Bridging the racial gap

by Matt Hoke on February 26, 2015

(This is the concluding article in a series about responses to cop killings and the rise of a new civil rights movement.)

The Problem

An astonishing reality of socialist organizing is that, no matter how much anti-racist rhetoric you preach, no matter how good your anti-racist demands are, and no matter how politically correct or even self-deprecating your white activists are, none of these things necessarily lead to building real connections with the Black community.

This is, of course, the typical white socialist approach to the Black community.  You show up to demonstrations, you have anti-racist statements in your newspapers, you formulate large-scale political demands that seem to touch on the problems the community is facing.  Most comically, you jump through conceptual and semantic hoops to abolish your own racial category, or otherwise self-criticize.

And it doesn’t work.  Mike Ely sums up the problem in “Sites of a Communist Beginning”:

“Let me put it this way: Talking to the people is not enough. I have been in countless “forays” to talk to the people about communist politics. I was part of an organized trend that did exactly what Chicanofuturet describes — nationally and daily for many years in many cities.

Door-to-door in housing projects, dorms and coal camps. In demonstrations. In campus talks. Weekly newspapers with communist agitation. etc. And over and over, lots of people express interest (and respect). Probably hundreds of thousands of people. That is important to note — communist politics has been controversial, but not automatically been self-isolating. It has always found interested people in significant numbers.

But then…. there has remained those gaps — and an inability of more people to make the leap from a kind of interested ‘listening’ to an organized and partisan participation. The interest has not ever congealed as a partisan base or network.”

The segregated social fabric

As much as the joke-defense that “I can’t be racist, I have black friends!” circulates through public consciousness, the astounding truth is that a massive majority of white people actually do not even have any Black friends.  Rather than moralize against individuals, we must realize that this is the product of a capitalist culture in which competition, hostility, and separation appear at every level.  We live in a segregated social fabric.

Bumping into people at a demonstration allows only the most superficial of conversations, preventing the kind of real in-depth discussions required to forge a common perspective that could bind us together in an organization.  Such conversations can only happen over time, through multiple encounters, across a spectrum of settings, ranging from formal to relaxed.

This may mean white socialists have to venture into situations beyond their familiarity.  If you can get invited to Black community events in a social context, would you go?  Could you handle the awkwardness of being the only white person there?  Could you tolerate the seemingly apolitical nature of the event?  What if it wasn’t a family-friendly community event, but more of a party?  Many nightclub, entertainment, and house party settings are very segregated, often falling off into either being white-dominated scenes with token minorities, or safe spaces & birds-of-a-feather gatherings for oppressed groups.  Much of this happens automatically and implicitly in a capitalist self-segregating society.

Visions of a Solution

Examples of socially-immersive, yet political organizing:

  • Philly Socialists English tutoring
  • Communist Party multiracial dances
  • Black churches in the Civil Rights Movement
  • Solidarity networks

If white socialists are going to achieve the true mitsein (with-being/shared existence) with Black comrades which building a multiracial organization requires, it only makes sense that we are going to have to dig deeper than selling them a paper at a protest.  We are going to have to truly engage with their lives, maybe even be friends.  And no, don’t stop being friends just because it seems like they won’t join our socialist groups.  Keep being friends simply because, in a radically segregated society, building up a social fabric that crosses racial lines is itself a radical activity.  We can’t reduce Black people to a series of anti-racist demands and slogans, any more than we can reduce white workers to labor politics.

Does this mean we ditch anti-racist dialogue entirely?  No.  It’s good to have political demands (though we might be flexible about them, not programmatically rigid).  Anti-racist politics serves as the connecting justification between comrades of different races – but that common spark still needs to express itself in a multi-faceted, political-and-social relationship, in order for it to have sufficient strength to make coexistence in a coordinated organization possible.  You cannot have true solidarity with people you treat as a market niche that gets a special slogan.  True solidarity requires connecting as human beings.

Our personal connections are political.  In fact, the situation is more extreme – the political cannot exist except through personal connections.  Does this mean that, despite our insistence on systemic change over lifestylism, the personal is political?  Yes and no – rather, it is more accurate to say: the social is political.

Furthermore, instead of always trying to formulate some political demand against the state, maybe we should address problems in more of a human, living way.  Among low-income people, solidarity networks which confront abusive landlords, or give financial or material support in exceptionally unlivable moments, are probably just as or more impressive to people who live with real problems than political slogans to be implemented at the state level.  Many of the famed Russian labor unions that brought down the Tsar were not really unions formally, but instead mainly benevolent associations of the workers in a certain setting, which would do things like raise monetary collections and give assistance when one of the workers or their family was having a tough time.

We have two axes, in which socialists could consider shifting some (but not all) emphasis from the first to the second:

  1.       Political stances vs. human relationships & community-building
  2.       Distant, macro-institutional issues vs. immediate, personal issues

Learn to Be a Supporter

The intense oppression faced by Blacks forges a unique sectional political identity.  White socialists have to accept that Black comrades have their own conditions, their own lives, and their own communities, and that sometimes, we are going to be on the outside of those.  Sometimes our hope of creating a multiracial organization won’t work out.  Sometimes Black people will prefer to have their own scene or group, and white socialists shouldn’t mistake this for racism, or whine about how they aren’t included.  Instead, it’s a defensive reaction by Blacks against the horrific racism they face.  If we want to make the movement multiracial, we should offer white support, not insist on white leadership.

This does not mean we should be completely passive.  The more engaged we are in a real, human way, the more we can have substantive conversations about strategy.

Class Demands are Black Demands

It’s no mistake that, while (some of) the white activists in the $15 movement are supporters who already make more than $15/hour, or are in college and have not begun their careers, the movement has attracted many participants who actually have a vested interest in its success because they make less than $15.  A large portion of these materially-invested activists are Black.

While economic issues are often seen as race-neutral and inclusive to whites, in truth class demands resonate with the Black population possibly more than any other group.  (This allows for a common ground between Maoist and Stalinist tendencies more oriented to racial-national perspectives, and Trotskyist tendencies more oriented to workerism.)

While doing real work to increase wages is often stereotyped as an issue appealing primarily to lower-class whites (the union stereotype), it is instead an issue which crosses demographic lines.  In fact, it may do more to build multi-racial unity and create a cross-racial social fabric than all the white socialist attempts to take up specifically anti-racist demands!  (To nip cheap shots in the bud, this is of course not a dismissal of all racial justice organizing.)

These guidelines of course extend beyond wages to the entire conflict over the standard of living: universal healthcare, jobs, transportation, welfare, social security, retirement, school funding, and general defense of the public sector (and its expansion!).


In sum, sincere white socialist attempts to bridge the racial gap will require us to forget what we think we know about racial justice organizing.

We seem to have used “taking a back seat,” seemingly a racially enlightened attitude, as an excuse for a total lack of strategy, or as a substitute for really addressing the persistent, unbearable whiteness of the socialist Left.

We need a bit less sloganeering, and a lot more human connection.

We need a bit less of a militant party line, and more paying attention to people’s day-to-day lived problems.

We need to remember that the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. was dual – both fighting oppression faced by only one group, and creating brotherhood and connection between races: distinct, yet related tasks.

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

louisproyect February 26, 2015 at 11:15 am



nolabutterfly August 20, 2017 at 10:57 am

Well done. Thanks for the nuanced, intelligent narrative.


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