What would class-inclusive anti-racism look like?

I’ve been asked a question that I can’t answer, and I wonder if you, the reader, can help answer it.

The most common forms of anti-racist consciousness-raising practiced on the left today—workshops; special sessions to talk about internal race dynamics; book discussions; instantly “calling out” oppressive comments; and hammering out statements of ideological commitment, all using specialized terms such as “white supremacy”—are not well-received by every progressive activist. And it’s not just white people resistant to looking at racism who have negative reactions. In my research on 25 varied social movement organizations (SMOs) in five states, I found a class correlation with who disliked, non-cooperated with, or was befuddled by those typical anti-racist practices, which were always initiated and led by college-educated activists: it was disproportionately lifelong working-class and poor activists (of all races) for whom those modes didn’t work.

When I presented this class-bias critique of anti-racism processes at “Diversity Ironies” workshops, based on my book Missing Class, participants were frustrated that I was pointing out a problem but not a solution. How would anti-racism infused with working-class culture be different from the common practices of today? They were hungry for recommendations of best practices.

This question is just about anti-racism consciousness-raising and education efforts, not about organizing strategy. One form of anti-racism is not controversial: public acts of solidarity, such as the recent protests in Ferguson, MO. If it was clear that particular people of color were being harmed, and that grassroots community groups wanted their allies to support them, then no activist in my study, of any class, race or movement tradition, opposed joining pickets and demonstrations, raising money, or any other form of tangible solidarity with people of color targeted by racism. A working-class value on action over words explains some activists’ acceptance of active solidarity against external racism.

But is outward-focused anti-racist solidarity perhaps enough? I don’t think so. The mainstream anti-bigotry pro-tolerance frame, which I heard disproportionately from working-class and poor activists, leaves out some crucial pieces of the history of institutionalized racism, necessary for a comprehensive push for a society based on equity and justice. And some of the aversion to discussion of internal race dynamics was heard where such discussion was in fact sorely needed: in union-sponsored groups with predominantly white leadership and racially diverse memberships. All progressive groups need consciousness-raising about societal racism and discussions of their intra-group composition, power dynamics and culture.

After decades of people of color taking most of the leadership against racism, recently more white anti-racists have stepped up to the task. The annual White Privilege Conference has influenced many white progressives to follow in the footsteps of Chris Crass, Paul Gorski, Debby Irving, Paul Kivel, Becky Thompson, Mark Warren, Tim Wise, and other white anti-racism educators. I mean no criticism of this new wave of white anti-racist educators when I point out that they are highly educated professionals, and in many cases come from class-privileged backgrounds. That’s my class identity too, and they are inspiring role models for me. And winning racial justice will require all hands on deck.

But the cultural style common in SMOs’ “diversity work” distinctively fits the professional-middle-class cultural traits I found in my research, whatever the race of the facilitators and educators. In the 25 groups I studied for Missing Class, as well as in the class-diverse organizations I have participated in over the last 30 years, I’ve seen a clear class association with certain approaches to anti-racism.

First, workshops (particularly those using a certain stylized form of interactive group processes) are a familiar activity in the repertoire only of groups with a college-educated majority. When low-income community groups have held anti-racism workshops, they have sometimes been suggested or required by funders, and almost always the trainers have been college-educated, different than most members’ class.

Second, I have seen only college-educated-majority groups set civility ground-rules ahead of time to fend off oppressive behavior.

Third, I have seen only white college-educated-majority groups seem to spend group time hammering out statements of principles and ideology.

And fourth, only in college-educated-majority groups have I heard the finger-pointing denunciations of wrong vocabulary and ignorant bias commonly called “calling out.”

These four activities are the everyday repertoire of anti-racism consciousness-raising – and rarely are they recognized as class-culturally specific.

Other social scientists have also found class bias in work against ‘isms’. Jane Ward, in Respectably Queer, found that professional “diversity expertise” trumped personal experience of racism in LGBT organizations. Sharon Kurtz, in Workplace Identities, describes how the unions at Columbia University had a “do it, don’t talk about it” approach to advocating for marginalized subgroups of members, such as women and racial minorities, in need of affirmative action and anti-discrimination policies. Union leaders advocated framing all ‘isms’ only in terms of “workers’ rights.”

And working-class-background radical educator George Lakey claims in Facilitating Group Learning that the “calling out culture” (immediate dressing down in front of the whole group of a person making an oppressive comment) comes from elite colleges training upper-middle-class students to sit in critical judgment of others.

I also found in my research that race-related vocabulary varied by class. College-educated activists, in line with their typically more abstract speech, tended to use more general and diversity-encompassing racial terms, such as “people of color” and “Latinos,” while working-class activists of all races tended to refer to Latinos and Asian Americans as their more specific nationalities, such as “Mexican” and “Chinese.” They also stuck to “Black” instead of “African American.”

The terms associated with the institutionalized white supremacy frame, such as “white privilege,” were heard almost entirely from college-educated activists. Jargon is a turn-off to many working-class and poor activists, not just because of unfamiliarity with in-group and academic terms, but also because working-class speech is typically more concrete and colorful – a preference, not just a habit. Also, some radical working-class outlaws suspect middle-class activists of being “all talk, no walk” elitists.

You see my point. Virtually everything about how anti-racism education happens in SMOs today is so infused with professional-middle-class activist culture that it is often alienating or at least unfamiliar to working-class and poor activists.

This class bias poses a dilemma for progressive activists. Anti-racism education and internal race dynamics discussions must be done, and done well, by SMOs of all types, if we hope to build movements that can actually win social justice. Currently anti-racist work is often done in a class-exclusionary way. It’s important to find an alternative way to do it that would make more sense to working-class people – or even better, more effective forms of anti-racism that would draw on working-class cultural strengths and work more powerfully for everyone. I wish I could picture this alternative way, but to be honest, I can’t.

My nonprofit, Class Action, has started an internal discussion about this question, and is now launching a project to draw more kindred spirits into the conversation. We held an online meeting with nine Class Action workshop facilitators and three key collaborators, including Linda Stout, a lifelong-working-class activist and author of Bridging the Class Divide.

Our next step is to ask more anti-racist activists and scholars of all classes and races to fill out a surveyon their perceptions of class dynamics in anti-racism work and their prescriptions for more class-inclusive methods. I invite you to fill out the survey yourself, or to send the link to your favorite diversity workers and anti-racism educators.

We will use the survey results and discussions to formulate some principles, which we will field-test, and then write up the results and make them available. Eventually we hope to offer to social justice groups a tested and evaluated model of anti-racist consciousness-raising rooted in working-class cultural strengths.

I can foresee the day when we will bring to “Diversity Ironies” workshops a handout with field-tested best practices for class-inclusive anti-racism. But for now, all I can give workshop participants is this rough list of suggestions from Class Action’s preliminary discussions:

What would working-class-inclusive anti-racism look like?

  1. Integrate racism-talk into working meetings, not only in workshops & special sessions; seize teachable moments;
  2. Use everyday language, not jargon;
  3. Emphasize discrimination in wider society, not only within group culture;
  4. Focus on public action with outcomes benefiting particular people of color;
  5. Be attentive to preserving unity of group; frame anti-racism in the larger context of shared goals and solidarity;
  6. Tell human stories before generalizing; invite participants to share their own race and class stories;
  7. Do ongoing community-building, both before and after controversial or potentially divisive discussions;
  8. Remember that responding to racist incidents is the whole group’s responsibility (instead of a facilitator or supervisor being in charge of “correcting” the “offender”); avoid finger-pointing, talking down from a critic’s seat of judgment;
  9. Be conflict-friendly and emotion-friendly;
  10. Experiment. Make mistakes. There are no formulas or rules. Know that it will get messy. Keep going.

It’s exciting for me to link academic research to community-based knowledge creation. To improve the practices of social movement practitioners, this praxis of reflection and field-testing can be as fruitful as ethnography. With activists, trainers and scholars working together, we can find answers to this challenging question.


Filed under Emerging Stars in Social Movement Research, Essay Dialogues

6 responses to “What would class-inclusive anti-racism look like?

  1. Pingback: Emerging Stars in Social Movement Research | Mobilizing Ideas

  2. Pingback: What would class-inclusive anti-racism look like? | Mobilizing Ideas | Public Philosophy Journal

  3. Thanks for this supportive criticism of some of the methods of anti-racism work in the United States. My experience as a researcher and activist mirrors your concerns.
    My wife and I followed the advice of SNCC and as White anti-racist activists moved into a predominantly White working class neighborhood on the southwest side of Chicago. For ten years (1977-1987). We attempted to break the back of a complicated multi-component movement to block integration. Brutal street assaults on Black people and fire bombings of their homes were part of what we faced. This is detailed in a published scholarly piece in Research in Political Sociology with the abstract here: http://www.outracingnazis.us/#abstract

    We worked in a multi-racial coalition based in the neighborhood. After 3 years of being out-organized by racists (very humiliating!) we switched our “Smash Racism” frame to a “Stop the Violence” frame suggested by some Black neighborhood leaders in Chicago. The “Stop the Violence” frame allowed us to have open-ended discussions–sometimes one block at a time–hosted by White home-owners, themselves working class.
    At the suggestion of a progressive librarian, we reverse engineered the work of Doug McAdam on political processes and worked with city and state agencies to close political opportunities for promoting violence and extending White racism in the neighborhood.

    What we found was that avoiding the rhetoric and shaming used by the bulk of the anti-racist movement we were able to have serious conversations in the neighborhood which had a ripple effect. We trained our allies not to immediately denounce racist views, but make it clear that our agenda in the neighborhood was that everyone should be treated equally and with respect in order to stop the violence and improve city services, public safety, and safe and effective schools for everyone.

    One example of anti-racist jargon we found useless in our work was “Racism = Prejudice + Power”. This equation required so much explanation and unpacking for most White working class residents that it stopped meetings and became the focus of lengthy and unresolved discussions. Even our Black allies thought the phrase didn’t work. In part this was because for most people in the neighborhood the word “Racism” meant an idea or attitude or prejudice—rather than meaning the entire baggage load of institutionalized White supremacy rooted in European political power struggles. Then, based on that equation, just suggesting that “Black people can not be racist” usually caused an uproar.

    The concept “Racism = Prejudice + Power” when unpacked through a lengthy intellectualized conceptual discussion makes sense, especially in the organized White anti-racist movement where it has become a mantra. In actual practice when applied in our working class neighborhood it did not move our work forward toward our goal of first changing the actual racist practices that harmed Black people, while providing a context for a difficult ongoing discussion about what constituted racist ideas.

    As the Black neighborhood leaders told us respectfully in a gentle rebuke at our meeting which changed our frame, our goal should not be to be a proud White anti-racist; our goal should be to make the neighborhood a safe place for Black people to live and work—a goal that would also benefit the entire community regardless of race.


    • Read books by Novelists who are actively in the pages showing classism and white supremacy exposed in families and in friendships. THEN talk about it within your group as a way to bring up difficult topics AND show how the characters at least started asking about these issues in personal relationships.
      THE personal as Classim.org shares can be a beginning to educate ourselves.

      * Also Re: attending “Diversity/Undoing Racism workshops, etc- organize so that all workers in a human resources or education institution or faith based organization, etc are given time off to take these workshops. (MEANING the custodial and cafetaria and cleaning/maintenance staff goes…not just the peti-bourgeois/assistant managerial class and above.)


  4. I noticed a few faulty assumptions in the article but overall I liked the tone of it. “healing the hurts” shows how deep seated the healing process needs to investigate. from it came the most awesome “guidelines for sharing” that will benefit any group that seeks to be inclusive. one of the first things it does is place everyone in a circle on the same level, and the second thing it does, is literally offer everyone in the circle a chance to be heard before the topic at hand gets started, and then at least once more after the topic has been presented. more than once if time permits, or if the schedule is planned with more time for sharing. this simple act of listening to another person tell their story teaches us something. the same simple act of telling our story changes something within us, even if we only get to speak for a minute at a time.


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