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Gender and Race


This is chapter nineteen of the book RPS/2044: An Oral History of the next American Revolution. RPS/2044 has its own book page, with front matter, reviews, essays, interviews, testimonials and place for user interaction with the interviewees.

 

Juliet Berkman, Bill Hampton, Lydia Luxemburg, 
Cynthia Parks, Noam Carmichael, and Peter Cabral discuss 
gender and race.

Juliet, feminist insights had been front and center in left activism for over fifty years before RPS, yet, RPS made dealing with gender and sexuality a core priority both for society and internally. Why was that necessary?

In 1960, even outside the home, women mostly nurtured and cleaned. Women lawyers, doctors, and engineers, were nearly as rare as red bluebirds. Women officeholders were a thought dream. Women showing initiative were all too often ostracized, confined, or beaten. By 2020 we had made huge gains but we hadn’t won permanent change.

As long as basic causes of male dominance persisted, even when we reduced sexist symptoms, underlying causes kept pushing for a return to old ways. High heels were rejected. But then high heels came back. Rape declined. But then rape escalated.

Feminists changed thinking, choices, habits, and laws over the decades leading to RPS, but something continued to promote sexism in each new generation. Was it genes or institutions, nature or nurture?

We saw the same pattern in our own activism. We reduced the most blatant sexism inside movements. We had diminished and at times even nearly eliminated violence against women, dismissal of women’s opinions, exclusion of women from responsibility, and vile sexual objectification of women in movements – yet the ills were returning.

We said sexism was social but we weren’t surprised when some people, women included, at times slipped into thinking that while we claimed to be fighting for the natural order, perhaps the natural order was sexual hierarchy and we were fighting for a situation against which “nature” kept reacting. Most feminists had such fears. I know did.

If there wasn’t an answer for all the backsliding, feminism would dissipate so even on the left, even fifty years past mid twentieth century feminism, we had a gender problem. The saving grace was that RPS didn’t shy away from it.

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Bill, can you remember why a powerful feminist component was essential?

Regarding society, women still earned way less than men for the same work. Violence against women persisted and was even escalating. Women’s health was still manipulated. Sexist parenting persisted.

Likewise, in the movement everyone celebrated women’s leadership – but how much was there? If you looked at organizations, movement institutions, and projects, certainly way more women exerted influence than fifty years earlier, but still less than half. If you looked at what was written and published, in many instances fewer women were visible on the left than in the mainstream.

Women still feared night on the streets, suffered vicious hounding online, and lacked attentive audience. It wasn’t remotely as bad as five decades earlier, but the battle wasn’t fully won.

RPS felt the key problem was deep in the structure of family life as well as in many other institutions that had been pushed into conformity with sexism.

What was to be done within RPS and the movement?

Inside RPS we enacted daycare at all organizational meetings and events with a proviso that staffing should immediately be at least half male. To have daycare but reinforce the idea that it was women’s work would have been one step forward but two steps back.

We also legislated that public speaking at our events, marches, teach-ins, and meetings always had to be at least fifty percent female. I remember men whining about how we were sacrificing quality for a mechanical quota system, oblivious to how we were sacrificing quality by having men who were often out of touch with the needs of half of humanity do all the talking while women wasted away their talents.

Likewise, we established that leadership for events had to be at least fifty percent female. When women were not available or were not felt to be prepared by prior experience to accomplish the tasks, we had to redress that imbalance with training and practice before the group formed. The new norm was simple. Correct gender imbalance or don’t proceed.

Movement women organized themselves. They didn’t care about happy smiles and promises. They weren’t appeased by men saying “have a nice day.” They demanded structural action or they would disrupt offending events.I remember a meeting where there were about 60 women and 100 men. Suddenly the door opened and 20 more women came in. They told the chair to sit down, and I did. They told all those present that from then on all meetings would have at least 50% women handling organization, being chair, etc., and likewise, at least 50% women addressing topics raised. If those in the room didn’t want to comply, fine, they would have to hold their meeting over unrelenting disruption.

At the same time, the rising tally of rapes on campuses spurred a sense of urgency. When a rape occurred after a radical conference in Los Angeles, and a male movement leader was the rapist, all hesitancy disappeared. Women were going to win change.

Many men still argued that to hold back events to fulfill gender norms was harmful. They didn’t see dealing with gender balance as a positive part of moving events forward. Sometimes even some women agreed with not interfering. We are going too fast was their logic. We are demanding more than can be readily accomplished. Worse, if we disrupt the left we abet reaction. It was true such reforms could be ham-handed and damaging – and that we should avoid that – but most women, and many men, acknowledged that concern but no longer bought it as a reason to reject change.

We knew that to forego basic change inside the left was to consign the left to perpetual hypocrisy and weakness. We simply worked to ensure that women’s militant approach carefully sought solidarity. It blamed structures, not individuals. It set standards for everyone. It said if we aren’t able to do some things in a feminist manner now, then we should delay doing those things until we get ourselves ready to do them properly. Our desire to have talks or projects will have to become part of our prior desire for a proper feminist achievement. If not, nothing will proceed.

The opposition to these womens’ demands always claimed to be seeking important ends now and certainly not trying to prevent feminist innovation. And while that was no doubt the sincere motive for many opponents, 50 years of postponing institutionally solidifying feminist gains had to stop sometime, and this was the time.

The main point, ultimately, was that the assault on sexism by RPS women wasn’t seeking verbal commitments to feminism. It wasn’t even seeking changes from male leftists in accord with feminist values. No apologies were needed or wanted. No personal blame was asserted. The women sought structural changes that would make overcoming sexism part and parcel of functioning at all.

What was most innovative was not the demands themselves, or the militance, but the tone and actions. Earlier anti-sexist efforts had typically polarized men, and even recalcitrant women, in ways that entrenched opposition. RPS anti-sexism was hostile to structures, but empathetic toward men. The goal was to organize, not antagonize. We sought informed alliance and real solidarity.

Another movement step was more subtle. RPS said that to avoid class division and classism we had to adopt job complexes balanced for empowerment effects. By similar reasoning, some RPS women suggested we had to change the kinship division of tasks to avoid a sexist gender division. We knew we all become, to a considerable degree, who our roles require us to be. We asked what changes in our roles would prevent men becoming sexist and women becoming disposed to accept sexism?

Of course, if men worked and earned more, then they would have means to dominate. So women needed higher incomes. If in dating and courting, men and women had different roles, then we would wind up with different dispositions. Women needed equal roles. But some women wondered if there was also something like empowerment that had to be balanced among men and women lest the difference in proximity to whatever that something was, produced a kinship hierarchy.

RPS members came to a broad agreement that if women do most nurturing and caring whereas men do most competing and governing, perhaps men become perverse and thuggish and women become empathetic but self denying. We concluded men needed to do a fair share of daycare and other nurturing tasks in the movement, in society, and in families.

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Lydia, What was innovative in RPS’s approach for society as a whole?

Much of RPS feminist program resurrected earlier feminist campaigns against violence against women and for equal pay, abortion rights, and day care, but our rationale, discussion, and the constituencies battling for the changes were new. We believed efforts in each sphere of social life should support and strengthen efforts in other spheres. We emphasized finding ways to talk about gender that went beyond ratifying feminist allies and trouncing sexist opponents. We continually addressed opponents with sympathetic understanding to reverse their allegiances.

We focused on replacing institutional structures that enforced sexism rather than on only criticizing sexist ideas or habits. One place we quickly became active was worship. Organizing women against sexist norms and requirements in nearly all religions was difficult and sometimes turned ugly, but it also inspired international attention.

But the most controversial area we addressed was in households, living units, and families. We didn’t just seek equal income to change the situation of women in families – though that was very important – we sought to redefine what men and women did in their families. We couldn’t impose behavior patterns on how to take care of homes or relate to children, yet, RPS sought to impact precisely those dynamics because we felt they buttressed sexist beliefs and behaviors.

We argued internally for gender-neutral parenting, calmly addressing hysterical men and women who thought it was unnatural. When we took this into the broader world, it was initially harshly attacked, but writing, speaking, and creating dramatic plays and shows about gender-neutral parenting, initiating street theatre, law suits, support groups, and having teachers bring it into classes, slowly turned the tide. At every step, two criteria guided: winning gains and not polarizing but seeking support from opponents.

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Cynthia, when RPS emerged the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement was still operating. Did RPS just take up their approach, or make some changes?

When BLM began it made no demands and overwhelmingly confined its attention to police violence against community members. A year or two passed and various members of BLM put together an impressive list of issues and demands addressing not only police violence, but all sides of life affecting Black and other non-white communities.

Not long after, RPS innovations addressed how to propose and seek changes in policing, income distribution, and cultural relations. We emphasized that victory didn’t depend on winning a debate but on assembling a massive majority by presenting honest, un-compromised claims and desires, and addressing the views of opponents to create unity.

We came to realize that we each had to live our lives not only for ourselves, but as a model for others. That may seem obvious, but it really wasn’t. For decades, around race and every focus of serious oppression, dissidents had too often tried to validate their agendas and justify or even celebrate their actions for themselves, then they had tried to win support for their agendas by and for others.

After all, what would winning around race mean? For RPS it meant that not only would the structural bases for racial hierarchy be gone, but everyone would see themselves firstly as members of humanity.

Differentiations by community would remain important, but universal human connection would become primary. Different racial, ethnic, national, or religious allegiances would be a happenstance of birth and preference and reflect different choices that each deserved respect and room to persist. We wouldn’t eliminate conflicts by eliminating differences. But nor would we exaggerate the source or implications of cultural differences, much less foster exclusivity.

This meant when an oppressed community battled against oppression, we needed to have long run success in mind. We shouldn’t cater to the tastes of those in more dominant positions, but nor should we fear annoying them. We should communicate in ways seeking lasting solutions rather than momentary successes that could be later reversed by unaddressed or even needlessly provoked antagonisms.

Cynthia, thank you for your participation in these interviews. Before you go, do you think we will win? When will we have won? And, what is one lesson from this whole period that strikes you personally as most critical?

I believe we have already won. We just have to get everyone else to realize what’s obvious.

Projects and campaigns are over, I guess, when people dance on the grave of past injustice, being sure by what they see and do, that it will never resurface.

Finally, a lesson I took early on, and that has always stayed with me, is that we are what we do, and we do what we are.

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Noam Carmichael, born in 1995, you were active in media and public speaking, with your written work focused on popular culture and issues of political participation and race. In RPS, your work has emphasized raising consciousness, developing organizing projects, and aiding internal relations. I wonder if you remember first becoming radical?

In 2001 I was old enough to get a vague sense, with my parents’ help, for the change in my situation due to my religion and appearance. I was radicalized in significant part by trying to understand Islamaphobia, and to survive and oppose it. I don’t think any one incident radicalized me, but I do think one greatly influenced what kind of radical, and later revolutionary, I became. When I got to college my roommate took one look and you could feel the fear. For two weeks we worked that through, and became close friends, even to this day.

I would guess, and I think he would agree, that had we not dealt with our tensions he would have voted for Trump. I took as a lesson that we didn’t navigate to a good place by becoming enemies. We did it by listening to one another and working through confusions, biases, ignorance, and worse. If you don’t talk with – much less if you dismiss and denigrate – your potential enemies become your actual enemies.

I have been asking folks if they could remember a particularly inspiring or otherwise personally important event or campaign they experienced during the rise of RPS. Could you do that for us, please?

During the early period, around 2025, I had the opportunity to teach a number of times in RPS Schools for Organizers. The schools focused on movement building, organizing, and outreach, on analysis of the roots of society’s ills, on vision of what society could and should be, and on insights into how to get from the current situation to the desired future one.

There were many such schools. Sometimes on a campus, sometimes in a workplace. Sometimes for people in some industry like the Hollywood schools that began in 2022 and in some ways birthed the whole extended project. Sometimes in an apartment complex. And sometimes we had schools for RPS members themselves.

At any rate, there would be intense classes, discussions, and time to socialize, as the schools typically ran for at least a week. About two thirds in, after there had emerged a level of trust and positive energy, we would have a night session to answer the question, what is responsible for your being here to learn about revolutionizing society?

Those evenings were indescribably inspiring. Some people’s stories were cerebral. People would tell about first reading some new author and the eye opening effect it had on them. Or, people would tell of a first rally or march opening their views and launching them into activism. But most stories were mainly visceral with tears and trauma. I was abused as a child. I was raped. I saw a friend gunned down in the streets. I lost a parent, a friend, or a friend’s parent to drugs or suicide. I lost my home and lived threadbare for years. I became addicted and escaped addiction. Sometimes it was less extreme: I was bullied in school, or I was a bully; I was cheated on, or I cheated.
People who no one expected to have such stories, told them. The mood was so cathartic that people chose to speak. The scale of the revealed pain and suffering and the scope of the revealed courage cemented my commitments and made me more of a listener than I had been before.

What was your view of the implication of race for issues of leadership inside RPS?

The direct implication had been well known for a long time. An organization seeking a better society would have to welcome and benefit from society’s racial communities. It would have to elevate members of diverse communities to leadership. It would have to convey to communities predominant say over their own affairs.

How?

We asked should we accomplish these aims in a way that creates even greater antagonisms, or should we do it in a way that reduces antagonisms? We realized we needed to always seek a new society rather than merely be right about short term issues.

Of course a major cultural issue was minority communities suffering low income, little influence, and escalating danger. But even while tackling all that, we knew we might focus so centrally on that that we would become blind to other matters, or downplay them, or even use a short term view about race to supersede other concerns. So we saw we had to add to a race focus, a gender, class, and authority focus, just like vice versa.

There was another issue, very controversial, in which if I remember right you played a role. It was about who should organize whom?
I attended an early RPS-sponsored meeting about working on an anti racist campaign. There was a seeming understanding among the experienced blacks present, and more widely too – and an analogous view held among women about sexism – that it was not their responsibility to organize among white people, or, in the case of women, among men. It was only another burden to expect blacks to explain racism or otherwise combat racism among white folks by talking with them, or women to explain or combat sexism among men by talking with them. White folks and men had do the talking to other white folks and men.

This formulation had been repeated so often, so forcefully, so emotively, for so many years, that it had become an axiom. To doubt the view was itself taken as racist or sexist, which was in part why so few challenged the view, at least out loud. But I doubted the view, and I was forthright about challenging it, out loud.

I remember when the controversy specifically erupted for RPS. A prominent black activist conveyed this view to some young white kid just getting going in RPS with a tone that said, “Newbie, you are backward, you have to clean up your thinking that I have some responsibility for telling you about racism as compared to your educating yourself and other whites.

This upset me. It brought my doubt to a head. So I said, “Wait a minute. I am an activist, I am anti racist, I am black, I am experienced, and I get that in a wonderful world I wouldn’t have to worry about educating anyone about racism, much less about spending time educating racist white folks. I get that. For sure. And I get that it is annoying and time consuming and even disturbing to have to do all that. But I don’t see how my agreeing on that much implies that I literally shouldn’t now sometimes talk to whites, educate whites, and organize whites about racism. Why does that follow?”

If I shouldn’t do anything that compared to being burden-free in a better world is an imposition, then I also shouldn’t organize blacks. That is a burden too, compared to not having racism. But I do it, not every minute, but often, when I think it can contribute to overcoming racism. So isn’t the right question about my talking to white people about the nature of, the impact of, and the ways to overcome racism? Isn’t it, will my talking to white folks about racism help the anti racist cause? And if that is the wise guiding question, then when I am in a better position to successfully communicate or organize with other whites than are whites who are present, shouldn’t I do it? I think I should.”

I got shouted down, but I didn’t fade away. And I knew that a great many folks agreed with what I had said, because they told me so after the meeting. Sadly, they were intimidated from saying they agreed by fear of being of being called racist and ostracized. So I kept at it and discussions began. Before long the old viewpoint started to come unravelled.

As all can see now, this should have been easy to achieve but it wasn’t for reasons of identity, habit, and protecting prior views.
The main issue, which was hard to surface, was the same as in many other cases. Were we trying to win? Did we believe we could win, or were we just hammering out a stance that felt okay and made some modest gains without seeking long term goals?

My point wasn’t that blacks – or women in the parallel case – should spend all their time talking fruitlessly with totally intractable white racists or male sexists. No, my point was that there were many situations in which blacks and women knew more and could better convey and motivate what they knew to whites and men than could other whites or men, and have consciousness raised by our efforts to do so.
I should probably add that the same applied to talking to people of our own backgrounds, who held contrary and even hostile views. There, too, the right calculus wasn’t how much of a burden was it to respectfully suffer hearing their confusions and anger, but how necessary was overcoming their confusions and anger to winning change?

There was another related view of the times RPS jettisoned, yes?

I assume you mean the idea of “white skin privilege.” Yes, we felt the word privilege connoted something one ought not have. You should renounce your privileges. The trouble was when folks spoke and wrote about what the white skin privileges were, it turned out that for a great many the problem wasn’t that whites had them, but rather that others did not. Safety from denigration, confidence in access and representation, fair treatment, and so on.

Talking about renouncing white skin privilege, particularly to poor and dismissed whites, made whites think the aim was to take minimal basic things from them, rather than to guarantee everyone those things and much more.
It occurs to me that the changes from earlier that you mention, and others in these interviews mentioned, are mostly about outreach, do you think that’s true?

To a large extent, yes. Earlier activists looking back and seeing no revolutionary gains would deduce a need for something new and would come up with some more complex, obscure, arcane formulation, as if past failings had to do with some missing hugely difficult idea that needed to be discovered and elevated by way of very nearly unreadable texts. This was, I think, nonsense. The big problems weren’t missing ideas but ideas not reaching and involving large audiences. RPS mostly took existing insights, and even vision, and found far better ways to popularly communicate them and involve ever more people in refining and employing and seeking to implement them. I would even say we went from activism that was ruled by academia to academia that was renovated by activism. And we went from seeing self expression as activism to seeing activism as selves communicating.

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Peter, can you remember an event or campaign or anything else, during the period of RPS growth, that was particularly meaningful for your own history?

Oh, there were many, mainly involving sports organizing, like the Olympic Campaigns and especially the athletes’ boycotts for Community Safety. There was also the prison and legal organizing, like the Community Control of Police Campaign and the Legal Workers Conference – because I was so much closer to the sports and legal work than to other RPS efforts.

But for something a bit less public, I remember being in college, over a decade before RPS. I was an athlete but also a fan. I heard a talk by Noam Chomsky in which he discussed sports and its role.

Chomsky described viewing his classmates rooting passionately for a sports team in high school, and his not being able to understand. They don’t know anyone involved, he thought. They have no close connections with any of the players on either team, yet they become invested as if their lives are at stake. How could that happen? Why did that happen?

I realized it was true for me. I could watch a college sports event, or a pro sports event, and know nothing about anyone on the field beyond their talent level, and yet be incredibly vested in “my team’s” fortunes. I would even say we – as in “we got such and such a new player, we looked good,” or “the refs screwed us” (never them), despite my having zero actual connection to the team.

Was there a healthy aspect? What were the unhealthy aspects? Thinking about it had a major long term effect on my relations to sports and also my understanding of how people formed and defended stances sometimes based on logic and evidence, but sometimes based on other things entirely.

Can you talk about the situation around the initial RPS race focus, the police repression of Blacks and other minorities?

People were being killed on the streets, sometimes for minor violations, often for no offense at all. Shot, point blank, even in the back. We knew lynching disciplined the entire slave community, induced fear in all slaves, and simultaneously induced a kind of bloodlust in the public – also, ironically, rooted in fear. How different was the police execution of young Blacks in the streets?

Fear put residents of black neighborhoods constantly on guard to avoid upsetting police. Life was conducted by carefully navigating even your own streets to avoid repression. And it wasn’t just killings that induced fear. Drones flying over communities had a similar impact. So did getting stopped, frisked, and arrested for being Black. U.S. incarceration rates were unique in the developed world, and still worse for minorities.

How do you deal with a community that has a quarter of its population in jail or on parole? Imagine parents having to prepare their kids to navigate that. Imagine kids having to view parents behind bars, or vice versa.

Communities were incredibly impoverished with unemployment at depression levels. Yet everyone knew how to get by reasonably well, albeit with incredible risk. Deal drugs. For decades drugs flowed into poor communities, particularly black communities. And with drugs came guns. So when police expressed fear, that wasn’t entirely make believe. There was real danger that society fed, not only with stereotypes, but with gun policies that armed drug dealers and anyone who wanted to fire away. It got so that every little dispute held the danger of a gun emerging. Laws began to allow guns in public places, even in schools.

The only sustainable solution was to raise incomes and opportunities, and eliminate the guns and drug dealing by eliminating their sources throughout society. But it wouldn’t happen overnight and meanwhile the constant tension, fear, and violence from the police and incarcerations were creating an environment that seemed a hellish spiral of no return.

Eventually, lots of notable blacks, particularly popular athletes, started to protest the situation. Remember the sit downs during the national anthem? But of course lone acts weren’t going to achieve much without huge participation.

Then, after the Trump-induced diversions, there was a press conference of various athletes. Their relatives were getting shot, becoming addicted, living in fear of police, and getting sick. The athletes calmly said we will not play in any city until there is an all-day meeting, organized by us, in that city, between police and community residents and leaders, with ourselves chairing, to discuss new norms and procedures for community safety – and until that kind of negotiation establishes a program which is being implemented. Even then, we will only play in the city when minority community members say they want us to. Either engineer a solution for your city, or your city will suffer bedlam as a public pariah.

Impressively, the demand was delivered without anger or recrimination. Blame wasn’t the point. The athletes not only delivered their call – rapidly supported by steadily more players in diverse sports – they also went to the cities and literally marched on city halls with huge numbers of people, first mostly black, but then more and more diverse.

Of course at first there was a giant outcry against the athletes. You are rich jocks. Who are you to dictate to us? Who are you to – withhold your own labor? Protest injustice? Call for cooperation and discussion leading to a plan good for community and also police safety? The athletes were so prominent and our visibility was so high that our real agendas became visible and hysteria was muted.

How do you think it started? After all, this could have been done any time for decades?

I think that often we don’t understand how hard it is to march to the beat of a different drummer, to risk hostility and isolation, and, for people like these, to withstand pressures from family, neighbors, and workmates and risk potential loss of jobs and income. Pressures against becoming active were not only will I be ridiculed by media or punished by owners, but if I do this will it matter and will I get pressured into doing even more? Am I embarking on a slippery slope I should avoid? But as to how it got going, I think the earliest cause, looking back, and thinking over the prior period, was quite ironic. When the quarterback of the San Francisco football team, Colin Kapaernik, had before RPS, refused to stand for the national anthem, the local police department threatened to not send cops to games as security.

Hold on, a few people thought. If the police can refuse to protect events because they don’t like being criticized, why can’t we refuse to play at events, because we don’t like our families, friends, and ourselves having to live and sometimes die in fear? You think that thought for a while, you get angry enough, and, well…you may take a big step, collectively.

What did they win?

Three things relatively quickly in city after city, and then nationally. New gun control laws shut down distribution points and constrained production. Prosecution shifted from incarceration toward rehabilitation, including rapid release for non violent offenders. Regular events for whole police forces, communities, and local sports teams that included setting up sports leagues and holding picnics and then, as musicians got involved, concerts, with affordable prices and surplus revenues donated back to communities.

It was largely a bottom-up series of actions and choices that avoided politicians’ oversight and control but put enormous pressure on them. And of course, it created new implications for sharing the costs of athletic events and for making social use of revenues. And then came community control of police, and new training.

And it all fed into the parallel issues of income distribution, job definition, and the like. Not to mention leading to athletes becoming huge financial supporters of activism and also reevaluating their whole approach to sports – something that the athletes certainly didn’t initially have in mind, including questioning the level of remuneration, the health aspects, and so on. It turned out you could be a great athlete and be pretty damn smart, and socially effective, too. Ali’s army, we started calling ourselves.

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