Building Grassroots Power to End Racism: The 2012 Elections and Beyond

Catalyst Project believes we need to create a new world, where all people are free from all forms of oppression and are able to live in sustainable relationship with the earth. We envision a world based on global justice where everyone has housing, income, water and food, relevant education and healthcare. Creating this type of material change is no small order and will require a fundamental transformation of power on a global scale. It will require vibrant, massive, multiracial social movements that unite the 99% around the world, and build power at the grassroots. Another way to say this is we want global revolution that liberates all people from oppression.

Election Year: Race and the Economy Front and Center 
So, why would an organization invested in revolutionary transformation put out a toolkit on how to engage in the 2012 U.S. elections? Regardless of the outcomes, the 2012 elections are a time when race and the economy will be in the news and on people’s minds. Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, his presidency, and now his re-election campaign have brought race front and center into U.S. public debate.  From “the Food Stamp President” to Islamophobic fear-mongering, the Right has shown no limits in its willingness to launch racist attacks to discredit and take down the Obama Administration.  Meanwhile, the deepening of the economic crisis and the rise of the Occupy movement have shone the light on the intensifying impacts of austerity policies.

This is an opportunity to engage in conversations with everyday people across the political spectrum, to highlight racism and wealth inequality as the drivers of the current crisis we are in, and to bring more people into the struggle for racial, economic, and ecological justice. This is a historic time, and an opportunity for anti-racist white organizers to push ourselves to engage in the conversations happening all around us, bringing a perspective grounded in the need for collective action at and beyond the polls. This toolkit aims to increase attention and action in white communities on the issues of structural racism that campaign headlines invoke. The toolkit is designed to support anti-racist white people to use the political moment of the 2012 US elections to organize discussions on issues of race raised by the elections with white folks who don’t usually have explicit conversations about racism, and to build support for local racial justice struggles.
Ballots and Beyond: Using the Momentum of the 2012 Election to Engage our Communities in Anti-Racist work is one contribution to the long-term project of engaging tens of thousands of white people in effective, accountable anti-racist work. It offers discussion questions, activities and other organizing and fundraising tools to host dinner-table discussions across the country on race and the elections. Our hope is that this project can contribute to a larger change in cultural norms so that conversations and collective action against racism are something that white people do together on a mass scale in connection with multiracial movements. The toolkit is our latest experiment in finding ways to support people in our network to bring more people into grassroots organizing and deeper political consciousness.

Engaging the Contradictions of US Elections
Voting rights is a key terrain of struggle for all of us working to end racism. Well-engineered disenfranchisement of communities of color has always been one of the key strategies that the elite uses to maintain power. At the inception of the U.S. electoral system, only wealthy white men who owned land could vote. Vicious attacks on civil and voting rights have continued since the 1965 Voting Rights Act, and the racist voter ID laws proposed in many states today reflect a frightening continuity with the history of poll taxes and literacy tests used to disenfranchise Black communities.

More than ever, people are calling out the stranglehold of corporate interests on our political system. Most elected officials represent a very narrow political spectrum, inevitable given the limitations of a two-party system jockeying for position and patrons. The limitations and inherent racism embedded in the electoral arena do not mean that we, as white anti-racist activists and organizers who believe that the ballot box alone will never bring the depth of change needed, get the privilege of ignoring this arena altogether.  While our politics may not center on electoral work, progressive victories in this arena and the defense of civil rights are of profound significance to all of us who are committed to justice.  There has been a dynamic tug-of-war on the electoral battleground through the history of the U.S.  Real massive gains were made after slavery was declared over, during the period known as “Reconstruction.”  Black elected officials held some offices in the South, and those politicians used their seats in power to push for a genuinely transformative agenda.  This period marked a historic advance for all progressive forces.  We are still fighting for Reconstruction and we cannot cede any fronts of struggle.  We must connect the fight against criminalization to the fight for voting rights, and the fight for enfranchisement to the struggle to abolish the prison industrial complex.

Building a New World in the Shell of the Old
As an organization that believes global liberation is needed and possible, we recognize that a diversity of tactics will be needed to build the world we hold in our hearts. We neither place all of our hope for change within “the system,” nor do we abandon efforts to engage with “the system” in ways that build up people’s power and expose the contradictions of the status quo.

The electoral arena is a battleground for life and death issues that have tremendous impacts on peoples’ lives, and on the balance of power in the U.S. and around the world. Yes, the U.S. electoral system was not designed to represent or serve the 99%, AND how do we want to engage it in ways to both defend and build up grassroots democratic peoples’ movements for justice? Around the country, there are grassroots organizations rooted in working-class communities of color who are taking on electoral fights that are going to have real, immediate and long-term impacts. Many of them are organizations that set their sights well beyond the ballot box, but pick strategic electoral fights as part of their broader strategy.

Elections are understood by most people to be the only legitimate means of political engagement in this country. That fact is not changed by whatever critiques we may hold of that perspective or the system itself. Millions of people in the U.S. will be paying some level of attention to the presidential election conversations, and the issues it raises. This creates openings and opportunities. As anti-racist organizers, we can use the momentum of the 2012 elections to have conversations with a broader audience (i.e. not just radical friends, but liberal acquaintances, family members, friends from school or work) about racial and economic justice. We can open up spaces to look at:

  • Where are there opportunities in the local or national election arenas to advance racial and economic justice?
  • How are the ideas and policies we are hearing from Democrats and Republicans highlighting the racism and economic inequality in our social system, and how do we help people to engage with these contradictions?
  • What are the opportunities locally and nationally to address the massive disenfranchisement of working-class communities of color that we have seen through restricting the voting rights of imprisoned and formerly imprisoned people, immigrant and migrant communities, and the recent wave of laws requiring voters to present ID cards at voting stands?
  • What additional opportunities do we see locally and nationally for folks to plug into movements for racial and economic justice inside and outside of the electoral system, and how can we use the elections as a moment to galvanize people?

Join the Conversation
The upcoming election season is an opportunity to push ourselves to go outside our comfort zones, to have conversations with the majority of folks all around us who are frustrated with the way things are going, but are not yet organized into any collective efforts for change. The combination of white supremacy and capitalist hegemony that keeps white people from seeing or seeking out multiracial organizing efforts, or any collective action at all, also relies on those of us who are active to stay in tiny and self-referential leftist circles. This effort is towards broadening our circles. Towards this end we hope you will host a Ballots and Beyond Dinner, and invite not just a circle of ‘radical’ friends, but a broader community of friends, co-workers, family members and others. This will add more people who we can engage in anti-racist collective liberation politics and practice.

This campaign arises from our program work, and is also a project of our Grassroots Fundraising Organizing Team. This is an experiment in a different strategy for directly weaving organizing and fundraising together. For years, people in the friend, family and political circles of our community and allies have supported Catalyst’s work by becoming donors. This campaign allows us to reach out more broadly, knowing that financial support for racial justice organizing is one of many ways that white people at different levels of political activity feel connected to work for change. This is also an opportunity for our Grassroots Fundraising Organizing Team and other dinner hosts to develop skills in bringing together and leading these discussions We have found conversations like these to be important, challenging, and nourishing– in other words, amazing learning opportunities with the possibility of long-term positive impact.

Email Ari to get a copy of our Ballots & Beyond Toolkit.