This post was written looking forward to the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) convention. Although finished, I had not made it public, unsure as to whether it would further complicate an unfortunate situation where some caucuses had been formed prematurely, leading others to also form caucuses in response. Now with the just-announced dissolution of the Spring Caucus, the situation has changed.
I joined one of the counter-caucuses to Spring, the Socialist Majority caucus. And a related reason for not posting this article is that Socialist Majority had decided that, as a group, it would limit itself to presenting our own vision for the DSA as a multi-tendency organization, and not a critique of other viewpoints.
So it had not discussed a lot of the ideas presented in this article, and, frankly, I would have been against the caucus or the DSA adopting them as such; at this stage of its development, the DSA should remain open and inclusive of many currents, including those of comrades who disagree with me, such as the authors of the two documents I criticize below.
How to achieve the unity necessary to maintain an organization? Striving to come to agreement on a concrete program of actions against the exploiters of working and oppressed peoples who rule this society. And these actions don’t all necessarily have to be cast from the same mold. One of the fallacies of many groups in the 20th Century Left was a tendency to say that theirs was the one “correct” action or tactic in response to a given problem or situation. But on the contrary, I think what history shows is that a multiplicity of tactics is valid, and their impact can be not just additive but compounded.
In their dissolution statement, “Setbacks and New Beginnings,” several former Spring Caucus members say that among the “significant and unresolvable disagreements” among Spring’s members was “how best to relate to anti-oppression mobilizations and demands,” which was precisely the subject of my commentary. For that reason, I feel it is right to post my criticisms now, even though were I to write the article afresh, it would be different, as I hope it is now just a question of discussion of strategic visions and not a subject of action by the organization. Below is the post written before this change.
A Convention of the Democratic Socialists of America will be held in Atlanta at the beginning of August. As part of the lead up to the convention, I will be publishing some articles discussing issues before the convention. This article is in response to a current in the organization previously known as Momentum and Socialist Call and their official statements.
I. The Latinx people disappear
Copy-paste those into a word processing program.
Search for “Latin” which will also pick up Latinx, Latino, Latina, latinoamericano. Follow up with Hispanic, Chicano, Spanish, Mexican, or any other term that refers to my community.
No mention: not a single one.
Officially, we are 18% of the U.S. population. We are 21% of the millennials. We are more than 25% of the post-millennials. People from Latinx communities make up 17% of the labor force.
This is not just about the Latinx community. Do the same sort of search for Blacks and you will come up with one mention in the two documents. Read the documents and you will see that women and other oppressed sectors are treated the same way.
For the Spring Caucus, racial, national and gendered oppression are mostly tricks by the ruling class:
“Capitalism stokes racial, national, and gender oppression to keep working people divided and to justify exploitation. And by creating an intense competition for jobs, housing, and decent schools, the capitalist system pits workers against each other and makes prejudiced ideas seem plausible.”
This is the most primitive sort of class reductionism. What does that term mean? It means that all other axis of oppression and exploitation are seen as springing from and being at the service of the extraction of surplus value from wage workers.
That is what is behind the caucus’s blindness to the working class as it really exists. The documents instead talk about an imaginary class made up of generic workers stripped of things like race, nationality, gender, age, legal status, etc.
That sort of narrow, worker-ist vision affected various socialist groups in the 1960s and 1970s.
But against that view a new understanding began to emerge spurred by the actual movements of oppressed peoples and specific struggles: the Black movement as it developed out of and beyond the Civil Rights movement, the feminist movement, and so on.
In 1977, a group of Black feminists that had been working together for several years as the Combahee River Collective published a statement that presented an understanding of exploitation and oppression that today is now referred to as intersectionality.
“The most general statement of our politics at the present time would be that we are actively committed to struggling against racial, sexual, heterosexual, and class oppression, and see as our particular task the development of integrated analysis and practice based upon the fact that the major systems of oppression are interlocking. The synthesis of these oppressions creates the conditions of our lives.”
The Spring Caucus approach is a negation of intersectionality. As a result, they either reject the independent movements of specially oppressed people or consider them unimportant.
“As part of our vision of winning a truly free society, socialists are committed to ending all forms of oppression. To reach this goal, we strive to build a united multiracial working-class movement.”
This idea — that the instrument that is necessary for change is this “united multiracial working-class movement,” is repeated time and again throughout their texts.
In the context of a document that does not even mention the word Latinx or any possible synonym or substitute, the inescapable conclusion is that the “united multiracial working-class movement” is counterpoised to existing Latinx movements and organizations.
III. The Latino Immigrant Rights Movement
One of the most advanced expressions of class (political) struggle in the United States has been the Latinx immigrant rights movement. It has a dual character because it is both a proletarian class movement and a Latinx national (“ethnic” or “racial”) movement. This video shows you at a glance that intersectional character of the movement (the video has translations if you click the closed captioning button):
The video is from 2011 from a struggle we waged in Georgia against an anti-immigrant law. Five years earlier, in the spring of 2006, a mass movement of Latinos mobilized millions of people in cities all over the country against HB 4437, popularly known as the Sensenbrenner bill after its chief sponsor, which had passed the House and would have made it a felony to be an undocumented immigrant or associate with undocumented immigrants.
The Spring Caucus makes a passing mention of the 2006 protests as part of one of its token lists of causes it supports, oppressions it opposes, and issues it relates to:
“The last dozen years, from the giant immigration marches of 2006 to the nationwide protests against police brutality in 2014 and 2015, have shown that hundreds of thousands of people can come together in the streets to fight oppression. These protests have opened Americans’ eyes about citizenship rights and police brutality. DSA should also support campaigns such as defending Roe v. Wade, to convict killer cops, and for immigration rights.”
Notice that the protagonists of the immigration marches, the Latinx communities, are simply disappeared through the use of the passive voice. Also gone is an understanding of what the movement is about, substituting instead “citizenship rights” and “immigration rights.” I’ll let other comrades address the “police brutality” issue.
Close examination of these documents confirms that the Spring authors do not seem to understand the immigrant rights movement, because the central demand of the movement, legalization of the undocumented, is completely absent.
But that must be the central demand for a reason: The real policy on the ground of the U.S. Government is not to deport the “illegals” but to keep them here but illegal, bereft of rights, so they can be superexploited and used as a club to undermine the rights and drive down the wages of all workers.
So why the deportations if not to get rid of the “illegals”? To enforce the status of the undocumented as an inferior caste.
IV. The Undocumented and Class-Wide Demands
The Spring comrades write:
“[W]e prioritize the fight for broad classwide demands — such as healthcare, education, jobs, and housing — that benefit all working-class people and that can therefore galvanize the largest numbers of people to fight in their own self-interest. Demands such as Medicare for All would also disproportionately benefit oppressed groups and reduce the competition for resources that gives rise to prejudice among working people. Such demands, when achieved, would curtail the power of oppressors, including abusive bosses, despotic immigration agencies, profit-seeking insurance companies, and racist landlords.”
But here’s what it would really mean for the undocumented:
Health care? Medicare for All is a great idea. Give them your social security number, get your Medicare card. Except the undocumented don’t have social security numbers, not that are any good, and the law prohibits giving public benefits of any kind to the undocumented. Yes, the principles do say including the undocumented, but that is cold comfort if you get deported because you were driving to the doctor’s office without a license.
Free college tuition? Guess what: The undocumented are barred from the top five public universities in Georgia. And in all the rest, they have to pay the exorbitant rates international students are charged. And I don’t think anyone is proposing free tuition for students coming from China, India or Great Britain. So it wouldn’t apply to undocumented students either.
We get the right to have a job? Wonderful! Too bad that it’s a crime to hire us.
Housing? OK, but what use is it if you are constantly threatened with arrest and deportation, even just for driving a car, or nothing at all? What good is your house then?
“Class-wide demands” don’t have the same meaning for the undocumented nor for the Latinx community as a whole, which is intimately intertwined with its undocumented sector.
If “won” without the legalization of the undocumented first, they would reinforce the status of the undocumented as an inferior caste by broadening the privileges of the “legals,” which in that context are more correctly seen as privileges not “rights” because they are denied to a whole class of people.
V. A Caste System of Legalized Discrimination
But even if each demand has an “including the undocumented” rider, the fundamental problem remains which is the caste system that has now been incorporated into the U.S. white supremacist social, political, economic and legal structure.
It might be true that a movement powerful enough to win these class-wide demands would be powerful enough to win legalization for all. But it will not happen unless the legalization of the undocumented becomes a major demand of the entire movement.
This means directly confronting and defeating racist and xenophobic sentiments in some sectors of the working class. The logic of the Spring Caucus approach seems to be to avoid this fight as much as possible.
“Equal” treatment of communities that have been treated unequally is not equality; it is the continuation of inequality. That’s why affirmative action (the Brits have an even better name for it: positive discrimination), is absolutely essential to really begin reversing inequality.
But in the case of the Latinx community, we don’t yet have even formal equality. And that affects not just the undocumented, because even if you’re “legal,” your wife, children, lover, cousins, parents, coworkers and neighbors might not be.
Especially alarming in the passage I quoted above is the prettification of racism by making excuses like, “the competition for resources … gives rise to prejudice among working people.”
White supremacy is not a “prejudice.” It is a system that creates that reality on the ground. People don’t think Latinos are inferior because we compete for resources. They think so because this white supremacist society in fact keeps Latinos in an inferior position.
“Prejudice among working people” is the ideological reflection of the material facts on the ground and an essential component in enforcing the inferior status of the Latinx communities.
VI. The DSA and the Real World
It is unfortunate that the Spring Caucus does not even try to present a cursory analysis of what is going on in the United States. If they had done so, they could not possibly have missed that the issue of immigration and the legalization of the undocumented is a central political issue. It even frequently overshadows all others in the mass media’s daily news cycle. And it certainly is so for Trump.
The DSA has to relate to politics and live in the real world.
In that real world, immigration is a topmost political issue and the Latinx community is at the center of it.
The United States has created a new, Jim Crow-like system of legal discrimination and denial of basic human, civil and political rights. It has been mostly implanted over the two decades since Bill Clinton’s “Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996.” That law, in addition to authorizing what is now often called Trump’s Wall, set up the current legal regime of systematic discrimination and persecution.
Talking about working class unity in the United States is pure fantasy unless that system of legal discrimination is smashed. The Spring Caucus betrays no understanding of this political imperative.
José G. Pérez @JG_Perez is a long-time activist in the Latinx immigrant rights and socialist movements. His primary focus has been journalism. He is currently producer and co-host of a daily two-hour news, analysis and call-in show on the progressive Atlanta-based, Spanish-language Internet broadcaster RadioInformación, and a member of the Atlanta DSA.