On May Day 2022, Voices for New Democracy hosted SEIU Secretary-Treasurer Gerry Hudson for a discussion on the state of the American labor movement. Throughout the conversation, Gerry discussed his history at 1199SEIU, outlining how the union’s participation in struggles for racial justice and immigrant justice mobilized membership and helped secure important victories; how 1199’s emphasis on rank-and-file organizing and leadership was key to their strength; and what lessons these experiences hold for today’s wave of union organizing across gig workers, Amazon workers, delivery drivers, Starbucks workers, and more. Gerry also reflected on SEIU’s political mobilization around the 2020 elections — playing an important role in Biden’s victory — and the challenges and opportunities that lie ahead in 2022 and 2024.
This past Sunday, Voices for New Democracy joined our comrades at Convergence Magazine for a conversation with Linda Burnham and Max Elbaum around their new book, Power Concedes Nothing: How Grassroots Organizing Wins Elections, a collection of essays exploring grassroots mobilization as the key to electoral power. Burnham and Elbaum discussed their work with Convergence, pulled out key highlights from the book and examples of progressive organizing in action — including its pivotal role in ousting Trump — and emphasized the need for progressives to unify and work together to defend democracy while building grassroots power.
On Sunday, January 23rd, UCLA Professor and acclaimed historian Robin D. G. Kelley joined Voices for New Democracy for our latest monthly political forum discussing the past and future of Black liberation.
The wide-ranging conversation touched on important reflections on where the Left stands today, and explores some of the lessons from historical experiences in the struggle for Black liberation from Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition to BLM, and the reactions and backlash these struggles have faced. Building on recent forums and essays on Voices for New Democracy exploring some of the recent challenges and defeats we’re facing, Kelley asserts that the present moment is still full of opportunity. But to seize the moment, Kelley challenges us to think deeply about how we can build a unified Left, inspired by new ideas, that operates with organized cooperation and accountability. And as capitalism undergoes new structural changes in the face of concurrent crises, the Left will have important opportunities to advance our movement in different places at different moments. Whatever dark moments lie ahead, Kelley reminds us to maintain our commitment to the struggle.
Biden could have broken with Trump’s anti-immigrant policies and allowed anyone who wished to apply for asylum to be able to do so at a port of entry and increase the possibilities of immigrants from Central America and from places like Haiti to obtain lawful employment (through such measures as H-2B visas).
Instead, the Biden administration has kept in place a Trump-era policy, Title 42, which does the opposite by indefinitely closing the border to “nonessential travel” (to supposedly “limit the spread of the coronavirus”) and increases the deportation of those who are seeking work or who are seeking to apply for asylum. Title 42, under both the Trump administration and now under Biden, allows for the Border Patrol to decide who can enter the process of asylum and who cannot. As a result, in the last year, border authorities applied Title 42 to more than 80% of encounters with immigrants resulting in 530,000 expulsions of which 16,000 were children migrating alone and 34,000 children-plus parents. Adding to the number of expulsions, the Biden administration has moved on speeding up deportations of some migrant families through “expedited removal,” allowing for ICE to deport them without a hearing before an immigration judge.
In this light, our organizing efforts, in addition to supporting DACA and Temporary Protective Status measures, has to include a halt to the contradictory government policies of Title 42 and a call for humane refugee asylum policies.
Along these same lines, it is important to organize against the Biden administration’s reinstating of a Trump-era “Remain in Mexico” policy, that is part of a deal struck with the Mexican government forcing asylum seekers to stay in that country until their U.S. immigration court date. Under this policy, about 70,000 immigrants have been returned to Mexico. Although the Biden administration justifies its actions by claiming that it is only following court orders, that it is applying “humanitarian speed-ups” of court proceedings of migrants and refugees, and that it is providing avenues for access to legal counsel, there is no getting around that the ‘Remain in Mexico’ policies are resulting in mass deportations and inhumane treatment. There are thousands of immigrants, seeking protection from increased violence in their home countries, who are being deported back to areas where they are met with brutal attacks and kidnappings perpetrated by deadly cartels and corrupt officials. For instance, according to Human Rights First, there were at least 1,544 publicly documented cases of rape, kidnapping, assault, and other crimes committed against individuals sent back under these policies this last year.
Meanwhile, Kamala Harris has been assigned to focus on the “root” causes of migration in Latin America, announcing that the plan will deal with issues of economic insecurity and inequality, combating democratic corruption, and promoting respect for human rights.
While some of us in the immigrant rights movement have promoted policies that would focus on changing the economic conditions in the sending countries that are forcing so many to migrate here, the reality is that they are meaningless in this time period when there is a need to prioritize the passage and implementation of pro-immigrant legislation here in the U. S. These gestures by Kamala Harris, focused on the conditions abroad, affect very little in the immediate and, with the Republicans already making immigration a central issue, the prospects for building the kind of movement that is needed to ensure the defeat of the right in the mid-term elections is further damaged.
This article will appear in the next issue of the New Labor Forum.
Fundamentally, we need to build an immigrant rights movement to create the change we need. Reliance on the Democratic Party or on policy formulations alone will never result in meaningful change unless we can successfully build a movement led by immigrant workers and immigrant youth.
The Obama-Biden administration was responsible for more than two million deportations, the worst record in U.S. history. During his 2020 presidential election campaign, Biden promised immigration reform within his first year in office. Not only do those promises remain unfulfilled, but unfortunately, Biden has maintained some of the repressive anti-immigrant policies implemented by Trump.
We support the necessity of building a broad-based alliance to advance meaningful immigration reform. The alliance must include undocumented immigrants themselves, the labor movement, African Americans, youth and students, environmentalists, and the faith-based community.
While we obviously supported the Biden-Harris ticket, and celebrate the end of the horrific Trump administration, we should not be surprised about Biden’s lukewarm commitment to immigration reform in light of his track record. The Biden administration will only do the right thing if there is a strong movement demanding change.
DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) was one of the few immigrant rights victories that was won during the Obama-Biden administration. DACA was a breakthrough in providing a relief to more than 800,000 immigrant youth who otherwise would still live under the constant fear of deportation and would not be able to legally work.
The immigrant youth movement played a decisive role in securing one of the few immigration reform victories under the Obama-Biden administration. Yet it is important to note that DACA was not prioritized or actively supported by major immigrant rights organizations. Even the Federal DREAM Act (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) was not a priority of major immigrant rights organizations, because of their fear that if the DREAM Act moved forward as a stand-alone bill, this would undermine the passage of comprehensive immigration reform.
We strongly disagree with this analysis and approach. The one-sided push for comprehensive immigration reform and reliance on the Democratic Party has been a failed strategy, that has effectively yielded nothing.
The right wing understands the benefit of incremental change on immigration. They have tried to secure anti-immigration victories wherever and whenever possible, at a federal, state, and local level. They have built an anti-immigrant movement grounded in racism and nativism, and have used the anti-immigrant issue to mobilize their primarily white constituency at the ballot box.
Instead of relying the Democratic Party, we believe that we must focus our energies on movement building. And two major movements that have helped to shift the national debate on immigrant rights are the immigrant workers movement, and the immigrant youth movement. We would benefit from deepening an understanding of the role of each, in order to confront the challenges ahead.
Immigrant Workers Movement
The U.S. labor movement has a decidedly mixed history when it comes to immigration reform. From their support of the passage of the racist Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, U.S. labor has historically embraced anti-immigrant policies. During the last major immigration legislation passed by Congress, the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, labor advocated for employer sanctions to impose civil and criminal penalties for employers who knowingly hiring undocumented immigrants. They erroneously believed that this would safeguard jobs for U.S.-born workers.
Employer Sanctions has been a disaster that has done little to nothing to punish employers for hiring undocumented immigrants. Instead, employer sanctions have caused great to harm to undocumented immigrants who been viciously exploited with little legal recourse, and driven further into the underground economy.
The emergence of the immigrant workers movement was a powerful force that helped to reinvigorate parts of the U.S. labor movement, and harness the power of a new generation of predominantly Latino immigrant workers to transform parts of the labor movement. In Los Angeles, the legendary Justice for Janitors Movement and the organizing of the Hotel Workers under the leadership of Maria Elena Durazo represented historic breakthroughs in not only immigrant worker organizing, but the embrace of social movement unionism. The victory of the Home Care workers, led for years by black women, also greatly diversified the labor movement of California and brought more women, people of color, and low wage immigrant workers into the labor movement than any other organizing campaign in decades.
The national debate on the AFL-CIO policy on immigration came to a head during the 1999 convention held in Los Angeles. On the opening day of the convention, the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor organized a march within the convention hall with hundreds of recently organized immigrant workers of color. The marchers jumped on to the podium where the largely aging, white male AFL-CIO Executive Council was seated, dramatically contrasting two distinct parts of the labor movement. A remarkable change in the AFL-CIO immigration policy came the following year, in 2000, led by a progressive coalition of key unions including UNITE-HERE, SEIU, UFCW, and the United Farmworkers of America. For the first time, the AFL-CIO lined up on the right side of history on immigration, calling for full rights and a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
In 2003, UNITE HERE launched the Immigrant Worker Freedom Ride, a series of national bus tours that drew on the tradition of the Civil Rights movement. In states and cities throughout the country, the Freedom Ride built union and community alliances with a movement-building orientation. Congressman John Lewis and Rev. James Lawson Jr. worked with the Immigrant Worker Freedom Ride to connect the emerging immigrant rights movement with veterans from the Civil Rights movement from decades before.
In 2006, the largest May Day marches in U.S. history held in dozens of cities across the country were organized to respond to draconian anti-immigrant legislation in Congress. It was a profound reflection of the power of the immigrant workers movement, that successfully led to the defeat of the pending legislation. Ironically, the largest May Day in U.S. history was not led by the U.S. labor movement, but by immigrant workers themselves. In fact, some conservative union leaders watched from the sidelines, refusing to support the just demands of immigrant workers to end deportations and for a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
The election of Tefere Gebre as the AFL-CIO Executive Vice President in 2013 was a breakthrough. For the first time in history, a black immigrant and political refugee became one of the top officers of the U.S. labor movement. Gebre was previously the leader of the Orange County Federation of Labor, where he mobilized the power of immigrant workers to not only reinvigorate the labor movement, but to change the political landscape. Orange County in 2016 voted for a Democrat for President for the first time since the 1930’s, and in 2018 Democrats swept the entire Congressional delegation in what was previously a bastion of right-wing politics.
In 2021, Liz Schuler was elected as the first woman President in AFL-CIO history. Currently, her two other national officers are black men, another historic first. The first leadership team of women and people of color within the AFL-CIO could change the national political environment through building a grassroots movement to support immigration reform.
Immigrant Youth Movement
Immigrant youth have been at the forefront of securing meaningful immigration policy victories over the last decade. Though immigrant youth have been organizing for a long time, the year 2010 was a game changer.
In May of 2010, five undocumented youth held a nonviolent sit-in at the office of Senator and former presidential-candidate John McCain, risking arrest and deportation. This courageous act exposed McCain’s political opportunism as a Senate leader who had previously co-sponsored the DREAM Act, yet instead withdrew his support to align with Sheriff Joe Arpaio.
In the coming months, immigrant youth engaged in unprecedented activism from hunger strikes in Los Angeles and Texas, a 1,500 mile march on-foot from Florida to Washington known as the “Trail of Dreams,” a “Dream Freedom Ride” caravan from Los Angeles to Washington D.C., and many other forms of nonviolent civil disobedience. The emergence of United We Dream, a national coalition of undocumented youth organizations, as well as “Dream Teams” of undocumented activists in states and cities across the country set the foundation for a new immigrant youth movement.
For more than twenty years, the DREAM Act, overwhelmingly supported by the public, has been blocked in Congress. The DREAM Act could provide a pathway to citizenship for qualifying immigrant youth and could change their lives, as well as the lives of their families and their communities. Despite the tremendous efforts made by immigrant youth, the DREAM Act was unable to get through the Senate because of a threatened filibuster in December of 2010. This was a bipartisan failure. A handful of Democrats voted against it, while some senators like John McCain and Joe Manchin, did not even show up to vote. As heartbreaking as this loss was, immigrant youth did not give up. Instead, they directed their attention to other efforts that could harness their energy and collective power.
The failure of the DREAM Act in December 2010, was the impetus for the launch of “Dream Summer” in 2011. Dream Summer is the first and only national fellowship program run by and for immigrant youth, launched by the UCLA Labor Center with support of United We Dream. The program aims to empower the next generation of social justice leaders by providing leadership and professional development opportunities to immigrant youth that embraces an intersectional, intergenerational, cross-racial approach. In its first year, the program received over 1,000 applications from eager immigrant youth that were ready to join the movement. Since its founding, the Dream Resource Center (DRC) of the UCLA Labor Center has emerged as a national source for innovative research, education, leadership development and policy on immigration issues.
Dream Summer centers the immigrant youth voice in local and national conversations that directly impact them in order to achieve representation, opportunity, and justice for immigrant communities. Over the past ten years, Dream Summer has played a pivotal role in developing immigrant youth leaders who have secured legislative victories such as the California Dream Act, DACA, and Health4AllKids in California.
In 2011, immigrant youth organized actions across the state of California to secure the passage of the California Dream Act, which for the past decade has provided tens of thousands of immigrant youth access to state financial aid for eligible undocumented Californians. Between 2016 – 2017 alone, more than 54,000 California immigrant youth applied for the California Dream Act.
Undocumented immigrant youth, many of them leaders of Dream Summer such as Neidi Dominguez and Ju Hong, were instrumental in advancing a national strategy to push President Obama to introduce Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) in 2012. Today, over 800,000 immigrant youth have been able to work and have protection from deportation as a result of this victory.
In 2013, Dream Summer launched the Health Ambassadors Fellowship. The late Beatriz Solis from The California Endowment led the effort to support 114 immigrant youth to work at the intersections of health and immigration. The Dream Summer fellows produced a series of reports entitled, Undocumented and Uninsured, which informed policymakers about the need for health care for all Californians, regardless of legal status. In 2015, California passed Health4All Kids, which expanded full-scope medical to low-income children under the age of 19, regardless of immigration status. Most recently, immigrant youth were also key in securing the passage of the California Values Act, which limits collaboration between law enforcement and immigration officials in the detention and deportation process.
2021 marked the 10th anniversary of Dream Summer. Since its inception, more than 820 immigrant youth from across the country have participated in the program. Dream Summer has also developed partnerships with over 265 social justice organizations. Many Dream Summer alumni have gone off to hold leadership positions in various national, state and local social justice organizations. Undocumented immigrant youth continue to be at the forefront of the fight for immigrant justice.
Movement building is essential to advance Immigration reform. Unfortunately, some immigrant rights organizations speak on behalf of undocumented immigrants, while not promoting undocumented immigrants in key leadership positions. This is problematic, and has contributed to a failure to focus on movement building and a commitment to undocumented immigrant empowerment. History teaches us that we must build the immigrant workers movement and the immigrant youth movement to secure meaningful immigration reform.
Please join Voices for New Democracy for our next monthly political forum on Sunday, January 23rd at 4 p.m. PT / 7 p.m. ET for a conversation about the past and future of Black liberation with UCLA professor Robin D. G. Kelley. Click here to join the forum when it begins.
Professor Kelley will discuss the past and future of the latest iteration of Black liberation (BLM and more), and also reflect back on where we were 25-30 years ago as a way to think about the folks we recently lost and the lessons we might take from that moment, which Kelley believes was as dynamic and potentially transformational as 2014-2020.
As background reading, Professor Kelley encourages participants to read this short piece by Jamala Rogers, which sums up some of the internal crises facing the BLM movement: “things we don’t want to talk about but must.”
At long last, our world seems to have accepted the reality of climate change and the devastation it portends. But, we still have a long way to go in assessing, much less implementing, an effective global response.
Inevitably, the struggle for programmatic clarity unfolds against the backdrop of long-entrenched corporate domination of the key entities – the IMF and most of today’s nation-states — that might do something about it. These cautious and self-interested perspectives controlled the agenda at the recent COP26 climate conference in Glascow. Outside the conference, however, more thoughtful voices are beginning to be heard.
“US immigration policy is harsh and xenophobic, but it’s also rear-looking and stupid,” says (I paraphrase) Parag Khanna, author of Move: The Forces Uprooting Us.
Khanna was interviewed November 20 on the MMT-themed Macro ‘n Cheese podcast by regular host Steve Grumbine.
In world system geographer Khanna’s mind, climate change will impose adaptations on civilization that, unfortunately, the recent COP26 conference barely mentioned. Anticipating the conference’s stance, he says, it will focus on mitigations to “virtue signal” that “we can do this, world.”
That’s what it did, but that’s not good enough, says Khanna. Instead, he is laser-focused on one imposing, yet well-ignored adaptation: mass migration. Already unfolding and irreversible – just like climate change, itself – mass migration can be ignored only at civilization’s peril.
This is because, as climate change deepens and imposes its will, a great swath of the places where people live today will become increasingly uninhabitable. This devastation of ancient, previously-productive habitats distresses the Global South and indigenous people far more than the “modern” societies of the Global North. According to Khanna, mitigation efforts must, of course, be deployed, but they won’t be adequate to prevent the impending catastrophe in the South. Independent of our will and efforts, our warming earth is going to make life for humans in equatorial regions difficult and sparse. Adapting to that reality, mass migration from South to North is vital, but unfortunately, excruciatingly difficult.
While tragic in so many ways, this inevitable migration, Khanna avers, is also a “silver bullet.” For people of the Global South, it provides a place to go to sustain families and build new lives. And for nations in the North that are already at or near zero population growth, migration provides the younger workforce that these aging societies can’t do without.
In Khanna’s prophecy, mass migration serves both North and South and helps get humanity to the other side of its ecological nightmare. In stark contrast, the indigenous radicals behind The Red Deal say mass migration (social displacement) is just the latest and greatest catastrophe imposed on Nature and native people by capitalism and settler colonialism. “Land Back!” is their demand. They insist on full indigenous control of natural resource management everywhere because, without such strategic (anti-capitalist, anti-colonial) oversight and guidance, human life – indeed, all life – is in jeopardy.
To indigenous people, the earth – just like the water, animals, plants and other people – is a “relative” and, like all relatives, must be treated with care, justice and opportunity. Relative-care is the only way to save our planet from the destruction of capitalist exploitation. Thus, indigenous people look forward to managing the earth’s fragile, climate-ravaged, equatorial regions, and they will endure whatever hardship is necessary to restore their wounded relative — the earth. But for this, indigenous people expect nothing less than the decisive voice in civilization’s long-range, natural resource management agenda (aka, the Green New Deal) as well as all the resources necessary to mitigate and abate the crisis wherever it exists or emerges. In the meantime, indigenous people expect the right to emigrate and to be welcomed wherever they choose (or are forced) to go.
Today’s ill-conceived US immigration policy erects walls against the very workforce the nation needs for its own survival. Biden-Harris take note. A good policy would encourage immigration and a path to citizenship. Khanna cites Canada and Kazakhstan as nations that have sound immigration and citizenship programs and stand to prosper as people and production move north through the 21st century. After traveling extensively in Russia (where global warming is creating vast regions of newly arable land), he also reports rising interest in the Russian hinterland for a more welcoming immigration policy. The US, meanwhile, stands to lose substantially if it does not ease its anti-immigrant policies and correct its white-supremacist fringe.
Khanna acknowledges but doesn’t much concern himself with the injustice that, “once again,” hits the Global South far worse than the North. In his brief allowance that mitigations (as well as adaptations) must be deployed, Khanna expresses solidarity with those seeking redress of imperialism’s unjust equatorial legacy, yet he stresses the inevitability and redeeming worth of mass migration and, accordingly, urges an “incremental evolution” in anti-imperialist demands. He does not so much as mention “indigenous rights” or “indigenous authority,” apparently presuming that existing means of natural resource management and allocation can be adequately reformed within the framework of evolving but on-going capitalism and nation-state authority. He also never mentions socialism or any transformational vision of mainstream production and exchange.
His omission of indigenous impacts and other class dynamics is hardly unexpected given the white, settler, colonial blind spots of Western imperialism and the academics within. It is a major, ideological shortcoming but should not disqualify Khanna’s factual point that – depending on various geographic factors (resources, borders, infrastructure and people) – climate change is already having uneven and divergent impacts that will make life easier and more sustainable in northern regions than in southern. Sound public policy will ground itself in this reality.
Khanna also anticipates sharpening competition between the US and China because both are competing for younger workers, yet both are rather xenophobic. He says that China, with a younger domestic workforce, was ascendant as the (post-Soviet) global economy took shape in recent decades – and was more nimble with state finances than the West. But, going forward (post-pandemic), it will endure strong competition as all economies seek to add (restore) local production and commercial circulation against the pandemic-made-apparent danger of over-reliance on global supply chains. Diversification and localization are the now the rising trend. China’s share of global trade is bound to shrink. He notes that Cuba and Viet Nam (among others) evidence sound practice in endogenous self-sufficiency. In contrast, he lists Norway and other Scandinavian countries that, despite their welcoming social perspective, cast a heavy global footprint due to their national reliance on oil revenue.
The divergence in viewpoint between Khanna and the Red Nation reveals the depth that the present climate change discourse must still fathom. It’s a deep and wide chasm, but with only a decade or less to figure it out, a much intensified debate and a re-tooled strategy is indispensable. Who is going to lead us to salvation… the corporate sector with its financial and technological “fixes” or indigenous people at the head of a popular, global movement? Time is short; we need to get this right, and we need to do it soon.
Voices for New Democracy joins our friends across the country in mourning the passing of Lani Guinier, a tireless fighter for political and social justice.
As an educator, Guinier blazed trails as the first woman of color to be appointed as a tenured professor at Harvard Law School. As a legal scholar and theorist, she devoted much of her life to wrestling with thorny questions and innovative ideas around the structure of our democracy, the importance of social inclusion, and the centrality of racial justice in fighting for progressive change and broader social justice. And as an activist and friend, she touched many of us with her thoughtful and compassionate spirit.
As we remember Lani Guinier, we invite you to listen to her words about the lessons of the 1979 Greensboro Massacre, which she delivered at an anniversary event in 1999. While her remarks are over two decades old now, the lessons about power and community are timeless.
Click the link here or below to watch the video and join us in honoring Lani Guinier’s memory.
As we enter the new year, Voices for New Democracy is proud to announce our next monthly political forum will take place on January 23rd at 4 p.m. PT / 7 p.m. ET featuring UCLA Professor Robin D. G. Kelley.
In anticipation of the upcoming forum, we are reprinting an interview with Kelley from March 2021 by the writer Vinson Cunningham, which delves into key themes of his work and analysis. In it, Kelley discusses Black Marxism and the legacy of Cedric Robinson, highlights the role of the Black radical tradition in the summer 2020 uprising, interrogates and clarifies our understanding of racial capitalism, and highlights the importance of solidarity in advancing movements for justice. Among other wide-ranging topics, Kelly also touches his experience with the Communist Workers Party and his personal history of activism.
Robin D.G. Kelley is, for my money, the great historian of our era. He has written groundbreaking works about, among other things, Alabama’s Communist Party during the Great Depression; the life of Thelonious Monk; and the visions of activists and thinkers from the African diaspora. On top of his work at UCLA — where he is a distinguished professor and holds the Gary B. Nash Endowed Chair in U.S. history — he issues a steady stream of limpid, persuasive, almost casually brilliant essays on politics, current affairs and cultural matters for Boston Review and other outlets. He keeps an eye on grassroots movements and on how maintaining a fertile, humane vision for the future creates new opportunities for radical action in the present.
In the year 2000, Kelley led the charge to reissue “Black Marxism,” a great, globe-spanning work of political history by one of his mentors, Cedric Robinson — successfully rescuing the book, then out of print, from near-obscurity. Since then, he has quite accidentally become the foremost authority on the late Robinson’s work and ideas. (“I did not want that,” he told me, sounding good-naturedly harried by the distinction.) Last year, after the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, among others, at the hand of police officers, and the global protest uprising that followed, UNC Press decided to reissue “Black Marxism,” which — as Kelley had predicted two decades earlier — had become more relevant than ever.
Kelley wrote a rousing foreword for the new edition of “Black Marxism” and is working on a book called “Black Bodies Swinging: An American Postmortem,” about how the protests of 2020 are connected to a long history of resistance.
Vinson Cunningham: I’ve been thinking about you and Cedric Robinson. I love how, in your foreword to “Black Marxism,” this new foreword, you always call him by his first name. It’s like: Marx and Engels and Cedric. That’s moving to me. It reminds me of one of my favorite essays, “Looking for Zora,” where Alice Walker goes to find Zora Neale Hurston’s grave. There’s a kind of artistic and intellectual lineage that’s not only about reading — there’s an affective aspect, something to do with feeling and familiarity. What is it about Cedric for you?
Robin D.G. Kelley: I was a student of Cedric’s. He was on my dissertation committee. I was in awe of him. Reading “Black Marxism” that first time in 1984, it just blew my mind and changed my whole orientation. Everything I do as a scholar can be traced back to that book — everything.
He passed in 2016, and with his passing, that’s the first time I ever really dug into his biography. His widow, Elizabeth Robinson, knew that I was close to Cedric intellectually and in other ways. She said, “Look, no one’s writing an obit. We can’t get an obit anywhere.” And I said, “I’ll write one.” I interviewed her, talked to her, and learned all these details that I was kicking myself. I was like, “If I had asked the question … .” I didn’t ask the question because I’m a very shy person. I know that I’m in the public and stuff, but it’s a different thing.
VC: Why did you think the time was right for this third edition?
RDGK: I confess, I’m not the one who came up with the idea of putting it out again. It was UNC Press: Brandon Proia. In the midst of the protests — you had 26 million people on the street. He emailed me and Elizabeth and said, “Look, now’s the time to put out a third edition.” With the new foreword I wanted, one, to really tell Cedric’s story, to situate his intellectual biography to understand where this book came from. Two, to situate the book in relationship to the rebellion of 2020 and talk about it as a manifestation of a black radical tradition. So much of the conversation in political circles, coming out of or preceding the 2020 rebellion, all use terms like “racial capitalism” more than anything else. So I wanted to try to understand this movement, while also trying to clarify what Cedric meant by (a) Black radical tradition and (b) racial capitalism.
VC: What are the difficulties in defining what racial capitalism means?
RDGK: The slightly more traditional Marxist scholars reject the idea that capitalism can actually be racial. They say, “Race is real. It’s a phenomenon. But it’s not really the fundamental one. It sort of gets in the way of what’s really the root of oppression: the reproduction of a capitalized class.” That’s class reduction. And then meanwhile, the so-called race reductionist position — you could call it Afro-pessimism lite — is that we’re just for Black people. They say, “The whole structure of Western civilization is based on anti-Blackness and anti-Blackness alone. And therefore, there can be no allyship, there can be no solidarity.” This kind of standoffishness, saying Black people need to just be for Black people, is not Cedric’s position at all.
The class reductionist versus race reductionist debate doesn’t really advance us. Cedric advances us by helping us understand how capitalism is based on racial regimes. So, for example, property may be capital, in the Marxist sense, but property values are dependent on things that are nonmaterial — that are ideological, or superstructural — like race. Capitalism is rooted in a civilization that is based on difference. This doesn’t at all mean that white people are the enemy, or that Black people are all victims, which I totally reject. It doesn’t mean that all white people benefit. It just simply means that capitalism is structured through difference.
I have made a point of the fact that Cedric was writing a critique of Marxism — but not a hostile critique. He wasn’t rejecting all of Marx and Engels’ ideas, but he felt like Marxism was a window to understanding forms of radicalism that neither Marx nor Engels, nor Lenin, and others, could really grasp. Ironically, some people have gone to a kind of extreme, saying, “There’s nothing in Marxism that’s useful. It’s just a white man making up some stuff, and Cedric is right.” And I’m like, “No.” I find myself actually becoming more of a Marxist in my defense of Cedric.
VC: What do you view as your role as an intellectual? As you write “Black Bodies Swinging,” how do you make sure that what you’re describing is not only scrupulously true but also feeds into a politics that helps us both survive in the present and get somewhere more free in the future?
RDGK: That’s a great question. I feel like it’s not mandatory but it’s really important for me to be engaged in these movements, to make no pretense about some kind of dispassionate, detached objectivity. I think that we need to practice something that’s even better than objectivity. And that is, as you know, critique. Critique, to me, is better than objectivity. Objectivity is a false stance. I’m not neutral. I’ve never been neutral. I write about struggles and social movements because I actually don’t think the world is right and something needs to change.
As a historian, as a writer, I’ve got to try to be as critical as possible. I’m always trying to be truthful. As I write and produce this work, I learn things that we didn’t see before, but then, the work also reveals things that I failed to understand. And so to me, it’s always a process.
VC: Speaking of that kind of deep involvement, I would love to hear you talk about what California — and maybe Los Angeles, specifically — has meant for you in terms of your life but also in terms of your imagination of struggle.
RDGK: I came to California by way of Seattle in high school at the age of 15. It was in Pasadena. I was able to go to a state university where the tuition or the fees were $90 a semester. Cal State Long Beach. This was a time when we had a lot more Black students and brown students in college. I was involved with the Black student union. I had a part-time study group that was organized by the All-African People’s Revolutionary Party in Long Beach. That’s where I read Walter Rodney and Samir Amin and C.L.R. James — not so much in classrooms but in study groups.
A lot of the young people at the university and older people were working-class people — these were not the elites. In the ’80s we had the invasion of Grenada, we had the sanctuary movement, and the wars in Central America that were just driving Central Americans into Southern California; there was the anti-apartheid movement.
I ended up joining the Communist Workers Party at some point around 1983 or ‘84. I can’t remember when. [Jesse] Jackson’s 1984 campaign was really, really important. We had the Olympics come to Los Angeles in ’84. We organized a whole protest around the Olympics called Survival Fest. And we had a march down Wilshire Boulevard, MacArthur Park. There were like 10,000 people. Got no press, but 10,000 people marching down Wilshire Boulevard. Demanding what? Our demands were jobs, peace and freedom. It was a very exciting time.
VC: I’m glad you mentioned Jesse Jackson, because I have often lamented our resistance to his idea of a Rainbow Coalition. He was explicitly tying rural whites to Latino immigrants to Black working-class people, and putting forward the idea that we can only do this together. Solidarity was in the air.
RDGK: And, of course, where does Jesse Jackson get the idea of the Rainbow Coalition? It comes from Fred Hampton. He coined the term. The Black Panther Party, Illinois chapter, coined the term. And it’s through, specifically, a man named Jack O’Dell. I knew him. Jack was a former Black Communist, a close associate of Dr. King’s and then of Jesse’s, who bridged the generations and brought a left orientation to the civil rights movement. He was the one who introduced the Rainbow Coalition to Jackson. In our current moment, it’s hard to talk about things like a Rainbow Coalition politically. It goes against the white-ally idea, which I’m not really big into, where the ally is perceived to stand aside, standing there ready to be …
VC: … happy to help.
RDGK: Yeah, “happy to help.” The Rainbow Coalition’s more like, “We need to build a movement and we’re all in it.”
VC: And my freedom is a part of yours. I can’t get mine without you getting swept up too.
RDGK: Absolutely. The Rainbow Coalition notion really happened at the grass roots. It had less to do with Jackson and more to do with all the organizing on the ground. When Jackson ran for office, there was a vacuum because the Democratic Party establishment did not like him. The Black Democratic Party establishment did not like him. So that vacuum meant that all of these left-wing organizations basically swept in and became his advisors, Line of March, Communist Workers Party, the Communist Labor Party. I can name them because I was part of it. I was a member of the Communist Workers Party working on the Jackson campaign, all part of this underground of left-wing forces.
VC: You’ve said that in some ways the Black radical tradition comes together at “the crossroads where Black revolt and fascism meet.” What does fascism have to do with our moment, and what resources do we have to fight it?
VC: In order to fight it, you have to fight it everywhere it exists and be in solidarity with — show love for — everybody who lives under it.
RK: Internationalism is the Raid for the cockroach of fascism. Because fascism, it’s always about using nationalism, and the nation, as a bludgeon to generate support for death policies, on behalf of death governments. For violence and repression and exploitation, internationalism is the antidote, always.
On Sunday, November 14th, Voices for New Democracy hosted our monthly political forum on the importance of voting rights, the ongoing assault against them, and key insights for today’s Left as we work to build a more democratic country.
Moderated by civil rights lawyer and new Dean at Tufts University Dayna Cunningham, the discussion was led by longtime voting rights lawyer, Senior Counsel at Forward Justice, and national leader in the fight for voting rights Penda Hair. Throughout the wide-ranging conversation, Penda provided an important historical view of voting rights in the 20th century (including the Voting Rights Act of 1965) and highlighted the intimate links between voting rights and racial justice. She also gave an important update on the latest right-wing efforts to restrict voting rights, including SCOTUS rulings undermining the strength of the Voting Rights Act, redistricting and gerrymandering efforts aimed at securing Republican minority rule, and the dire implications these trends have for the Left, including in the 2022 election cycle. We also discussed signs of hope, understanding that the forces of reaction have been triggered by the real progress and momentum that the Left has made around the issue, and highlighted several promising bills in Congress that could strengthen our democratic rights.