FWD: An Open Letter to Activists Concerning Racism in the Anti-War Movement

Mike Friedman mikedf at amnh.org
Mon Feb 24 21:53:53 MST 2003


An Open Letter to Activists Concerning Racism in the Anti-War Movement

Dear Sisters and Brothers in the anti-war movement,

Attached is an open letter raising issues of racism in the anti-war 
movement. In it, we identify racist practices that have hindered our 
ability to work together and will continue to do so, unless movement 
organizers take aggressive steps to overcome these dynamics.

We wrote and signed this letter before the recent historic Feb. 15 
rallies  in NYC and around the world.

Many of us were active in organizing for the demonstration in NYC. We 
believe the assertion of the anti-racist politics outlined in our letter 
was critical to achieving an event with unprecedented inclusion of the 
majority, people of color, communities in NYC (as well as labor and working 
class people) in both the leadership, the program and the entire 
demonstration. These were important steps forward, and we welcome this 
progress.

At the same time, the racist dynamics we discuss in our letter were and 
remain a powerful factor in our work together, preventing the fullest unity 
and effectiveness. There are already signs that, with Feb. 15 behind us, 
long-standing racist patterns of operating are reemerging.

In order for future demonstrations and coalitions to build on the advances 
that were made and increase participation of all of our communities, it is 
urgent that the issues we raise in our letter be forthrightly addressed by 
the entire movement.

We urge you to give immediate, focused attention to this letter in that spirit.

To respond to this letter, please email the signers at:
antiracistmovement at yahoo.com
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An Open Letter To Activists Concerning Racism In The Anti-War Movement

February 13, 2003

Dear Sisters and Brothers:

We, the undersigned, are peace and justice activists in New York City.
*We are organizing to defeat the United States government's offensive of 
war, racism and repression against the people of the world, both abroad and 
within the borders of the U.S.
*We come from many communities, some of us from other nations. We are all 
colors, multi-generational, workers, students, unemployed, queer and 
straight. We are writing to you out of concern that destructive patterns of 
behavior are hindering the growth of the broadest possible long-term 
movement against war at home and abroad, and preventing the attainment of 
the social justice we all seek.
*We have urgent tasks before us: stopping a war against Iraq and others 
around the world, as well as preventing further attacks on people within 
the United States. To do this work in a principled way, in ways that 
address the root causes of oppression, requires that we acknowledge the 
connection between the forms and institutions of white supremacy embedded 
in U.S. society and the practice of white supremacy within our movement. As 
we dig in for the long haul and try to bring together the broadest possible 
grouping of people, we must be conscious of how our 
histories,"organizational and personal,"influence how we work together.
Background

Since the turn of the year, hundreds of activists have come together in New 
York City to plan anti-war actions.

Along with the work being done for February 15, these gatherings will 
hopefully lead to more and better coalition-building in the future. 
However, at least two other promising coordination efforts in this city, 
since 9/11/2001, also began by involving diverse forces and ended badly. 
One series of meetings, attended by hundreds, led to the formation of the 
New York Coalition for Peace and Justice,"but only after a disastrous split 
around the question of calling for the use of "international law" as an 
alternative to war against Afghanistan. A second series of meetings, held 
last Spring to plan antiwar commemorations of 9/11, produced Stand Up New 
York,"but that coalition foundered when one group insisted on organizing a 
vigil "autonomously," without being responsible to the coalition as a 
whole. In our view, destructive racial dynamics and white supremacy are 
implicated in the disruption of both of these unity initiatives: 
Predominantly white forces failed to grasp the importance of 
self-determination and certain concerns in communities of color. Indeed, 
this was the clear perception of most activists of color who were involved 
in the events.

The problem of racism in anti-war activism is not new. For many years, 
people of color and their white allies have cited its debilitating effects, 
to no avail. A new era of activism presents us with the opportunity to come 
to grips with the issues of race and anti-racism in our movement, instead 
of continuing to ignore them. We believe that such an accounting is crucial 
to the success of coalition-building among the anti-war sectors of New York 
City, and we offer this letter as a means of getting started.


Who is Most Affected by War

At home and abroad, repression, militarism and war take their greatest toll 
on people of color. Following 9/11, the U.S. government and its agents 
escalated their longstanding aggression against us to the level of an 
endless "war on terrorism." Abroad, that war is waged on Iraq, Afghanistan, 
the Philippines, Colombia, Vieques, Puerto Rico, and other nations in the 
global South. "Endless war" crowns the economic embargos and sanctions, 
IMF/World Bank,"generated debt, covert support for torture and death 
squads, and environmental degradation long imposed on nations whose 
inhabitants are viewed through a Eurocentric lens as alien demons, in order 
to rationalize their domination and destruction. At home, the state 
demonizes and criminalizes people of color in order to rationalize 
targeting us for police abuse and repression, in the name of 
"crime-fighting" and "security." Secret detention and deportation of 
immigrants, racial profiling, police brutality, incarceration and cut-backs 
of social services are all part of the arsenal used by the state to control 
communities of color and constrain their development.

As the primary victims of militarism and repression, people of color have 
waged organized resistance against these scourges for centuries, without 
recognition of our frontline activism by whites: We know only too well, if 
others do not, that the peace movement has always been multiracial and 
international.

Consistent with this history, Arab, Asian, Latino, Caribbean and African 
Americans were organizing in their New York City communities before 9/11, 
and since the 9/11 attacks have turned out significant numbers on several 
occasions.

For example, there were the 9/11 anniversary/anti-war events sponsored by 
Third World Within, under the banner "No More Lost Lives," and there was 
the "We Ain't Going Nowhere" march and rally in Harlem sponsored by Uptown 
Youth for Peace and Justice. In addition, South Asian and Arab American 
community-based groups have spearhead street protests downtown and in Times 
Square against detentions and other abuses of immigrant rights that 
continue to this day.


The Movement Today: Reaching The Mainstream

The anti-war movement as a whole can take great pride in the national 
mobilizations that brought hundreds of thousands to Washington, D.C. on 
April 22, October 26 and January 18. Undaunted by the drumbeat for an 
invasion of Iraq and heightened repression at home, our movement has 
mounted an undeniable challenge to policies that, if allowed to prevail, 
can only lead to the devastation of peoples and nations.

The success of these demonstrations was due, in no small part, to the hard 
work done by diverse
grass roots, neighborhood-based groups in New York and other locales.


The energy and commitment emanating from our local anti-war formations 
create a good basis for developing future peace and justice work in our 
city. But to realize our potential for building a mass movement requires, 
first and foremost, clarity as to who actually constitutes the "mainstream" 
and why. The right, the corporate media and elite policy makers persist in 
painting "mainstream America" as white and middle class. Even many white 
liberals cling to the notion that building a mass movement against war 
necessitates the use of techniques and rhetoric that "don't scare away" 
middle class whites. This way of thinking is anachronistic. The nation's 
demographics have changed sharply over the last 40 years, even more 
dramatically over the last decade, with the result that people of color are 
fast becoming a majority in the U.S. More importantly, since people of 
color,"war's principal targets,"have the greatest interest in holding back 
the war tide and, thus, activists of color have the most politically 
developed perspectives on the subject, they are a key source of ideas on 
how to strengthen work and improve outreach. Add to this the fact that more 
and more white working class and middle class families are struggling to 
survive under the crushing burden of globalization's negative effects and 
it becomes clear that resistance against the Bush war machine must reflect 
the spectrum of needs, aspirations, goals, intellectual resources and 
colors of a multiracial, multinational, multilingual and multi-class 
mainstream.  Unfortunately, white supremacy and white privilege in our work 
present obstacles that, if left unaddressed, will limit our ability to 
consolidate an effective movement within today's realities.


Addressing White Supremacy in the Peace and Justice Movement

A persistent dynamic of white supremacy/racism and white privilege within 
many organizations, and the resultant perpetuation of racist practices, 
takes various forms: resistance by predominantly white organizations to 
sharing leadership with,"much less following the leadership of,"activists 
and organizations of color; the failure of predominantly white 
organizations to endorse or participate in anti-war activities sponsored by 
people of color groups; a discussion climate that excludes or demeans the 
contributions of activists/organizations of color, and disparaging or 
insensitive remarks by individuals. These practices have alienated 
individuals and organizations, and they have prevented cooperative bonds 
from forming as we work to build broad and deep opposition to war.

Serious attempts have been made in the past to build anti-racist/racial 
justice politics among white activists. Yet we still see white activists 
and predominantly white organizations acting in ways that effectively 
marginalize and disrespect activists and organizations of color in anti-war 
work. While many of these individuals and organizations view themselves as 
anti-racist, their words and actions,"consciously or unconsciously, 
intentionally or not,"replicate white supremacy and white privilege. In 
addition, they advocate certain positions within the movement that fail to 
address, and in some instances actually support, structural white supremacy.


Definitions

What do we mean by white supremacy and white privilege? We are unaware of 
any universally agreed upon definitions, but we have found those put forth 
by the Challenging White Supremacy Workshop (CWS at 
http://www.cwsworkshop.org <http://www.cwsworkshop.org/> ) to be useful. 
CWS states that white supremacy is a system, historically constructed by 
white peoples, European nations and the United States, to exploit and 
oppress nations and peoples of color. The point of the system is to 
maintain and perpetuate wealth, power and privilege for nations and peoples 
of European descent. White privilege is also a system, institutionally 
based, that (1) rewards and privileges white people solely because of their 
skin color and European origins; and (2) exempts whites and 
European-descended peoples from oppression. White supremacy anchors white 
privilege and racial oppression in our society, meaning that it is not 
simply about individual prejudice. Individual and organizational acts of 
racial prejudice are rooted in, and replicate, an entire social construct 
of white supremacy. If we wish to build a lasting peace and justice 
movement that effectively unites the broadest possible strata of society, 
then our fight against racism must be fully conscious and ongoing. We must 
face the issue externally in our platforms, positions and actions, and 
internally in our movement work.


Examples of White Supremacy & Privilege within the NYC Peace & Justice Movement


Based on the foregoing definitions, here are examples of practices that we 
and other movement activists have witnessed in peace and justice activities 
since 9/11/2001:


*Refusing to acknowledge and accept leadership from activists and 
organizations of color:
*refusing to participate in people of color-led events.
*refusing to participate in broad anti-war activities with strong POC 
participation or leadership, e.g., the summer split when War Resisters 
League withdrew from Stand Up New York (commemoration of September 11).
*white groups starting coalitions without input from, or honest outreach 
to, organizations of color and then calling their groups "citywide." One 
activist dismissed the lack of input and outreach, saying "I long ago gave 
up paying attention to skin color: On such matters, I'm with Dr. King.... 
What's important about people is not the color of their skin, but the 
content of their character."
*white activists making strategy decisions without consulting activists of 
color, whose work is critical to implementing the decisions.
*white activists using their greater financial or volunteer resources to 
attract resources, and to dominate leadership or staff positions 
and  decision-making ("do it my way, and I'll raise the dollars").
*A variation on "divide and rule": White activists using rhetoric in a 
discussion that effectively pits groups against each other, particularly 
groups of color,"for example, insinuating that one group has unfairly tried 
to dominate space within a project that must accommodate the interests of 
many different sectors.
*Promoting positions that challenge the impact of war on more privileged 
populations, while ignoring or even justifying its impact on people of 
color and immigrants.
*refusing to recognize the centrality of white supremacy and racism in the 
war drive at home and abroad.
*One long-time peace activist in reference to the U.S. war against 
Afghanistan, "A racist war? It isn't. Vietnam was. But the Afghans for the 
most part are not dark skinned. A criminal war, yes. An illegal war, yes. 
An unconstitutional war, yes. But a racist war? Bullshit."
*denying the impact on people of color of the war at home and abroad.
*denying that non-Arab people of color within the U.S. are particularly 
targeted by the war.
*appealing to racism or national chauvinism in opposing the war.
*Discrediting, ignoring or minimizing the history and prominent roles of 
people of color in the peace and justice movement:
*"dissing" or discrediting people of color organizations.
*dismissing the roles of people of color in anti-war movements: One 
movement activist claimed that Angela Davis and Muhammad Ali were not 
serious anti-war activists during the Vietnam war.
*engaging in "the politics of privileged projection": Some white activists, 
comfortable with a "white" peace movement, claim that activists of color 
are "too busy with domestic issues" to do anti-war work. This perception 
can be a cover for the white person's enthusiastic involvement in activism 
against the war abroad, but indifference to opposing the wars at 
home,"which, after all, primarily target communities and people of color. 
Apparently, it hasn't occurred to this activist that his/her "whiteness," 
along with class
privilege, both enables and influences the luxury of choosing on which 
issues s/he will focus.
*Creating an atmosphere of marginalization, disrespect or neglect towards 
people of color in anti-war meetings and events:
*white activists tending to dominate discussions and favor the most"articulate"
*not calling on activists of color to speak and chair meetings.
*white people assuming that their experiences are the norm, and viewing 
people of color's realities as the "other" or "the exception."
*judging what political approach will work with "the average person" by the 
experience in white neighborhoods.
*using terms like "us" and "them."
*Creating an environment in meetings, through certain actions, that is 
threatening to, or uncomfortable for, immigrants
*exposing immigrants and other people of color to the risk of arrest in 
civil disobedience (CD) actions, or promoting CD in communities of color 
without understanding that immigrants risk jail, deportation and/or police 
violence that could lead to serious injury or death.
*insensitivity to immigrants' religious and cultural practices.


Such practices reproduce in our movement the white supremacy that permeates 
U.S. society. A similar dynamic involves class: those with greater access 
to education, wealth and power often marginalize working people,¦ and 
involves gender: male supremacy creates unfavorable conditions for women's 
equal participation.

Most white activists don't see how "whiteness" privileges them and 
perpetuates white supremacist social relations in movement work.

White activists have a responsibility to struggle against white supremacy, 
a struggle that includes: 1) Sharing leadership with, and being willing to 
follow the lead of, people and organizations of color; 2) maintaining an 
attitude of collectivity and not dominating discussion; 3) challenging 
racist language and actions (especially within movement spaces), and 4) 
prioritizing the issues, experiences and struggles of people of color.


Importance of Leadership of Communities of Color

Real peace can only be achieved if our movement comes to understand, and 
addresses, the racist roots of modern militarism and warfare. It follows, 
therefore, that real justice can only be achieved if the people most 
affected by INjustice are in the leadership of movements seeking change. By 
no means do we discount the role of white activists and predominantly white 
organizations within the peace and justice movement. In order to achieve 
the broadest and strongest opposition to war, we need unified action across 
all lines,"and white communities are obviously an integral part of that 
movement-building. But especially in New York City, given its racial and 
ethnic composition, people of color must have a place at the helm in 
coalition work. White activists and predominantly white groups must tackle 
this issue directly. In a country founded on genocide, slavery and 
territorial conquest, that is still plagued by racism and by the unequal 
distribution of power and resources, people of color can tell when white 
folks don't welcome their input, much less their leadership. And 
understandably, we are turned off of trying to work with people who 
dismiss, marginalize or patronize us. In addition to treating people of 
color with respect, white activists and groups need to embrace the 
principle of power-sharing and the sharing of resources.

Activists of color who are on the receiving end of racist behavior face 
vexing decisions about whether or how to interact with predominantly white 
projects. Some opt to concentrate on building a base in their own 
communities. Others work in multiracial settings, where they often find 
themselves the brunt of racist dynamics. In the latter case, unpleasant 
experiences have made some people skeptical about white activists' 
dedication to power-sharing and fighting white supremacy. For those 
activists of color who are committed to citywide organizing, despite being 
tempted to dismiss the so-called "white left" (an oxymoron), it's important 
that white activists indicate a willingness to engage in a serious dialogue 
within the context of political struggle.

We ask peace and justice activists in NYC to reflect on the content of this 
letter, discuss it and respond.
How can our organizations and coalitions best deal with these problems? We 
look forward to a dialogue on the issues.

Most important, we hope and expect that out of that dialogue will come 
lasting changes in the ways we work together.

In solidarity,

Steve Bloom, Jean Carey Bond,
Humberto Brown, Saulo Colón,
Bhairavi Desai, Cherrene Horazuk,
Randy Jackson, Hany Khalil,
Ray Laforest Ngô, Thanh Nhà n,
René Francisco Poitevin, Merle Ratner,
Liz Roberts, Juliet Ucelli,
Lincoln Van Sluytman

To respond to this letter, please email the signers at:
antiracistmovement at yahoo.com


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