Connecting the Dots Between the “Identity Politics” of Black Lives Matter and Class Politics

Ethan Corey October 27, 2015

(Chris Wieland / Flickr)

We like to think of class as the empir­i­cal, tan­gi­ble idea behind every­thing else. You know, there’s race, gen­der, sex­u­al­i­ty, and all the oth­er social dif­fer­ences that we some­times deri­sive­ly refer to as iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics,’ but class is the real thing” said Jelani Cobb, Direc­tor of Africana Stud­ies at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Con­necti­cut and mod­er­a­tor of Black Lives Matter/​Fight for $15: A New Social Move­ment,” held Octo­ber 19 at the CUNY Mur­phy Insti­tute for Work­er Edu­ca­tion and co-spon­sored by the Sid­ney Hill­man Foundation. 

Cobb, who was joined by #Black­Lives­Mat­ter co-cre­ator Ali­cia Garza and Fight4$15 orga­niz­ing direc­tor Kendall Fells, con­tin­ued, But if we look at this nar­ra­tive and the his­to­ry of labor, we find iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics’ pop­ping up again and again. My moth­er was a domes­tic work­er. Under the [1935 Social Secu­ri­ty Act], she was inel­i­gi­ble for ben­e­fits, a con­ces­sion to South­ern Democ­rats. For her, these ques­tions were not abstract. Her exploita­tion as a woman, her exploita­tion as a black per­son, and her exploita­tion as a work­er were intri­cate­ly con­nect­ed and woven together.”

The ques­tion of the rel­a­tive impor­tance of class ver­sus oth­er mark­ers of iden­ti­ty, such as race, gen­der or sex­u­al­i­ty, has often divid­ed the Left through­out its his­to­ry, but on this chilly Octo­ber morn­ing, all three speak­ers were in agree­ment: The prob­lems fac­ing black peo­ple in Amer­i­ca are insep­a­ra­ble from the ques­tion of class and exploita­tion and vice versa.

What we are fight­ing around are the con­tours of black life,” Garza said, attempt­ing to define the broad mis­sion of Black Lives Mat­ter. We do work around polic­ing and crim­i­nal jus­tice, but we also take on devel­op­ment, afford­able hous­ing and gen­tri­fi­ca­tion, gen­der jus­tice, trans lib­er­a­tion, eco­nom­ic jus­tice, anti-aus­ter­i­ty and pri­va­ti­za­tion, cli­mate jus­tice, edu­ca­tion, cor­po­rate account­abil­i­ty, and rights, dig­ni­ty, and respect for gay, les­bian, and bisex­u­al folks, because all of these issues shape the con­tours of black life. We’re fight­ing back against anti-Black racism, but we’re also fight­ing for dig­ni­ty and equal­i­ty for all persons.”

Like­wise, Fells high­light­ed the ways in which Fight for $15 is about much more than $15 and a union. The typ­i­cal fast food work­er, he not­ed, is a sin­gle moth­er of col­or, strug­gling to feed a fam­i­ly and pay rent. In fact, Fight for $15 orig­i­nal­ly grew out of an orga­niz­ing effort for afford­able hous­ing. In 2012, Fells was work­ing with New York Com­mu­ni­ties for Change, an advo­ca­cy group push­ing for edu­ca­tion and hous­ing jus­tice in New York City, col­lect­ing sig­na­tures from low-wage work­ers for a peti­tion on afford­able hous­ing. When orga­niz­ers fol­lowed up with the work­ers, they start­ed to real­ize that they couldn’t address hous­ing with­out look­ing at wages and jobs.

A lot of them couldn’t even get to afford­able hous­ing, they were so far in pover­ty. They were sleep­ing in home­less shel­ters, couch-surf­ing, even though they were work­ing one, two, three jobs,” Fells said.

In fact, as both Fells and Garza agreed, black women have pro­vid­ed the back­bone for both Black Lives Mat­ter and Fight for $15. Garza offered the exam­ple of Jean­i­na Jenk­ins, a 19-year-old employ­ee at the McDonald’s in Fer­gu­son, Mis­souri. Before the killing of Mike Brown, Jenk­ins had been an active mem­ber of Show Me 15, the local Fight for $15 chap­ter, get­ting arrest­ed for tres­pass­ing with oth­er Show Me 15 activists at a McDonald’s share­hold­er meet­ing in May 2014. After Brown’s death, Jenk­ins was one of the first peo­ple out on the streets, help­ing to lead protests in front of the Fer­gu­son Police Department.

She was very clear about what the con­nec­tion was. I asked her, How are you doing both things? Dur­ing the day, you’re orga­niz­ing for $15 and a union, and at night, you’re in front of the Fer­gu­son Police Depart­ment. Why?” Garza said. Jenk­ins’ response was sim­ple: Poor com­mu­ni­ties are under­paid and over­po­liced. And too often those com­mu­ni­ties are black and brown.”

Garza also drew atten­tion to the dis­par­i­ty between the over­whelm­ing par­tic­i­pa­tion rate of black women in orga­nized labor — mak­ing up 14.7 per­cent of all union work­ers, accord­ing to And Still I Rise,” a recent report on black women in the labor move­ment — and their under­rep­re­sen­ta­tion in posi­tions of lead­er­ship. Chang­ing this, she said, is impor­tant not only for fair­ness; it’s also cru­cial for strength­en­ing orga­nized labor as a whole.

The rela­tion­ship between orga­nized labor and black folks has always been one where black peo­ple have lent an increas­ing­ly rad­i­cal edge and have pro­vid­ed again and again a com­pass for where the soul of this coun­try should go,” Garza said.

The point, both Garza and Fells empha­sized, is that iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics” and class-based pol­i­tics have to go hand in hand, if either is to be effective.

There is space for us to fight along mul­ti­ple dimen­sion at once. We don’t have to pick one. I don’t have to be a work­er today, a queer per­son tomor­row, a woman tonight. I can be all of those things, all at once, hal­lelu­jah,” Garza said. It’s not about iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics. It’s about our lives. The very sanc­ti­ty of our lives is at stake. We have noth­ing to lose and every­thing to gain.”

Ethan Corey is a writer and researcher based in New York. His work has appeared in The Nation, Rolling Stone and MEL magazine.
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