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Questioning the Black Left: An Opening Conversation

Rachel Herzing
Date Published: 
September 01, 2006
    On Sunday, April 23, 2006, three Bay Area organizers and activists sat down with Rachel Herzing to discuss their ideas about the current state of the Black left. What follows are excerpts from that conversation.

Roger White (RW), Sele Nadel-Hayes (SNH), Kali Akuno (KA) Rachel Herzing (RH)

Rachel Herzing: Please introduce yourselves and describe how you became politically engaged.

Roger White: I’m a criminal justice researcher at the Data Center. I’ve been doing that for about five years. Before that I did labor organizing for the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers Local 21, I organized with ACORN as a political coordinator, and before that I was in school and did campus based organizing.

The LA uprising in 1992 was an important turning point in my political consciousness. As I began to organize around racial justice stuff I began to realize that there were two social institutions that really impacted the Black community in ways that were direct, and traumatic, and that’s the cops and prisons. My orientation is anti-authoritarian, which to me is a description of the desire of people to be self-managing and have self-determination over their own bodies and own communities.

Sele Nadel-Hayes: I am the Youth Program Director at the Freedom Archives. My real seminal political experiences happened when I was really young and seeing the environmental justice movement grow out of my neighborhood in West Oakland. That was specifically around fighting the rebuilding of the Cypress Freeway after it collapsed in 1989. The work that went into that campaign and going through all those different systems showed me a lot about how when systems interact with us as Black folks—it’s set up to keep us out and we have to figure out the ways to get in. It really inspired me to want to work for other people and not just for myself. I feel my responsibility to community came from wanting to make sure that Black folks were taken care of in the future so we don’t have to keep up this cycle of having to fight institutions whether they have people inside them who look like us or not.

Kali Akuno: I am a member and current National Organizer for the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement. I am also currently working with the People’s Hurricane Relief Fund and Oversight Committee [PHRF] as its Outreach Coordinator. I’ve been doing independent political work since I was about 14 years old. I organized a Black Student Union and a Third World Union at my high school and addressed primarily local concerns where I grew up in Los Angeles County. I’ve been doing work for the past 20 years mainly in the tradition of revolutionary nationalism, which is my background and training and ideological perspective from being born into that tradition. I’m searching now for a strategy that addresses the needs of working class Black people, which at this point in time I think is the most critical shortcoming of the Black Left.

Pressing issues

RH: What do you think in the immediate, are the issues that are most pressing in terms of making change for Black people in this country?

RW: The drug war has been used as an excuse and justification for locking up millions and millions of Black people over the last 30 years in this country. It’s been a vehicle of domestic repression on par with what happened in the 1920s and in the late teens after WWI with the pogroms against African American communities and the Red Scare. If we could get rid of the drug war, and that’s not necessarily talking about de-criminalization or legalization although I’m open to either of those conversations, but just ending the repression—the war, against Black and Latino people. If we could start there and end that, I think we would see a dramatic decrease in incarceration and see a dramatic decrease in military-style policing in urban areas.

SNH: I think that there’s a lot of work to be done around the education system as well, and not just around improving the achievement of Black students on standardized tests. Making sure that young Black people know that they come from a place of power and a place of success and that that’s part of their blood and their history. It’s important to have people out in the world who act in that way as well. I think that in trying to give people a chance to form their belief system and what role they want to play in the community that is beyond something self serving, it’s important to give them those tools in the public school system, [beyond] textbooks and the kind of history and study that comes from traditional public school systems.

KA: Over the past 30 years the economy both within the United States and in the world has shifted and has resulted in the massive displacement of Black labor. How we have tried to field that shift is to survive any way we possibly can, which has led large numbers of our people to enter into underground economies in increasing rates. It’s kind of altered the social fabric. We’re in this transition phase of trying to figure out how to stabilize and revitalize the community in this shift. How do we not become a dispensable labor pool in this country? We know what capitalism and white supremacy do with obsolete people and resources. And I don’t think it’s all about jobs. It’s about our history and strategic placement within this society and within the global economy. I’ve tried to approach it more recently around trying to do some strategic institution building. I’m in my mid-30s now and I see my role as a transitional role of moving the younger generation to the experience and resources that were accumulated by the generations of the 70s, 60s, and 50s, and in this low period of social struggle laying a foundation for the next upsurge of struggle.

Black Left?

RH: There seems to be some general agreement on the left that we’re in a low period of social struggle. Where do you think Black people fit into that? Is there a viable formation that we could identify as the Black Left? If so, what does it look like and if not, where are we?

SNH: I was thinking about that a lot before coming here and just thinking about how it’s so clear that there’s a left and it’s clear that there are Black folks on the left, but it feels more individualized than united. I can look out and identify on one hand the number of organized groups who identify as being a big part of the Black Left and I know there are more people than that out there. So are people just not organized? Are people just not engaged? Are people not caring? Probably not any of those.

RW: First, when I think about the questions that you’re asking I ask myself, “What do I think of when I hear the word left or words Black left?” Historically, the left has been sort of labor-based, political constructions and we’ve seen a huge decline in unionized labor in this country and the decline has been disproportionately Black. By that definition, while there may be a Black left, the organized working class is in decline and it has been for some time. There’s a Black intellectual elite class that has actually become more prominent and that has gotten more exposure over the last 20 or 30 years. There’s also a cadre of organizations that could be described on the liberal Left, like the NAACP. But again, there’s no League of Revolutionary Black Workers anymore and the Black working class and poor are not organized.

KA: I think we’re at an historic low point on the question of the Black left. There are three things that I can identify in terms of what I would consider the Black left. The issue is that they have very little relationship with each other. There are the cadre-focused modalities, which are all fairly small, representing a diversity of ideology. All of them represent some variant of revolutionary nationalism. Then we have another emerging trend heavily influenced by anarchism that I’ve found a lot more throughout the country among Black youth 35 and under. And then you have what I think is probably the largest group of folks in the Black left who are working in the non-profit industrial complex who are doing left-oriented work, but they’re not in political formations. They’re doing work primarily centered around the issues of the institutions that they’re in.

Those three forces may overlap around police brutality, around certain housing things; probably the greatest overlap is around the prison industrial complex, but beyond that there’s no real strategic focus. I think the third sector, if there’s some way to focus it politically, could make a much more significant contribution now than the old cadre-based forces. I think they’re doing much more practical community-based work than the older formations are doing work for a number of different reasons. I have a caution because I ‘m very scared of the non-profit industrial complex and what it means to movement building, but I think it could play a potential role in the revitalization of the Black left.

RW: The structural impediment that non-profits put in the way of a larger Black agenda developing in ways that are democratic and non-hierarchical is that once you invest yourself in a non-profit structure and you’re getting paid a salary to organize, you’re organizing people who are not getting paid a salary to be leaders or members of your organization. So right from the very beginning you’re setting up this dichotomy of authority and decision-making where you’re an authority coming into a community organizing people around whatever kind of agenda and they recognize the power differential and you do as well, hopefully. That sets up a wall between the possibility of having a collective democratic way of figuring out an agenda whether it’s on the local level or the national level.

On top of that add foundations and the kind of reporting and other things that they want to see you do. You can’t base build for five years, because you won’t have any money. Meanwhile, before non-profits, we spent 20 years base building. The Black Populist Movement is a good example. After the end of Reconstruction, it took us 20 years to build a serious grassroots Black populist movement that was very powerful and it was national. Long-term base building where it’s going to take some time to make progress—you don’t have that kind of time in non-profits.

SNH: I completely agree with that. It’s also intentional. It’s set up to let us get comfortable and think, “I could get paid to do the stuff that I think is important anyway? Cool.” [But] it’s a quarter of most salaries, generally and it’s fake work, because you’re having to respond to whoever’s giving you the money and their priorities. And then there’s this whole thing in the non-profit culture of we work too hard and we really need to love ourselves and treat ourselves right and we should only work 9 to 5. So we’re putting those boundaries on our political work and the trade off is we get to get free money from foundations for it and really that’s not fair at all and we’ve accepted that.

I remember very clearly my parents worked institution jobs. My mom worked for the federal government, my dad worked on political campaigns and then they came home at night and then they did their political work. They were able to sustain the family and were able to do political work not for pay and were able to feel that there was change happening. I saw that, but I’m still trying to do political work and get paid for it, because those are the skills I have. But I think that for a lot of folks who want to be working in the Black community, it’s hard and figuring out where you can do some self preservation and continuing to work [the non-profit sector] is a way to do it.

KA: One positive thing I see is that there’s actually more distributed leadership in the movement than there has been since probably since the 1930s. There’s not just one center of gravity or one center of power. In some ways our generation, early 30s and late 20s, is one of the most educated and technologically prepared generations of Black people ever. We also, in spite of this crisis, have more access to capital now than we’ve ever had in our history. It’s just how do we strategically use that in this society is what we haven’t figured out other than just kind of playing into the whole capital gain, I’m going to get my own little American dream or bling bling or whatever. I see this network having the capacity to do that in a way our predecessors did not. But then again, I think we have to be honest about growing class divisions among Black people. Not everybody is in that situation.

Politics and religion

RH: Of organizing forces in the Black community that we haven’t talked about yet, one is Black churches. They are probably still the most organized force in the Black community in this country. Electoral politics is another organizing force to consider. At some level, the radical left hasn’t taken up how effectively Black churches and the two prominent political parties in this country are organizing Black people. And these two are not disassociated from each other, either. Some of the biggest voter registration drives are happening through the Black churches.

KA: One thing that’s been a shock to me is that [incumbent Mayor, Ray] Nagin won the run off in New Orleans. I’m not from Louisiana, so I was like, obviously I’m missing something in my read of Black people in New Orleans. I thought they were going to abandon him like the plague, but he actually received a larger percentage of the Black vote this time than when he won the election. What does that mean for my work? Does that mean we should be throwing support to Nagin because he’s a Black candidate when Mitch [Lt. Governor Mitch Landrieu] actually has more progressive politics than he does? If we support Mitch organizationally are we betraying the interests of the people as they see it?

Somewhere along the line Nagin won some Black church support. The Black church networks did more voter turn out than ACORN, NAACP and PHRF combined. So, something’s happening in that community that highlights that the Black left is missing the boat. And not that I agree with the way the Black churches are going. I don’t. But if I’m not and other people on the Black left are not in some dialog and in relationship with [the Black churches’] reconstruction ideas and politics then I think we become not only somewhat irrelevant, but potentially obsolete.

RW: There just hasn’t been a strong tradition of a secular Black left in the United States. There was some stuff in the 60s, but for so long, throughout African American history, the center of our politics has been rooted in the church. It seems to me that in order to create a space where a secular Black left could even be in a serious dialog with the Black church, we need to get organized.

SNH: On my way here, I drove past [three churches] all within three blocks. And every Sunday the streets are filled up with Cadillacs. The folks who are going to these churches have money, are older and they don’t think of themselves as left, necessarily. What is the struggle that we want them to sign on for? Is it to build up our economic viability as a people or is it something bigger than that? Because going to them and saying, “Look, we’re all on the same side here, we all want to do something together,” isn’t going to work, because they feel like they’ve got it and they go to church because of tradition…

KA: …and community…

SNH: …and because of some hope. And we don’t have a lot of that, as we’ve been saying. It’s hard to mobilize people with the promise of a good struggle, especially folks who feel comfortable. But they have power that we need and as a strategy it make sense to be going there, to be able to figure out whether that [group] is the best ally for the Black left, because they’re Black.

RW: The only thing that has kept Black conservatism from exponentially increasing over the last 100 years or so has been the sort of consensus among the Black electorate and the Black political classes around the two main priorities for the Black community, which have been racial justice and economic justice. So as changes in the family, the export of union manufacturing jobs from inner cities, the drug trade and the extent that issues around safety and the break up of the family and cultural issues remain high up in the consciousness of Black people and become seemingly increasingly important to the survival of the Black community, I think we’ll see somewhat of a diminishment of that consensus that kept the Black conservatism at bay.

RH: Is engaging with the Black electorate a viable strategy for the Black left?

KA: We have to. Whether we want to or not is another thing. Some of it for me is not even thinking about them being allies. Is there a way to keep [the Black electorate] from becoming more socially and politically reactionary? I think we have to at least be able to engage it. These are the consequences, perhaps, to abandoning this consensus. And I think as far as the electorate is concerned, in the tradition that I come from, the electorate is one of the last things participated in and I still hold dear to my heart that the Democrats are worse than the Republicans in a lot of ways. But I think that as I’ve gotten older and more politically mature, that statement by Malcolm, by any means necessary has become more clear to me and that is a front of struggle for masses of people in which masses of Black people are involved. To ignore it would be to our own detriment and that doesn’t make any sense. The question is what contribution can we make to those debates, to shaping policy? We also need to make sure that we’re pushing for a mass democratic movement shaping that policy rather than a political class shaping that policy.

SNH: I grew up believing that electoral politics could change something here and there and that it was important to have a seat at the table and to use that seat at the table. I think that voting in the Black community makes it feel like, “I voted and so I must believe in how this is turning out for my folks and I either don’t have to do something else or I can’t do anything else.” I think avoiding that paralysis and that dependence on electoral politics is what’s going to make it a lot easier to take what’s good from that system and leave the rest of it aside while we’re working with how to engage with the center.

KA: There is no democracy in this country. There never has been and that was not ever the intent. Let’s break down that illusion. But how do we heighten the contradictions? If electoral politics, from mass perspective, can do that, then I think that can be of some benefit toward transformation of change in this country. I do think that we could push in California and some other states, local and statewide initiatives that could reflect our politics, our interests, and our vision that may not necessarily win in the short run, but I think it’s more or less about us understanding our positioning. I think the right, the Goldwater Right, understood that very clearly. Even if I lose, what do I gain? And they clearly assessed at that point in time, all right we won 30% of the vote. That’s our base. Next time around we want 40% of the vote. We increased our base and we’re going to keep hammering and hammering and hammering until we get a majority. And I think for us, we barely defeat certain things and then there’s no strategy to consolidate the 51% of the people who disagreed. That’s our potential base. How do we contact them and organize them and build them?

Looking ahead

RH: Are there any strategies that you’ve either have seen working or that you’ve been thinking about?

RW: I think that there are some encouraging signs. All of Us or None and Critical Resistance are doing really great work around fashioning a new civil rights movement around people with felony convictions. And the constituency is clear. The injustices are clear. The issue touches upon a lot of things that directly affect the Black community in really devastating ways—incarceration, policing, and having a lack of access to public assistance and on and on and on. I think that movement has the potential of really galvanizing the Black community but also all communities that are disproportionately affected by incarceration and police brutality and harassment. That’s a hopeful sign for me and I think there’s a lot of potential in those movements.

KA: I am of the opinion that the struggle for justice and reconstruction in the Gulf Coast is an opportunity for a left re-foundation, perhaps, and the potential for a third Reconstruction. I would encourage people to support it on that basis, but understand that the time frame for that is limited.

SNH: There’s a lot of opportunity around a lot of issues that I think have the potential to be really galvanizing and not just have a win on a campaign and but really have a difference over time a lot of those have been identified already, but I think also stuff around housing translates pretty well to that. I’m still looking for a little help.

KA: At this point anything of strategic value is good. I think it’s clear what we’re in a position to do. But what chances are we willing to take?

RW: I don’t believe that we’re in a revolutionary period. Resistance on some level, but probably more than that survival. I think that when we’re in a period like that, the tendency is to pull back, consolidate, because when people are about surviving they’re about taking care of themselves and taking care of their families and taking care of the community. In some ways the way our generation deals with it will inform our ability to deal with the next revolutionary situation, which hopefully will come in my lifetime.


Kali Akuno is the National Organizer for the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement and the People’s Hurricane Relief Fund and Oversight Committee’s Outreach Coordinator.

Rachel Herzing organizes with Critical Resistance, a national grassroots organization dedicated to abolishing the prison industrial complex.

Sele Nadel-Hayes is the Youth Outreach Coordinator for the Freedom Archives.

Roger White is a criminal justice researcher for the DataCenter in Oakland CA, and the author of the 2005 book, Post Colonial Anarchism.