Multiracial Coalitions: Lessons from the Student Movement of the 1980's and Before

by Joan Heckscher with help from my friends
(from the 1990 Education for the People Organizing Guide)

"I feel as if I'm gonna keel over any minute and die. That is often what it feels like if you're really doing coalition work. Most of the time you feel threatened to the core and if you don't, you're not really doing no coalescing." —Bernice Johnson Reagan

Coalition politics will be one of the key organizational tactics of the U.S. student movement of the 1990's. A central issue which will determine the success of the movement will be that of coalitions between progressive white students and students of color. Only if students are willing to learn from the shortcomings of the student movement of the 1980's will we be able to build strong coalitions with the potential to create real social change.

My experience comes out of working in the anti-apartheid movement, first as an undergraduate in a predominantly white student organization, then at a national anti-apartheid lobbying organization, and a regional multi-campus student organization. Both of the latter were multi-racial organizations with African-American leadership. Because of the nature of my experience, many of my comments will refer specifically to relations between African-American and white students. My suggestions about lessons learned will be directed to white students. It is my hope, however, that this analysis will have a general usefulness to all of us who are committed to creating positive change in the university and beyond.

The split
Through my work in the anti-apartheid movement, I became aware of a major split in the U.S. student movement. Indeed, there are so many splits that to call it "the movement" may be a misnomer. But the deepest and most divisive split is that between white student organizations and student of color organizations. Although it is by no means absolute, the split is very real. (Exceptions to the split, while important, will not be discussed here.) It is both ironic and understandable that the split became obvious to me and many other white activists through our work in the anti-apartheid movement.
In the mid 1980's, during the peak of the anti-apartheid movement, as we worked to end the system of apartheid in South Africa, we found ourselves replicating in the movement the apartheid that exists in U.S. society. When we became self-consciously aware of the overwhelming whiteness of our organizations, we responded by inviting African-American students to our demonstrations and meetings, only to be surprised, hurt, and confused when they didn't show up. My latter experience showed me that this situation was not unique to our university, but was pervasive across the United States, and the split in the anti-apartheid movement was only one manifestation of a larger split in the student movement and progressive movement in general.

On campus in the mid-1980's many white students ignorantly explained the state of the movement by saying that the students of color didn't care about South Africa. However, the very fact that students of color were organizing independently showed that their relative lack of involvement in the predominately white anti-apartheid movement was not due to apathy. Indeed, the split in the movement has deep historical and social roots.

Clearly the history of this nation shows many reasons why it might be difficult for people of color and whites to work together; from the genocide of Native Americans to the enslavement of Africans to the internment of Japanese Americans to selective harassment of Latinos by the INS, US history is a history of whites exploiting and abusing people of color. But to understand the reasons behind the current split, it is necessary to also understand the very specific historical betrayals of people of color by "progressive" and "radical" whites. Specific examples include the women's suffrage movement and the early labor movement, both of which explicitly refused to work with or turned their backs on African-Americans when they determined it to be politically expedient.

The split in the student movement however, was not caused exclusively by the overt racism of the distant past, but was also effected by the more subtle aspects of racism that continue in the progressive movement to this day. Although people of color have been on the forefront of the fight for justice and liberation of this country throughout its history, even progressive whites have usually been unwilling to follow their lead. On countless occasions, in struggles initiated by people of color, whites have attempted to take over and dominate the movement. This happened frequently during the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960's.
This trend was also evident on the college campuses during the anti-apartheid struggle, where, in many cases, it was Black South African and African- American students who initiated the movements, and struggled for years without recognition. When apartheid became a "hot" issue, whites came in and took over the movement, dominating the leadership and putting themselves in front of the cameras, only to disappear when the cameras went away. The contributions of people of color in predominately white organizations were often ignored.

Another reason behind the split is the difference in goals. During the civil rights movement, a huge rift developed between African-Americans and Northern liberal whites, who wanted an end to segregation in the South, but were unwilling to work for a restructuring of economic and racial relations throughout the country and in their own lives. Similarly, the attitude of many white students in the 1980's, working on apartheid in South Africa, but refusing to place racism in the U.S. on their agenda or address their own racism, was found to be hypocritical and repulsive to many people of color.

Communication and styles of organizing
Some of the lack of cooperation can be attributed to differences in styles of organizing and in methods of communication. While most people of color in this country are forced by the system of education and the mainstream media to know white culture, whites often grow up only knowing their own culture. In addition, certain organizational tactics have different implications to people of different cultural and class backgrounds. For example, risking arrest through civil disobedience, a tactic chosen by many middle class white students from suburbia in the anti-apartheid movement, means something different to an African-American person from the inner city, who may have witnessed or experienced police brutality, and may not have parents who can wire bail money. In addition, the process of formal consensus and other organizational tactics chosen by many white activists were found to be alienating and unnecessarily time consuming to many students of color who were used to different styles of organizing.

Given the preceding problems, it is not surprising that many students of color decided to follow the theories articulated by Malcolm X and others, and to organize amongst themselves, rather than putting energy into working with whites. Many white students, however, took nationalism as a direct and personal attack. Some were confused into believing the far right's claims that nationalism is "reverse racism." In their fearful confusion whites were generally unwilling to look at the real causes and results of nationalism.
They could not understand that Black Nationalism, for example, was formed as a defensive measure by an oppressed people under attack by a hostile society. They did not see that discrimination with the purpose of oppression must be distinguished from the efforts of an oppressed people to come together to protect themselves, and that nationalism is not an expression of hatred of others, but rather an effort to learn to love oneself in the face of a society that not only hates you but also teaches you to hate yourself. The fear and misunderstanding of nationalism prevented many whites from reaching out to Black students, or from trying again after receiving an initial cold response.

Conditions for students of color on campus
Even if other conditions had been good for multi-racial organizing, the crisis in education caused by right wing gutting of the education budget would have created more difficulties. Because of economic disparities in the United States, cuts in educational loans and grants disproportionately affect students of color, meaning that many of them had to work part or full time to stay on campus. Already burdened by working and studying, they did not have the luxury of late night meetings that the white anti-apartheid movement frequently called.

What is to be done?
The history of white supremacy, racism in the movement, differences in goals, misunderstanding nationalism, and the crisis in education seem to create formidable barriers to cooperation between white students and students of color, and explain the creation of two distinct student movements. But meanwhile, the upsurge of the right wing in the 1980's has made it more critical than ever that we find ways to work together. Understanding this urgency in and of itself will not unite the student movement. White students must learn some lessons and change our behavior if we are really sincere about working with students of color.

We certainly cannot change the ugly history of the United States. But we can study and learn from both the atrocities of U.S. history in general and from the historical mistakes of the white left. It is also essential that we also try to counter the racist history we were taught by studying, and demanding that our schools and universities teach, both the truth of U.S. history, and the contributions made by African, Asian, Latino, and Native American individuals and cultures to our and other societies.

In addition, it is necessary for white activists to see the central role that racism plays in the business and government policies we are trying to change. We must see the racism in all U.S. foreign policy, from the direct and indirect support to the regime in South Africa to the funding of the contras in Nicaragua and Angola, from the bombing of El Salvador to our support of the Khmer Rouge and our lack of support for Namibia. We must understand the racism in the destruction of the rainforest in Brazil, and in the dumping of poisonous waste in communities of people of color at home and abroad. We must see the racism in maintaining unfair immigration laws and low wages with bad conditions in our farms and factories. We must see the racism in the continuing theft of land and resources from Native Americans.

But it is not enough for us to recognize racism. We must actively work to undo our own racism. We must confront racism in our sisters, brothers, parents, coworkers and in ourselves. This means, among other things, that it is essential for white activists to undergo anti-racism training. We must be sure that these trainings deal with institutional as well as personal racism. We must also demand that our schools, universities, and places of work implement mandatory anti-racism workshops.

After we see the role that racism plays, we must incorporate an anti-racist perspective into our work regardless of the specific issues that we work on. We must also find out what specific issues are of concern to people of color in our schools and communities, and incorporate them into our agenda, whether or not we have people of color in our organizations.

Communication and styles of organizing
Again, solving this problem will take active work on the part of whites to learn what we did not learn in high school or on T.V. We must read books like Black and White Styles in Conflict, as well as a wide range of books written by people of color. We must learn Spanish, take an Asian-American studies course, attend political and cultural events sponsored by people of color. We must open ourselves to learning new methods of organizing and new tactics of struggle. We, especially the men among us, must learn to shut up and listen.

From white domination to coalitions
One of the key lessons of the movement of the 1980's is that white students must go beyond inviting students of color to their meetings. Working together in the 1990's will mean that white students will no longer set the agenda and dominate the leadership. Working together will mean working in coalition.

The first step in the formulation of coalitions will be for whites to accept that nationalism strengthens the movement, because it will allow all participants to work from a position of power. The next step will be for whites to approach students of color, find out their concerns on campus, and offer support. If they are sincere, then eventually a level of trust will be formed and common issues will emerge out of which coalitions can be created. This way, individual groups can maintain their integrity and focus, while allowing for a higher level of communication, cooperation and coordination. It is absolutely necessary that if and when coalitions are formed, leadership positions be filled by people of color, to avoid the mistakes of the 1980's.

The education system plays a unique role in our society; it both maintains the systems of oppression, and potentially offers a means of liberation and radical change. Students of the 1990's must continue our historic mission of creating change, and our universities are the logical place for us to begin. Therefore, multi-racial coalitions on campus are essential, and fighting to make our educational system fulfill its liberating role is a logical goal of these coalitions. Virtually all of our various struggles exist on campus, from racism, sexism, and homophobia to economic exploitation and corporate and military control of our lives. In this work, we must understand the centrality of racism in all our struggles, and that the fight against racism is an essential part of the struggle to end all forms of oppression. Acting on this recognition as we form coalitions can help us avoid the mistakes of the past and form a movement capable of creating meaningful change in the university and beyond.

Notes to white student activists on working with people of color
(suggestions from DC SCAR)
1) White students must, instead of inviting students of color to their events, find out what issues students of color have and what white students can do to support them. Regardless of the specific focus of their groups, white students must make anti-racism a priority item on their agenda. This way a common agenda can be formed.
2) White students must study racism and act to confront their own racism by participating in anti-racism workshops.
3) White students must accept nationalism and respect students of color who organize that way as well as those who don't. Forming coalitions can allow for cooperation between predominantly white student organizations and student of color organizations.