Time for A Strategic Agenda

Against the Current, No. 66, January/February 1997

Anthony Thigpen

Anthony Thigpen was interviewed over the phone by David Finkel of the ATC editorial board early in December, to update the analysis presented in Thigpen’s talk in the light of the election results.

Against the Current: California’s anti-affirmative action Proposition 209 passed, but by a smaller margin than had been widely anticipated. Was there a noticeable shift in sentiment at the end of the campaign, and did grassroots organizing have a direct impact in this regard?

Anthony Thigpen: I think that the smaller than expected margin for Prop. 209 definitely represented a shift, not so much in the final week but rather the result of a year of organizing in various communities. You have to understand that even in the African American community people had been confused–because it was packaged as a “civil rights initiative–but even more so of course among Latino, Asian, Jewish and white working class communities.

In the end we saw all communities of color vote against 209, including the Asian community, which was considered a surprise, and also the Jewish community. People making less than $20,000 voted No, as well as those with $20-40,000 household income; so it was a significant shift among poor and working-class people.

There’s no question that the grassroots organizing, both in the communities of color and in organized labor and white working class communities, had a lot to do with the shift in consciousness, and with some surprising results. Prop. 209 was expected to lose in the Bay Area, but it also lost in Los Angeles city and county.

ATC: Can you tell us more about how this organizing effort was waged, what were the most dynamic and effective forces involved, and what are the key lessons from the experience?

A.T.: The most solid organizing obviously was done in the communities of color, who felt most affected. But a lot of organizing went on in the women’s movement as well.

Some of the key lessons learned: It’s the hard work of doing grassroots organizing, going door to door and talking to small groups of people, that really made a difference.

We can show precincts and neighborhoods where there this showed–South Central Los Angeles particularly–both in the turnout and the No vote. The strength of the No vote is an indicator of how were able to educate people, and the turnout shows how much were able to mobilize, So those are pretty demonstrative data.

In areas of South Central where we built neighborhood canvassing teams we got a 90% No, whereas the state average in the African American community was 74% No.

ATC: In your talk you mentioned that the youth in places like South Central don’t feel energized about affirmative action–they’re for it but not all that excited. What success did you have in raising the level of interest?

A.T.: I think the way we were able to turn that around, particularly in the African American and Latino communities, was by connecting affirmative action to the broader right-wing attack–to three-strikes-you’re-out, to the anti-immigrant Prop. 1987 which particularly targets Latinos. Then people began to “get it” in a way they hadn’t when it was just discussed as a single issue.

I think that this was specifically the case with young people in South Los Angeles. High school and college students were very highly motivated, because it affects their own future in very tangible ways. More broadly, when we connected it to three-strikes-you’re-out, that also mobilized young people who weren’t necessarily students.

The student activity came mainly from coalitions that were organized on most campuses and in high schools, and there was some statewide direct action. These were led by students of color organizations–white students participated also, definitely.

ATC: Will those coalitions continue following the election?

A.T.: There are discussions going on right now. The leaders certainly want to continue–the question is how deeply the education they did among their base about the broader attacks on students of color and the working class.

ATC: In your talk you made some observations about the right-wing agenda and the idea of a corporate strategy. I want to ask you (a) what the next steps for the right wing in California will be; and (b) whether you see these racist and anti-immigrant propositions as directly connected to a corporate strategy, or as kind of “loose cannons” with a separate agenda.

A.T.: In terms of their next step, a couple of things: They are clearly going to continue attacking communities of color, and they’re certainly not finished with their anti-immigrant agenda, as we see in the welfare reform fight over cutting off food stamps to legal immigrants.

They’ve done pretty broad attacks on the Voting Rights Act and other gains of the Civil Rights era. We expect all that top continue.

But most instructively, all these attacks on communities of color set the precedent for the broader attacks on the working class. The argument about “merit” against affirmative action–that’s the same that’s used against union seniority, for promotion by “merit.”

All this (right-wing social policy offensive) is certainly consistent with what I called the corporate strategy, and I would say it represents at least one wing of corporate America, particularly as it intersects with the anti-union and low-wage agenda.

The corporate social agenda is more diverse. They tend to have more diversity of opinion on those questions. But certainly the economic agenda the right wing is pushes is in line with the corporate agenda.

When you do an analysis of the right wing, they aren’t loose cannons. They have an apparatus of think tanks and significant right-wing grassroots organizations, like the Christian Coalition who provide the field troops. There is coordination and serious money behind this agenda.

ATC 66, January-February 1997