Race-Based but Not Race-Bound

Mobilizing at the Grass Roots

Publications

April 18, 2018

By George Lipsitz 

Malcolm X used to say that racism is like a Cadillac because they make a new model every year. When automobile models change, repair manuals have to be updated. Problems in a 2016 Escalade cannot be solved by consulting the manual for a 1965 El Dorado. Similarly, the injustices caused by the skewing of opportunities and life chances along racial lines in 2016 cannot be addressed adequately with a framework forged to counter the racial order of the middle of the previous century.

A new user’s manual is needed for the new model of racial subordination that shapes society today.

Yet Minister Malcolm’s formulation reminds us that the new model is still a Cadillac: big, expensive, wasteful, and dangerous.  There is both rupture and continuity in the cars we drive and the social conditions that drive us.

Throughout California today, and all across the nation, and all around the world, grassroots community mobilizations are emerging around a new kind of anti-racist politics.  These mobilizations are race-based but not race-bound. They seek to create new democratic opportunities and institutions, rather than merely eliminate expressly racist prohibitions.  They recognize racism as more than individual personal injury, as a mechanism of—and a justification for—collective, continuing and interconnected structural vulnerabilities. These groups are expressly anti-racist, but they reject narrow racialisms. Their struggles are rooted in the particular histories and circumstances of specific racialized groups, but they seek to cooperate rather than compete with others similarly aggrieved.

They view racism not so much as a matter of prejudice but as a question of power, not as a peripheral practice excluding individuals from upward mobility but rather as a social system of structured advantages and disadvantages that skew collective opportunities and life chances along racial lines.  

They do not seek primarily to assuage hurt feelings or prevent the squandering of individual talents and abilities caused by overt and intentional acts of exclusion and denigration, but instead seek to address covert and systemic practices that can be remedied only by a major restructuring of social institutions. Perhaps most important, they recognize racial subordination as essential to the workings of contemporary capitalism and its cultures.

They view racism as always intersectional, as ever-present but never present in isolation from other axes of oppression.

In today’s “model” of white supremacy, racism manifests itself as collective, disproportionate vulnerability to displacement, dispossession, and deportation. It manifests from police stops, frisks, arrests and killings, to mass incarceration and the collateral consequences of a criminal conviction, to homelessness, foreclosure, eviction, overcrowding and predatory lending.  It reaches from labor exploitation and wage theft, to language discrimination, and to sexual violence and refusals of reproductive justice. In the eyes of politicians, trade unions, established civil rights organizations, urban planners, pundits, and policy makers, these conditions may appear to be primarily issues of social class that are only ecologically and tangentially racialized.  

But to the race based but not race bound social movements, these conditions are the inevitable consequences of a system of racialized capitalism that rather than uniting all aggrieved groups around the shared experience of economic deprivation, creates, instead, endless new forms of differentiation rooted strategically in both the deployment and the disavowal of race and other social identities.

New analyses, critiques, and actions are not emerging because of yesterday’s problems having been successfully solved and the time has come to move on to new ones. On the contrary, these analyses, critiques, and actions are evidence of the limits and contradictions of the “fixes” imposed from the top down designed to settle the crises of both the past and present. A social warrant of balanced budget conservatism and colorblindness was deployed in the 1970s and 1980s to repress, suppress, and distort the freedom dreams of the egalitarian social movements of the 1960s. Today a social warrant of neoliberal accumulation by dispossession—based on elevating the interests of owners, investors and consumers over the interests of workers, renters and community members—is proposed to fix the crises of the economy, the environment, the educational system and the empire.

Race based but not race bound social movement mobilizations challenge both the practices and the culture of these social warrants. They recognize that neoliberal policies and social pedagogies require the simultaneous deployment and disavowal of race.  

Race is deployed to make the public sphere seem degraded and unclean. Public spaces and public institutions are portrayed as synonymous with the needs and interests of communities of color.

The binary oppositions of public and private, producer and parasite, and freedom and dependency function as racialized metaphors. On the ideological level, race serves as a justification of, and an excuse for, asymmetrical power, as an explanation for why the market does not deliver general prosperity, as justification for portraying inequality as natural, necessary, and inevitable.  At the same time, neoliberals also need to disavow race because it refers to historical social identities outside the market, identities that contain repositories of collective memory, sources of moral instruction, and archives replete with epistemologies and ontologies inimical to the interests of market capitalism. The key to securing political power for elite interests over the past four decades has revolved around what Ian Haney López terms “anti-statist whiteness,” a frame as prominent in the welfare and education “reform” policies of the Clinton and Obama administrations as in the assaults on school desegregation and affirmative action by the Reagan and Bush Sr. and Bush Jr.  administrations. For white workers, downward mobility is not experienced as a class injury, but instead as a register of the diminished privileges of whiteness.

For the Environmental Health Coalition (EHC) working in San Diego’s border municipalities and adjacent parts of Tijuana, race has meaning because of its relation to pollution, health, and opportunity.  Air pollution, hazardous waste, and toxic chemicals are concentrated in the neighborhoods inhabited by low income people of color, many of them immigrants from Latin America, Asia, and Africa. The cumulative vulnerabilities that make these places sites of environmental pollution also leave them with limited public services, industrial truck traffic, largely low wage employment opportunities, overcrowded schools, a paucity of parks, and inadequate access to fresh fruits and vegetables. The activism of the EHC draws on long histories of struggle by Mexican mutualistas, the Chicano movement, and community feminism.1 The group makes extensive use of the Spanish language in its resolutely bilingual discussions, publications, signs, and slogans. It communicates its ideas and aspirations through mural art, posters, and performances of music that resonate with the aesthetic and political concerns of the Chicano movement. It recruits working class Latinas to become promotoras—neighborhood health activists and teachers. These women draw on their experiences of economic marginality but domestic centrality in building women’s networks of health promotion and protection. To enter into the spaces created by the EHC is to walk in the footsteps of Chicano resistance and affirmation, to pick up the banner of anti-racist and anti-subordination struggle, to inhabit the traditions of women of color feminism. Yet EHC activists and allies include white, Black, Asian American and Native American men and women.

It is always anti-racist, but never only anti-racist.

Consistent with its participation in the larger movement for environmental justice, the EHC proclaims its commitment to building a society where all people and communities can live, work, and play in a clean, healthful, and safe environment.

EHC’s activism seeks distributive justice through campaigns for sustainable development, for green and healthful homes and jobs, lead free environments, bi-national toxic cleanups, and municipal development plans focused on the needs of people rather than profit. Yet the EHC also works assiduously to promote procedural justice and to expand the sphere of politics to enable poor and working people to shape the policies that govern them and their neighbors. One key to the success of the EHC has been the Salud Ambiental Lideres Tomando Accion (SALTA) leadership development strategy. SALTA revolves around an interactive curriculum that builds membership skills in community organizing, policy advocacy, building power, and effectively communicating about health and environmental justice. Based on theories of popular education advanced by Paolo Freire and others, SALTA training requires participants to give voice to their own understandings and feelings about the issues important to their lives, to process them in deliberations with others, and to work collaboratively to develop unity, commitment and shared consciousness.

EHC victories include the removal of neighborhood health hazards through toxic cleanups and closing businesses engaged in illegal polluting practices. The group also promotes city planning from the bottom-up, including campaigns for zoning changes in areas deemed to have no meaningful exchange value filled with metal plating shops, exhaust from idling engines of diesel trucks, and piles of industrial waste.  Instead of accepting that these places should be sacrifice zones filled with pollution and poverty, the EHC promotes redevelopment from the bottom through the recognition that areas that are resource poor are often network rich, and that society at large will profit from urban plans authored by the eyewitnesses to the effects of neoliberal accumulation by dispossession.

Like the EHC in San Diego, activists with the Los Angeles Community Action Network (LACAN) in the Skid Row section of downtown Los Angeles seek both distributive and procedural justice.  Houseless people experience racial subordination as homelessness, and harassment as orchestrated displacement based on their ascribed disposability. LACAN views housing insecurity as a race-based but not totally race-bound issue. Black people comprise only ten percent of the population of the Los Angeles area but account for nearly three-quarters of Skid Row residents.2 Nationwide, Black families are seven times more likely to be homeless than white families.3 The fifteen thousand low-income and no-income people who inhabit the fifty block one square mile territory that is Skid Row are relentlessly stopped, searched, cited, and sentenced for conduct that would generate no notice if they lived elsewhere or were not people of color without property in a location targeted for redevelopment. The same model that turns border cities into sacrifice zones in San Diego leads city, state, and federal authorities to spend six million dollars every year to place a special force of fifty police officers and twenty-five narcotics control agents on Skid Row, leaving almost no funds available to meet the residents’ actual needs for safe and affordable lodging, medical care, drug treatment and rehabilitation, trash cans, drinking water, and restrooms equipped with working sinks and toilets.4 Policing place and disrupting daily routines among houseless people seeks to make the area unlivable for them so that Skid Row and adjacent parts of downtown will become more attractive to investors, owners, and high-income consumers.

The policing of place and the taxing of time on Skid Row presumes that people who have problems are problems, confusing the consequences of poverty with its causes.

The deprivation of poor neighborhoods stems from the subsidies channeled to wealthy areas.

Houselessness on Skid Row has been caused by long histories of private discrimination and public policies that have channeled assets that appreciate  in value and to be passed down to subsequent generations to whites, while relegating Blacks largely to means-tested public housing. Decades and centuries of racial zoning, restrictive covenants, racial steering, blockbusting, mortgage redlining, and predatory lending stand behind housing insecurity for Black people in Los Angeles.

Drawing on the Black resistance traditions of the city, the Los Angeles Community Action Network has enabled the emergence of a determined core of houseless activists seeking to shape social conditions. Drawing on critiques of the limits of civil rights by Fannie Lou Hamer, Malcolm X, and Huey P. Newton and on Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaimed by the United Nations in 1948, they argue that a decent home and living condition is an inalienable human right.

Like the Black Power movement of the 1960s they build parallel institutions, such as their own Community Watch anti-gentrification and police monitoring program that mobilizes an indigenous alternative security force in their neighborhood.

LACAN publishes its own newspaper and runs an attractive website, stages hip-hop concerts, puts videos online, and promotes an array of events, activities, clubs, and organizations dedicated to promoting mutual recognition and strong social ties. In order to call attention to a three hundred person demonstration protesting police officers’ routine seizing shopping carts used by houseless people, General Dogon customized a cart, painted it orange and black, installed rear view mirrors, and used a car battery to power a sound system. That led him to create a series of low-rider bicycles for downtown use.

There is both continuity and rupture in the lives of LACAN’s houseless activists.  General Dogon spent eleven years inside the California state prison system where he was mentored by a veteran activist intellectual. Joe Thomas served in the Marine Corps in Vietnam between 1967 and 1973, but also knew grassroots activist Ivory Perry famous for his civil rights campaigns in St. Louis. Deborah Burton went from being a resident of public housing to being homeless, a trajectory that led her to testify in 2010 at a United Nations tribunal in Geneva, Switzerland in order “to put a human face to the ongoing and massive violations of the human right to housing we face in the United States and in my home city.”5

In a city suffused with recurrent moral panics about crime that lead to draconian repression on Skid Row, LACAN points out that more damage is done to the city by the “banksters” than by the gangsters. They campaign to shift government expenditures away from law enforcement (which amounted to an estimated $46 million to $80 million on labor costs of arrests alone in 2013) to build safe, clean, and affordable housing and to provide mental and physical health services.6 Their short range goals serve as transitional demands that promote transformational experiences among the membership. Anti-racism in their mobilizations includes supporting women’s rights, access to healthful foods, opposing the criminalization of poverty, and insisting on adequate and safe shelter as a human right.

In the process of advancing their transitional and long term goals, LACAN also creates an alternative public sphere.

They dramatize their slogan “House Keys Not Hand Cuffs” by parading through the streets in plastic handcuffs, evoking collective memories of the slave coffle. Women members of the group meet every week to discuss issues of gender and houselessness under the aegis of LACAN’s Downtown Women’s Acton Coalition.  The group reaches out to successful and visible Black entertainers and recruits them to the struggle. After Lisa Gay Hamilton starred in The Soloist which personalized and trivialized the issue of houselessness, LACAN invited her on a tour of Skid Row guided by General Dogon. Their conversation on that excursion was transcribed and published in a book Downtown Blues. Similarly, LACAN director Pete White and activist General Dogon led hip-hop artist Chuck D on a journey through Skid Row. The group transcribed and published his remarks about the city’s cruel paradox of “homeless people and peopleless homes” [because of foreclosures] in another book Freedom Now. As a result, Chuck D helped the group stage a people’s street festival on Skid Row featuring performances by his band Public Enemy and other well-known Hip Hop acts. The festival created, at least for one day in person and online forever, visible human interactions between those designated exceptional and those designated as disposable by neoliberal capitalist and racist metrics. LACAN’s books and festivals serve as placeholders for the cross-class and cross-racial town meetings that never take place in a society that badly needs them.

Mindy Thompson Fullilove observes that when physicians discover a boil on the skin, they recognize that it does not make sense to treat the boil alone, that the deformity exists because there is an imbalance in the entire bodily system.7 

The disintegration and dysfunction of the urban order can manifest itself most visibly in areas inhabited by the region’s most vulnerable people, but the ills of the city cannot be cured there alone.

As with the EHC in San Diego, LACAN fights for a social warrant that tries to make the whole body healthier instead of attacking or abandoning the part that appears to be diseased. The EHC, LACAN, and similar groups such as Asian Immigrant Women Advocates in Oakland and the North Franklin District project in Sacramento deploy anti-racism as a necessary but not fully sufficient point of entry into struggles for both distributive and procedural justice. In the process, they deepen the capacity for democratic deliberation and decision making at the grass roots.

George Lipsitz is an American Studies scholar and Professor in the Department of Black Studies at the UC Santa Barbara.

This essay was created​ by the Blueprint for Belonging ​project, to find more videos, essays, podcasts, and our California survey on othering and belonging from this series click here.

Further Reading

Jordan Camp and Christina Heatherton, eds., Freedom Now! (Los Angeles: Freedom Now Books, 2012)

Jennifer Jihye Chun, “Building Political Agency and Movement Leadership: the Grassroots Organizing Model of Asian Immigrant Women Advocates,” Citizenship Studies (2016)

  • 1. The mutualistas were self-help mutual aid societies among Mexican immigrants to the U.S. See Vicki Ruiz, From Out of the Shadows: Mexican Women in Twentieth Century America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 86-89 and David Gutierrez, Walls and Mirrors: Mexican Americans, Mexican Immigrants and the Politics of Ethnicity (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995) 34-37.
  • 2. Lamp Community and the Los Angeles Community Action Network, “The Safer Cities Initiative is a Failed Policy: End Human rights Violations and Build Housing Today,: (2008), http://cangress.wordpress.com/tag/los-angeles-community-action-network/ Accessed August 22, 2011
  • 3. Berkeley Law Policy Advocacy Clinic, “California’s New Vagrancy Laws: The Growing Enactment and Enforcement of Anti-Homeless Laws in the Golden State,” (February) 2015, 4
  • 4. Los Angeles Community Action Network, “Community-Based Rights Assessment: Skid Row’s Safer Cities Initiative,” December 2010, 1. Los Angeles Community Action Network, “LA is ‘Crafting a New Plan’ for Skid Row – Unfortunately in reality It’s Just Talking Points,” July 21, 2014 http://cangress.org/la-is-crafting-a-new-plan-for-skid-row-unfortunately... Accessed February 20, 2015
  • 5. Deborah Burton, “Statement at the United Nations’ Universal Periodic Review,” in Jordan T. Camp and Christina Heatherton, eds., Freedom Now (Los Angeles: Freedom Now Books, 2012), 91
  • 6. Gale Holland, “Why Most of the $100 million L.A. spends on homelessness goes to police,” Los Angeles Times April 17, 2014.
  • 7. Mindy Thompson Fullilove, Urban Alchemy: Restoring Joy in America’s Sorted Out Cities (New York: New Village Press, 2013), 19