Growing Beloved Community in the Times of Fear & Division

 

WOW! Well over 130 folks came together from across the state to cheer each other on, to break the isolation so many of us feel working for justice in our small towns, and to strategize about how we can build power together as a state. It was a powerful and inspiring weekend!

One of the shining moments was our keynote by Carla Wallace of Kentucky whose talk was called Growing Beloved Community in the Times of Fear and Division. Check it out below, and keep an eye out for more themes, resources, and exciting next steps coming out of the Caucus in the next few weeks!


Hello Beloved Community. I am deeply honored to be with you today, to speak with you, learn with you and share our challenges and our dreams.

Thank you so much Rural Organizing Project for the invitation to be with you. Thank you Jess and Cara and everyone in the ROP family.

What does it mean to build Beloved Community in the times of fear and division?

When Dr. Martin Luther King spoke of the Beloved Community he indeed meant gatherings like this. He meant each one of you. And very specifically, he was speaking of you, of us, as the collective expression of human dignity, human rights and a fierce NO to fear, marginalization and division. A YES to being with and for one another.

I am not just honored to be with you, I am humbled to be in your midst and at this great 25th ROP Caucus. Join me in appreciation for yourselves, for all of you.

Being there for one another is something I first learned from my grandmother. When the nazis occupied Holland in World War II, she hid people who were fleeing them – people who were resisting the nazis and organizing against them – under the floorboards in her small rented apartment. I was a young child when I first learned of this. I asked her, “Oma, weren’t you afraid?” She smiled at me and said, “child, that’s just what you do.” It made me realize that we can be afraid, even in danger, and still what matters is being there for one another.

I know you know this here in Oregon. I saw this back in 1992 when I got to come help get out the vote against the anti-gay ballot measure 9. I know you know about being there for one another from your local resistance and community building, all over rural Oregon, to say no to the fear, hate and division of the militia. And most recently, hosting conversations about Oregon’s racial history, despite the threats and harassment that would try to shut this critical conversation down.

I am coming to you from Kentucky. Another state, mine in the south, where many in the largest cities look down on the people outside big city borders and blame rural and small town people, and working class people, for the challenges of our times.

We have a new, very right-wing governor. He has just slashed education spending despite the fact that Kentucky is among the worst in the nation in education for our young people. He is trying to undo the care for almost a half million people who have healthcare for the first time because of the national healthcare program.

And despite the fact that this governor was elected with less than 10 percent of the population, who do you think Kentucky’s liberal elite is blaming for all this?

There is a battle going on for the hearts, minds, bodies, and votes of white people in this country. This battle has been going on since the founding of this country, when the slave codes were set up to keep kidnapped Africans and indentured english teenagers from joining together against their common oppressors, the big land owners.

But right now, both direct and indirect appeals to racism are part of an old strategy with new legs. And it is dividing us, hurting us all, and once again, benefitting the rich and powerful.

Donald Trump’s message, and similar messages from other politicians, trumpet hate, Islamophobia, racism, and division. He calls for outright violence against protestors at his rallies, and his strategies of wall-building and deportation are gaining more traction than most people who care deeply about these issues ever thought they would. All over the country, white people are flocking to hear Trump; lining up for hours in big and small towns around the country to get into his rallies. Union leaders are warning that his targeting of white working people is working, and the demographic studies of Trump supporters bear them out.

Meanwhile, too many white people who care about all this are hesitating to take on our responsibility for organizing white people for racial justice. And you know what? Corporate America is taking the race-based class divisions and the failure of too many of us who are white to challenge them all the way to the bank. White silence on race is creating a country in which people of color are seen as ever more expendable than ever. And more and more of us are being swept into poverty as the income gap between rich and poor escalates to record proportions.

According to liberals, many progressives, and the mainstream media, you would think that we have a phenomena of poor and working class white people as hopeless bigots.

You would think that racism was invented by poor and working class white people, and that this is who is sustaining systemic racism and white supremacy throughout our country and in our country’s relationship to the world. Over and over we hear, “it’s those uneducated rednecks,” as middle class liberals wash our hands of the responsibility to do more than blame from the sidelines as muslims, black and brown people, and immigrants bear the brunt of the dangerous winds of racialized hate blowing across our land.

The sad truth is that Trump is speaking to working class fear, insecurity and anxiety much more forcefully than mainstream democrats. “This country is dying,” says Trump. “And our workers are losing their jobs.” Trump goes on to decry trade pacts, and threatens to tax corporations if they continue to move jobs out of the country. John Nichols of The Nation magazine quotes AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka who tells him that his workers are talking to him about Trump. Service Employees International Union president Mary Kay Henry cautions that the Trump message is so on target for white workers that he could win enough union votes, and even the presidency with his message to hurting white workers.

However, instead of addressing the concerns of poor and working families, front and center, Washington talks about the economic “recovery,” “revitalized” manufacturing, and “progress” on clean energy.

Meanwhile, there continue to be urban centers where unemployment runs close to 50 percent among young Black men, and rural poverty promises to keep several generations from providing enough for families to get by. What has been left of the safety net is being shredded further everywhere we look.

For decades, both parties have refused to get rich people to pay a fair share in taxes, choosing instead to subsidize corporate greed at the expense of critical services, education, healthcare, education, housing and living wage jobs. In my state of Kentucky, and all around the country, the democrats and the republicans have allowed industries to leave after reaping enormous profits on the labor of Kentucky people. Big coal is slathered with economic subsidies and allowed to avoid health and safety codes for workers, ensuring that Appalachia is still one of the poorest places in the US. Trade deals have enabled companies to intensify exploitation of workers across our borders and undermine unions and working families here at home.

Recently in Kentucky, lawmakers are making the choice between canceling Family Court or Drug Court because budget cuts do not allow for keeping both.

There is a reason that the Trump rhetoric resonates and certainly one reason is that it caters to long cultivated attitudes on race and gives people someone to blame: people of color.

But there is another reason. Trump is playing to the deep seated insecurity and material hardships that white working class and low income people are experiencing due to the failure of this economic system. And yes, he is wrapping this in attacks on people of color. His message is racist, and it only leads to a profit-driven corporate agenda, and a working class further divided along racial lines, unable to grow the people power needed for real change that benefits all of us.

This racist agenda and this divided working class is taking a toll on white workers in many ways. A recent study shows that the only demographic whose mortality rate is rising is white workers. The causes of death are disproportionately from alcohol, drug addiction, suicide and curable diseases like diabetes. Despite the rhetoric about an economic recovery, and despite the “buffer” of race afforded white workers, working people are facing the direct impact of capitalism in decline, and are literally dying from it.

While institutional racism ensures that people of color, in particular Black people, bear the brunt of the oppression. White workers, rural people and other sectors as well, have lost the hope that they can provide a better economic future for their children. Unlike people of color, many of whom as Black lesbian poet and activist Audre Lorde wrote, were “never meant to survive,” working class whites thought that they were.

If we are to counter the use of bigotry to divert people from the failures of capitalism or to challenge efforts to use the promise of a racist strongman to seduce white people who are hurting, those of us who are white need to step up to our responsibility to do the work with other white people.

One of my teachers, longtime white southern civil rights activist Anne Braden, who I first met as a wide-eyed child of about six would tell us:

“The battle is and always has been a battle for the hearts and minds of white people in this country. The fight against racism is our issue. It’s not something that we’re called on to help people of color with. We need to become involved with it as if our lives depended on it because really, in truth, they do.”

One of my mentors, Black labor and racial justice organizer Bob Cunningham, now in his 80’s, said to me recently, “Carla, I know you are working hard for racial justice. Time is short and the need is great. I want you to focus on the white people who have the most to gain from the system changing in profound ways.”

Bob means connecting with rural white people, with other working class and poor white people, with struggling LGBTQ and disabled people, our families, our neighbors, our co-workers, people who need a system that works for the many, not just the few.

In Louisville, during our struggle for LGBTQ rights, we refused the input of those who said, “you cannot talk about other issues in your door-to-door work.” Instead we had door-to-door teams like tall, Black, LGBTQ leader Darnell, paired up with short, white, Carpenter’s Union Larry talking about living wages, police accountability, and fairness for LGBTQ people. Darnell and Larry had each others’ backs at the door and created mutual interest across lines of issues, economic, sexual orientation, race and more.

In this moment, we must move from blaming and shaming poor and working class white people, or avoiding race talk, and take up the mutual interest message. Let’s talk about an America that provides for the basic human needs of ALL people and leads with peace, not war in our relations with the world. Let’s go forth with a message that is anchored in an unapologetic commitment to racial justice.

Right now the narrative from many progressives who want to “go get the white workers” is one that makes white workers the problem. But what if instead white working people, white rural people, are part of the solution?

What if we begin to lift up those examples of white working class people joining with people of color for a mutual interest agenda that benefits all? In Robin Kelley’s brilliant book “Hammer and Hoe,” he shares stories in the 1930’s of cross race, class-conscious workers struggling against barriers to voting rights for poor people in rural areas.

There are many examples of cross race class solidarity from the coal mines in Appalachia. In July of 1891, over 1,500 miners freed prisoners from the jail in the shadow of Tennessee Coal and Iron Company. The Chattanooga Federation of Trades reported that “whites and Negroes are standing shoulder to shoulder” and armed with 840 rifles. Black and white workers joined together in the Paint Creek Cabin strike of 1913, and in many battles against King Coal in the decades to follow.

Recently, outside the Louisville Convention Center in Kentucky in March thousands of white people, many of them working class, lined up to hear Donald Trump deride big government and its elite corporate allies.

But there were also members of my group, Louisville Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) engaged not only in disrupting the Trump gathering on the inside, but also engaging with Trump supporters on the outside. This included connecting with some in the Trump crowd around our mutual interest in an economy that works for all of us, and that we can win if white and people of color join together.

In one conversation, a young white worker supporting Trump said that he thought one of the problems with so many black people being put in prison is that so many of the judges are rich and white. In that brief exchange is the possibility of shifting the blame from people of color to the elites on both sides of the political aisle who have failed to address the growing economic divide between rich and poor and the increasing impoverishment of the US poor and working class.

Rather than blaming white workers for their fear and anxiety, SURJ and other efforts must frame racial justice as being in the mutual interest of ALL workers, and urge unity across racial lines as the only way to win the jobs, housing, health care, a clean environment and dignity we all want and need.

Too often, rural people, overwhelmingly working class whites, are broad brushed as being the hot bed of right wing militia. However, the leaders of much of this activity are far better off economically than those they seek to engage.

In the midst of what is frightening about politics today, is also what should make us extremely hopeful.

With record numbers of families being torn apart by deportation, undocumented youth have courageously led the immigrant justice fight back, indigenous struggles have moved the country to challenge the pipeline and the courageous youth of the movement for Black lives have brought the issue of police murders of Black people into living rooms all over the country.

And here in rural Oregon, you are teaching the rest of us how to refuse the politics of hate and division. When armed militia men took over Malheur Wildlife Refuge in Oregon, demanding that the federal government give up that land for people to use for ranching, mining and logging, people across this state understood the importance of fighting back with love, community and collective resistance.

At one point in the stand off, over 350 mostly rural people, including many of you, came together outside Burns to say no to the militias. Supported by efforts of the Rural Organizing Project and human dignity groups around the state, the gathering exposed the lie that big city dwellers often have about low income rural white people going along with, or worse instigating right-wing, racist militia mobilizations.

Despite stalking, death threats, and menacing of her family, people like Jess Campbell showed us all what it means to be brave in the face of danger, what it means to put community first because it is the only way that any of us can truly survive.

And it was the Rural Organizing Project and the human dignity groups all around this state, that put caring for neighbors up against hate, welcoming marginalized people up against guns, and democracy and inclusion up against racial and anti-immigrant hatred.

Thanks to indigenous voices, and their supporters, the rest of the country found out that the land of the wildlife refuge once belonged to Native Americans, the Burns Paiute Tribe. Charlotte Rodrique, the chairperson of the Burns Paiute Tribal Council pointed out the double standard in how the U.S. historically treated native tribes.

Rodrique stated, “if I, as a native person, a person of color, were to go down there and do the same thing, they would have hit me on the forehead with a baton” and dragged me out, she says. But, “because they’re white people, I feel that they’re being treated differently.”

Too many efforts among white liberals, white progressives, and labor, fall into the mistake of avoiding the issue of race as divisive, or speak of a “white privilege” few struggling white workers can identify with. The first approach maintains the fertile ground for appeals to racism; the second erases the class differences in how white people of wealth and white workers experience their whiteness. Both continue the strategic errors in our efforts to build working class unity on the basis of shared needs, hopes and a commitment to racial justice.

We must be willing to talk about how race is being used to divide working people and who benefits when we are divided. But most important, we must move beyond talking about this with one another and take a mutual interest narrative that centers racial justice into the neighborhoods, workplaces and families in which we live, work and love.

In particular, white people who are serious about challenging this unjust economic system must heed the call made over a half century ago by our sisters and brothers of color in the Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), for white people to “organize our own.”

In the words of SNCC leader Stokely Carmichael, “one of the most disturbing things about almost all the white supporters of the (civil rights) movement has been that they are afraid to go into their own communities—which is where the racism exists—and work to get rid of it.”

Those of us who are white must learn how to speak about white supremacy, and how it is hurting all of us, in white communities.

Detroit civil rights leader Grace Lee Boggs said soon before she died just last year, that the US is now in the final stages of the fight against elites, hate and repression, and that these power elites are fighting so hard right now because they know it is the end for them.

This moment is ripe with opportunities to do this work, and burdened with dangers if we do not. We have the opportunity in this moment to bring hundreds of thousands, indeed millions of people into motion for an agenda that challenges corporate greed, undermines patriarchy, ends war and demands racial justice. Both the today and the tomorrow of every one of us demands no less.

Carla Wallace, Showing Up for Racial Justice co-founder
Rural Organizing Project – Rural Caucus & Strategy Session Keynote
Saturday, May 14, 2016

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