The Northwest — especially rural Washington, Idaho and Montana — is often portrayed as a militia-overrun wilderness, the kind of place where an aging white supremacist might retire.
Recent headlines seem to bear this out. In Eugene, Oregon, skinheads from the white supremacist group Volksfront spit on a young biracial woman, calling her a mongrel. Latino youths in Mampa, Idaho, were beaten then chased down by a car. Swastikas appeared on a local synagogue and the State Supreme Court building in Cheyenne, Wyoming. The Aryan Nations planned a march for Hitler’s birthday in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho.
But the Northwest Federation of Community Organizations (NWFCO), a coalition of community organizations based in the five states of the Pacific Northwest, saw both danger and an organizing opportunity in these racist conditions.
Introducing issues of race into both their leadership programs and direct action campaigns, NWFCO took a leap of faith that has been well-rewarded. The race focus marked a departure for several member organizations. But the campaigns have successfully raised the stakes on issues such as affirmative action and immigration.
Moreover, the very constituency often painted as potential militia recruits — low-income, rural whites — have sometimes led the anti-racist organizing. In this interview by Gary Delgado of ColorLines, Executive Director LeeAnn Hall describes some of the Federation’s work.
ColorLines: We know that groups like Aryan Nation make their home in the Northwest. Are recent reported incidents isolated media events or are we confronting a new wave of racist activity?
LeeAnn Hall: The activities of racial extremists are clearly on the rise. In fact I’m sure that many incidents of racial harassment are never even reported. But just as important are the ways this rise in extremist sentiment influences mainstream politics. Extreme racist rhetoric and activity creates a space for a more “respectable” centrist movement — pushing the boundaries of the conversation to the right and making space in the center for proposals that seemed unthinkable a few years ago. The Washington state copycat of California’s Proposition 209 is a good example. There is now plenty of political space for people to claim they are for fairness but against affirmative action.
CL: In California, where whites are fast becoming a minority, many activists attribute Proposition 209’s success to white anxiety. In your region, where a white minority is a long way off, what’s the impetus for proposals like Initiative 200, the anti-affirmative action referendum in Washington?
LH: There is a lot of racism below the surface. The right wing in Washington is a lot deeper than just skinheads. And a racist initiative, especially this anti-affirmative action proposal, is as much about building a constituent base as it is about winning the issue. Why does the right focus on racial issues in its electoral initiatives? Two reasons. First, they assume they can actually win these initiatives at the ballot box because people of color are a small proportion of the voting population. But if we only look at the individual initiatives we miss the forest for the trees. The right also uses race-focused wedge issues to bring out their vote in general elections — piggybacking support for various issues and candidates into a unified voting bloc.
tCL: How has this interplay affected your organizing work?
LH: The attacks on low-income people in our states have a distinctive racial undertone, and we decided that in order to win the campaigns we couldn’t afford NOT to discuss the ways issues were being framed in terms of race. The explicitly racist atmosphere, though dangerous, gave us a real opportunity to push the envelope on race with our constituents and to reframe public debate, moving race to the fore. We decided to develop internal dialogues to flush out the issues so that our members would not be divided and so they’d have the analytical tools to evaluate the issues and take a position.
CL: How did you go about it?
LH: Take, for example, welfare reform. Who’s on welfare? How long do they stay on? The current debate has been built on the notion that welfare is an urban phenomenon, and that beneficiaries are mostly people of color, who, with a little bit of effort, could easily find work. This is one message that gets fed to our predominantly white, low-income, rural constituents. At the same time they are being told that immigrants from Latin America are taking their jobs and overloading the social service system.
CL: So how do you counteract this rhetoric?
LH: We do different things in different organizations. In Idaho, for instance, there was an effort to cut public benefits for legal immigrants. Our members were already working to restore an earlier cut in food stamp benefits, so the issue was not completely new. We developed an Action Education session focusing on the racist assumptions and implications for both sets of cuts. In the process, we introduced our members to representatives from immigrant rights organizations. The resulting campaign opposed both sets of cuts.
To solidify support from the Republican governor we gathered hundreds of Valentine cards from conservative districts. We staged a rally at the state capitol carrying a “Let Your Heart Shine” banner made of the valentines, which we presented to the governor — publicly identifying him with our side of the debate. Taking a lesson from the right, we used actions, press conferences, speakers, op-eds and letters to the editor to reframe the debate — and we won. Legal immigrants maintained public benefits in Idaho. And while there was strong support from people of color, the major grassroots constituency pushing on the issue was low-income, rural, and white.
CL: What new approaches did you take to deal with the racial issues?
LH: We took a different approach in Montana. Our affiliate, Montana People’s Action (MPA), has begun to organize chapters of urban Indians based on racial identity. After years of unsuccessful attempts to recruit urban Indians into MPA’s campaigns, the organization hired Native American member Janet Robideau to build independent, affiliated Indian People’s Action chapters.
CL: How have these chapters been received in the rest of the organization?
LH: There are currently two chapters, one in Billings and one in Missoula. MPA has definitely grown through the process, developing a deeper understanding of culture and how issues affect different constituencies. The Missoula chapter is currently involved in a campaign addressing culturally insensitive curricula and teaching practices in the public schools.
CL: What’s been the reaction of key staff and leaders to these efforts?
LH: The organizing staffs were motivated to take these issues on because it reflected their personal value systems. But they had no real experience doing it. They weren’t sure HOW to frame the discussions around the hidden racial dimensions of the welfare and immigrant benefits issues. What was going to engage people, move them forward, and keep them together?
In the end this new focus actually strengthened our community leadership in Idaho. We didn’t lose any of our core leaders. And, by going out early, we were able to clarify the values of the organization. It’s clear that until people have had the time to think it through, they don’t start with a pro-immigrant position.
The biggest effect has been internal. For the Idaho leadership, while there was no pointed opposition, there was some skepticism. Could we really mobilize people in the northern part of the state on the issue of benefit cuts for immigrants? Leaders felt that they would have a hard time getting people to drive seven hours to Boise to take a stand. We surprised ourselves. The analysis that allowed us to link food stamp cuts with immigrant benefit cuts really worked.
CL: What’s been the effect of addressing issues of race on your traditional religious congregation, church and union allies?
LH: In Idaho, our traditional allies in the churches have been very visible on the immigration and public benefits issue. Our colleagues in the Idaho Women’s Network have done a good job of dispelling the myths of race and welfare.
We’ve also had support from people who are usually on the other side of the fence. The “good old boy” conservative Republicans don’t want to be associated with Aryan Nation’s position on race, so sometimes they’re motivated to take action that distinguishes them from the Nation, like siding with us on the immigration issue. Because we explicitly identified the racist intent of the immigrant cutbacks, many Republicans walked up to us at the Valentine action and said, “Those guys have gone too far.”
CL: How did the decision to explicitly address issues of race affect the Network’s basic organizing model?
LH: We were able to combine issue discussions, an experience that our members weren’t used to, with the kinds of direct actions that our members were used to. Combining discussions with actions taught us that we could successfully raise issues of race, but that we’d have to be willing both to talk about it and to organize around it.
CL: What has been the most significant change you’ve made as a result of the emphasis on race?
LH: Organizationally, I’d say that our most important move has been encouraging the creation of Indian People’s Action. IPA’s participation in the welfare discussion added real depth and exposed us to another dimension of racism, in which Indian people are referred to as “prairie niggers.” IPA’s organizing has not only led us into campaigns that the NWFCO might not ordinarily take on, they have also challenged us to put our money where our mouth is on issues of cultural autonomy. We have a lot to learn, but I feel that we’ve made a good start.