FWD: An Open Letter to Activists Concerning Racism in the Anti-War Movement
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
*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
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.
Steve Bloom, Jean Carey Bond,
Humberto Brown, Saulo ColÃ³n,
Bhairavi Desai, Cherrene Horazuk,
Randy Jackson, Hany Khalil,
Ray Laforest NgÃ´, Thanh NhÃ 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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