony and equality.
Carl: Wholeness also means taking responsibility for directing and leading society. As long as we just protest against somebody else governing, we run up against limitations. In Afghanistan, for example, it’s no longer sufficient to be anti-war.
Sarah: Let’s look at the generational divide. What strengths can each generation contribute to the creation of a new American story?
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 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: 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?
successful in Detroit because we have lived and worked here for 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
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.