Getting It Right About Now

Against the Current, No. 62, May/June 1996

Claudette Begin and Caryn Brooks

The National Organization (NOW) is a racist organization supporting and working to promote the interests of white college-educated women.  NOW is a bunch of radical women. NOW is classist. NOW is fringe. NOW is reform. People think a lot of things about NOW.

PEOPLE SAY AND think a lot of things about NOW. It is true that Los Angeles NOW’s Tammy Bruce made many inflammatory remarks on national TV after the OJ verdict, including the statement: “It is more important to teach our children about violence against women than about racism.”

But it is also true that National NOW censured Bruce for her remarks and demanded she apologize.

These are pivotal moments for the largest feminist organization in the country. But NOW’s challenges mirror the challenges for all progressive activists across the country.

Is there hope for the joining of forces across communities of color, women, labor, gays to fight the onslaught against all of us being waged by both Republicans and Democrats?  Racism has become a more visible feature of the attack these days. The campaigns against affirmative action, immigrants, welfare and the fightagainst crime are all manipulate racist fears and stereotypes.

What about gender? It is women on welfare who are characterized as lazy and immoral parasites. Affirmative action is called unfair because it offers opportunities to “undeserving” people of color  women being conspicuously unmentioned. Despite law and order bombast from politicians, funding for the prevention of violence against women and children is cut and crimes of violence against women are still being treated lightly, if at all.

After the OJ Verdict

Media focus on racial polarity seems to deny the possibility of unity by exacerbating divisions among us. It is long ago commonplace to note that after the OJ verdict, all kinds of racist assumptions and reactions were exposed  not just the internalized racism of some NOW members, but that too. What is interesting is what we make of it.

Our impressionistic media paid little heed to the immediate denunciation of Tammy’s statements by other NOW chapters in California. As soon as they heard about the remarks, Oakland/East Bay NOW leaders sent out statements condemning the remarks. They then organized a forum, with outside facilitators, to discuss the “aftermath.”

They spent hours and hours on the phone with other chapters, the national office and with concerned allies and outright opponents. Tammy Bruce’s statements were seen by many NOW activists as a polarizing force that could drive away anti-racist feminists. “It was like we were getting our instructions from the media: white women should think this way, African-American women this way, and all the rest of us should just disappear. Reality is more complex, and more interesting,” said one Oakland activist.

Therefore it is not surprising that some African-American domestic assault survivors cheered the verdict while other African-American domestic assault survivors found the verdict chilling.

Oakland East Bay NOW is only one of many NOW chapters who have worked inside and outside their organization, with crucial support from their allies, thinking of new ways to work together. We are for serious prosecution of crimes against women but we are not joining the bandwagon for racist and class suppression through the fight against crime. Namely, we want violence against women treated seriously but we don’t want lynching — we want education and prevention of violence against women — we want enforcement of laws and more laws against abuse.

Our resolve grew from our being approached by African-American women, Latinas and white women after “their” District Attorney grossly disregarded the violence against them.

Can we trust each other? Can we work together? Can we expand our base?

Contrary to the media stereotype, there is hope for revealing some of the overlap of issues and leadership amongst feminists and communities of color. The attempts by chapters and the national NOW leadership to help bridge the gap and facilitate a discussion about racismand sexism are positive and need to be more fully expanded.

Political work is important, serious and sometimes breathtakingly confusing stuff. Working together on common issues such as welfare rights and affirmative action can only help all of us.

The absolute necessity of a united fightback is the gel that brought 150 community leaders together to build the April 14 march. That necessity isn’t going to disappear the day after the march either.

Many of the things people think and say about NOW are true, some are partly true and others are changing. Right about now, working with each other is what we need.

We are working to build the April 14 national march in San Francisco for affirmative action. We see the march as a very important, visible statement of unity. Right about now, working with each other is what we need.

ATC 62, May-June 1996