Theorizing Anti-Racist Struggle

Against the Current, No. 34, September/October 1991

E. San Juan, Jr.

ALAN WALD’S ESSAY “Racist Speech: A Problem of Power” (ATC 32) is a powerful argument for transform-mg the isolated and sporadic antiracist mass actions throughout the country into a counterhegemonic cultural revolution. Whether it succeeds in showing how this can be done is an open question.

My own view is that aside from accumulating qualifications on the conditions under which socialists might conceivably support banning certain hate-epithets, Wald one-sidedly stresses the dangers of reformism and cooptation. In contrast I would argue for the antiracist movement’s strategy of using every opportunity in existing institutions to extirpate all racist practices, at the same time as it empowers local organizations and raises consciousness in as many people as possible.

This essay continues the symposium on confronting race-hate speech on campus that began in ATC 32 (May-June 1991). E. San Juan, Jr. teaches English and Comparative Literature at the. University of Connecticut. He is active in various groups supporting the anti-imperialist struggle in the Philippines. His book Racial Formations/Critical Transformations will be published by Humanities Press in Spring 1992.

Wald’s rhetorical cogency derives from his painstaking historical contextuallzation of racism as an integral part of U.S. racial politics. Code words like “academic freedom” and “free speech” reveal their operational meanings—their true import—only when they are concretely actualized in specific times and places. This is clearly shown in Wald’s constant reminder that, given the “concrete features of U.S. history” centered on the subjugation and exploitation of peoples of color, the use of racist language immediately translates into violence against its target.

To calculate their political and ethical implications, discourse and action need to be grasped in their historical specificities. Consequently, Wald doubts the politically educational value of “the abstract civil liberties language of ‘right.'” In the same breath he acknowledges that popular conceptions about “rights” and about what the academy represents must be taken into account, presumably for tactical reasons.

In exploring the question of how socialists should respond to racist provocations with “decisive immediate action,” Wald urges support for the demands of peoples of color victimized by racist attacks for Immediate relief,” usually in the form of “institutional restrictions” on “fighting words” and “words that wound? Curiously, Wald ignores the other maximum demands often voiced by Chicanos or Puerto Ricans (for example, “Independence for Puerto Rico”) which cannot be pacified by a simple memorandum from the college president or from the Board of Trustees.

The struggle of articulating a legitimate interpretation for “free speech” or “academic freedom,” Wald continues, really depends upon “relations of power,” not on grassroots intervention or popular consensus. There is a tendency here to view “relations of power” in a dualistic manner—either totally altered or not at all transformed.

A Dialectical Approach

Instead of an all-or-nothing proposition, a dialectical approach might be helpful. Wald believes that the university has “considerable potential for becoming the site of “liberated space.” But isn’t this space constructed precisely by manifold popular struggles for a more egalitarian learning environment? Wald basically distrusts (and rightly so) the administrative machinery conceived as an extension of the oppressive state and its apparatuses of domination. If class power is thus mediated, cannot the fight-back for “immediate [collective) relief” help batter what Gramsci calls the “trenches” and fortifications of the enemy?

At this stage in the regrouping of the Left, I concur with Wald’s ecumenical, action-orientedperspective and in particular with his support for Third World peoples’ affirmation of independent agency. This is central to the task of mounting a united front or coalition of politically diverse groups, sectors and classes whose commitment to antiracist principles can provide an opening for raising socialist consciousness. It corrects the “Left” vanguardism of the past, which simply replicates Eurocentric paternalism and sabotages moves toward genuine solidarity. It is a refreshing change from the commandist and sectarian practices of INCAR [“International Committee Against Racism,” operated by one particular party long known for its destructive practices in the movement—ed.] and assorted ultraleftists.

But then comes a caveat At the same time that Wald calls for empowerment of the masses, he begs to withdraw from the struggle of racial minorities for even the slightest improvement of their intolerable situation “unless under duress,” because an alleged legal expert who he cites questions the efficacy of challenging past juridical precedents. This is not just inconsistency. It also implies a mechanical conception of how institutions operate in civil society. It forecloses the emergence of what is radically new and unprecedented from sectoral and class conflicts.

The task of socialist militants, I take it, is neither to tail behind bourgeois liberalism (the danger Wald emphasizes) nor to act as an elite corps of charismatic lawgivers. Earlier Wald had set down a condition for his support of activists of color “immediate relief… if it can be defined so as to be restricted to racist epithets…” But he had already argued that the prevailing authorities (administrators, courts) determine the legitimate interpretation—so, in effect, we get fatalism concealed behind an avowed faith in the masses’ capacity to intervene and alter the workings of the system.

Such reservations tend to circumscribe the whole dynamic process of “seeking immediate relief” (whose effects turn out to be more far-reaching than what the slogan indicates) instead of exhausting its potential for catalyzing a broader coalition of popular forces that would address, among other things, the question of political power and control over resources. This is my problem with Wald’s otherwise lucid and judicious rehearsal of the cooptative dangers surrounding this complex but not unresolvable controversy.

It is necessary to stress here that Wald’s main concern is to formulate a socialist strategy of promoting existing mass struggles that could redress specific grievances while at the same time “pushing long-term emancipatory possibilities to the limit” My impression, however, is that his position jeopardizes the fulfillment of the first task and closes down certain avenues available for achieving the second.

The classic problem we confront in inquiries of this sort is how to mediate short-term or transitional demands with the long-term or maximum goals of the socialist movement This cannot be done if one begins from the old premise: “Racism divides the working class, therefore…” How do you advance toward realizing a socialist program given the uneven levels of mass consciousness and organizing, compounded by the ideological alienation and political divisions reproduced daily by the operations of the commodity system? One step forward, three steps backward?

Finding the Terrain of Struggle

Wald poses a dilemma: Socialists should redefine the content of “free speech’ and “academic freedom” so that instead of being weapons of the status quo they will serve as “creative instruments’ of the exploited. Excellent But while we renegotiate this process of imparting “emancipatory contents’ to discourse and conduct, we are urged to distance ourselves from “the double-edged nature of any repressive legislation” because the power of interpreting and implementing laws rests in the hands of the agents of the corporate elite.

But is there any other terrain in which to contest capital’s hegemony other than that of rights, equality; and justice, where the struggle for renegotiating if not reversing the laws can be carried out?(1)

About four years ago, several Asian American students at the University of Connecticut were verbally and physically harassed, pursued and spat upon by racist students. Although they initially routed their complaints through the usual bureaucratic channels, which in turn exposed the delaying and obfuscating tactics of the administration, they did not stop there: They used the mass media to publicize their grievance. In the process, faculty, staff and community people were mobilized to pressure the president to investigate the breakdown of existing procedures in checking racist violence, which has a proven record of recurrence on the University of Connecticut campus.

After mandating suspension of the culprits (a slap on the wrist, to be sure), the president was forced to “ease out” the Dean of Students and revitalize mechanisms for preventing such incidents—including a proposal for requiring courses on cultural diversity. All this did not happen without the pressure of organized students, faculty, staff and elements in the community that conducted teach-ins and that called both for a review of affirmative action policy implementation and for workshops to sensitize administrative staff to the workings of institutional racism. They also demanded the introduction of Asian American studies into the curriculum.

Of course, contradictions among activists about which direction to take next persist Whatever gains were made did not blind them to the severe limitations of institutional reform. Nor did the Left entertain the illusion that “top-down” crisis management displayed there would be “crucial to eradicating racist practices.”

Beyond and through these changes on many fronts, I think a groundbreaking move was made in a very inhospitable milieu to “progressively alter the culture of the university, if only among its subaltern constituents. To work for such reforms—with an emphasis on enlarging people’s awareness of racism’s systemic foundations and focusing on coalition work—is not equivalent to reformism.

Phrases like “empowering in a liberatory fashion” are fine, but how do you accomplish this within the constraints of state institutions like the University of Connecticut at Storrs, where reactionary forces are deeply entrenched and a tradition of conservatism (unlike privileged locales like Ann Arbor or Madison or Berkeley) persists among students, faculty and community? We also have to take account of the national climate of opinion—in particular Reagan’s rightist revolution of the last decade and Bush’s pursuit of that trend—as well as the international alignment of capital and various socialist or anti-imperialist forces at this conjuncture.

To both avoid the risk of theoretical reductionism and anchor antiracist moves to the dynamics of concrete situations, it is necessary to specify the political and legal mechanisms that have maintained and continue to reproduce the subordinate status of people of color in the U.S. racial formation.

While African Americans continue to suffer most from the effects of a resurgent neoconservative reaction—hidden by code words like “war on drugs” and IV quota system—the unprecedented violence targeting Asian Americans today can only be understood if we keep in mind the historical background: From the mid-nineteenth-century to World War II, only Chinese, Japanese and Filipino workers were subjected to exclusive racialist legislation. Their incorporation into the capitalist labor market established a cyclical pattern of recruitment, exploitation, and exclusion—of which the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act was the inaugural and paradigmatic instance.

Resistance to Western imperialist incursion into China (for example, the 1900 Boxer Rebellion) and the propaganda against Japanese barbarism in World War (on top of the arrest and imprisonment of Japanese American citizens in concentration camps during the war) have revitalized the “Yellow Peril’ myth in the mass media and public consciousness, as documented by his torians like Ronald Takaki and Sucheng Chan.(2)

With the Left in default, corporate and state apparatuses have again succeeded in rearticulating the full repertoire of racist themes from the past, thus provoking racial antagonisms—the 1982 killing of Vincent Chin in Detroit is only one of numerous cases—in order to obscure the systemic roots of U.S. social decay in the face of Japan’s economic challenge, the threatening presence of Asian Americans on elite campuses, and the visibility of Korean, Indian, and Chinese professionals (from Hong Kong, Taiwan and People’s China) in public life. Only a concrete analysis of this genealogy can illuminate the real context of the spitting incident I recounted to disclose where mobilized counterhegemonic intervention should be focused.

The Academy, Racism and the Left

There is a more fundamental problem with Wald’s attempt to establish the linkage between antiracism on the campus and a socialist program. It exists in his ambiguous view of the academy.

While Wald argues that the academy is nonsynchronous with the alienated world of commodity production—that is, the educational apparatus is not just a functioning machine for capitalist domination—and in fact can become the site of ‘liberated space,” he undercuts this by asserting that the ideology of tolerance and diversity prevents the community “from appropriating the vocabulary and analytical perspectives necessary to discuss racism in an atmosphere conducive to productive exchange.” Productive exchange for what?

Ultimately Wald insists on the imperative of a “cultural revolution from below” and hence backtracks by endorsing support for “immediate relief,” whose wisdom he has previously questioned. But without this kind of mass mobilization for what may turn out to be protracted “relief,” how will the inhuman culture of the campuses ever be challenged?

Judging from our collective experience, the U.S. Left usually views antiracist campaigns as just a sideshow—an occasion to recruit budding militants—because the real struggle is “to strike at the unequal resources that empower the racist conceptual foundations of the culture of the university” I take it that this refers to exploitative property relations in a liberal democracy and to the control of the state apparatuses for imposing the will of the few—the totality of social relations in capitalism–which needs to be transformed to finally eradicate the basis of racism. But here we’ve made “the great leap forward, to use the Chinese expression. Such instrumentalization of the struggle of peoples of color will not lead to the broadest alliance of forces that can be mobilized around the principles of racial equality and justice at this particular moment of U.S. history.

It goes without saying that each situation needs to be concretely analyzed so as to map the possibilities and limits of change depending on the balance of political forces. In the context of the stiff formidable hegemonic power of the monopoly block—especially its ideological reinforcement during the Reagan administration and its sequel today-I am inclined to concur with the view (recently presented by Doris Brin Walker) that “Marxists should use to the utmost all tools made available by the bourgeois-democratic state” such as demonstrations, publications, elections, lawsuits based on existing statutes, and so on.(3)

Walker also suggests that mass pressure be mounted for the enforcement of the recently enacted statute—the Genocide Convention Implementation Act of 1987,18 U.S. Code, Sections 1091-1093–which is explicitly directed against certain genocidal speech and actions (such as those characterizing the program of the Ku Klux Klan and other hate groups), a statute which iii its origin and formulation cannot be used as a rational to abridge First Amendment rights of socialists and other progressives.

While there is indeed a danger in channeling the spearhead of the mass struggles into the legalistic arena and thereby containing them within the framework of “bourgeois rights” I think that all those with experience would agree that the Bill of Rights is no “effective, self-executing guarantee” for the freedoms of speech, press and assembly. As Walker herself reminds us: “Only by constant, full exercise of those rights and by constant struggle against all state efforts to destroy or limit them can we keep them from becoming more than mere words in the Constitution.”

Using the Rights We Have

I am aware that the approach to countering racism through the expansion of legal rights—without fundamental structural changes—may suggest a reformist “social democratic” platform anathematized by the traditional Left.(4) (There are risks and dangers to any tactic that can only be avoided by Lenin’s path of “concrete analysis of concrete conditions,” where by “concrete” I mean a mapping of historically specific, multiple determinations in order to discover the “weak links” for popular intervention.)

A critique of the “rights approach” is offered by Critical Legal scholars like Mark Tushnet and others, who have strongly argued that the use of rights rhetoric ultimately serves to underwrite the function of existing law in general and to legitimate bourgeois hegemony. That is, it only serves to disempower the oppressed.

But these scholars seem to forget that the antiracist movement necessarily operates within the popular struggle for hegemony in which the renegotiation of meanings and the rearticulation of rules operate within the given field of existing normative discourse and social practice. I agree with the dissenting view of Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, who criticizes the neopragmatism of the Critical Legal scholars.

Citing studies by Fc and Cloward on how popular movements become effective by taking account of the logic of institutions they are challenging, Crenshaw underscores the central problem we need to address: “how to avoid the ‘legitimating’ effects of reform if engaging in reformist discourse is the only effective way to challenge the legitimacy of the social order” at this time.5

At this stage of the struggle, I would endorse the view that the authority of the First Amendment should be used by all progressives in the antiracist campaign, with the proviso that the mode of its use should be such as (1) to encourage peoples of color to initiate organized actions against racist speech and acts, and (2) for such ac-lions to dovetail with—not be subsumed into—a strategy of multiracial and popular cultural revolution that would challenge the structural foundation of a system CJ which breeds and simultaneously reproduces racism in various forms.

Within this flexible but realistic strategy, the antiracist project of peoples of color would be respected in its integrity, the democratic rights already won in the past by mass struggles would be further expanded and concretely realized, and cumulative institutional breakthroughs could be consolidated so as to qualitatively alter power relations between the working masses and the corporate elite.

My reservations not withstanding Alan Wald is to be credited for broaching these urgent fundamental objectives for a socialist movement in the sharpest way so as to provoke these exchanges, the lack of which postpones the need to examine the fraught relations in the United States between the democratic aspirations of peoples of color for self-determination and, on the other hand, the traditional socialist agenda of doing away with class exploitation and racial oppression.


  1. On bourgeois legality, the following remarks by Peter Fitzpatrickunderacore the taskof progressives to support every challenge to existing rules and laws, whether for “immediate relief” or for its pedagogical delayed effects: liberal legality is only a claim about competence…not about actual coverage…Being so limited, law proves to be compatible with racism…it is the combination of this compatibility with law’s claims to universalist competence that creates and heightens racism” (250-51). See his article “Racism and the Innocence of Law,” in David Goldberg, Ed., Anatomy of Rxism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1990, pp. 247-61.
    back to text
  2. See Ronald Takaki, Strangers from a Different Shore (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1989) and Sucheng Chan, Asian Americans (Boston: Twayne Publishers, 1991). For the articulation of racist themes in the media see Tom Engelhardt, Ambush at Kamikaze Pass, in Emma Gee, Ed., Counterpoint. Los Angeles: Asian American Studies Center, 1976, pp. 270-79.
    back to text
  3. See Walker’s article “Limiting Racist Speech in the United States vs. ‘Freedom’ of Speech: A Marxist View of the Apparent Constitutional Dilemma,” Nature, Society and Thought 3.1,1990, pp. 85-96.
    back to text
  4. Aside from the writings of Cornel West the economists Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis have enunciated this view of expanding rihts in Democracy and Capitalism. New York Basic Books, 1986.
    back to text
  5. Race, Reform, and Retrenchment: Transformation and Legitimation in Antidiscrimination Law,” Harvard Law Review 101, May 1988, p. 1368. See Mark Tushnet, “An Essay on Rights,” Texas Law Review 62, May 1984, pp. 1363-1403.
    back to text

September-October 1991, ATC 34