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Law & Order
John M. Laforge
Press The Press
Dru Oja jay
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Z Papers on Vision
An interview with Betsy Leondar-Wright
Gay & Lesbian Community Notes
Herbert P. Bix
European Union News
Eleanor J. Bader
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B etsy Leondar-Wright is Communications Director for United for a Fair Economy. Her book is Class Matters: Cross Class Alliance Building for Middle Class Activists. Leondar-Wright is based in Massachusetts. Recently she was on a book tour on the west coast. I caught up with her at Black Oaks Books in Berkeley.
CAROLYN CRANE: Often progressives avoid categorizing others by race, class, gender, gender preference, etc. But you do this blatantly in your book. Why do you find it important to break this taboo?
BETSY LEONDAR-WRIGHT: Well, I think that due to the lack of shared language and vocabulary for what’s going on, there are often class dynamics in the room and we can’t talk about them. Of course, it is a very slippery topic and nobody’s going to agree, but we can have some working definitions. When you walk into an activist setting, you pretty much can size up the room by race and by gender. You’re not always right but you’re going to be in the ballpark. So then, if dynamics start happening between people with more and less privilege, you can get to the point, relatively quickly. Which is, of course, just the beginning of the process. But with class, it’s a lot less obvious. The markers are not clear-cut and I think, especially in activist circles where casual clothes are the norm (with college educated activists, in any case), a lot of the superficial markers aren’t the same as in mainstream society.
As you’ve worked with activists on breaking this taboo, what resistance have you encountered towards people being identified as, for instance, a working class African-American lesbian, those very specific distinctions that you make?
I’ve probably done 50 classes and workshops where you break into caucuses by class and, if you put up a definition, or if the group generates definitions for different class caucuses, the first thing that a lot of people want to say is how those definitions don’t work for them. Of course, it’s true that there’s a lot of gray area. I write about four clumps of class experience in our country. There are gray areas between each of them and people who move from one to another during their lifetime. Also, of course, for immigrants, they’re moving from a different class system in their home country that doesn’t exactly line up with the one in the U.S.
What are the four classes you write about?
I’m trying to go on lived and shared experiences that are so formative that they give you some worldviews in common. Of course, there are exceptions to every generalization. Starting at the richest end, I define owning class as anyone who has enough investment income that they don’t have to work for a living. Even if you do work for a living, knowing that you don’t have to is really a formative thing.
Professional, middle-class I define as the cluster of life experiences of going away to college, getting a four year degree or more, having your family be homeowners, and having some other assets and the type of jobs where you have a lot of control over your time and your tasks and, sometimes, other people’s time and tasks—professional managerial work. That cluster is how I identify myself, as professional middle-class. That’s who my family was. That’s who I am. I think we kind of recognize each other as similar, even if we’re different by race, even if we’re different by geography or politics, we still have some things in common. That’s about 30 percent of the population.
the other end, about 5 percent of U.S. families are in chronic poverty
for a generation or more. I think that that really stamps you. Again,
no matter how many other differences you have, if you can’t
get your basic needs met, and you’re kind of outside the primary
labor market for decades or generations, that really is such a unique
perspective to look at this economy from. So now I’ve accounted
for about 40 percent of everyone.
The remaining 60 percent I would say are working class and lower middle-class people. They might have some college, but not to the point of getting a four-year degree. They might own a house, but are probably not able to trade up to the bigger houses that upper middle-class people often have. So that’s the biggest and most diverse group.
You speak about different focuses of activism in your book. What are the differences between class-based tensions when you compare social-justice-oriented activists and environmental-justice-oriented activists?
That’s a good question. I’m not sure I’ve thought about it before. I profiled some environmental justice activists in the book because that seems like this extraordinary place where the class make-up of the environmental movement has changed and that has really strengthened that movement—the old time conservationists, a lot of them were owning class, and then there’s a wave of professional middle-class people getting involved and a newer wave of people of color and low income people. They are the ones being poisoned because facilities are getting cited in their low income neighbors and they have really changed the tenor of the environmental movement. There are some powerful coalitions around the country. Other environmental groups have been like, “Oh, well that’s not really what we’re about,” you know, “Whatever, we’re saving the tree frogs” or something.
I would say the same for the social justice movement. For example, the antiwar movement and the efforts to stop the Iraq war. There are some people who are organizing it with the same base as the Central American anti-intervention movement. So many peace movements have been made up of college educated people; a lot of it’s based in the suburbs. There’s a story in the book about a group that tried to organize a city-wide action against the Iraq war, but only publicized it through email. It got the black community really angry because most of the African Americans in that city were against the war, but they never even got invited to this rally. Similarly, reaching out to the military families, like Labor Against War is doing and Military Families Speak Out. They’re people reaching out to the working class, mostly working class, and poor families of the Iraq soldiers.
What assumptions do middle-class activists make that lead them down the wrong road in building cross-class alliances?
To me there are two broad categories of answers to that. One is overlooking necessity and one is overlooking intelligence. Our assumptions are based on our own life experiences as middle-class people. We were never kept out of a meeting because of the lack of child care or translation or geography so it doesn’t really occur to us. Where you put the location of the meeting is going to make a difference in who comes. Also, the physical accessibility, public transportation, the time of day, all of those things—what Linda Stout calls “the invisible walls” that keep working class people out of coalitions. Then the other thing, of course, is that we all have those class stereotypes; that anybody without a whole lot of book learning is sort of dumb. Those stereotypes run through the mainstream media and culture. If someone’s speaking a different language or using a dialect, it might take you a little while to figure out the savvy that they have, catch on that someone in the room actually has a whole lot more to offer. You may be thinking of them as someone who has to be taught a lot about the issue and needs a lot of leadership development. Then later you may figure out they could teach me a whole lot of things that are very relevant to the community that you’re trying to organize or the cause that you’re trying to work on. That’s especially true with the people directly affected by the problem you’re working on. They have absolutely crucial knowledge. You can’t do it without the knowledge that they have. If you’re trying to work for affordable housing, you have to have the input of the people who can’t afford any of the housing in that area. They’re the ones who are going to be able to say whether a certain solution works or not.
Nearby in Oakland, at the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, Van Jones, the executive director, is a champion of bringing together the environmental justice movement and the social justice movement. He’s a critic of environmental activists who are oblivious to cross-class problems and challenges. He believes that the success of the larger movement comes from bridging that gap between those two. How do you feel about this?
I think that’s a good example of why you have to talk about class specifically and not just about race. Often the difference between people with more and less privilege obviously is the difference by race because, by and large, white people have more income and assets and education and people of color mostly have less. But, of course, that’s just a correlation. The stereotype would have it that it’s an absolute thing. White people are presumed to have a lot of class privilege. White poor people often feel like they’re invisible. And African Americans, Native Americans, Latinos are often presumed to be poor. So middle-class African Americans, including some of the people I interviewed for the book, complained that people presume they don’t have the education they have. Or that they’re not homeowners. They presume they’re single parents even if they have a two-parent family.
You cannot use race as a stand-in for class. I think that we have somewhat sloppy thinking and we don’t know how to talk about class. I learned so much from the interviews that I did, especially with African Americans, about the class dynamics within the black community. There’s an incredible history of class solidarity. For example, of high income African Americans voting along with poor black people sometimes against their own self-interest. They vote against candidates that would give them a tax cut, for example. I interviewed a number of African Americans who grew up working class and have college degrees, but still strongly identify with and work in working class black communities who were saying, “Who do these black ‘leaders’ think they are speaking for the whole community?” They’re angry at the presumption and the way that the issues that mostly affect the higher income people are used as if they’re everyone’s issues. The issues that primarily affect the lowest income people, like AIDS, for example, being overlooked. It’s the same in every identity group and it’s the weakness of identity politics. It’s important to have solidarity within any identity. But the same thing is happening with the gay movement. It’s the most well off, white gay men who are speaking for the whole community. The issues that mostly affect the lowest income queers tend to get overlooked. Same thing happened with the women’s movement and is still happening. So you need class in the mix. We are never going to have racial justice until we start doing a better job on class differences.
How does your inclusion in the GLBT identity contribute to your understanding of cross-class tensions?
I feel like I’ve watched this whole class dynamic play out in a community that’s very important to me because I’m part of it. My partner and I got married, legally, last year. We’re from Massachusetts and so it was not civil disobedience. We were actually doing it for real. It was very thrilling. So I do think that’s an important queer issue. I went to a black tie dinner of a gay group that I won’t say the name of. My jaw was just dropping because you got the impression that if only gays could get married, all would be well. I think getting legally married is great and it will help erode the prejudice. But it doesn’t make employment discrimination go away. It doesn’t deal with the fact that so many kids when they come out end up homeless. Such a big percent of homeless kids and kids in the foster care system, it’s because they’re gay or perceived to be gay by their families, or transgender, even more so. Legal marriage deals with the healthcare issue if you’re married to an employed person. But if you’re both unemployed it doesn’t help at all. It doesn’t substitute for universal health care, which is what we need. I think that the politics of the GLBT community have gotten distorted by who’s perceived to be the leaders. There are GLBT people at every class level in every race and ethnicity and that should be what the leadership looks like. Instead the media image is all these very well off white gay men. I enjoy “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy,” but you would think that basically what it’s about is access to high priced consumer goods.
You’ve included voices of dozens of activists, scholars, and authors in your book. Looking back now that the book is complete, who among them stand out as your greatest teachers?
That’s tough because it really was a remarkable experience to do those interviews. I learned something from all of them. A couple of people changed my course a little bit. One was Dorian Warren. I did a presentation at a working class studies conference and I made some generalizations, which is always a risky thing to do. Dorian Warren raised his hand and said, “Those generalizations don’t work for African Americans.” He’s a black guy. He’s one of those people that I mentioned before who grew up working class and now has a college degree. He made these incredibly cogent remarks about class solidarity. It’s called “a linked fate,” where African Americans feel that their people are rising and falling together and so it makes people vote with solidarity. It makes people reach out across differences, such as class differences. He doesn’t think it works perfectly. But he thinks it works better than it does for white people. I remember him responding to that question of “Why are all the black kids sitting together in the cafeteria?” with: “What’s wrong with the kids from Montana that they don’t know how to have support system to find each other at the strange new East Coast college?” Or: “What’s wrong with the white working class people that they don’t instantly find each other and give each other support? The African-American students are finding themselves in a majority white situation…far from home. They have the consciousness that they better give each other some support to get through that experience.” So I think he really steered me towards asking that question, “How is class different for African Americans?”
Another person influenced me a lot. I had a fairly negative set of initial questions because I was somewhat burned from some coalitions that split along class lines and was feeling kind of hopeless when I started this project. So I wrote questions like, “When have you seen tensions or disagreements between people of different classes within a mixed class coalition?” So I was asking for the negative stories. I was, of course, also going to follow up with, “Well what did you do about it?” I interviewed Gilda Haas, executive director of Strategic Alliances for a Just Economy in Los Angeles. At first I thought maybe it wasn’t going to be a very good interview because she kind of went, “Hmmm, I don’t know.” “Hmmmm, I’m not sure I’m thinking of anything.” At a certain point I shifted what I was asking to “Well, what is your group doing?” She had such a preference for framing things positively. She was able to tell me these striking success stories where, because they tapped into the knowledge of different classes within their community, they won big victories. After that I put into every interview, “Have you had any successes that come out of working together in a mixed class coalition?” I actually took this long story that she told and put it at the beginning of the book, along with a couple of other success stores, because I wanted people who were feeling hopeless and discouraged like I was to open the book and immediately get a shot of hope that we actually can have a lot more clout in trying to make social change if we do a better job.
You admit in the book to your own moments of classism. What can readers do to become more aware of their classists thoughts and words?
I’m not at all preaching like I know the answers. “Oh, I’m the good middle-class person who never makes these mistakes so let me enlighten the rest of you.” I was not taking that attitude. You just have to tell each other the mistakes you make and laugh about it and go, “Oh, I can’t believe the things I said.” That’s a better way to work your way through it. I think cleaning up your language is one subset of classism. There’s the part about how you deal with actual resources and power and money differences. But there’s also how you deal with class attitudes in your language and assumptions. I have on my website an interactive survey question which is, “What’s the most classist comment you ever heard?” When I put that up, a couple hundred stories came in within the first week. It seemed like everybody had a story and I’ve posted some of them on the website. It is chilling how otherwise very progressive people use language like “low life” and “redneck” and “trailer trash.”
A number of people from working class backgrounds wrote about how people say, “Oh, you can’t be working class you’re so articulate.” Or, “I never would have guessed you’re so smart.” That’s a terrible stereotype. A major theme is impugning people’s intelligence. And I think that one’s a major theme in our political system. After the 2004 election, there was a whole torrent of bitterness. All of the people who voted against Bush were appalled at how many people voted for him. A lot of people expressed that in the form of insulting the intelligence of the “so-called” red state voters or the Bush voters. These things just flew around the country like the H.L. Mencken quote, “Some great and glorious day, the common people of the land will have their wish and will vote in a down right moron.”
There was a Daily Mail headline in England asking, “How can 59 million people be so stupid?” that got circulated around liberal and left circles. People were trying to make themselves feel better. But what they were missing is that in the political symbolism in the United States when you call people “dumb” you’re coding them as working class because that’s how the stereotype runs together. You’re condemning entire working class cultures. Now, of course, the people who voted for Bush were disproportionately well off, wealthy people. He did better with those earning above $100,000 a year than with any other income level.
The reason that the Republicans have been able to get people to vote against their economic self-interests, which is mostly true for white working class people, is because they tap into people’s legitimate class grievances and say, “Those coastal liberals, they’re elites and they’re looking down on the regular people like you.” And the thing is, they’re right. There is all this elitism. There is all this looking down on working class people by the coastal liberal subcultures. And that is the most deadly attitude we can have. We need to say, “We may be different from the middle-Americans. We may be different from the white working class people in the red states, but we have some things in common.” None of us thinks that you should be able to work full time and be in poverty. We all agree on that. We all want health care to be more affordable. Our lifestyles may be different. Our attitudes to religion may be different. There certainly is a correlation of disagreeing on some social issues and those we’re not going to be able to unite on.
We have to give up these elitist attitudes. We have to stop using southern accents or working class accents to make fun of people or ourselves when we want to sound stupid. We have to stop making fun of what we think of as “tacky tastes.” The other day I was doing an interview and someone said, “Oh, I guess I blew it making fun of the crocheted toilet paper holder.” Yeah, you did. Because our tastes may be different, but we’re all one country and there’s a lot of admirable people in those other subcultures different from our own.
Carolyn Crane is a radio and print journalist based in northern California. This interview aired on various community radio stations in June.
Z Magazine Archive
HUMAN RIGHTS - The U.S. Human Rights Network will celebrate its 10th anniversary with the Advancing Human Rights 2013 Conference, December 6-8, in Atlanta, GA.
Contact: 250 Georgia Avenue SE, Suite 330, Atlanta, GA 30312; email@example.com; http:// www.ushrnetwork.org/.
AFRICAN/SOCIALIST - The Sixth Congress of the African People’s Socialist Party USA will be held December 7-11, in St. Petersburg, FL.
Contact: 1245 18th Avenue South, St. Petersburg, FL 33705; 727- 821-6620; info@aps puhuru.org; http://asiuhuru.org/.
SCHOOLS - The Dignity in Schools Campaign (DSC) will host a workshop on the DSC “Model Code on Education and Dignity: Presenting A Human Rights Framework for Schools” at the Mid-Hudson Region NY State Leadership Summit on School Justice Partnerships, December 11 in White Plains, NY.
Contact: http://www.dignityin schools.org/.
ANARCHIST/BOOKFAIR - The Humboldt Anarchist Book Fair will be held December 14, in Eureka, CA.
Contact: humboldtgrassroots @riseup.net; http://humbold tanarchist bookfair.wordpress. com/.
CLIMATE - The World Symposium on Sustainable Development at Universities is hosting a follow-up event to the 2012 Rio de Janeiro symposium. The gathering will be held in Qatar on January 28-30, 2014.
Contact: http://environment.tufts. edu/.
LABOR - The United Association for Labor Education (UALE) will host Organizing for Power: A New Labor Movement for the New Working Class in Los Angeles, March 26-29. Proposals are due December 15.
Contact: LAWCHA, 226 Carr Building (East Campus), Box 90719, Duke University, Durham, NC 27708-0719;lawcha @duke. edu; http://lawcha.org/.
MEDIA FELLOWSHIP - The Media Mobilizing Project is seeking applicants for the first annual Movement Media Fellowship Program. The Fellow will work with MMP to produce the spring season of Media Mobilizing Project TV. MMPTV is a news and talk show that tells the stories of local communities organizing to win human rights and build a movement to end poverty.
Contact: 4233 Chestnut St., Philadelphia, PA 19104; 215-821- 9632; milena@media mobilizing.org; http://www.media mobilizing.org/.
RACE - The 7th Facing Race: A National Conference will be held in Dallas, TX November 13-15, 2014. Organizers, educators, artists, funders and everyone interested in racial equity is invited to exchange best practices and learn about innovative models and successful organizing initiatives. Proposals must be submitted by January 24, 2014.
Contact: Race Forward, 32 Broadway, Suite 1801, New York, NY 10004; 212-513-7925; media @raceforward.org; http://race forward.org/.
VETERANS - They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America’s Wars - The Untold Story, by Ann Jones, is about the journey of veterans from the moment of being wounded in rural Afghanistan to their return home.
Contact: Haymarket Books, PO Box 180165, Chicago, IL 60618; 773-583-7884; http://www.haymarketbooks.org/.
LIBYA - Destroying Libya and World Order: The Three-Decade U.S. Campaign to Terminate the Qaddafi Revolution, by Francis A. Boyle, is a history and critique of American foreign policy from Reagan to Obama.
Contact: Clarity Press, Inc., Ste. 469, 3277 Roswell Rd. NE, Atlanta, GE 30305; 404-647-6501; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www. claritypress.com/.
CHILDREN - Fannie and Freddie by Becky Z. Dernbach is about two bumbling villains who gamble away the savings of the people of Homeville.
Contact: fannieandfreddiebook @gmail.com; http://fannieand freddie.org/.
PROTEST/COMIC - Fight the Power!: A Visual History of Protest Among English Speaking Peoples, by Sean Michael Wilson and Benjamin Dickson is a graphic narrative that explains how people have fought against oppression.
Contact: Seven Stories Press, 140 Watts Street, New York, NY 10013; 212-226-8760; info@ sevenstories.com; http://www. sevenstories.com.
CHILDREN - Brave Girl by Michelle Markel and illustrated by Melissa Sweet is the true story of Clara Lemlich, a young Ukrainian immigrant who led the largest strike of women workers in U.S. history.
Contact: http://www.harpercollins childrens.com/Kids/.
FESTIVAL - The 2014 Queer Women of Color Film Festival will be held June 13-15 in San Francisco. The festival is currently accepting submissions until December 31.
Contact: QWOCMAP, 59 Cook Street, San Francisco, CA 94118-3310; 415-752-0868; email@example.com; http://www.qwocmap.org/.
IRAQ/REFUGEES - Ten years after the U.S.-led war in Iraq, thousands of displaced Iraqi refugees are still facing a crisis in the United States. The Lost Dream follows Nazar and Salam who had to flee Iraq in order to avoid threats by Al- Qaeda-affiliated groups and Iraqi insurgents that consider them “traitors” for supporting U.S. forces in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Contact: Typecast Films, 888- 591-3456; info@type castfilms. com; http://type castfilms.com/.
HUMAN RIGHTS - Lyrical Revolt! III will be held December 4 in Syracuse, NY. The event will feature hip-hop musician Anhel whose album Young, Gifted, and Brown was just released. The event is sponsored by ANSWER Syracuse, Liberation News, and SyracuseHip Hop.com. Performers and artists are encouraged to send submissions.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.answercoalition.org/syracuse/.
FOLK - Musician Painless Parker has released his album Music for miscreants, malcontents and misanthropes featuring “Fuck Yeah, the Working Class.”
Contact: email@example.com; http://painlessparkermusic.com/.
COMEDY - Political comedian Lee Camp’s new album Pepper Spray the Tears Away has been released.