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At Times, the Problem Is Economics, Not Racism

September 28, 1997|Jose Novoa | Jose Novoa is a student in the ethnic studies PhD program at UC Berkeley and teaches ethnic studies for the Peralta Community College School District

BERKELEY — President Bill Clinton's race-dialogue initiative, a commendable step toward understanding the role that race continues to play in American society, isn't likely to cover much new ground unless the dialogue is broadened to include issues of class as well as race. Focusing only on racism will deflect attention from the economic problems poor people of color face.

Although the president says he wants to lead Americans "in a great and unprecedented conversation about race," it appears his primary goal is to marshal support for affirmative action. Affirmative action "has given us a whole new generation of professionals in fields that used to be exclusive clubs," Clinton said in announcing his initiative. "There are more African American, Latino and Asian American lawyers and judges, scientists and engineers, accountants and executives than ever before."

True, affirmative-action programs have opened the way for more people of color to join the middle class, and that is a good thing. But such programs have done little for people of color who are members of the working and poverty classes.

Certainly, the successes of middle- and upper-class people of color can benefit poor people of color in indirect ways, like providing positive role models and weakening negative racial stereotypes. Furthermore, because middle-class people of color still face many disadvantages (bigotry, racially biased standardized tests, etc.) when competing against middle-class whites, some form of affirmative action is still needed. But the experience of the past three decades has shown that affirmative-action programs are no substitute for measures that would more directly address the effects of racism on poor people of color. In part, it is a story of how civil-rights organizations were co-opted into losing their focus on helping poor people.

After passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act concluded the struggle for political and legal rights, civil rights leaders searched for new strategies to continue their struggle against racism. During the Mississippi March Against Fear in 1966, Willie Ricks, a staff member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, discovered the powerful resonance of the phrase "black power" when delivering a speech. He told SNCC chairman Stokely Carmichael, who brought the term into popular consciousness at subsequent rallies.

But what was "black power"? Carmichael first defined it as black participation in politics to elect representatives more responsive to their needs. Later, he would identify American blacks as an exploited colony of the United States and attempt to link their struggle to the national liberation movements that flourished throughout the Third World after WWII.

But the last word on the subject would not belong to Carmichael. In 1967, corporate interests, led by the Ford Foundation, became deeply involved in financing almost all major civil rights organizations. The co-optation of these organizations and the corporate-financed black-power conferences of 1967 and 1968 were instrumental in redefining "black power" as black capitalism.

The equation of "black power" with black capitalism forestalled the possibility of class-based black-liberation struggles and quickly gained the endorsement of corporate and government leaders. In a 1968 radio broadcast, President Richard M. Nixon expressed his approval of "black power, in the best, the constructive sense of that often misapplied term . . . It's no longer enough that white-owned enterprises employ greater number of Negroes, whether as laborers or as middle-management personnel. This is needed, yes--but it has to be accompanied by an expansion of black ownership, of black capitalism."

The failure of black capitalism to end racism is self-evident, as is the need to combine a class analysis with an anti-racist one in order to understand the needs of poor people of color. Even conservative critics of affirmative action have made this point, arguing for class-based affirmative-action policies as a better way of helping "truly needy" people of color. What remains to be seen is if these critics are sincere in their desire to help poor people of color or are merely searching for moral high ground from which to attack race-based affirmative action policies.

Clinton's seven-member advisory panel must recognize that communities of color are not monolithic, that, like the rest of America, they are divided into economic classes with different problems and different needs. From here, the panel could build a consensus for a more comprehensive approach to fighting racism, not just defending race-based affirmative-action policies that have proved to be, at best, tokenistic and, at worst, little more than pacification efforts designed to prop up a fundamentally racist system.

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