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Never Give Up

Barbara Ehrenreich

November 10, 1997 – Breaking Bread Forum, Democratic Socialists of America


I want to talk about racism, building a progressive movement, and the problems of loneliness.

To begin with the first two items. Obviously the struggle against racism is integral to and necessary for the emergence of a broad progressive movement. No one here has to be convinced of that. And in some ways this is a perfect time to be confronting the issues of race among those people who most need this confrontation — meaning white people. Six months ago, the “mainstream” conservative position was that we don’t need affirmative action because there is no more racism and hasn’t been any for 40 years — except of course the implicit racism of affirmative action itself. Except for that one flaw — affirmative action — we had achieved the perfect color-blind society.

Six months later — after Mark Fuhrman, after the revelations about the Philadelphia Police Department, the Pittsburgh Police Department, the New Orleans Police Department — after the emergence of an armed and for the most part, viciously racist, militia movement — after the latest statistics on incarceration by color, showing that one-third of black men are in the grip of the criminal justice system, one way or another — after all that, no one can deny the continuing vitality of racism as a force in American life. This is a fine time, a perfect time, to be saying to one’s white neighbors or co-workers: Now do you understand why so many African-Americans cheered O.J. Simpson’s acquittal? Now do you understand why a million black men would march behind even a Louis Farrakhan to be counted in Washington? To show that they still exist, that they can still stand up and be counted?

But if it’s a fine time to be advancing the progressive cause by confronting racism, it is also a hard time. Because you look around and there is no morally inclusive civil rights movement — probably nothing that should be called a civil rights movement at all. That march of a million men, for all its pride and promise, bears the ineradicable stain of ignorant and spiteful prejudice — and in all the talk of “atoning,” there was no atoning for that.

Nor was there any message, or much of a message — just in scattered speeches now and then — of social redemption that includes us all. No vision of multicultural unity against the real forces of social destruction and division. Only a vision, which as the Wall Street Journal so perceptively noted, is as deeply conservative in spirit as that other huge movement of men — the Christian (and mostly white) Promise Keepers, where the “promise” is, of course, the restoration of patriarchy.

Here’s where the issue of loneliness comes in. To those of you who want to march to that drummer, I have to say “Goodbye — goodbye for now anyway.” I can’t join, I can’t even applaud from the sidelines. As a white person, as a white woman, as a white woman who bears a Jewish surname — I can’t be any part of this.

It’s not my feeling of hurt that is important here. Because I can understand, dimly anyway, the historical devolution from Martin Luther King to Louis Farrakhan. I can understand that it was fueled by declining black hope and increasing white brutality, by mounting poverty and relentless racism. If I ask myself what did I do, over the last 30 years, to halt these forces of cruelty and hate that brought us to Farrakhan? I would have to answer, truly and honestly, not enough. Far from enough.

So the issue is not the loneliness of hurt but the loneliness of moral abandonment, which goes far deeper. The civil rights movement was once the moral code of all our movements, spawning feminism, spawning an anti-war and anti-militarism movement, reviving and challenging the trade union movement, gestating a movement of the poor of all colors. The civil rights movement was not our only hope, but it was perhaps our finest hope.

Maybe there is another place we can now invest those same hopes. Maybe, as some on the left are suggesting, progressives have to re-center themselves in the venerable old class struggle, in which issues of race and gender are once again subsumed under the banner of economic justice (hopefully addressed far more sensitively than ever in the past). Maybe a revitalized AFL-CIO will become the institutional framework of our next left. Maybe. We can hope, anyway, and do our best to make it happen.

But the point I want to make is that sometimes we will not be able to locate our moral center “somewhere else.” Sometimes we have to get used to a little loneliness, because sometimes the only moral center we will find is in ourselves.

Now I respect other people’s strategic calculations when those calculations take them places I cannot go: In this organization, the predominate argument, for many years, was that we had to be in the Democratic Party, no matter how disgusting it was and is, because that’s where “our people” were. I didn’t agree, but I could respect the argument.

Sometimes though, you have to draw a line. I am a feminist, for example, and a fervent supporter of gay rights, but there are times when both those movements seem to me too fixated on integrating their constituencies into the U.S. military, rather than creating a society in which there is no military. And then I have to stand back, because that’s a march I can’t be in.

I am a union member and passionate supporter of the union movement, but there are times when it has less resembled a “movement” than a form of bureaucratic ossification (and corruption). And then again, I can’t cheer.

I would like nothing so much as to find myself in a movement that includes people of my own ethnic and class background — white and working class. But again and again, the leaders who seem to “stir” my people, if I can call them that, are men like George Wallace or Pat Buchanan or David Koresh. And there’s no place for me in that march either.

Look, these are desperate and chaotic times. History has left us no operating manual, no step-by-step instructions. Nothing is promised, nothing is guaranteed, everything we have ever fought for is in danger or already in ruins. We have to find our own way — maybe a new way. That can be scary, that can definitely be lonely.

But there is a way in which we are not alone. When we stand on principle — no matter how unpopular that principle may be, no matter how much it separates us from the crowd — and I mean principles like socialism, like racial and gender justice — we are sending a message to people we do not know — to people who are far away (as far as Chiapas or Nigeria perhaps) and to people who are not born yet. And that message is: You are not alone. We too have worked and dreamed for something better. That message is: Never give up.


Copyright 1996 by Z Magazine. All rights reserved.