By: Traci for the Southern Strategy Committee
The Centrality of the South
The Southern Strategy committee of Bring the Ruckus has consistently maintained that the South is the key to building a revolutionary movement in the United States. Three years after our organization committed to a Southern Strategy, we still defend the strategic nature of the South in our organizing within BtR. This document is an attempt to advance that argument even further by opening up new areas of discussion, and reevaluating strategic work in the region.
Events have occurred recently that support the argument that the South is central to revolutionary struggle even more convincingly than previous historical justifications. As more of our members either move or travel to the South to work, the state’s relentless pursuit of poor folks of color, depressed standards of living and violent police practices become more obvious. Additionally, it has become impossible to ignore the abandonment of race by many Southern white progressives and the routine power grabs taking place by whites. The destruction of New Orleans, the open and unapologetic white racist rebuilding of Southern cities, the publicized racial strife in Jena, workplace struggles of cab drivers in Nashville, and ICE raids in Louisiana and Mississippi, all reveal that race relations are increasingly strained. While some on the left may argue that a Southern strategy is not viable, we argue that a Southern Strategy is necessary for the left to consider and needs to be taken seriously. Racial tensions exist in the South, what we must do now is determine how and when those racial tensions will break.
Revolutionary Potential of the South
The South holds a great deal of revolutionary potential for radical work in the US.1 Certainly, as we watched the storms roll through the South in 2005, and wipe out entire communities and entire cities, many of us felt then as if we were witnessing the origins of the next racial justice movement. Instead, we saw a series of mobilizations, rather than a sustained racial justice movement, follow the destruction of the storms. Many of us were also hopeful that movement would develop in 2007 out of Jena, LA when six young Black men were shamelessly attacked first by a racist community that hung nooses from a tree and then by their own local criminal justice system. As we turned our attention to Jena, many of us looked again for the development of a movement and while we did witness successful mobilizations, the movement we were looking for has yet to take off. We had hoped that the impact of televising these attacks on communities of color in the South would result in a similar uprising to the one that developed after the world saw Bull Connor’s dogs unleashed on Southern Black communities. We looked optimistically to each event and believed that we would find something organic and sustainable arise out the violence and destruction these events imposed on Black communities in the South. While each time we have seen these mobilizations fail to develop into a larger movement, the groundwork that these mobilizations have laid for revolutionary change cannot be discounted.
Looking at the post storm developments for example, many successes can be seen in the form of mutual aid and grassroots organizations that arose to fill the holes left by the failures of the State, the Red Cross, and government institutions. Perhaps even more substantial is the development of a more radicalized and political population. These things have fundamentally changed the political landscape of the South. For example, the community in Jena has since developed their own organization with the help of Friends and Family of Louisiana’s Incarcerated Children (FFLIC) to navigate the legal system for their sons, as well as learn valuable organizing skills in a town that in many ways was skirted by the Civil Rights movement in the 1960’s. The mutual aid and grassroots work that took place in New Orleans post Katrina and Rita as well as a history of this kind of work in the region helped lay the groundwork for the development of the political work in Jena.
While the full impact of the work these organizations are doing has yet to be seen, their existence has made one thing abundantly clear: Because the white supremacist foundations of the US ensure that the state engages in continuous, violent and unapologetic attacks on communities of color, the only hope for radical change will come from below. While some may have been disappointed that a full blown racial justice movement didn’t develop after the storms and the events in Jena, the definition of ‘success’ and the understanding of how deep the scars of racism and those left by the storms run may be limited. Rather than focus on a disappointment around the failure of a large-scale movement to kick off, it is important to examine what is different about the political landscape of the region and what has remained the same. While there is more radicalized population, understanding that the dramatic impacts of poverty on organizing, the lasting effects of the storms, and the daily struggles for survival often hamper sustainable organizing in the region. The significance of sustained racial oppression on the development of a modern day racial justice movement requires an examination of the complexities of both radicalism and racialization in the South. As we in BtR do this, we find more support for our belief that a movement is coming.
It is important not be discouraged by the absence of an expanded social justice movement in the South over the past three years. Radicals must guard against being blinded by a desire for an instantaneous movement to develop. The origins of the next social movement in the South lies not in events like storms or in the symbolic hanging of nooses but in the protracted struggles that people of color engage in against the continual assault from the state and the economy on their lives. Because of this, the South holds the promise for the next racial justice movement, particularly when we look at the reality of people’s lives and the historical implications of the development of sustained systems of social control.
New Orleans is just one case in point. Over the past three years, there has been an aggressive white take-over of the city and its political leadership positions, reductions in social services, a deepening segregation of the school system through privatization, and the destruction of public housing purposefully pushing out the poor. Additionally, across the South, income disparities are wider, the middle class is smaller, and the impacts of neoliberal policies on standards of living are simply more blunt. Looking at policies around immigration for example highlight how pervasive and far reaching these systems of social control are in the region. Not only is immigration round up and detention rapidly increasing in the South but historical patterns of immigration, the tensions created by the limited access to jobs and social services, and the political exploitation of these experiences are helping to build a politically significant industry around immigration and racial strife. This is adding a new and less visible layer of racial intolerance to Southern society.
These examples demonstrate the profound nature of social control policies in the South and the consequences these policies have for the rest of the nation. This can be difficult to see at times. For example, looking at incarceration rates we see that many states imprison people of color disproportionate to their populations. However, the South is the laboratory where social control policies like prisons, are constructed. With 1 in 31 adults under some type of correctional control in the US, it is significant to note that the top five states to incarcerate adults are in the South: Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia, Texas and Alabama lead the nation in incarceration. While social control is part of the function of the US government, state and local governments in the South are consistently develop new methods of social control more than other areas of the country. Prisons for example are often an industry of last resort for many communities and about as helpful as placing toxic waste dump in a local neighborhood. However, the development of prisons in the South is not about fiscal responsibility or building a lasting economy, they are about controlling and terrorizing communities and populations. The development of systems of social control and economics are not separate. To put it plainly, prisons and jobs are connected. It is no accident that areas with the highest income gaps have the highest levels of incarceration. Not only are these systems of social control the historical predecessor of the many violent practices pioneered and deployed in the South, they highlight the changing role of government everywhere. Nevertheless, the significance of the South is that it provides the baseline for state-sanctioned brutality including developing new methods to viciously terrorize the greatest populations through policing and incarceration.
Examining social control policies in conjunction with the economy reveals that Southern states are more depressed and more subject to the discipline of neoliberalism than other regions. Not only are poor folks within these states prohibited from moving out of this space one way or another, these depressed regions provide something of a “glass floor” for other areas in the US. The result is a Southern region that not only maintains and promotes the largest pool of cheap, politically weak, and unorganized workers in the country due to lax and ignored labor laws but then keeps these populations in line by maintaining some of the highest incarceration rates of people of color.
The development of the US as a capitalist racial state required the development of social control policies that could keep wages low and workers politically weak. The Southern region is where these policies were and continue to be fashioned. It has historically provided capital a way to escape from labor struggles in the North, and has allowed other cities to keep wages and job opportunities low. For example, recognizing the strategic potential for labor struggles in the region, the CIO waged “Operation Dixie” after WWII in an attempt to unionize Southern industry. They believed that if the South could be unionized, businesses would no longer be able to relocate to the low-wage haven of the region and trade unions in the North would be able to consolidate their gains. However, Operation Dixie failed due to Jim Crow laws and an entrenched white supremacy that ultimately divided workers. W.E.B Du Bois noted in 1953, “Progress by means of this poverty is the creed of the present South.” The same is true today.
As is the case with neoliberal practices around the world, keeping standards of living low for people of color in the Southern states facilitate and provide the baseline for poverty and violence around the nation and contribute to the subjugation of workers everywhere. The recent crisis around the auto industry highlights just how the region leads the nation in terms of repressing workers. Negotiations around the auto bailout fell sharply along geographical lines, with Southern congressmen arguing to cut the wages and benefits of Detroit’s automakers to a level consistent of those foreign automakers like Nissan, Toyota, and Honda that have set up nonunion shops in their states. The political influence of the South ensures that exploiting workers by limiting their access to health care, eliminating retirement benefits and prohibiting them from making a living wage extends far beyond the geographical region. Establishing these standards not only ensures the subjugation of workers in Southern states, they help facilitate capitalist interests in the North as well by paving the road for the rest of the nation to race to the bottom. Thus, those who struggle against capitalism must realize that raising these standards in the South is not only specifically tied to workers struggles in other cities, but doing so can strategically attack broader neoliberal practices of the US.
Drawing on the lessons of the past, campaigns like Operation Dixie not only demonstrate the strategic need to break the glass floor, but how important it is for revolutionaries to understand how racial forces have changed, and continue to change over time. Examining the history of progressive social movements in part gets us to this understanding. The ways in which social movements have historically been repressed in the South, not only provide the model for brutal policies elsewhere, but establish templates for systems of social control designed to prevent future movements from taking place. Like the failure of Operation Dixie effected the consolidation of gains of labor in the North, the systems of social control designed and tested in the South impact the ability of other movements to take shape and fight state forces in the rest of the nation. The tactics of violent policing, incarceration and terror were all developed in the South around the institution of slavery. Over time these tactics have been elaborated, modified, and spread to other regions for the purpose of keeping communities in line and limiting rebellion. Suppressing social movements in this region with extreme brutality provides a template for breaking social movements in other regions as well, thus the ability of Southern states to adapt to and circumvent social movements in the region has provided a training ground for other states to hamper organizing in their own area.
At times, it is difficult to see the unique nature of the South, especially when urban areas with extreme poverty and extreme wealth exist side by side in cities everywhere in North American and the Global South. While the argument can be made that every city has areas that look like parts of Mississippi, the Southern states provide the rest of the nation with a model of poverty and social control. Not only are poverty and incarceration most prevalent, some of the greatest concentrations of wealth and capital exist here. The South is the region where the extreme wealth of white elites is built on the backs of the extreme poverty of those folks that clean their houses and work for meager wages. While this dichotomy exists in other states and other cities, these discrepancies are more dramatic, more common, more concentrated, more extreme, and the most impossible to ignore in the South…and yet, it is the region that it is the most possible to disregard and write off. In other words, communities in the South are both invisible and hypervisible. The degradation and oppression that takes place within communities of color there often goes unseen even while these folks are simultaneously stigmatized, objectified, and targets of violence and fear. Similarly, the historical revolutionary movements of the region are often glorified and looked to for inspiration however, the revolutionary work that is being done there today and the potential it holds often goes unnoticed.
Understanding this paradox of invisibility/hypervisibility is they key to understanding the strategic nature of the region. Not only is the region most subject to repressive acts by the state, there are revolutionary possibilities that exist there that do not exist in other regions. History has shown that sustainable social movements and racial justice campaigns originate here and spread out nationally with major implications. Historically these movements have not only provided hope for sustained and substantial change for people of color in the region, movements that originate here can affect the struggles for social justice in the rest of the nation. This is an important paradox to understand: The racial paradox of the South both creates a region where the most brutal systems of social control are designed and a region that historically holds the most promise for social justice. The South is the most marginal region of the US that houses the most marginal populations. Focusing on this region where the most brutal forms of social control are modeled, is not only strategic, it provides the tools that will allow the exposure of these paradoxes in other areas of the US. Thus attacking systems of white supremacy and social control in the South can open up possibilities to attack it in other areas as well because “as the south goes, so goes the rest of the nation.”
Contrary to the arguments of many mainstream political thinkers today, this is not an argument that the US is moving into a post-racial moment, but rather an argument that the US is moving into a new racial moment. Certainly, the election of the first African American president is significant, but it is not the abolition of white supremacy. Racial forces are still at work and are changing around the nation. Simultaneously examining the impact of the recent election and recognizing that a tension is building with the “old white guard” in the South is revealing. Many feel that their ‘values’ and ‘ideals’ are under siege because they witnessed an electoral coalition of both white youth and people of color that recently organized against them. While this feeling of insecurity within the old guard is welcome for many of us, it is important to continue to pay attention to these forces as they continue to organize and radicals must remain vigilant in struggles against the state…and its new leader.
Understanding that political blocs are not simply about electoral wins and losses, requires an examination of how the white political bloc in the South is in many ways as solid as ever. They have not lost power with the election of Obama, because their power does not depend upon his race- it depends upon their own. The South is still a stronghold for white supremacy, but it has become more skillful in developing systems of repression and this has resulted in starker contradictions. Voters can elect an African American president who can even win a few states in the South but that does not result in people of color leading better or more equal lives even while that is the message many racial forces continue to sell to the public.
While the election of Obama is significant, it is not the end of the US as a racial state, nor is it an end to the capitalist system it upholds. People of color continue to be under attack from systems of social control and supporting their struggles requires that we figure out how to fight back. Recognizing this will allow radicals to find ways to act from an offensive position. It is important not only to take lessons from history but also from those who are taking up the fight now. Pushing on the contradictions of individualism and universalism both in the US and within its liberal ideology, allows for responses to changes in the political landscape and changes in racial forces. Doing so will further foster an understanding of the racial paradox of the U.S. The closer people come to understanding this paradox the closer they come to revolution.
The Future of Radical Feminism
Looking at who lives at the center of these paradoxes as well as who is positioned at the center of the struggles against them, reveals a rich history with women of color at the center. Their subjugation is undeniable and they are quite successful in fighting their own multi-front struggle. Centering an examination not only on women of color, but on women of color in the South, exposes a radical gender analysis that reveals the paradoxical nature of the region, and allows an analysis of the likely origin of future social movements.
Following the storms of 2005, women of color in the region found themselves in familiar, but amplified positions existing at the intersections of violence.2 Subsequently their work has often centered on issues that not only address the range of violence they face within their own communities but also the violence perpetrated upon their communities by the state. Their work often focuses on redefining violence to not only include domestic abuse and rape but also experiences of poverty, harassment, criminalization, increased surveillance and policing, poor health care, and housing, etc. These new understandings of violence additionally extend to their children as they attempt to incorporate issues such as substandard educational opportunities, the loss of their children to the prison system, as well as living with the constant fear of losing their children to the state.3 This work not only seeks to develop long-term strategies of community accountability, it often challenges attacks from the state that target their communities and their families. Their work demonstrates that it is possible to develop strategies that can both promote a level of political agency to address violence within communities, as well as organize against the violence they are subject to at the hands of the state.4 Because New Orleans continues to face the destruction of infrastructure such as shelters, schools, and hospitals, it has become imperative that both this expanded definition of violence as well as the long-term strategies that develop from it are taken seriously. Radical strategies to broadly address violence have not only resulted in the establishment of institutions that provide services for women of color and their families, they encourage new types of community responses to violence that can lead to the development of a caring community. This community is not only figuring out how to deal with violence both internally and externally, it is developing strategies that lay the ground work for a community that can take care of one another as it faces the possibility of future disasters.
Unfortunately, the struggles that these communities are facing are not only coming from within or from the state, but more recently with organizations that seek to do work in the region. Specifically in New Orleans, local communities and groups have had to struggle with the progressive organizations that seek to rebuild New Orleans. Groups that have come to the region post 2005 have frequently ignored existing work - both before and after the storms- by women of color. Additionally, majority white organizations that have gone down to NOLA have often neglected opportunities to collaborate and build solidarity with existing local based organizing led by women of color. Because majority white organizations have not often used their resources to support the organizing of local people of color, they have subsequently rendered the work of these organizations invisible. Because of this racial blindspot, local groups have had a difficult time receiving funding and garnering the attention and support they deserve for their focus on long-term strategies rather than immediate foreseeable gains as many of these outside organizations have. To address this, groups like INCITE! argue to center the struggles of women of color in order to develop strategies that are not only richer and more effective locally, but also strengthen social justice struggles for everyone. This approach not only fosters new ways of thinking about strategies to organize around justice and liberation, the re-centering women in radical agendas allows the development of a political imagination that is often lacking in present organizing. Recognizing that issues that women of color face as specifically political issues that provide the greatest traction for our organizing rather than frame them as identity issues with limited capability, provides a more strategic focus for organizing.
Looking at both the responses around Katrina as well as Jena reveals how this might work on the ground. Placing the strategies of women of color in a more primary position rather than silencing their voices could have presented challenges to the multi-faceted nature of violence and the lack of safe spaces during and after Katrina. Community responses that highlighted the voices of women of color could have presented alternatives to state tactics of herding people up, placing them in unsafe spaces like the Superdome and militarily occupy the city to “restore order.” Similarly, strategies developed by women of color around the complex issue of violence could have also helped to anticipate the ways in which Black men would be targeted by the state and vigilantes both during the military occupation and in the aftermath of the storms since 2005. Where the tactics of the state only served to hyperexpose the poverty and violent nature of survival, the strategies developed by women of color could have provided tangible solutions, aid, and the basis for the redevelopment of their struggling community.
The community within Jena experienced something very similar. The silencing of the trials they faced from racial segregation and continual violence targeting their youth resulted in a small but no less significant rebellion by people of color and a violent white backlash. After the mainstream media picked up on the events in Jena, the town, its Black community, and its issues were hyperexposed. Similar to the events that took place around violence against women in New Orleans during and after Katrina, this hypervisibility led to responses both by the media and prominent Black leaders that ultimately exploited the events in Jena and then leave, ultimately rendering the community invisible once again as it continues to deal with violence. Employing the strategies endorsed by INCITE! like FFLIC did, to re-center the strategies and issues of women of color Jena could have led to a different outcome. Understanding the paradox of invisibility and hypervisibility could have perhaps supported a response to address the continued violence that the families in Jena have faced after the crowds left. For example, the local leadership of mothers who were trying to prevent the incarceration of their children and who continue to struggle against a criminal justice system that continues to target their sons could have been supported more. This strategy would recognize that there are still mothers on the ground working to challenge a racist incarceration and probation system that continues to pursue and stereotype their children. Perhaps supporting community responses to develop a nurturing response to the inevitable fear that must exist within the community in Jena could also support them in their fights against the systems that continue to target their families.
Highlighting these strategies does not downgrade the work that has been done, but highlights the lesson that radicals should be learning from all of this: Centering women of color in an analysis and work opens up a new space to develop more effective strategies of organizing. This does not mean that radicals should organize women of color, but instead an argument that the work that is often done by women of color is the place that we should begin to organize from. Taking the lead from groups from groups that center women of color in their organizing is a good start. For example, INCITE! developed a new volunteer model for work in New Orleans to address the dangers caused by “activist tourism,” and created a program where volunteers agreed to stay for a limited time. While in New Orleans, volunteers engaged in support work that increased the capacity of local women of color to organize, and then returned home where the volunteers then worked to support Katrina survivors in their local areas either return safely or get settled in their new location. Additionally, they have been developing a Women’s Health and Justice Initiative. This collaborative project works to improve access to quality and affordable health care. One of the outcomes of this project has been to provide health services and information about the impacts of the diversity of violence women are facing. Thus, they are working to provide needed health services as well as community organizing around gender, racial, economic and environmental justice.
Ultimately, examining the historical work of women of color demonstrates a vibrant movement that has consistently been at the forefront for advocating for longer-term strategies to deal with the violence they face. Engaging with this work is important as we all struggle for freedom. The struggles that women of color are engaging in today in the region are not only representative of what we argue are the struggles of the Liberatory Family but also the direction that radical feminism for the 21st century is moving.