Rinku Sen: Organizing for Racial Justice
Rinku Sen is the president and executive director of the Applied Research Center (ARC) and publisher of ColorLines magazine. A leading figure in the racial justice movement, Rinku has positioned ARC as the home for media and activism on racial justice. She has extensive practical experience on the ground, with expertise in race, feminism, immigration, and economic justice. Over the course of her career, Rinku has woven together journalism and organizing to further social change. She also has significant experience in philanthropy, as vice chair of the Schott Foundation for Public Education, and Advisory Committee member of the Philanthropic Initiative for Racial Equity. Previously, she was the co-director of the Center for Third World Organizing.
Jesse Clarke: What kind of organizing for racial justice were you doing in the late ‘80s and early ’90s? How was it different from today?
Rinku Sen: I think the big difference between now and the late ‘80s is that race and racial justice were not considered core factors in community organizing then. It wasn’t something you were supposed to build into your organizing ambitions and your campaign demands. Community organizing took a very race-silent approach then. What we and many colleagues around the country did was change the theory of community organizing to challenge the racial dynamic of the country.
Clarke: How much connection did you experience with the civil rights struggles of the ‘60s and ‘70s, which by then were historical legacies? Or for that matter, with the activists from the Alinsky stream of the community organizing movement, which wasn’t looking at segregation and economic exclusion as fundamental parts of organizing?
Sen: In my perception, there was distance between us and civil rights players, organizations, and leaders who, partly as a result of the success of that movement, had become establishment people. They were school board members, city council members, members of Congress, and essentially, public sector targets for community organizing. The success of the civil rights movement created a more complicated political landscape. You had people of color as well as white people in decision-making power positions that had to be dealt with by community organizations and labor unions.
Another factor was that the civil rights movement was big, and involved many different kinds of people across the country, many of whom moved into community organizing. The major organizing networks were almost all populated—and many were led in the late ‘80s—by white, black, Latino, and Asian people who had cut their teeth on the civil rights movement. At that point, the key intervention to make was a diversity intervention. It was important to move people of color into organizing and for community organizing networks to recognize that they needed communities of color in their mix to be successful and relevant.
It wasn’t until the latter part of the ‘90s that we, as organizers, got a sense that there was more to the race question than who was in the room. There was an analysis that you couldn’t replace simply by putting a particular set of bodies together because simple diversity doesn’t stand in for the analysis that really defines your organizing theory, your practice, and ultimately, what you can win for whom. Over the last 20 years, the work that I am proudest of is having created, not just a diversity paradigm, but an equity paradigm on race.
Clarke: What were the campaigns of the ‘90s, which brought the kind of analysis into the mix that went beyond just diversity?
Sen: One was a multi-year police accountability campaign that involved about seven organizations in different parts of the country. That effort created a participatory research process and a platform of demands that ran counter to the safety campaigns that mainstream community organizations were running. Community organizations, often with good numbers of people of color, were participating in and supporting the war on drugs. They were making deals with the police to increase police presence and helping to carry out the war on drugs in poor communities of color.
Starting in 1992, we worked with community members to look into the effects of that kind of criminalization. Was it actually keeping drugs out of our communities? It didn’t look that way. Was it driving huge numbers of blacks and Latinos and increasing numbers of women into the criminal justice system? So it appeared. Did it result in policies that gave the police greater power in communities of color? That’s how it looked.
By working on the analysis as well as having the people in the room we came up with a set of accountability demands on police departments, which included citizen review. One of the more creative arguments we made and actually won in a couple of cities was to get police departments to pay out civil rights lawsuits from their own budgets rather than the general city budget. That’s a defensive victory but a pretty important one because it makes the police think about the cost of their civil rights violations.
Clarke: Can you talk about the impact of the shifting demographics in the U.S. and the evolution of what racism means within different communities—as a way of controlling people, distributing the workforce, and organizing the social and economic life to the benefit of the elite. What are some of your experiences of working with coalitions—the strengths and challenges?
Sen: At the Center for Third World Organizing we developed the notion that most communities live in a racial hierarchy. Because of the many different kinds of people in the country now, simple demographics take us beyond black and white, so you can’t make blanket statements about all communities of color occupying the bottom of society. In fact, you might have certain Asian groups at the top of the income chain and others at the bottom of that chain. You might have black communities that have some political power but no economic power and Asians that have economic power but not much political power.
We have tried to develop a more complicated idea about how racism plays out and how we get played off against each other. We could create an ethic that says we don’t all have to occupy the same rung on the racial ladder in order to feel committed to taking that ladder apart. The only reason for participating in racial justice work cannot be: “My people are at the bottom!” because your people are not always at the bottom. That’s not a very sustainable motivation for acting and contributes to some real conflict in multiracial organizing situations. Everybody competes to be at the bottom in order to get their people’s attention and get them involved. But we need a higher level of motivation and a baseline understanding of why we’re all in the work. We need to deal with the realities of the time that we’re living in.
When I was in college, there was the notion that all white people are racist because they’re all racially privileged. I still hear this in a number of anti-racist trainings. Or that people of color can’t be racist because they never had enough power to act on their racism. In a world where you have Condoleezza Rice and Barack Obama, it’s insulting to say that every person of color in a position of power is some white man’s tool. It just absolves those people of all responsibility for dealing with racial equity, and I don’t think we can let them off the hook. I think addressing racism is more complicated than just being anti-racist, which is a defensive posture. We need a proactive, affirmative, forward-looking vision of what racial equity means and what the country can gain from establishing it.
Clarke: So, even if you’re a person of color, you can act on behalf of a racist and unjust economic system. But some earlier theories of economic analysis posit the somewhat simplistic idea that “The differences between the African American working class and the white working class are negligible, so we need to work primarily on the class relationship.” In some circles there is a reductionist tradition in racial analysis. Can you share with us your view of the relationship between class and race and how organizing multiracial coalitions and dealing with economic justice are influenced by your class analysis of the situation?
Sen: Call me Pollyanna, but I just don’t understand why class, race, and gender analysis can’t exist together. Why do we have to decide that one thing is really the thing and everything else is tangential? That just isn’t the way things work. I really object to a race-silent class analysis. As a young organizer, the theory of racial solidarity that I used was “We’re all in it together—we’re in the same boat.” As I’ve grown older and had more exposure, I’ve come to understand that actually our boats aren’t designed the same way, so we’re not exactly in the same boat. Understanding those differences is key to solving the problem and to doing good multiracial organizing.
Just to give you an example, we work closely with the Idaho Community Action Network, a statewide organization of poor- and moderate-income white, Latino and American Indian, working people. The organization decided recently to test the signing up system for the State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP). Initially they thought, “Everybody has the same set of problems with that system, so we don’t need to have a racial analysis.” But then they decided to try to figure out if there are, in fact, racial differences in how people get screwed by the system. So, they sent in 27 people—nine sets of white, American Indian and Latino families. What they found was that 26 out of the 27 applicants got denied. So clearly, everybody gets screwed by the SCHIP system.
But, Latinos were the only people to be asked inappropriate questions about the immigration status of their kids. “Where did you have your child?” “How did you get across the border?” All the questions that government workers are not supposed to ask. If they hadn’t done that study with a racial lens, they would have simply shortened the application form and changed the hours—problems that everybody faced—but not dealt with the questioning process that targeted only Latinos. Consequently, they would not have solved the problem for everyone and thus strengthened their multiracial relationships by clearly understanding how each party was affected differently.
Clarke: Can talk a little bit about how gender has figured into your analysis of racism, power, and class?
Sen: I did a training in the ‘90s for lead organizers that had a bunch of campaign planning activities to do. Just as a lark, we split the group into men and women. What we found was that the men focused in on the higher level strategy questions and were finished in half the time that I had alloted them. But they didn’t do all of the exercise: they skipped over all of the questions about how to build relationships between people and how to manage the details of the campaign—the scheduling, the tracking of assignment, etc. They just skipped all those things that mostly women end up doing in organizations.
The women, on the other hand, spent so much time on the relational questions and on logistical details that they didn’t have a whole lot to say about the overarching strategy. I think that’s a division of labor that closely mirrors the division of labor among men and women in society. I don’t think that the answer is to let everybody do what they’ve already learned how to do, but rather to train organizers to be good at all of the things they have to be good at. And to be aware of how their societal training and family training or their gendered training affects their ability to take on new skills in that mix.
Gender constructions themselves are racialized. Our overarching notion of what is a good man and what is a good woman, are based on white people being good people and people of color being bad people. So, if you look at the welfare debate, for example, that debate is full of gender judgments: The men aren’t doing what they’re supposed to be doing, the women aren’t doing what they’re supposed to be doing. They are highly racialized definitions of what a man is and what a woman is. What a good man is, what a good woman is.
I do think it’s important not to mush everything together as if race and gender and class all work in the same way. They don’t. There are important differences in the way that the systems get set up and perpetuated. But there are so many more connections between them; so many more fundamental ways in which they influence each other that we tend not to pay attention to. When we don’t pay attention, it really limits our ability to frame the issues that we’re working on.
Clarke: What kinds of issues can and should be organized so that the questions are framed in a way that is also liberationist with respect to gender and which can advance a campaign that would expose gender and sexism as fundamental aspects of our cultural matrix and part of the equity problem?
Sen: I think that most issues have a gender element, a gender dimension, just as I think most issues have a racial dimension. I think a good example is “Don’t ask, don’t tell,” the military policy around sexuality and being out, which in its actual application disproportionately affects black women. When you hear about the policy, you imagine white Army guys kind of forced to be in the closet and then forced out of the military. That’s not who’s actually getting a four star in the military under “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” It’s black women. That means that there’s a racial and a gender, as well as a sexuality factor. It also means that black communities, particularly black women, might have a real stake in undoing that policy. But hardly anybody even knows that fact and very few people talk about it in relation to that debate. So, whatever stake black communities might have in changing that policy, goes totally under the radar.
Clarke: Can you talk a little bit about the fact that women of color are taking on leadership positions in different places now and have established some solid time under their belts.
Sen: There are lots and lots of really impressive women of color working in the field and taking on critical leadership roles, running big networks. Sarita Gupta is the head of Jobs with Justice, National Network of Labor Community Alliances. Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins is the head of Green for All. I could go on. I think it’s really important to recognize the accomplishments of those women and the skills of those women. But, at the same time, I also hear many stories of women of color who stepped up into leadership positions in multiracial organizations and are just abandoned by all of the white people.
I have heard lots of stories about organizer training programs that train white graduates and graduates of color—mostly women, because it’s women who do this work. The white graduates of the training program are hired immediately while the women of color either end up starting their own thing because they don’t have another option or, are hired as the outreach person at a white organization, or end up not getting hired at all in organizing.
I think that there are still characteristics that make some of us more palatable leaders in the progressive world than others. You can’t be too confrontational. You can’t be too focused on race, for example. You can’t be too insistent that gender always be in the mix of analysis. Perhaps I shouldn’t say “you can’t be” because I think I’m all of those things, but you have to make every decision extremely strategically. There’s not much room for mistakes to be made, certainly not the kind of room that white men have in progressive politics. You can lose and lose and lose and still be the top strategist of major democratic campaigns, for example. That just would not be true for women leaders of color.
Clarke: Moving forward, what’s the central racial justice challenge for building power for communities of color?
Sen: The environmental justice frame and the intellectual work that that movement did revealed how racism can work as a system even if the individuals within it are not consciously racist. Even if Union Carbide doesn’t have consciously racist executives deciding, “We're going to make sure every community we target is a community of color because we just hate them.” Even if that’s not happening, the activities of Union Carbide have that impact, have the result of not just disproportionately creating health problems and poverty for people of color but actively exploiting those communities so that money can be made by someone else.
I think the biggest problem is that Americans don’t understand how racism actually works today. They define it as interpersonal and explicit and blatant. So, if there’s not a noose hanging somewhere, there’s no racism involved. Communities of color also have that same definition. We’re more sensitive to horrible interpersonal interactions. If we have the experience of discrimination it changes our outlook some, but our essential definition of racism is not systemic, it’s individual. Until you get to a systemic definition, very little is going to change. We need everybody to embrace that systemic definition, regardless of their political position or their color.
I think it has been an enormous mistake to pursue short term gains—to win this election or that ballot measure. We have made lots of decisions about what we will not say because the “public” can’t tolerate it, or is too stupid to understand the complexities of racism. We’ve based all kinds of political strategy—from school board races to budget fights to presidential campaigns—on the idea that Americans are too stupid to understand how a system works.
What we’ve done is let the muscle that can grapple with racism atrophy for 30 years. You know, when you exercise, you have to push yourself, not just maintain your resting heart rate. We have stopped engaging in the exercise and we have lost that muscle. I don’t single out politicians of color as being better or worse than anyone else in this regard. But I do think that we have to pose that challenge wherever we can—to politicians, to government administrators, to teachers, to doctors, and to ourselves as activists.
B. Jesse Clarke is the editor of Race, Poverty & the Environment.Thanks to the National Radio Project for assistance in recording this interview.