At a panel titled “Grassroots Organizing” at the Network for Public Education conference in Austin in March, an audience member asked the all-white panel for its definition of “grassroots.” The conference had been called to “give voice to those opposing privatization, school closings, and high-stakes testing.”
As the questioner pointed out, those disproportionately affected by these developments are poor and minority communities. Chicago, for example, a city that is one-third white, has a public school system in which 90 percent of the students are children of color and 87 percent come from low-income families. When the city schools shut down last year, 88 percent of the children affected were black; when Philadelphia did the same, the figure was 81 percent.
You’d think black people might have something to contribute to a discussion about that process and how it might be resisted. Yet on this exclusively white panel at this predominantly white conference, they had no voice.
One panelist said he found the question offensive. “I didn’t know it was a racial thing,” he said.
In the United States, campaigns for social justice are always “a racial thing.” That doesn’t mean they might not be about other “things,” too. Indeed, they invariably are. Race does not exist in a vacuum. But in a country that has never considered equality beyond its most abstract iterations and that has practiced slavery far longer than freedom, race is never entirely absent.
The problem is not exclusive to this issue or this conference. Similar criticisms can be made of the gun control movement, in which black people, who are the most likely to be affected by gun violence, generally have supporting roles as grieving parents but rarely take center stage as advocates for new legislation. Former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg’s decision to plow millions into the cause is welcome. But however large a check Bloomberg writes, the poster boy for stop-and-frisk is not going to get much traction in the urban areas where gun violence is most prevalent.
Nor is this a new problem. It’s a longstanding, endemic and entrenched feature of what purports to be the American left and the causes with which it identifies. It is difficult to imagine a progressive American movement that does not have the interests of minorities and the poor at its heart—whom else would it exist for? As Karl Marx noted in Capital: “Labor cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the black it is branded.” And yet the physical presence of those groups in the spaces created by the “left” all too often appear as an afterthought, if indeed they appear at all.
“However rebellious children may be, they have their parents’ genes,” wrote Andrew Kopkind in 1968. “American radicals are Americans. They cannot easily cross class lines to organize groups above or below their own station. They are caught in the same status traps as everyone else, even if they react self-consciously.”