Ask any Mexican, any Puerto Rican, any black man, any poor person—ask the wretched how they fare in the hall of justice, and then you will know, not whether or not the country is just, but whether or not it has any love for justice, or any concept of it. It is certain, in any case, that ignorance, allied with power is the most ferocious enemy justice can have.  —James Baldwin, No Name in the Street
Canvassing, and going door-to-door talking with people about President Barack Obama in the liberal college town of Gainesville, Florida this fall has brought me face-to-face with a reality that I generally don’t have to face as a university professor. In some of the wealthier areas of the city, people slammed doors in my face, yelled at me, and told me to get the hell out of their neighborhoods. Some cursed vehemently, like the spandex-clad bicyclist who emerged from his 3000+ square foot house to tell me: “I will never vote for that fucking asshole.” One young man glared at me and said: “I support Israel, therefore I cannot vote for that man.” (Funny, I didn’t realize that Israel was even on the ballot!).
Two recent college graduates curtly informed me that they were in the process of leaving the US, and changing their citizenship because they were certain that Obama was going to win the election. “What country will you move to?” I foolishly replied before the door banged shut. One college student told my wife that he was voting Republican because he figured that Obama would try to take his assault rifle away from him. Surprised, my wife asked: “Do you own an assault rifle?” “No,” the student replied, “But I might want to buy one in the future.” There were also the predictable, “I’m not voting for Obama because he’s letting the immigrants take over our country,” folks.
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I had quite a different experience canvassing in a predominantly Black and Latino working class part of town this past week. The responses were overwhelmingly positive. Even people who disagreed with me engaged in open-minded debate. An African American gas-station attendant pointed to President Clinton’s disastrous revocation of the Glass–Steagall Act as a major problem in his community of struggling small home owners. A middle-age man in the barbecue catering business opined, “I know that y’all talk about Fox News being against Obama. From where I stand, all the media is against him, and we would like to know what in the hell the newspapers were doing when George W. [Bush] was in office.”
These are deeply religious communities of service workers, immigrants, school teachers, mom-and-pop storekeepers and unemployed residents whose experiences have taught them to be skeptical of government at all levels. They are not just supporting Obama; they are praying for him because, as one retired janitor explained to me: “The whole establishment is against Obama; the Republicans have him blocked at every step, and the Yellow-Dog Democrats are against him.” Parents assured me on more than one occasion that their families would be lost without “Obamacare.”
Latina and African American women told me that they would be praying for me in my canvassing work because “los ricos are not going to like your message.” This was the day after Senator Marco Rubio claimed in a speech in Pensacola that President Obama was trying to implement public policies directly from Mexico. Around 90% of the people that I talked with in these economically hard-pressed neighborhoods are voting for President Obama.
These conversations reminded me of my time in Trinidad shortly after the 2008 Presidential Election in the US. In the summer of 2009, the nation of Trinidad and Tobago was still in minor shock that their neighbor to the north had elected an African American as president, and they were worried Americans’ notoriously short memory span might lead to a post-election letdown in morale. Scores of Trinidadian citizens approached me cautiously in Port of Spain and Tunapuna and politely observed: “You Americans have created quite a bad political situation in your country over the past few decades. You need to give the man time to undo the damage.” Three centuries of living under colonial domination (or slavery and Jim Crow) tend to give one a long-term outlook on politics and social change in general.
I mention these exchanges because I want to point out something that has been largely missing in discussions between progressives about the Presidential Election. Too many supporters and detractors of the president have based their positions on abstract arguments that ignore the ideas and experiences of working class people of color in this country. Why are these neighborhoods sticking with Obama? Why has the Green Party, Ron Paul, and other third-party initiatives made so few inroads into so-called minority communities? (There were no third-party or independent party yard signs in the neighborhoods I canvassed.) Throughout my adult life, I have witnessed the unconscious disdain by “progressive third party” candidates towards working class people in general. Often, this comes in the form of: “If only they understood their true interests, they would vote for [fill in the blank].”
The failure of more recent third parties to successfully reach out to working class communities of color is rooted in a fundamental disagreement over history between many white people in the United States (even progressives) and people of color in general. I am afraid that too many of us have succumbed to the virus of American exceptionalism. Let me explain. When some on the left claim that our civil liberties have been abridged over the past several years, African American and Latinos respond: “Welcome to the reality that we have been living for generations. Join our club; listen to our stories for a change.” The neighborhoods that I canvassed in contain scores of young Black and Latino men who would love to vote but cannot. Although their racial demographic engages in no higher level of illegal drug usage than their white counterparts, the latter are not being incarcerated at nearly the same rate for felony drug offenses that effectively end a person’s citizenship in this country. The incarceration of people of color is not a new thing; one cannot say that “all of the sudden” police started singling out youths in el barrio for special treatment.
I wince when I hear middle class people say, “After 9/11, human rights have been systematically violated in the US,” because I was a student at Garfield Elementary in San Leandro, California between 1972 and 1976. Our dignity was relentlessly debased in the city known as “the most racist town in America.” White motorists on Marina Boulevard threw cans and trash at us on our way to school on a regular basis; by time I left San Leandro I stuttered so badly that I could not finish a complete sentence. School counselors asked me if I was being beaten at home; that wasn’t the problem. In 1972, James Baldwin spoke for all of us who had lost our voices: “All of the Western nations have been caught in a lie, the lie of their pretended humanism; this means that their history has no moral justification, and that the West has no moral authority.” From this perspective, post-9/11 violations of human rights in the United States are deeply embedded in American history.
Put differently, American Exceptionalism, the idea that the US is anchored in a fundamentally democrat tradition that is unique among nations may play in Peoria; it doesn’t work however, in neighborhoods that harbor memories of destructive US colonialism in Latin America or slavery and legal segregation in the United States. In these communities, people share a disappointment with recent US public and foreign policies. However, they do not blame Obama for American imperialism because military occupation and racial oppression has been a constant in their family narratives since time immemorial. In the 1920s Black newspapers railed against the New York banks who decreed US military intervention in Haiti, Honduras, the Dominican Republic and elsewhere. (Baldwin famously referred to “that friend we all rejoice to have at Chase Manhattan” who directed latter-day US invasions.) No illusions about America being the freest country on earth. Organizers who wish to communicate with people in working class communities today must find a new historical script to read from; better yet, listen first, then talk.
Movement Building and Politics
The last successful independent party in the United States was the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, founded in 1964. Fannie Lou Hamer, Lawrence Guyot, and other organizers of the MFDP built the party through grassroots networks they had created from nearly a decade of struggle throughout Mississippi in the civil rights movement. The rank-and-file of the MFDP were poor people; they had endured generations of oppression; many had seen friends and loved ones brutalized for attempting to register to vote or resisting racism.
The MFDP was the critical grassroots engine that created the Voting Rights Act. A lesson of the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party is this: if you want to build a viable third party, you must build a social movement first. I have spoken to many current third-party activists about their failure to make inroads in communities of color, and not a single one of them has ever heard of the Freedom Democratic Party nor were they even interested in learning about it. They already had the ideal political platform and they were waiting for people to come to them. They are not yet ready to learn anything from poor Mississippians.
If today’s would-be community organizers want to make any political traction after November 7th, they’d better be prepared to open up dialogs with veteran activists in the Mississippi Delta, east Texas, southern Louisiana, the Florida panhandle and other places where people once thought that building social movements was impossible. According to my friend Bill Chandler in the Mississippi Immigration Rights Alliance, African American and Latino activists have beaten back over 200 anti-immigrant bills in the Mississippi legislature in the last few years alone. We need to find out how groups like MIRA weave community, culture, and politics into solidarity struggles that are multilingual, self-sustaining, and politically effective.
Disappointment: Get Over It
How often have we engaged in conversations recently with middle-class friends who talk about how “disappointed” they are with Obama or even with American politics writ large? I recently visited with a former student of mine who works in a labor union in North Carolina organizing predominantly African American and Latino workers. Our conversation began playfully. Me: “How disappointed are your rank and file members with Obama?” Former student: [Laughing] “We are too busy organizing to be disappointed.” Test passed.
I teach African American and Latina/o history for a living, and I have been doing oral history interviews for over two decades. I have interviewed people who were severely beaten for trying to vote in the 1960s; I’ve also talked with men and women who lost loved ones to lynching in earlier eras. I’ve interviewed women who built Christian-based communities in Guatemala in the 1980s only to see their achievements put to the torch by US-backed paramilitaries.
It struck me in the middle of sorting out my clipboard notes in the midst of my canvassing duties last week that I was talking with the sons and daughters of the people that I began interviewing in the 1980s. This is going to sound like a romantic line, but I must speak honestly: I have found more political wisdom canvassing in the neighborhoods of working class African Americans and Latinos than I have seen in most progressive publications over the past several months.
The future of US foreign policy, Social Security, the Postal Service, the right of workers to organize—and many other ideas that we hold dear—rests more upon our ability to build social movements in alliance with the working class than ever; they are ready to move. Come November 7, we’ll hopefully begin to take the next steps towards turning this country around.
 James Baldwin, No Name in the Street (New York: Vintage, 1972), 149.
 See Brian Copeland’s wonderful, heartbreaking play “Not a Genuine Black Man” for a glimpse of life in San Leandro during those years.
 James Baldwin, No Name in the Street (New York: Vintage, 1972), 85.