An Open Letter To Activists Concerning Racism In The Anti-War Movement
hvoss at soaw.org
Fri Feb 21 11:52:29 EST 2003
From: Merle Ratner
Sent: Friday, February 21, 2003 2:35 AM
Dear Sisters and Brothers in the anti-war movement,
Attached is an open letter raising issues of racism in the anti-war
movement. In it, we identify racist practices that have hindered our ability
to work together and will continue to do so, unless movement organizers take
aggressive steps to overcome these dynamics.
We wrote and signed this letter before the recent historic Feb. 15 rallies
in NYC and around the world.
Many of us were active in organizing for the demonstration in NYC. We
believe the assertion of the anti-racist politics outlined in our letter was
critical to achieving an event with unprecedented inclusion of the majority,
people of color, communities in NYC (as well as labor and working class
people) in both the leadership, the program and the entire demonstration.
These were important steps forward, and we welcome this progress.
At the same time, the racist dynamics we discuss in our letter were and
remain a powerful factor in our work together, preventing the fullest unity
and effectiveness. There are already signs that, with Feb. 15 behind us,
long-standing racist patterns of operating are reemerging.
In order for future demonstrations and coalitions to build on the advances
that were made and increase participation of all of our communities, it is
urgent that the issues we raise in our letter be forthrightly addressed by
the entire movement.
We urge you to give immediate, focused attention to this letter in that
To respond to this letter, please email the signers at:
antiracistmovement at yahoo.com
An Open Letter To Activists Concerning Racism In The Anti-War Movement
February 13, 2003
Dear Sisters and Brothers:
We, the undersigned, are peace and justice activists in New York City. We
are organizing to defeat the United States governments offensive of war,
racism and repression against the people of the world, both abroad and
within the borders of the U.S. We come from many communities, some of us
from other nations. We are all colors, multi-generational, workers,
students, unemployed, queer and straight. We are writing to you out of
concern that destructive patterns of behavior are hindering the growth of
the broadest possible long-term movement against war at home and abroad, and
preventing the attainment of the social justice we all seek.
We have urgent tasks before us: stopping a war against Iraq and others
around the world, as well as preventing further attacks on people within the
United States. To do this work in a principled way, in ways that address the
root causes of oppression, requires that we acknowledge the connection
between the forms and institutions of white supremacy embedded in U.S.
society and the practice of white supremacy within our movement. As we dig
in for the long haul and try to bring together the broadest possible
grouping of people, we must be conscious of how our historiesorganizational
and personalinfluence how we work together.
Since the turn of the year, hundreds of activists have come together in New
York City to plan anti-war actions. Along with the work being done for
February 15, these gatherings will hopefully lead to more and better
coalition-building in the future. However, at least two other promising
coordination efforts in this city, since 9/11/2001, also began by involving
diverse forces and ended badly. One series of meetings, attended by
hundreds, led to the formation of the New York Coalition for Peace and
Justicebut only after a disastrous split around the question of calling for
the use of international law as an alternative to war against Afghanistan.
A second series of meetings, held last Spring to plan antiwar commemorations
of 9/11, produced Stand Up New Yorkbut that coalition foundered when one
group insisted on organizing a vigil autonomously, without being
responsible to the coalition as a whole. In our view, destructive racial
dynamics and white supremacy are implicated in the disruption of both of
these unity initiatives: Predominantly white forces failed to grasp the
importance of self-determination and certain concerns in communities of
color. Indeed, this was the clear perception of most activists of color who
were involved in the events.
The problem of racism in anti-war activism is not new. For many years,
people of color and their white allies have cited its debilitating effects,
to no avail. A new era of activism presents us with the opportunity to come
to grips with the issues of race and anti-racism in our movement, instead of
continuing to ignore them. We believe that such an accounting is crucial to
the success of coalition-building among the anti-war sectors of New York
City, and we offer this letter as a means of getting started.
Who is Most Affected by War
At home and abroad, repression, militarism and war take their greatest toll
on people of color. Following 9/11, the U.S. government and its agents
escalated their longstanding aggression against us to the level of an
endless war on terrorism. Abroad, that war is waged on Iraq, Afghanistan,
the Philippines, Colombia, Vieques, Puerto Rico, and other nations in the
global South. Endless war crowns the economic embargos and sanctions,
IMF/World Bankgenerated debt, covert support for torture and death squads,
and environmental degradation long imposed on nations whose inhabitants are
viewed through a Eurocentric lens as alien demons, in order to rationalize
their domination and destruction. At home, the state demonizes and
criminalizes people of color in order to rationalize targeting us for police
abuse and repression, in the name of crime-fighting and security. Secret
detention and deportation of immigrants, racial profiling, police brutality,
incarceration and cut-backs of social services are all part of the arsenal
used by the state to control communities of color and constrain their
As the primary victims of militarism and repression, people of color have
waged organized resistance against these scourges for centuries, without
recognition of our frontline activism by whites: We know only too well, if
others do not, that the peace movement has always been multiracial and
international. Consistent with this history, Arab, Asian, Latino, Caribbean
and African Americans were organizing in their New York City communities
before 9/11, and since the 9/11 attacks have turned out significant numbers
on several occasions. For example, there were the 9/11 anniversary/anti-war
events sponsored by Third World Within, under the banner No More Lost
Lives, and there was the We Aint Going Nowhere march and rally in Harlem
sponsored by Uptown Youth for Peace and Justice. In addition, South Asian
and Arab American community-based groups have spearhead street protests
downtown and in Times Square against detentions and other abuses of
immigrant rights that continue to this day.
The Movement Today: Reaching The Mainstream
The anti-war movement as a whole can take great pride in the national
mobilizations that brought hundreds of thousands to Washington, D.C. on
April 22, October 26 and January 18. Undaunted by the drumbeat for an
invasion of Iraq and heightened repression at home, our movement has mounted
an undeniable challenge to policies that, if allowed to prevail, can only
lead to the devastation of peoples and nations. The success of these
demonstrations was due, in no small part, to the hard work done by diverse
grass roots, neighborhood-based groups in New York and other locales.
The energy and commitment emanating from our local anti-war formations
create a good basis for developing future peace and justice work in our
city. But to realize our potential for building a mass movement requires,
first and foremost, clarity as to who actually constitutes the mainstream
and why. The right, the corporate media and elite policy makers persist in
painting mainstream America as white and middle class. Even many white
liberals cling to the notion that building a mass movement against war
necessitates the use of techniques and rhetoric that dont scare away
middle class whites. This way of thinking is anachronistic. The nations
demographics have changed sharply over the last 40 years, even more
dramatically over the last decade, with the result that people of color are
fast becoming a majority in the U.S. More importantly, since people of
colorwars principal targetshave the greatest interest in holding back the
war tide and, thus, activists of color have the most politically developed
perspectives on the subject, they are a key source of ideas on how to
strengthen work and improve outreach. Add to this the fact that more and
more white working class and middle class families are struggling to survive
under the crushing burden of globalizations negative effects and it becomes
clear that resistance against the Bush war machine must reflect the spectrum
of needs, aspirations, goals, intellectual resources and colors of a
multiracial, multinational, multilingual and multi-class mainstream.
Unfortunately, white supremacy and white privilege in our work present
obstacles that, if left unaddressed, will limit our ability to consolidate
an effective movement within todays realities.
Addressing White Supremacy in the Peace and Justice Movement
A persistent dynamic of white supremacy/racism and white privilege within
many organizations, and the resultant perpetuation of racist practices,
takes various forms: resistance by predominantly white organizations to
sharing leadership withmuch less following the leadership ofactivists and
organizations of color; the failure of predominantly white organizations to
endorse or participate in anti-war activities sponsored by people of color
groups; a discussion climate that excludes or demeans the contributions of
activists/organizations of color, and disparaging or insensitive remarks by
individuals. These practices have alienated individuals and organizations,
and they have prevented cooperative bonds from forming as we work to build
broad and deep opposition to war.
Serious attempts have been made in the past to build anti-racist/racial
justice politics among white activists. Yet we still see white activists and
predominantly white organizations acting in ways that effectively
marginalize and disrespect activists and organizations of color in anti-war
work. While many of these individuals and organizations view themselves as
anti-racist, their words and actionsconsciously or unconsciously,
intentionally or notreplicate white supremacy and white privilege. In
addition, they advocate certain positions within the movement that fail to
address, and in some instances actually support, structural white supremacy.
What do we mean by white supremacy and white privilege? We are unaware of
any universally agreed upon definitions, but we have found those put forth
by the Challenging White Supremacy Workshop (CWS at
http://www.cwsworkshop.org) to be useful. CWS states that white supremacy is
a system, historically constructed by white peoples, European nations and
the United States, to exploit and oppress nations and peoples of color. The
point of the system is to maintain and perpetuate wealth, power and
privilege for nations and peoples of European descent. White privilege is
also a system, institutionally based, that (1) rewards and privileges white
people solely because of their skin color and European origins; and (2)
exempts whites and European-descended peoples from oppression. White
supremacy anchors white privilege and racial oppression in our society,
meaning that it is not simply about individual prejudice. Individual and
organizational acts of racial prejudice are rooted in, and replicate, an
entire social construct of white supremacy. If we wish to build a lasting
peace and justice movement that effectively unites the broadest possible
strata of society, then our fight against racism must be fully conscious and
ongoing. We must face the issue externally in our platforms, positions and
actions, and internally in our movement work.
Examples of White Supremacy & Privilege within the NYC Peace & Justice
Based on the foregoing definitions, here are examples of practices that we
and other movement activists have witnessed in peace and justice activities
Refusing to acknowledge and accept leadership from activists and
organizations of color:
*refusing to participate in people of color-led events.
*refusing to participate in broad anti-war activities with strong POC
participation or leadership, e.g., the summer split when War Resisters
League withdrew from Stand Up New York (commemoration of September 11).
*white groups starting coalitions without input from, or honest outreach to,
organizations of color and then calling their groups citywide. One
activist dismissed the lack of input and outreach, saying I long ago gave
up paying attention to skin color
On such matters, Im with Dr. King....
Whats important about people is not the color of their skin, but the
content of their character.
*white activists making strategy decisions without consulting activists of
color, whose work is critical to implementing the decisions.
*white activists using their greater financial or volunteer resources to
attract resources, and to dominate leadership or staff positions and
decision-making (do it my way, and Ill raise the dollars).
A variation on divide and rule: White activists using rhetoric in a
discussion that effectively pits groups against each other, particularly
groups of colorfor example, insinuating that one group has unfairly tried
to dominate space within a project that must accommodate the interests of
many different sectors.
Promoting positions that challenge the impact of war on more privileged
populations, while ignoring or even justifying its impact on people of color
*refusing to recognize the centrality of white supremacy and racism in the
war drive at home and abroad. One long-time peace activist in reference to
the U.S. war against Afghanistan, A racist war? It isnt. Vietnam was. But
the Afghans for the most part are not dark skinned. A criminal war, yes. An
illegal war, yes. An unconstitutional war, yes. But a racist war? Bull
*denying the impact on people of color of the war at home and abroad.
*denying that non-Arab people of color within the U.S. are particularly
targeted by the war.
*appealing to racism or national chauvinism in opposing the war.
Discrediting, ignoring or minimizing the history and prominent roles of
people of color in the peace and justice movement:
*dissing or discrediting people of color organizations.
*dismissing the roles of people of color in anti-war movements: One movement
activist claimed that Angela Davis and Muhammad Ali were not serious
anti-war activists during the Vietnam war.
*engaging in the politics of privileged projection: Some white activists,
comfortable with a white peace movement, claim that activists of color are
too busy with domestic issues to do anti-war work. This perception can be
a cover for the white persons enthusiastic involvement in activism against
the war abroad, but indifference to opposing the wars at homewhich, after
all, primarily target communities and people of color. Apparently, it hasnt
occurred to this activist that his/her whiteness, along with class
privilege, both enables and influences the luxury of choosing on which
issues s/he will focus.
Creating an atmosphere of marginalization, disrespect or neglect towards
people of color in anti-war meetings and events:
*white activists tending to dominate discussions and favor the most
*not calling on activists of color to speak and chair meetings.
*white people assuming that their experiences are the norm, and viewing
people of colors realities as the other or the exception.
*judging what political approach will work with the average person by the
experience in white neighborhoods.
*using terms like us and them.
Creating an environment in meetings, through certain actions, that is
threatening to, or uncomfortable for, immigrants
*exposing immigrants and other people of color to the risk of arrest in
civil disobedience (CD) actions, or promoting CD in communities of color
without understanding that immigrants risk jail, deportation and/or police
violence that could lead to serious injury or death.
*insensitivity to immigrants religious and cultural practices.
Such practices reproduce in our movement the white supremacy that permeates
U.S. society. A similar dynamic involves class: those with greater access to
education, wealth and power often marginalize working people
gender: male supremacy creates unfavorable conditions for womens equal
participation. Most white activists dont see how whiteness privileges
them and perpetuates white supremacist social relations in movement work.
White activists have a responsibility to struggle against white supremacy, a
struggle that includes: 1) Sharing leadership with, and being willing to
follow the lead of, people and organizations of color; 2) maintaining an
attitude of collectivity and not dominating discussion; 3) challenging
racist language and actions (especially within movement spaces), and 4)
prioritizing the issues, experiences and struggles of people of color.
Importance of Leadership of Communities of Color
Real peace can only be achieved if our movement comes to understand, and
addresses, the racist roots of modern militarism and warfare. It follows,
therefore, that real justice can only be achieved if the people most
affected by INjustice are in the leadership of movements seeking change. By
no means do we discount the role of white activists and predominantly white
organizations within the peace and justice movement. In order to achieve the
broadest and strongest opposition to war, we need unified action across all
linesand white communities are obviously an integral part of that movement
building. But especially in New York City, given its racial and ethnic
composition, people of color must have a place at the helm in coalition
work. White activists and predominantly white groups must tackle this issue
directly. In a country founded on genocide, slavery and territorial
conquest, that is still plagued by racism and by the unequal distribution of
power and resources, people of color can tell when white folks dont welcome
their input, much less their leadership. And understandably, we are turned
off of trying to work with people who dismiss, marginalize or patronize us.
In addition to treating people of color with respect, white activists and
groups need to embrace the principle of power-sharing and the sharing of
Activists of color who are on the receiving end of racist behavior face
vexing decisions about whether or how to interact with predominantly white
projects. Some opt to concentrate on building a base in their own
communities. Others work in multiracial settings, where they often find
themselves the brunt of racist dynamics. In the latter case, unpleasant
experiences have made some people skeptical about white activists
dedication to power-sharing and fighting white supremacy. For those
activists of color who are committed to citywide organizing, despite being
tempted to dismiss the so-called white left (an oxymoron), its important
that white activists indicate a willingness to engage in a serious dialogue
within the context of political struggle.
We ask peace and justice activists in NYC to reflect on the content of this
letter, discuss it and respond. How can our organizations and coalitions
best deal with these problems? We look forward to a dialogue on the issues.
Most important, we hope and expect that out of that dialogue will come
lasting changes in the ways we work together.
Steve Bloom Jean Carey Bond
Humberto Brown Saulo Colón
Bhairavi Desai Cherrene Horazuk
Randy Jackson Hany Khalil
Ray Laforest Ngô Thanh Nhàn
René Francisco Poitevin Merle Ratner
Liz Roberts Juliet Ucelli
Lincoln Van Sluytman
To respond to this letter, please email the signers at:
antiracistmovement at yahoo.com
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