Looking for Color in the Anti-War Movement
Part I: Why “Anti-War” has to be “Anti-Racist” too
As a speaker at a San Francisco anti-war rally last fall, I tried to emphasize the importance of seeing the threatened war on Iraq in terms of this country’s racism here and around the world. In that spirit, I ended my comments with a chant by some activists of color marching to the rally: “One, two, three, four/We don’t want your racist war!”
Few people in that mostly white crowd of some 15,000 chanted with me or clapped. I was troubled, but later that day a Bay Area anti-war movement leader told me, “You got off easy. In the 1970s, Black Panther leaders like Bobby Seale and Dave Hilliard were booed when they mentioned racism at early anti-Vietnam war rallies.”
Seeing racism as a separate, secondary issue is an old problem in the U.S. peace movement, which does not always realize that it must be anti-racist as well as anti-war. Today, with the “Permanent War” becoming all too permanent, that realization is all the more crucial. Do people really think the expanding U.S. empire will be stopped by white folks alone?
The education, mobilization, organization, participation, and leadership of people of color in the anti-war movement have been recognized as important far more today than previously. More people of color can be seen at demonstrations than during the Vietnam war. We sometimes find people of color in the leadership of anti-war organizations. For example, they compose half of the Steering Committee of the national coalition United for Peace and Justice, which also voted to make people of color half of UPJ’s co- chairs and half of its Administrative Committee. Anti-war teach-ins in Spanish and bilingual publications are being produced.
Such changes are good but questions persist. Why, for example, is there not more color in today’s anti-war movement when the troops who fight and die are disproportionately black, brown, and red? Why isn’t there more color when those who pay such a heavy price for cutbacks in vital social services due to military spending are often people of color?
The first answer is the way that racism conditions the attitudes and conduct of many anti-war activists, often without their realizing it. There are also obstacles within communities of color, frequently rooted in experiences of racism, that impede their own anti-war organizing. We can begin with some thoughts about the first problem—how racist ideas and practice among white activists hold back building the strongest possible anti-war movement.
“Diversity Is Not Our Job”
Throughout history, U.S. peace groups have been primarily composed of and led by whites, mostly middle-class men. On one level, this happens because anti-war whites usually reach out first to friends or acquaintances and this means other whites. That still holds true today for the anti-war movement and its frequent partner, the anti-corporate globalization or global justice movement. It has often held true for the white-led solidarity movements of recent years, like the main organizations supporting popular struggles in Central America, for example.
It also holds true today even in racially diverse cities like San Francisco. The problem became obvious to this writer when four coalitions put on the big February 16, 2003 demonstration (Feb. 15 elsewhere). At meetings I attended of their coordinating committee, out of 25 representatives you might find a half dozen of color and an even smaller proportion under 40 years of age (few of whom played a leading role in the discussion).
Cases of whites refusing to acknowledge and accept leadership from activists and organizations of color head the list of structural problems. Not calling on activists of color at meetings or favoring those deemed “the most articulate” has been noted. White activists starting coalitions without input from or serious outreach to people of color and then calling the coalition “citywide” have occurred, in places such as New York. White activists have used their greater resources to dominate a coalition.
Sometimes the conflict concerns tactics. For example, whites planning civil disobedience may forget that immigrants and others of color risk jail, deportation and special police violence for participating. As a Chicano organizer commented, “there are young white activists who do not think beyond the fact that they can get arrested and be out of jail overnight with no serious problems. They do not recognize that white privilege—combined with class privilege—can make this happen.”
Often the problem is culture clash. It might be mar- ginalizing non-English speak- ing immigrants and rarely thinking of the need for translation of literature, meetings, or slogans. There can also be conflicts about style of work as basic as how a meeting is chaired. Participants of color may end up feeling that a meeting had a very “white style”—meaning a tendency to move in a strictly linear direction, with no time allowed for building trust and new leadership.
The problem can be hard to finger at times. A person of color at a mostly white meeting may feel that veiled power relations are in operation, but be unable to identify just how. One Chicano student activist commented that while white-dominated meetings may be supposedly “leaderless,” actually informal and therefore unaccountable leaders are calling the shots. Those same dynamics can be observed in all-white meetings, but the feeling of exclusion usually intensifies for a person of color.
Such problems led to sharp criticism on a KPFA (Pacifica) “Hard-Knock Radio” program, in which hip hop activists discussed whether the anti-war movement was a whites-only mission. One person said that organizers will call for peace around the world but “when it comes to people of color here, they just want Peace on the Plantation.”
There’s A War At Home, Too
The racist practices described here are symptomatic of stubbornly held ideas that include, first, denying there is a war at home along with today’s wars abroad, and the two are intimately connected. Second, denying that both are racist wars (as well as apparently forgetting that U.S. foreign policy is fundamentally rooted in racism).
Angela Davis once noted that the black community did not join the anti-Vietnam war movement in great numbers (even though blacks have been largely anti-war, one could add). One reason, she said, was that it did not see white peace activists energetically defending the Black Panthers, who were fighting a war for survival at the time.
In the same spirit, David Graham Du Bois, stepson of the revered scholar, recently wrote in an “Open Letter to the U.S. Peace Movement” that, confronted by the Iraq war, Black Americans “are generally silent largely because there has been so little evidence that those who call us into the streets to demonstrate for peace understand how color racism and white supremacy are used in the United States against the interests of peace, justice and the pursuit of happiness for all peoples. It is not enough to call up the peace legacy of Martin Luther King, in speeches and slogans…You must organize to end racism with the same enthusiam and determination as you organize to stop the war.”
Similarly, Earl Ofari Hutchinson wrote in 1991 soon after the Rodney King beating in L.A., “How is it that thouands of white activists can wage passionate campaigns against oppression and human rights abuses in Chile, El Salvador, South Africa…but not in the ghettos and barrios of their own cities?”
As these African Americans affirm, peace activists have often failed to recognize that there is a “war at home” along with the wars abroad, and that the war at home includes an unending struggle with racism as shown in the criminalization of youth, the expanding prison industrial complex, ongoing inequality in social institutions like schools and housing, and a constant stream of actions to take back the gains of the 1960’s like affirmative action and bilingual education.
Today the war at home has intensified. People of color suffer severely from its effects, as seen in massive new attacks in the name of Homeland Security. Under the Special Registration program, over 13,000 Arab, Muslim, South Asian, and North African males who complied with the program face deportation, almost all for minor immigration violations. This represents a huge increase in racial profiling and criminalizing immigrants, especially those of color. Another direct connection between the wars abroad and at home can be seen in the deadly cuts in funding education, health care, child care, and low-cost housing for the sake of gigantic military spending.
These and other realities carry a stark message: the same capitalist, empire-building forces that impose the wars abroad also impose the war at home. The main victims of both are peoples of color. Both are racist wars. We cannot oppose one and not the other.
Although white anti-war activists may recognize that communities of color are engaged in longstanding struggles against white supremacy and for self-determination, most do not see (or want to see) the linkage between those struggles and building the anti-war movement. That blindness underlies many of the problems we have seen in building anti-war unity across color lines. One simple example: lack of respect for leadership by people of color, in many situations. .
The drive for self-determination is also ignored in the way many white activists look at Palestine’s struggle against the Israeli occupation and fail to see its relationship to the whole U.S. empire-building project. Instead of solidarity, Arab American activists have noted, some whites say those who support Palestine’s struggle are anti-Semitic; some fear alienating Jews if they do support Palestine; some dismiss that struggle out of total ignorance about Israeli, Arab, and Islamic history, or they think Islam oppresses women across the board so too bad for Palestine.
War Resisters League Resists What?
A major example of resistance to defining the anti-war struggle as anti-racist can be found in the War Resisters League, which has been almost entirely white for 80 years. Last February David McReynolds of its Executive Committee, widely admired for his work against the Vietnam war, resigned from all posts.
The immediate cause named by McReynolds was the vote by the WRL’s National Committee to retain a project called ROOTS (originally Youth Peace), which had been created several years earlier to increase the League’s young membership. ROOTS is staffed by people of color.
In explaining his resignation, McReynolds wrote that by voting to retain ROOTS, the majority had set the League “on a course which… [could] result in the end of the organization. That course was to shift our primary focus from being a peace and disarmament organization…to a ‘broader focus’ in which the League would be not only an ‘antiwar’ organization, but also an ‘anti-racist’ organization.”
McReynolds commented that the causes of war “sometimes—though not as often as the ‘politically correct caucus’ thinks—[include] racism…I have seen Clergy and Laity Concerned, once a voice for peace and social change, vanish after it capitulated to its own ‘politically correct’ group whch insisted that if CALC was serious about racism it had to turn over a majority of its board to members of color. It did so…” McReynolds also stated very briefly and without examples that “almost none” of ROOTS’ material (primarily a youth-oriented newsletter) is pacifist, contrary to WRL basic principles.
Some WRL members have questioned why being officially anti-racist is so controversial when the WRL had no great problem agreeing to declare itself anti-sexist. Today upheaval continues within the WRL, with hopes of positive change. ROOTS continues and WRL remains in the United for Peace and Justice (UPJ) coalition
The Open Letter About Racism
With many problems of racism in the movement surfacing during 2002-2003, the position taken by McReynolds and others in the WRL became “the straw that broke the back of silence concerning those problems,” as a national UPJ leader told me. The result: an “Open Letter About Racism in the Movement” circulated among thousands of activists shortly after the February 15/16, 2003 rallies. Issued by a multi-racial group in New York City, the Open Letter discussed white supremacy as experienced by its authors over a one-year period. It listed many of the problems already mentioned in this article.
That Open Letter was an encouraging move, especially when compared to other events. For example, in April, 2003, in the Boston area, the popular white anti-racist speaker Tim Wise was scheduled to speak on the topic “Racism and White Privilege in the Peace Movement.” Somehow his title was changed to “Race and the Peace Movement.”
White Efforts To Combat Racism
As that Open Letter confirmed, anti-war white activists have been critical of racism in the movement. On a minimal level, they often express regret that their meetings include too few people of color. This regret can lead to no concrete action or tokenism. Alternately, they will agree, “Yes, we must get more people of color involved,” but as Tonto might have said to the Lone Ranger, “Who is ‘we,’ white man?” In other words, they aim to “diversify” what continues to be their movement in their eyes, rather than seeking to build alliances between equals.
More serious efforts by white anti-war activists to combat racist tendencies can be dated back decades. Anne Braden, the longtime, white southern anti-racist leader, wrote a groundbreaking article in 1987, “Undoing Racism: Lessons for the Peace Movement,” offering analysis and concrete recommendations that work for today.
An unusual example of whites collaborating to solve such problems with people of color as equals developed in September 2001 in the Albany, New York area. The Stand for Peace Anti-Racism Committee (SPARC) was formed “to build an anti-racist, multi-racial movement for justice and peace.” SPARC organized a forum held last August 13 for people of color “to discuss our involvement and leadership in working for peace and justice” and strategies for “how we can make connections” in combatting the wars at home and around the globe.
The forum drew a diverse group of 30 or more people, about one-third of whom had not been politically active in the past. Thus “it turned out to be more of a speakout than an in-depth dicussion of strategic questions,” said African American scholar/activist Barbara Smith. But the spirit of the meeting was enthusiastic and participants expressed strong interest in continuing the dialogue at a follow-up meeting that same month.
In November 2001, New York City (70 percent people of color) saw a group of 10 young(ish) white organizers and activists put out a powerful letter called “An Anti-Racist Coalition? We have a long way to go.” They included members of mostly local groups working for the rights of welfare recipients, workers (UNITE), gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender people (FIERCE) and others who had attended meetings to plan for an October 7 march. Their letter sharply criticized those meetings for marginalizing people of color as well as youth and working-class participants. It also presented many practical suggestions for improvement.
Other ideas and actions have come from white anti-racist groups like Active Solidarity and Heads Up in the Bay Area, and AWARE in Philadelphia. Direct Action to Stop War, also of the Bay Area, which shut down San Francisco’s financial district the day after war was declared, saw positive efforts in anti-racist organizing.
San Francisco’s Chris Crass, of the Challenging White Supremacy (CWS) Workshops, has put together an informal “toolbox” for whites. It begins with a broad political recommendation: develop an analysis of war that connects U.S. empire-building abroad to the war at home. Understand that demands for peace without justice ring hollow in communities that face structural violence every day, whether the U.S. is dropping bombs elsewhere or not.
The list includes what Sharon Martinas, creator of CWS programs, has called “anti-racist toilet training,” for whites. For example:
- Attend an anti-racist training and encourage other white activists to do so. Recognize how white privilege consistently socializes white activists to think of themselves as superior.
- Instead of that eurocentric “come join us” approach, check in with organizations of color working against war at home and abroad.
- Respect the leadership of people of color. Be accountable; do what you say you will do.
- Prioritize reading books by radical people of color, especially feminists. Learn more about the struggles of communities of color.
- Set concrete goals for yourself that can be measured, such as: in one month, will talk with two white anti-racist activists in my community and two of color.
- Remember that it is not your intentions or motives that count but the impact of your actions as a white person in a white supremacist society.
The Black civil rights movement of the 1960’s shows it is possible for vast numbers of white people in this land to say a loud “no” to actions and policies that exclude, demean, or marginalize people of color. Everyone should remember William Moore, Mickey Schwerner, Andy Goodman, Jonathan Daniels, Viola Liuzzo, and other white activists killed in the southern freedom struggle. Their lives were not worth more than any black life lost in that movement, but their commitment set an inspiring contemporary example for anti-racist whites.
The time is more than ripe to show that commitment again. Whites should not only say “no” to racism but also carry out energetic campaigns of “yes” to any action that advances genuine collaboration. This is no simple or easy task, but what could be more worthwhile?
A young white friend wrote last year, “Wouldn’t it be beautiful if we could get thousands of white organizers all over the country to reject those old racist habits? To stop thinking of their work as the center of everything and educate other white folks too? To see why they have to fight racism along with militarism so the solidarity we talk about is real? Then we could truly say: another world is possible.”
Part II: Anti-War Organizing Among People of Color
An Emergency Summit Conference of Asian, Black, Brown, Puerto Rican, and Red people against the war was held in Gary, Indiana on June 3-4, the first such meeting ever held in the United States…over 300 delegates attended the historic conference,” said the article in the newspaper El Grito del Norte.
The year was 1971. The war was in Vietnam. Today people of color do not yet have the collective strength of those years and there are major obstacles to anti-war organizing in our communities. We cannot just blame racism from whites for blocking our participation if we are not doing everything possible to build effectively among ourselves. People of color need to be so strong, so numerous, and so effective that they cannot be ignored.
The obstacles start with class issues. A widespread feeling exists in communities of color that anti-war activism can’t be a priority when folks are struggling with daily problems of survival—paying the rent, doctors’ bills, bad schools, drugs in the ’hood—as well as direct racist attacks. Along with job and family, where’s the time? Poor and working-class African Americans may say, “We can’t be protesting the war, we’ve got to be defending ourselves…anti-war stuff is for white middle-class kids.”
Immigrants, especially the undocumented, often keep quiet for fear of losing their livelihood or being deported if they speak out or sound “un-American.” Older immigrants may say they feel gratitude or debt to the U.S. for their improved economic condition and their children’s. Low-income youth of color may be attracted to the military as the only road to college, a good job, and U.S. citizenship.
Middle-class activists of color (as well as whites) sometimes say that grassroots people just don’t grasp foreign policy or don’t want to be bothered. Actually those activists may really be blaming “the masses” for a supposed lack of intelligence as a way of hiding their own unwillingness to struggle with complex international issues. When a brother says with well-founded cynicism, “This war stuff is the same old crap”—does that really mean he would never understand or care about the stakes?
Anti-war organizing can be impeded by middle-class, conservative, often intensely anti-Communist organizations of color. They may oppose going against the war because it could undermine their work on what they call “more important issues,” not to mention their financial support. Among Latinos, we find the League of Latin American Citizens (LULAC) not wanting Mexicano anti-war activists in this year’s Cinco de Mayo parade in Houston, Texas. Blacks have similar organizations as do South Vietnamese people in northern California.
For African Americans, seeing Colin Powell and Condoleeza Rice at the top adds a complicating perspective. If they had opposed the wars, their rare success as Blacks making it into the halls of power would have been impossible.
These examples leave us asking not just where is the color in the anti-war movement but also “where is the working class?”—a question for white activists also. Other obstacles to our anti-war organizing include:
- The U.S. mass media with their lies, distortions and omissions of reality. Unlike white society, few people of color have access to alternative media (especially not in Chinese or other Asian languages). A Pew poll last April found that support for the Iraq war was far lower from immigrant Latinos—who often came from countries with direct knowledge of U.S. imperialism—than from Latinos born here, who had been barraged by mainstream media all their lives.
- The feeling that there are no leaders and ordinary people cannot take the action needed without strong leaders (failing to think of themselves as leaders).
- Among Blacks and Latinos, the contradiction of anger at U.S. racism existing alongside a desire for respect from the white-dominated society, and especially the opportunity to win that respect in wartime. Black poet Brian Gilmore, in the Progressive, quoted W.E.B. DuBois referring to these feelings as that tragic state of “double consciousness.”
- Identification with the U.S. as a nation, especially in relation to other countries: not nationalism, but nation-ism.
- Fear of attending anti-war demonstrations because of repression by police, who target people of color.
A general dread of any contact with the INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service), especially since 9/11. Thousands of Arab, Islamic people and South Asians in particular have suffered mass roundups, indefinite imprisonment without cause under brutal conditions, and deportation. The recent expulsion of many Cambodians, and the threatened expulsion of hundreds more, has intensified that dread. Earlier, under “Operation Tarmac,” came the raids and subsequent firing of Latino immigrant airport workers, first in Salt Lake City in December 2001 and then Seattle in April, 2002, none on criminal charges. For Latinos as for Asians, difficulty in unifying all their different nationalities against the war, given the diversity of class, language, politics, religion, attitudes about gender and sexuality, and others. Dislike of working within the white-dominated anti-war movement, given its racist tendencies. A single meeting can turn you off. Fear of conflict with pro-war family or friends.
Hany Kahlil, of the United for Peace and Justice staff based in New York, has added several other very concrete problems, summarized as:
When you haven’t experienced your own power to keep a health clinic open or get a stop-sign on a street, for example, you have difficulty imagining you can take on something huge like a war, so why try? It’s hard to sustain energy and hope if we don’t have measurable benchmarks for progress. For example, we need to see where our campaigns fall far short of stopping a war but are steps that strengthen our base and win allies. Many groups have shied away from taking on the war in part because they are afraid of dividing their organization’s membership. We need to be prepared to struggle with our own people if necessary. That fear overlaps with the problem that much of our work is concentrated in the non-profit sector, which can make funding the priority. Lack of capacity and resources.