Day 9 of White History Month: Keeping Social Movements White
“In an industry where the income gap between the skilled and unskilled was unusually large, many whites must have known that genuine equality for blacks, based on their ability and seniority, could impose an economic cost on them; it could mean giving up their privileged access to the skilled jobs, higher pay, and better, safer working environment that the wages of whiteness proffered”. - Bruce Nelson
Despite the relevance of many social movements to racism, you might notice that the faces of many social movements are white.
Feminism is often linked to Gloria Steinem, and in recent years, Jessica Valenti has been a feminist icon. Political movements outside of the mainstream (liberalism) are dominated by white men whether you’re looking at Occupy or anarchism. Even anti-racism is often connected to Tim Wise. In most cities, unions are overwhelmingly white. In many cases, social movements have even worsened conditions for people of color or worked against them. This is the legacy of long-standing racism and deliberate exclusion within social movements.
In the 1800’s, the abolitionist movement received a lot of support from white women, particularly white feminists and suffragists who were particularly active within the movement. Once slavery was abolished, however, many of these feminists turned away from civil rights for Black Americans and focused on voting rights for women. Some were bitter that Black people were free but that they were not able to vote.
They neglected Black women and the concerns of Black women, which resulted in racially segregated interests and organizations. Most white women instead began to fight for their right to be equal with white men, rather than face the issue of patriarchy or ally with women of color. Feminists publications focused on issues that primarily applied to white women, such as working outside of the home.
Contemporary feminists often focus on issues such as “slut-shaming”, while ignoring that many women of color are hypersexualized at birth. At “slutwalks”, women have carried signs that say “women is the n****r of the world”. When women of color call attention to issues of race, they are called divisive or called upon to educate white women. Many feminists completely ignore the reality of sexism for women of color.
From the beginning, the labor movement was built to be exclusionary. While labor activists may say that race was used against the working class, it was often a tool used by unions as well. Black Americans, Chinese Americans, Japanese Americans, and women were often excluded by definition. Chinese Americans were considered to be impossible to assimilate, and unions supported legislation that would restrict or ban their migration to the United States. In the North, many unions had membership restrictions that explicitly excluded Black Americans (and early on, “ethnic” European immigrants). Black Americans were depicted as strikebreakers (although in reality most strikebreakers were white) which unions used as justification to exclude them and their “slavelike behavior”.
When the CIO instituted race-conscious policies, some members referred to it as “Jim Crowism in reverse”. Unions were hesitant for support the promotion of union members of color. Even the relatively progressive CIO believed that race was subordinate to class, and Eugene Debs said that socialism has “nothing special to offer the Negro”. It eventually reverted to ignoring race and admitting that they had nothing to offer Black workers.
The issue of discrimination within and by unions was not addressed until Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, The individuals within the Bureau responsible were generally biased in favor of unions and they ignored many complaints that they received. They launched few investigations in response to the complaints received. The only repercussion of their investigations was notifying the unions of the violations. The unions, in turn, simply had to respond saying they were aware and would not do it again. Unions responded to the formation of this Bureau with the creation of new requirements, tests, and interviews that were meant to keep people of color out.
Today, people of color still face exclusion from unions and discrimination within unions. Construction unions have been and remain particularly hostile to Black Americans. In Philadelphia, many jobs are performed entirely by white men. In 2007, a noose was found on a union-only construction site. Intimidation and discrimination are still prevalent.
Regardless of whether it is anarchism, or Marxism, political movements (even outside of liberalism) are not particularly friendly to people of color. Marxists have long neglected intersectional analysis and have instead prioritized class and reduced race to a secondary issue. Marxism neglected to note the racialized nature of colonialism, slavery, and western Imperialism.
Today, people of color who attempted to take part in the Occupy movement were met with racial epithets and exclusion from leadership. Signs sometimes equated student loan debt to slavery, and even legendary leader Congressman John Lewis was not allowed to speak. White privilege was largely ignored, with white people co-opting the struggle of people of color while simultaneously being oblivious to the disproportionate poverty within communities of color. Similar experiences are faced by people of color who attempt to join anarchist communities.