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Bill Ayers on Being a White Ally and the Future of Progressives

Should progressive whites forgo organizing among people of color and focus on organizing whites against racism?

A demonstrator displays a sign during a protest in solidarity with Mike Brown, who was shot to death by police officer Darren Wilson, in St. Louis, Missouri, on November 26, 2014. (Photo: velo_city)

Should progressive whites forgo organizing among people of color and focus on organizing whites against racism?

The question is relevant given the overwhelming white support for Donald Trump, the extreme right-wing views of many in his proposed cabinet, and the rash of racial and religious hate crimes sparked by his election. Almost 900 such incidents were reported nationwide just 10 days after the election.

Black activists, from Stokely Carmichael to Malcolm X, have historically urged whites to concentrate their anti-racism efforts on other whites. The Chicago Reporter spoke with Bill Ayers, a contemporary of Carmichael and a veteran activist from the 1960s, about activism among whites and the future of social and racial justice in general during a Trump era.

Ayers, a retired educator, is the author of a recent book Demand the Impossible: A Radical Manifesto. He spoke with Executive Editor Lorraine Forte.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Lorraine Forte: What is your general reaction to this election and to whites’ support of Trump, including whites who may have voted for President Obama?

Bill Ayers: I don’t spend any time trying to parse or figure out who voted for him at this point. The post-mortem that the Democratic Party is conducting and all the commentators who diagnosed this thing wrongly — I look at their analysis and I am left absolutely cold. For 35 years, the Democratic Party and liberals in general have been unable to utter the term “working class.” The day after the election, suddenly they discovered the working class, but it was the white working class. The argument that you hear, again and again, is that the white working class has been neglected, the white working class has suffered. Now, show me in Wisconsin or Pennsylvania or Michigan how the white working class has been neglected and suffered, and what, the black working class has not? The implication is that somehow Black people have had it made with Obama in the White House and whites have suffered. That’s just nonsense. To me it’s a white supremacist argument.

Let’s talk about organizing among white anti-racists. Should they stay away from organizing black people and organize whites? What does your experience tell you about that?

When I was a community organizer in 1965, I was working in Cleveland in a joint project of the Students for a Democratic Society and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. We were organizing around welfare rights, the minimum wage, housing issues, education issues. In the middle of the summer of 1966, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and Stokely Carmichael in particular, came out with the idea of black power.

There was a lot of soul-searching in our project, because we had worked intimately together for a long, long time. In the end, we came to the conclusion that Carmichael was right and that the concept of black power, in the movement at that time, was an important concept for a couple of reasons. One was because it was a statement about the agency of black organizers and the agency of black communities. That is, [they] didn’t need people who felt more entitled, more privileged, enjoyed more privileges that accrued to them not through any will of their own but simply by living in this country. Part of what Carmichael was saying, what SNCC was saying, was “We need to foreground the agency of black people.” We ended up agreeing with that.

The other part of it was that white folks who are progressive and concerned about destroying white supremacy should go into communities and organize white people to see the wisdom in that, to see that their lives would be better if the system of white supremacy were dismantled. So many of us did just that. One of my best friends went and organized hardwood lumber workers in Mississippi — all white. It was an extraordinary experience to be in a community where it was not easy to raise issues of race and racism. It was very difficult. But he found, over five years, 10 years, that he actually could make progress in confronting centuries-old attitudes and privileges and getting folks to see that we had more in common with one another than we did with the 1 percent. That’s my experience going back.

The other thing that I would say is that black organizers then and now, progressive visionary folks, have been enormously generous in providing leadership and wisdom and in accepting allies where they can find them. I have never resented that relationship. I look at the young African-American kids who are leading the Black Lives Matter upsurge and I think of that upsurge as the latest iteration in a centuries-old struggle for black freedom. I have nothing but awe and respect for these folks. I very much want to be in a position where I can be supportive, helpful in any way that they see fit. But I don’t think I need to take it over.

Black power, going back 50 years, was in many ways a plea to white progressives and white revolutionaries to not take things over, but to listen to people. We used to say this: the people with the problems are the people with the solutions. I learned that in the mid-1960s.

Do you think young white people are seeing or understanding that today?

Sure. I think in many ways the ones that I know, the folks that I know. I can’t really generalize because I don’t know some people.

So what would you tell white progressives today who want to be an ally or supportive of the movement for black liberation and for all people of color?

Look, the Black Lives Matter folks have raised a full agenda critiquing the world that we live in. It begins with the very visible serial murder of black people on the streets of America [and] it moves on, beyond criminal justice into questions of education and health care and mental health. It’s a very exciting comprehensive program, in fact. For those who want to be allied with that, and I think good-hearted people everywhere do want to be allied with that, there are a couple of things to note. One is, to be a good ally, you have to begin by listening. You can’t begin by saying “Well, my experience is and therefore I think…” Your experience is relevant, certainly, but it’s not the only experience. So to be an ally is first to listen. Men have to listen to women. Straight people have to listen to queer people. You know, white people have to listen to black people. That’s rule number one.

The second thing is that maybe ally isn’t the right term. I as a man, to make an analogy, don’t want to live in a male supremacist society. I think I would be a freer, happier, more contented, more fully realized human being if I weren’t in a society that treated women as second-class or as objects who are deserving of two-thirds of the income of men and so on. So I don’t want to be just an ally to women. I also want to be a revolutionary against male supremacy. I would make the same statement about black freedom. James Baldwin was so brilliant and prescient on this point. Baldwin always said the problem of being white in America will be solved once black freedom is achieved. You [whites] won’t have to cling helplessly and pathetically and precariously to your position in society because you will be equal and that will free you at the same time that it frees black people.

I want to talk about what you said previously about language and the word racism. Some people think it strictly means personal bigotry. They don’t think about the broader idea of institutions and how they may be set up. Is that something that white activists can talk to fellow whites about more effectively?

I’m not sure about being effective. I’m an agnostic on effectiveness. But I do think we have a responsibility to open our eyes to the world as it really is. We have a responsibility to note that the word racism in our public discourse has two distinct meanings. The reason that distinction is important and the reason we should raise this into the public dialogue is because it’s easy for people to escape responsibility by saying “I’m not racist,” meaning [they’re not] bigoted and backward and ignorant, but they still support a system that is bigoted and backward. What I mean by that is segregated housing, segregated schools.

That’s what it means to oppose racism. It doesn’t mean to call out Cliven Bundy, the idiot cattle rancher. It doesn’t mean to call out Donald Sterling, the lunatic owner of a basketball franchise. It means to call out somebody when they close 52 schools in black and brown neighborhoods. It means to call out somebody when they put another plank in the platform of mass incarceration. Those are structures of racism. Those are structures of privilege and oppression based on race and on the history of race. These things are hugely important.

Also, white people should be reading and learning from people like Claudia Rankin and Ta-Nehisi Coates, who are illuminating the world for us in ways that we are ignorant of in our normal sleepwalking through life. Put yourself in a position where you can learn from the people who historically experienced the problem in a way you haven’t. Then you can activate yourself to work on those structures rather than simply work on attitudes.

Attitudes come from the material base. Slavery wasn’t founded on a belief of inferiority, either real or imagined. There was no sense of that. There was a sense of making a profit off of buying black bodies. That is where racism and the attitude of racism comes from. It comes from the structure of white supremacy.

[Let’s] refer back to the world of education. The commentary that you hear again and again is about black parents and lazy black teachers and black kids who don’t have a desire to learn. My God, it’s so commonplace. That is supporting the structure that says, “Well, you know, Arne Duncan, his kids have to go to a school that has 15 kids in a class and an arts program. But you know, the kids on the West Side, I don’t know. They don’t care about education.” Nonsense.

What are some strategies that people could use to change institutions, whites in particular who are part of institutions or have access to them?

We have to start from a deep understanding that our struggle is for justice. That means that we’re not just interested in the optics of diversity. We’re actually interested in equality. So wherever you are, in a world as out-of-balance as this one is, you can dive in and do justice work. Take the world of criminal justice. Mass incarceration has to be opposed, but not just in the abstract. There are concrete things you can do. My youngest son is a public defender in San Francisco. He’s part of a national effort in which he has sued the city of San Francisco in federal court claiming that cash bail is in itself a violation of the 14th Amendment of equal protection under the law. In San Francisco, thousands of people, in Chicago, thousands of people, are in jail awaiting trial [because they can’t make bail]. If you or I got into a scuffle at a bar, somebody would bail us out. But his clients can’t make $100, can’t make a payment to a bail bondsman, which is in itself an exploitative, predatory business. So that means that his clients spend six months in jail while they’re presumed innocent. They lose their apartment, their childcare, their jobs, their painting contract, whatever it might be. And they haven’t been convicted of anything. How can that be? That’s an example where somebody as a professional can step in.

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My favorite example currently is Standing Rock in North Dakota. When they began, who could have imagined that they would do anything like the movement that was built? But they began by saying we’re standing up for justice. Eventually every tribe in America joined with them, veterans joined to support them, doctors came in to help them. Suddenly we’re looking at a movement which involves environmental justice, indigenous rights, anti-racism, anti-imperialism. And did white people get involved? They did. Did they lead it? They did not. They listened. They learned. They participated.

Do you look at all this — Standing Rock, Black Lives Matter, other people that are standing up — as kind of a defining moment where we could possibly take a leap forward despite the recent election?

I do. The reason I do is that people spend too much time in despair about the Trump election and they miss the fact that we are in the middle of things. That’s always true. We’re always in the middle of things.

I look at things coming together, like Black Lives Matter most decisively and importantly for me, but also [the] undocumented and unafraid [movement]. Again, think back 10 years to that first Chicago march for immigrant rights and you and I witnessed something absolutely extraordinary, which is a million people undocumented, or fighting for the rights of the undocumented, marching in Chicago. Many of them said to reporters “My name is Juan Gonzales. I’ve been here 20 years. I’m illegal but dammit, I have a right to be here.” That was unthinkable the year before it happened. Now it’s commonplace and you look at these kids coming out of the University of Illinois at Chicago and other places wearing their T-shirts [stating] “undocumented and unafraid.” That’s a big huge leap upward.

I mentioned yesterday thinking of the great Frederick Douglass, born into slavery. He escaped from slavery. He became a leading voice, an intellectual leader in the abolitionist movement. He was an activist. He was a huge supporter of Reconstruction in the south. Then he lives to witness the Hayes Compromise [that pulled the last federal troops from the South after the Civil War and ended the Reconstruction Era] and the rise of lynching and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan. What did Frederick Douglass do after the Hayes Compromise? Do you think he rolled over and said, “Oh shit, we lost?” I don’t think so. He rose up, like everybody has to do.

The one thing I would hate is that the election of Trump makes young people or good-hearted people say, “Oh, woe is me,” and become cynical and depressed. I just made a T-shirt that I’m wearing right now and it says “Depressed? Maybe it’s political.” I think it is political. The great antidote to depression is activism. That’s what gets you going in the morning.

Your book is called Demand the Impossible. It sounds like that’s pretty applicable now.

The title comes from a phrase sometimes attributed to Che Guevara, but James Baldwin said something very similar. That phrase is “Be realistic. Demand the impossible.” The idea is, don’t settle for the framework that’s been given to you. Break out of that framework and demand something more and release your imagination.

Everything I write about in this book is actually quite possible. Universal free health care is possible. [The U.S.] becoming a nation among nations instead of an uber-Spartan warrior nation is possible. Ending mass incarceration is possible. But they are only possible if we allow ourselves to imagine them and then mobilize ourselves to win.

Is there anything else that we haven’t touched on that you would say about activism in general, and being allies to people of color in particular?

Two quick things. One is that I have often been described as, and I am indeed, a lifelong activist. But I prefer the word organizer, because activist foregrounds the performative aspect of what we do and organizer foregrounds the deep daily work that we do. Organizing is like educating. It’s learning from people, assuming agency in people. When you stand before a classroom if you’re a certain kind of teacher, or when you knock on a door in the neighborhood if you’re a certain type of organizer, you assume intelligence and agency [in people] and you want to tap that agency. That’s the essence of democracy.

The second thing I would say is that the rhythm of activism, the rhythm of good citizenship, the rhythm of leading a moral life, involves four steps that are easy to say and difficult to live.

One step is opening your eyes and paying attention. That can be excruciating because the world is difficult sometimes to look at. But you have to open your eyes, not once and you’ve got it all figured out, but every day. Step two, you have to be astonished. You can’t become a cynic who says, “Oh yeah, I see homeless kids. That’s normal.” No, you have to be astonished at the pain that we visit upon one another. You also have to be astonished at the beauty and ecstasy that is everywhere in spite of everything. If you lose track of that, you lose your reasons for being an activist. So, you open your eyes and pay attention. You are astonished. Then you must act. The fourth step is you must rethink or doubt. So you repeat that for life. Pay attention. Be astonished. Act. Doubt.

That to me is what activists have to do. That means you’re always in the posture of being a learner and you’re always in the posture of trying to live your values — not just have them in the secrecy of your own apartment, but display them in the public square.

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The Chicago Reporter is a non-profit investigative news organization that focuses on race, poverty and income inequality.