#16: Confronting Our Historic Failure
By Larry Moskowitz
For what it is worth, and absolutely for discussion, here are my three takeaways on “what’s next”.
Yes, there is a lot of work to do, And yes this was incredibly close. But this was a major victory, nonetheless. Both because of the defeat of the ultra-right, racist Trump, but also because of the coalition that came together to achieve this. Think about what the country would have been like if Trump had won. [ See Hungary, Brazil, Poland] So a big victory. We not only have every right to celebrate, but we should make sure we do. Appreciating victories is part of the process of moving forward.
Organize part 1: The broad progressive movement is committed to pushing a peoples agenda and not waiting as we did after the Obama victory. An approach I fully support.
Organize part 2: The ultra-right Trumpists/fascists/racists/ etc. are not going away. So while we should and must actively push a progressive agenda, we have to do it in the context of maintaining the center/left coalition that won the election and not push and/or give the center an excuse to move into the hands of the right; an outcome that many of the pro-Biden centrists would be all to happy to see happen. This is a critical necessary approach, but way to easy to articulate than implement. But figuring out how to implement such an approach is our responsibility
THREE: CONFRONT OUR AND THE COUNTRY’S HISTORIC FAILURE
In spite of COVID, unemployment, an attack on health care and so much more, Trump still got 47+% of the total vote and a majority of the white vote.. Why? Experts and pundits will talk about election strategy mistakes, economic insecurity, anti-abortion and misogyny in general, plus more. These are all factors, but only secondary or tertiary factors There is only one primary factor; racism.
Trump voters fall into two categories. The first is, whether organized into groups or not, explicit racists. The second category is, protestations aside, [ some of my best friends…. etc.] are people who chose not to consider themselves racists but are willing to be part of a movement whose bedrock is racism. Guess what? This is a distinction without a difference and at a practical level category two is little different from category one. So a 47+% vote. that is based on racism. I believe that one factor in why the polls were off is that some white supporters of Trump lied to the pollsters and said they were supporting Biden because they knew they were aligning themselves with a racist movement and were unwilling to acknowledge it.
Any idea that we can transform this country in a positive direction without addressing this problem is ludicrous. I am not talking here about simply passing progressive anti-racist legislation, although that is definitely a piece. But we have to engage people in such a way to cut into that 47+%. As long as that exists consistent progress is unattainable, and lives are at risk. And if we are successful in pushing for higher taxes on the rich and corporations, universal health care etc. ,that 47+% is out there for the Center 1%ers to block with, and reverse progress.
I am the last one to think that there are easy answers out there. But let me share my thoughts on approach and at least some pieces.
The first is that while inexorably linked we must remember that the fight for equality is not the same as the fight against racism. One is the fight to elevate communities of color, led by those communities, with[ hopefully] major white support. The leadership in the fight against racism can only unfold with a fully multi-racial leadership but carrying it out by addressing racism in white communities is the primary responsibility of whites. And the 47+%/majority of the white vote is an empirical number that shouts failure.
Again, without pretending that I have the answer on how to do this there are two approaches that are at different extremes and are historic failures One extreme is lecturing/confronting people and in various ways telling them that they are effing racists and need to change. Now, of course if an action is under attack, legislation is opposed, etc. we fight back. But in the long term process of changing peoples minds this approach will not and has not worked.
The second failed approach, sort of on the other end of the spectrum from the first, is the idea that you can organize around common interests, economic or otherwise, without discussing racism and dealing with it as it arises. Shortly after the end of the second world war the labor movement launched “operation Dixie”, an attempt to organize workers in the south. It was a colossal failure, with a major reason being that they made a decision to not discuss racism at all. Being an Ostrich with your head in the sand doesn’t work that well for Ostriches, let alone humans. I believe that one reason for Obama’s election was that rather then running away from the issue of race, he gave a major speech on race and ending up winning election with a coalition that included white voters that neither HRC or Biden successfully reached.
SO WHAT MIGHT WORK?
I think we need to find many more ways than presently exist for people of various races at a mass level to interact with each other on a long term basis. One aspect of this is building up those institutions that would naturally offer that opportunity. You would think that religious institutions would be one possibility. But what MLK Jr. said about churches in the south, that [ to paraphrase poorly] Sunday morning is the most segregated time of the week is unfortunately true nationally.
My two suggestions[ and hopefully there are many more] is that the organization that is probably the most multi-racial in the country; the labor movement needs to be greatly expanded .This would at its core require two major pieces. The first is an active internal ideological/internal campaign within the labor movement about everything from a self-critical look at past practices to how to build stronger internal unity and participation, and why it is necessary to greatly grow the labor movement. Then massive resources need to be put in, and broad activist coalitions, with a strong anti-racist component need to be built to grow the labor movement. Building trades and non-union immigrant construction workers anyone? But this can only be successful, by not repeating the mistakes of Operation Dixie and other attempts The point here is not an argument about building the labor movement in general, which is valid and necessary. But to specifically focus on the role labor could and should play in dealing with racism in the society in general.
The U.S. is a segregated society. So the second suggestion is to prioritize housing legislation with strong desegregation pieces to it as well as looking at other areas where desegregation can be advanced. None of this is a simple “can we get along” kind of proposal. But it is harder to demonize people you work with every day and live next to. In no way does this lessen the need for struggle. Ideological, legislative, militantly responding to racist killings etc. Rather these suggestions are part of a necessary pre-condition to advance the fight against racism on a long term, change society basis.
When southern Democrat Lyndon Johnson passed the civil rights bill and voting rights act, he did so because of the massive pressure from the civil rights movement and supporters, including many whites, that forced him to do so. He famously and unfortunately, correctly, said that this would lose the south to the Democratic Party for decades. The mistake here was that this prediction was accepted and while the fight for equality pushed on, there was no, or way insufficient accompanying piece in the fight against racism, both in the south and nationally The progressive movement will not only need to pressure the Biden presidency from below to enact progressive legislation in the fight for equality, but will also need real strides at the grass roots in the fight against racism in the short, but especially in the long term.
Many people have waged this fight and written eloquently about this issue. In no way do I think I am reinventing the wheel here. Rather I am calling for an elevation of dealing with this issue in a way and ways the progressive movement has not yet done effectively because 47+% means this is an emergency situation.
“The definition of insanity…” etc. And what does 47+% mean? It means that to date, WE ARE LOSING. The struggle must go on to reverse this. But right now, the numbers don’t lie. WE ARE LOSING.
Larry Moskowitz’s first picket line was in 1964 demanding federal intervention when Goodman, Schwerner and Chaney went missing but before their bodies were found. He was a leader of the anti-war movement in Maine and a rank and file Teamster in Massachusetts. The founding staff member of The Working Families Party, he served as the WFP’s labor coordinator for many years and subsequently was the coordinator of the Labor/Immigrant Rights May Day’s in NYC. A former member of the CPUSA, he is presently a member of DSA.