Activists Discuss Antiracist Unity

Against the Current No. 17, November/December 1988

Andy Pollack

SOME SEVENTY-FIVE activists from the eastern half of the United States gathered in Washington, D.C. in mid-October to develop strategy around issues of equal access and discrimination in education. The conference, called by the D.C. Student Coalition Against Apartheid and Racism (DCSCAR), was intended to reinforce the slowly developing network of activists who have engaged in rallies, built takeovers and organized political education over the last few years against domestic and international racism.

Activists around the country have gained experience both in forcing university administrations to divest from South Africa and in the far harder and more complex task of confronting the multifaceted institutional racism on the campuses. In tackling the latter task, they have also had to contend with such obstacles as co-optive reform plans put forward by pressured administrators, and divisions within the ranks of the antiracist fighters themselves.

The conference, although small in size, was significant primarily because it brought together some of the groups that have done the best job of threading their way through these obstacles while maintaining a principled and independent perspective. But all in attendance recognized the weaknesses in the movement, symbolized in the poor turnout.

The most significant contingent of students of color, aside from the host group, came from the multiracial United Coalition Against Racism (UCAR), based at the Ann Arbor campus of the University of Michigan. The numbers of white students attending were also far below those expected, especially as there had been hopes, based on preconference negotiations, for strengthened ties between the student anti-intervention and antiracist movements.

The Progressive Student Network sent a contingent, as did members of the Northeast Student Action Network But by and large the various anti-CIA, Central America solidarity and other predominantly white movement groups didn’t show. The socialist left, with a few exceptions, came only to display their literature. Participation of Indian, Native American, Asian and Latino students was sorely lacking.

Tentative Consensus

The original conference agenda had projected workshops discussing the three issue areas isolated by the organizers: racism in curricula, financial aid for students of color, and recruitment and retention problems.

After the first set of workshops, however, the students of color caucus met to discuss the implications of the turnout for the ability of the gathering to project future strategies. After their caucus they came back to the larger group and organized a discussion on the role of white students in multiracial coalitions. Led by students of color, these coalitions have had problems in attracting white students to multiracial gatherings.

The caucus decided to call a March planning conference for students of color, leading up to a larger gathering next fall. In the meantime itis hoped that the tentative consensus forged in the discussion on multiracial organizing will be carried back by all attendees to their local area struggles.

The discussion of the problems in size and composition of the movement were productive and encouraging. This is true for two reasons. First, the discussion is only the most recent in a series (including the one at last spring’s “national student conference” in Rutgers), and each time these issues are hashed out the consensus gets a little clearer and broader.

Second, the experience gained in recent struggles by such groups as UCAR and DCSCAR has given them a good sense of how to keep together coalitions in the heat of real struggles. A small but growing number of white activists have also shared that experience. In addition to their balanced perspective on fighting campus racism, both UCAR and DCSCAR stress the need to link student struggles with other movements and with community struggles.

Finally, it must be noted that the current ebb in the struggle is a change from the wave of anti-apartheid and antiracist struggles on campus of a year or two before, a wave which produced the groups that came to D.C. When the struggle picks up again conference participants will be in a good position to help unify and strengthen what might otherwise remain spontaneous, locally fragmented campus struggles.

Objective Problems

Nevertheless, even the open and constructive approach of conference leaders could not outweigh the impact of objective problems facing the student antiracist movement The relative isolation of the campus antiracist movement from campus-based anti-intervention, women’s and other movements is symptomatic of a much more serious weakness. That is, at the level of the broader society, the fight against racism is confined to localized struggles and isolated from the social movements that are its natural allies.

At the rally sponsored by DCSCAR the day before the conference at the Department of Education, the most inspiring speech came from the head of the American Federation of Government Employees local representing DOE clerical workers-a mostly Black workforce. Marian Nelson called for antiracist activists to go beyond protest and “localized resistance” into the political arena, even calling for formation of a “Rainbow Party.”

Taking up her call, that is, forging a nationwide resistance and giving it independent political expression, certainly meets the objective needs of the struggle. And if such steps are to be successfully taken, it will include the type of rank-and-file union activists and militant antiracist student fighters present at the DOE rally.

Getting from October’s modest (but promising) conference to a nationwide movement will require some long, hard, patient organizing in the months and years ahead, and there are many intermediate steps to be taken. Perhaps, the first is to recognize the importance of the call issued by .the students of color. Another is for white activists to learn how to commit themselves and their organizations fa a principled unity in multiracial coalitions that are led by people of color.

For farther information, UCAR (United Coalition Against Racism) can be reached at their newly-opened Ella Baker-Nelson Mandela Center for Anti-Racist Education, 3 East Engineering Building, Ann Arbor MI 48109, telephone (313) 936-1809. DCSCAR can be reached at P.O. Box 18291, Washington, D.C. 20036, telephone (202) 529-5037.

November-December 1988, ATC 17

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