What white allies can learn from allies in the gay rights struggle

Barbara Gittings picket at Independence Hall on July 4, 1965. (LGBT50.org / Kay Tobin Lahusen)

Barbara Gittings picket at Independence Hall on July 4, 1965. (LGBT50.org / Kay Tobin Lahusen)

Learning from success is a sweet exercise, and white Americans who oppose racism can learn from the extraordinary gay rights gains that will be marked in Philadelphia this July 4 weekend. Fifty years ago Paul Kuntzler participated in America’s kick-off direct action, when 40 lesbians and gays picketed Philadelphia’s Independence Hall to demand freedom. Recalling for the Philadelphia Inquirer that defiant act on July 4, 1965, Kuntzler said, “I didn’t think, and I don’t think most of the people in the movement ever thought, we would see such astonishing progress.”

At the time I was too scared to join the Independence Hall gay protests, but I remember how thrilled my best friend and I were that they were happening. The boldness of Barbara Gittings and the others inspired me; I did become a gay activist, getting arrested at the very building where the Supreme Court officially surrendered last month.

I wish we were also celebrating our victories against racism these days. Confronting racism as a white ally started for me in 1949 when, at age 12, I destroyed my budding career as a boy preacher by giving a sermon against racism. The congregation was less than pleased. Undeterred, I deepened my commitment to prophetic spirituality and enlisted in the civil rights movement, where I earned my first arrest. Many activities later, I built a cross-race, cross-class coalition for the Jobs with Peace Campaign.

Even when campaigning on other progressive issues, I tracked the highs and lows of my “heart-movements” that were fighting for freedom from racism and heterosexism.

LGBT people borrowed the idea of pro-actively designing campaigns of confrontation from the civil rights movement. Not even the 1980s AIDS crisis, engendering a near-panic that the right wing tried to turn to their advantage, could stop our movement. In fact, ACT UP went on the offensive, escalated nonviolent confrontation, and forced the government and health industries to respond. The film “How to Survive a Plague” has lessons for all social movements.

Allies came forward in numbers, and still do. I can’t tell you how many times I saw brave heterosexuals take on homophobia during struggles to win concrete gains for lesbians and gays.

I should underline the phrase “struggles to win concrete gains.”

The main job of allies was not to search their hearts, to unlearn homophobia, to call each other out for betraying lingering traces of prejudice. As a gay man, I no more expected my allies to cleanse themselves of homophobia than I expect us white people to expunge racism from deep layers of our psyches. I didn’t need my allies to become saints. I needed them to become bold and take risks for me in our common fight to change the power institutions that maintain heterosexism — and racism. In other words, I wanted my allies’ behavior to be about the oppressed, not about themselves.

Making it ‘all about me’

When either heterosexual allies or white allies subtly change the agenda from social justice to attitudinal change, they center the attention on themselves. “Anti-racist” self-absorption seems to be the path of least resistance, especially for college-educated middle-class people used to devoting enormous attention to themselves. Allies preoccupied with second-guessing each other are too busy to confront the power institutions that wreak havoc in the communities of black and brown people.

We need to accept that it is deeply human to be ambivalent, to contain within ourselves contradictory impulses. When I’ve risked my life for others my clarity did not come from the erasure of my bigotry, arrogance, or fear; it came from making a choice and understanding that the choice just might matter.

The civil rights strategist Bayard Rustin influenced me in many ways. He used to say that we know people’s deepest beliefs not from their words, but from their action. In the 1960s white people showed we were allies by taking action – picketing racist realtors, boycotting to open jobs to black people, enlisting trade union friends to join the March on Washington, even sitting in and going to jail. That context of direct action was when the greatest progress against racism was made.

Rustin argued that the choke-hold of racism cannot be broken as long as joblessness and poverty continue. Now we can see how correct he was; black scholars, entrepreneurs, celebrities and even a president can’t really touch racism as long as fundamental institutions continue to generate it 24/7. Only powerful action campaigns can change institutions, and that’s where the responsibility of the allies belongs. What better role for the privileged?

Practicalities

The art of creating powerful nonviolent direct action campaigns has not been lost, but neither is it as close as the corner store. Here’s one example of a campaign that could be successfully waged by the thousands of white allies after reading Michele Alexander’s book, “The New Jim Crow.” Incarceration policy commonly places offenders in prisons far from their homes and families. This is only one of the idiotic practices in our U.S. system, but it causes great suffering. A black relative of mine has spent decades in various jails, with my family and me spending untold hours traveling around Pennsylvania trying to keep up his morale. I’ve met countless families whose limited means prevent frequent visits with their loved one; most of these are African American.

Outlining a nonviolent campaign to force change would include identifying the target in your state (i.e., the person or office that can change this practice), dialoguing with those most affected to share perspectives, creating a spectrum of allies and developing a plan to message and act in relation to the segments of the spectrum, planning a sequence of creative direct actions that escalate over time, anticipating counter-moves by the opponent and planning how to respond. The mantra must be: Take the offensive and stay on it. A handbook for every member of your group should be Daniel Hunter’s “Building a Movement to End the New Jim Crow: An Organizing Guide.”

How does such a campaign relate to the larger injustice of mass incarceration? The system as a whole is too entrenched to be abolished at this time. The bridge to a powerful abolitionist movement is created by a series of winning campaigns against elements of the institution; as the victories accumulate one by one, the movement grows and people grow confident that they can actually win. (Despair remains our daily enemy.) When the movement is large and bold enough, it will be a multi-racial and multi-class movement that takes down mass incarceration, just as the entrenched legal segregation of public accommodations was taken down.

That movement will, in turn, inspire other movements, just as the civil rights movement inspired so many other movements in the United States, such that author Dick Cluster wittily entitled his book “They Should have Served that Cup of Coffee.”

The positioning of white-led campaigns against mass incarceration in relation to those most affected includes interesting dynamics. Whites should take responsibility for dismantling the system piece by piece because whites built it in the first place. The new Jim Crow was not the idea of people of color – why should they have to abolish it?

Of course such campaigns involve extensive interaction across race and class lines. Whites taking action will find it easier to let go of shyness and fear while relating, just as happened in the civil rights movement. Abstraction, timidity and political correctness fall away in the realness of campaigning — college-educated white people get to join the rest of the human race.

A useful by-product of such a campaign would be learning how to handle the do-gooder impulse sure to arise among white people once the drama spills over into the mass media. I’m thinking of the churches, for example, that will volunteer to run buses to prisons at distant points to make it easier for poor families to visit their loved ones. Campaigners can learn to distinguish between charity and justice, and invite the churches to join them in using what Martin Luther King Jr. called “the sword that heals” — nonviolent action.

While a creative direct action campaign brings many positive results for all involved, including the opponents, the bottom line is removing a piece of the racist structure that imposes suffering on working-class people of color. It is about them, after all.

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