Reflections 1985: Race and the Left

Just as today, DSA 35 years ago was wrestling with how, as a predominately white organization, it could effectively work across racial lines and forge ties with communities of color. This 1985 discussion with African American activists Howard “Stretch” Johnson and Hulbert James, as reported by Woody Woodruff, looked at the possibilities of that time and how DSA was largely failing to capitalize on them. In the mid-1980s the anti-apartheid movement and the rise of the Rainbow Coalition offered an entryway; today the Black Lives Matter revolution is the opening and DSA has seized it. Is BLM the movement that will forge lasting left alliances across the racial barrier?
– Bill Mosley

Race and The Left
February/March 1985 edition, The Washington Socialist
Woody Woodruff


Two DSA members prominent among black progressives took to task the white left before a largely DSA audience January 11 for allowing “a widening gap” between black and white radicals despite some contemporary currents that could rekindle the civil rights coalition of the 1960s.

Howard “Stretch” Johnson, a former Communist Party organizer and retired professor of sociology, held up the CP’s efforts to bridge the racial gap during “a specific historical moment” in the 1920s and 1930s as a model to build on for today. “Life was not worth living unless we were doing something for change” every day, Johnson related. “We were one family and it seems to me we have to replicate that situation” in today’s political context to go beyond what he described as a “dilettantish” approach to political work characteristic of DSA and other largely white radical and progressive organizations.

Hulbert James, most recently a director of Project Human SERVE, a voter-registration effort among the poor, suggested that the galvanizing effect of protests against apartheid in South Africa could regenerate the unified multi-racial coalition that was the 1960s civil rights movement because “it is still in the morality phase.” But, he said, it wasn’t yet a specifically radical coalition because “we aren’t able to come together around the immorality of an unjust economic system.”

The silence on the white left to the question “why didn’t DSA join the Rainbow Coalition?” (of the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaign) was echoed by the largely white audience’s silence when James voiced the question.

“We don’t even want to talk about it anymore, and as a result, the gap is widening,” James said.

James and Johnson shared the podium at a symposium on “Race, Class and Radicalism,” one of the DC-Md. DSA local’s frequent “Friday Forums.”

Johnson said he measured the democratic left’s concerns with the U.S. black movement by – among other things – counting references to race and racism in basic texts like DSA co-chair Michael Harrington’s book, Socialism. He counted six. He said that the U.S. democratic left’s “infantile” dependence on a basically European definition of social democracy “plagued” the development of an indigenous, color-blind radicalism here. “We have never been secure making our own analyses of our own country,” he asserted, because of the need for “reassurance from abroad.”

Current U.S. left scholarship like Harrington’s book, Johnson continued, “trivialized” the central importance of racism in the development of monopoly capitalism and overlooked the fact that, he said, black workers are “one of the most advanced sections of the working class” in the U.S. in terms of political and social consciousness.

Johnson added pointedly that white radicals who left the black community out of their program ignored a U.S. population bloc that would rank 25th in size among the world’s nations and was “six times the size of Israel.”

James, following Johnson’s attack on the white left’s scholarship, determined by a show of hands that few in the audience had read DSA’s short-essay pamphlet on socialism and the black church. “We have to look at the literature even in our own house,” he chided.

But, he added, he was an “optimist” about the ability of socialists to erase color lines as happened in the ’60s civil rights movement because of the elements that are coming together in the protest against apartheid and the Reagan administration’s accommodating policy toward South Africa.

He cited students and their fight to have universities divest their holdings in multinationals doing business with South Africa; churches and the galvanizing Nobel Peace Prize award to Bishop Desmond Tutu; elected officials, union officials and leaders of the women’s movement.

Civil disobedience and the arrests of these leaders brought together by the anti-apartheid movement had brought a new dimension to the new chance for unity on the left, James said. “I don’t know any other issue on which Judy Goldsmith [National Organization for Women President] went to jail,” he said.

Referring to the lengthy and bitter but underpublicized strike of copper workers in Arizona and elsewhere, James added, “you don’t see [union leaders like AFSCME’s Gerald] McEntee and [AFL-CIO Secy-Treas Thomas] Donahue running to get arrested at Phelps Dodge.”

James argued that DSA needed to establish a linkage between D.C. area community concerns and the issues that are summed up in the anti-apartheid movement and resist the erosion of anti-racist impulses that are emerging from the self-defined conservative wave represented by Reagan’s re-election. “Poor people ain’t got no problems with big government,” he quipped, warning that the alleged consensus on conservative issues could well be a narrow class consensus easy for DSA’s largely white middle-class membership to adopt uncritically.

Johnson, in his presentation and during a lively question period, said DSA members and other radicals had the special duty to forge the linkages between local issues and those like the anti-apartheid struggle because “we know it’s all one bundle” of related issues, and “we know as radicals that the world is all one piece.”

But, he said, DSA’s future rests on its ability to go beyond theory and debate and be “identified with day to day struggles around issues,” which he called “what we did right” in the Communist Party heyday.

C.P. members, and black ones in particular, retained close ties to non-radical community institutions like the church and social clubs, he said, allowing them to “get out of the radical cocoon.”

A successful DSA, Johnson asserted, must be judged by “how it implements its policies in action.”