August 28, 2009
Radical Women responds to International Socialist Organization on the impact of racism, sexism and homophobia on the working class
This spring, one of Bay Area Radical Women's meetings featured the topic "Is Feminism Passé?" The report contrasted how Radical Women (RW) and International Socialist Organization (ISO) approach feminism. ISO informed RW that it would send representatives. Several of its members attended, participated in discussion and handed out a statement of their views titled "Not Much of a Debate." In response, Radical Women is offering this summary of our understanding of the intersections of class, race, gender and sexuality.
Does social privilege confer real benefits on some?
The ISO statement says: "Working class men do not benefit from sexism, working class white people do not benefit from racism, and working class straight people do not benefit from the oppression of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people."
Frankly, we are floored by this assertion. The political system and the ruling class of this country have always been white-male dominated and this benefits workingclass men and whites, whether they acknowledge it, support it, or reject discrimination as individuals. The norm is white, heterosexual and male. Anything other than this is not just a mere difference but is punished as deviant, lesser, other, and subject to super-exploitation in the workplace. While it is the capitalists who benefit the most from bigotry and exploitation, the ruling class provides crumbs to those of the dominant race and gender in an attempt to co-opt and divide workers. Everyone doesn't fall for this, but it does influence the labor bureaucracy, which reflects the conservatism of the highest-paid aristocrats of labor. The socially and economically stratified U.S. working class is an objective product of the capitalist drive for profit over centuries of slavery, female subjugation, segregation, xenophobia, demonization of queers, etc.
How is the history of white skin privilege revealed in the working class today?
All workers have been hurt by the current economic crisis, but the effects on workers of color, especially women of color, have been catastrophic. They are starting out with much lower financial reserves, less secure housing, poorer health, and higher levels of unemployment. The Black unemployment rate in February 2009 was 12.6% — the highest in the country. Women of color are losing jobs at a disproportionate rate. Many are single parents who are already barely making do. When they lose jobs or services, high numbers will end up on the streets. Because people of color have historically been denied credit, usurious loans are hitting them much harder than whites. Black women accounted for 48.8% of all subprime loans in 2006.
As a group, workingclass whites do not face the excessive incarceration rates, police brutality, violence, poverty, unemployment and lack of educational opportunities that people of color do because of the color of their skin. The wages of whites are significantly higher than those of workers of color. For every dollar earned by white men, Black men earn 72 cents and Latino men earn 58 cents. Higher incomes and better access to health care mean white men live an average of six years longer than Black men. Whites have half the infant mortality rate of Blacks, and significantly lower rates than Puerto Ricans and Native Americans. These are significant, material benefits to those who happen to belong to the dominant race.
A similar situation exists in relation to women and queers.
Men of every racial group have higher wages and less incidence of poverty, domestic violence, and rape than the women in their ethnic group. The cornerstone of the capitalist economy and culture is the patriarchal monogamous nuclear family. The sexual double-standard and rigid sex-role stereotyping prevail. Women are still fighting for elementary control over their own bodies. Women contribute the lion's share of free labor in the home and as caregivers to children and elders. This impacts their position in the labor force. As described in Radical Women's 1990 position paper, Women Workers: Sparkplugs of Labor, by Megan Cornish and Heidi Durham, "Women's unpaid labor in the home is the basis of, and excuse for, their low wages in the workforce. Under capitalism, social status is determined by how much a worker earns (or a boss owns). Because woman's labor in the home is unpaid, her labor in the workforce is undervalued. The social factors of institutionalized racism and sexism are used to drive the price of labor power (the only commodity that workers have to sell) below its real value." Women workers are clustered in low-paid, low-status jobs. The male/female wage differential is $1.00/.74 for whites; $.72/.64 for Blacks; $.58/.52 for Latinos. The deficits for women add up to a social and financial benefit to male workers.
Straight people generally do not suffer because of their sexuality. They are not subject to the higher unemployment, housing discrimination, military witch hunts, censorship, hate crimes, marriage restrictions, and level of family estrangement that queers endure. Gay men earn 14-16% less than other men. Gay men of color are at an even greater wage disadvantage. Clearly, there are social and economic benefits to straight workers.
Perhaps when ISO states that there are no benefits for workers who belong to favored social groups, it is trying to defend individual whites or males who suffer from lack of opportunity and to explain why many privileged workers reject bigotry. But this is a formalistic way of addressing a situation that must be looked at dialectically.
Though straight, white or male workers benefit from privilege, they also lose from the system of oppression, as does the working class as a whole. For example, the South has historically had the largest gap in status between white workers and workers of color. As a result, it also has the worst conditions for all workers, a largely non-union labor force, and lower wages than elsewhere in the country. The system of segregation was enforced by a police state that violently attacked anyone who resisted the status quo, especially Blacks, but also whites, Native Americans, radicals, Jews, unionists, queers, and women.
From the broad view, the objective benefits of being white, male or straight are outweighed by the benefits to be gained if the class can overcome divisions and win better conditions for all. To reach this point, however, the reality of social stratification must be acknowledged and those with more advantages must be willing to stand with the most oppressed for their own benefit and the advancement of the entire working class. Indeed, many privileged workers are conscious that the crumbs they receive at the expense of women, gays and people of color are meager when compared to the gains that would be achieved if all were equal.
But ISO believes that material privileges for some sectors of the working class would make unity impossible. An analysis of racism by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor that is featured in the "What We Stand For" section of the ISO website states: "If white workers benefit from racism—then what hope is there to ever build a majority fightback against racism? It is doubtful that an entire group of the population would ever fight against something that put more food on the table, more money in the paycheck and provided more health care."
How cynical! Because, actually, whites stand with people of color every day in strikes and community organizing. For a workforce to successfully face down the bosses, solidarity with the lowest-paid, least privileged workers is essential. Otherwise management can easily buy off a favored few and destroy the effort. Workingclass mobilizations need the powerful leadership of those who have suffered the most and are least likely to ally themselves with the bosses. A majority fightback can be best achieved when the lowest-paid, most-abused, and most militant workers convince more cautious, privileged workers that their interests can only be advanced through standing together. This is the proud history of the U.S. working class from Salt of the Earth, to the Farah movement and Watsonville strikes, to the defiance of nurses, grocery workers, and home health staff today.
Is feminism bourgeois?
ISO defines feminism as intrinsically reformist and separatist, but says it supports women's liberation. According to Radical Women and to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, feminism is 1) "the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes"; and 2) "organized activity on behalf of women's rights and interests." How can any socialist oppose this?
Granted, there are different political tendencies within the feminist movement: reformist, conservative, separatist, transnational, workingclass, revolutionary, African American womanist. Radical Women and other socialist feminists view the private property system as the common source of workers' exploitation, sexism, and other forms of oppression. Radical Women builds women's leadership and provides a revolutionary voice within the feminist movement and a feminist voice on the Left.
It is true that many media-promoted leaders of the women's movement are reformist. However the movement was instigated by radical workingclass individuals, including many women of color and lesbians.
Is autonomous organizing a positive strategy?
ISO states: "Organizing based on individual identity and the experience of a particular oppression has been counterproductive in this country in that it has accommodated the divisions imposed on the working class by capitalism rather than helping to overcome them." ISO recognizes the right of oppressed people to organize independently, but it does not support this strategy.
It would have been a great advantage to the working class if the U.S. labor movement had not been dominated by conservative white males who turned their backs on non-white, immigrant and female workers. We would be much further ahead today if the issues of the most oppressed had been embraced by a radical, unified labor movement from the very beginning. But that's not what happened historically; instead there was slavery, theft of Native land, super-exploitation of Asian and Mexican immigrants as cheap labor, etc. Oppressed people were barred from the House of Labor, told their issues were divisive, and driven to build their own movements.
Given this context, the independent movements for equality by oppressed sectors have not only been necessary and empowering for those particular groups, but have also had a profound effect on society as a whole, including today's labor movement! The liberation struggles of people of color and the upsurges of women and queers have expanded the ranks of revolutionaries, radicalized the U.S. working class, and changed the world.
Autonomous organizing by discriminated against and silenced groups is often the only way their needs are heard, especially if socialists are not incorporating their issues in the class struggle. Exposing bigotry does not "accommodate divisions," it is the only way to overcome those divisions—and is absolutely necessary in order to defeat capitalism. Autonomous movements of women, people of color, Native Americans, and other specially oppressed groups—in alliance with workers' organizations—can challenge capitalism when they expose the roots of exploitation and oppression in the profit system and identify the common class interests that are the basis for principled unity and revolutionary action.
ISO believes that autonomous organizing is the same as "identity politics." We think the two are quite different. "Identity politics" is the orientation of those who want to interact only with their own communities on their own issues. This can describe a variety of political tendencies including separatism, cultural nationalism and reformist single-issuism. Separatism and identity politics promote a superficial unity that ignores the class lines that exist within a particular group. For this reason, these tendencies are ultimately conservative and do not challenge capitalism.
Autonomous organizing, in Radical Women's view, simply means independent organizations of people who have a common unifying interest. Such a group need not be separatist. It can be founded on a multi-issue program and work in collaboration with other groups. Autonomous organizing by oppressed people is an excellent way to build self-reliance and put forward one's own concerns. Radical Women is an autonomous, multi-issue organization that confronts oppression in all forms while also placing "women's issues" on the front burner and training female leaders.
The role of caucuses
ISO states: "Members of oppressed groups within the ISO may form separate caucuses should they so choose. It is a testament to our organization's ability to convince all of its members to take all forms of oppression seriously that there are no such caucuses in existence."
Radical Women believes any organization that takes all forms of oppression seriously should support caucuses within its ranks to encourage the leadership of specially oppressed members and solicit their points of view. If there is no nourishment of specially oppressed groups, or special attention to making their voices heard, the group will not benefit from the dynamic leadership that develops among those who experience firsthand all capitalism's ills.
Caucuses should not be viewed as hostile factions, but as vehicles for strengthening members and the organization as a whole. When ISO prides itself on a lack of caucuses, even though it does not prohibit them, this is a way of discouraging their formation.
Members of color in Radical Women participate in a joint Comrades of Color Caucus with members of our sister organization, the Freedom Socialist Party. The caucus encourages members to come together to build on strengths, identify common concerns, and initiate discussions and policies for RW on issues affecting communities of color and the organization. We are proud of the Comrades of Color Caucus and its role in recognizing and developing the vanguard leadership of people of color.
Let's get back to principled debate and united front collaboration
The ISO's leaflet complained that the political differences being raised by Radical Women were hostile and "not much of a debate." We feel that we have raised our disagreements respectfully. And we have allowed ISO members to present their views in discussion and hand out their leaflet at the April 23 San Francisco RW meeting.
On the other hand, it was Sherry Wolf, an ISO national leader and Associate Editor of the International Socialist Review, who on two separate occasions told Radical Women members to "fuck off!" This happened most recently at the regional ISO conference in San Francisco when a Radical Women member handed Wolf a flyer for an upcoming event. Wolf not only swore at her but tore up the flyer and threw it back. Her outburst was totally inappropriate between socialist supporters of women's liberation. It was especially unnerving because until then Radical Women's participation at the conference had been treated in a comradely manner by other members of ISO.
Radical Women and ISO have our differences, but with rightwing militias on the rise, we need to be able to debate the issues while working together in democratically run united fronts and coalitions. Let us continue the rich leftist tradition of engaging in political discussion and joint work, and limit adolescent expressions of anger and frustration that bewilder supporters of the socialist movement. Let's not lose sight of the fact that we're on the same side of the class line.
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