The Arc Is Bending Toward Justice. But That Doesn’t Make Our Work Easier

Quiet as it's kept, we're making real progress toward a just society. So next year, writes Rinku Sen, I'm keeping three imperatives: avoid triumphalism, put an explicit racial analysis front and center in national debates, and fight like hell.

By Rinku Sen Dec 19, 2011

As 2011 ends, the arc of the moral universe appears to be bending in the direction of justice. Developments in immigration, criminal justice and labor policy point to shifts in the discourse that give communities of color some new leverage. If we avoid triumphalism, get explicit about race and keep fighting, we can make the most of movement potential in the coming year.

Immigrant rights activists are celebrating key victories. For years, huge amounts of money and energy went into advocating what was called "comprehensive immigration reform," at the expense of all other demands and strategies. The "comprehensive" reform idea was to balance new immigration enforcement schemes with legalizing the status of millions of undocumented people and improving the system overall. But a comprehensive bill never passed. Rather, every year the bill got worse for immigrants–more enforcement and less relief. By 2009, the comprehensive bill was fully dead, leaving the field free to address the racial and economic anxiety behind that loss. 

The bill’s failure opened up space for many organizations to take a broader approach, one that was less legislative and more cultural. That shift lets us humanize immigrants, which leads native-born people to ask themselves if the enforcement-only approach is worth the deaths, the family separations and the civil rights violations that result from our system.

Even immigration hard liners are softening their language, and their policy prescriptions. On MSNBC this fall, Roy Beck, the founder of Numbers U.S.A., a restrictionist organization with millions of members, referred to "people who are here without papers" rather than labeling them with the i-word. He also said that mass deportation and mass legalization are not the only options. We’ve always known that Beck didn’t like mass legalization, but backing off from mass deportation is a shift. The right is increasingly playing defense.

It’s not just Numbers’ shift. In November, voters recalled anti-immigrant Arizona State Sen. Russell Pearce. Last week, the Department of Justice concluded that Arizona’s celebrity hard line Sherriff Joe Arpaio is, essentially, running a war against Latinos; the findings prompted Immigration and Customs Enforcement to finally rescind his contract to enforce immigration policy. In the meantime, numerous media outlets are officially dropping the i-word, including the New York Times, which just dropped the noun, opening the door for a push to end its use in any form.

On the criminal justice front, Troy Davis’ execution brought the death penalty into the national conversation in a way not seen in years. It used to be a standard question during presidential elections (though mainly from supporters who wanted to ensure that the next president wouldn’t outlaw it). The Death Penalty Information Center reports an historic 75 percent drop in death sentences since 1996. This year Illinois abolished the practice, the governor of Oregon said that no more executions would take place during his term and the Ohio Supreme Court is taking a look at problems in its system. And last week, North Carolina Gov. Bev Perdue vetoed an effort to repeal the state’s historic Racial Justice Act, which allows death row inmates to appeal for sentence reductions based on racial disparities in death sentencing. Perdue strongly supports the death penalty, but has said bias in the system is nonetheless unacceptable.

Even in this terrible economy, there are victories to celebrate. Just last week, President Obama took the first steps toward closing a loophole in the Fair Labor Standards Act regulations that prevent millions of home healthcare workers from receiving overtime and minimum wage enforcement. Ninety-two percent of these workers are women, and 42 percent are black or Latino. Also on the labor front, the Ohio Organizing Collaborative won back collective bargaining rights for the state’s public sector unions. Public sector jobs are also disproportionately held by people of color, and collective bargaining has been key to the admittedly shaky but still important economic gains communities of color have made in recent decades.

Given all of these victories, as 2012 swings us into the election, I am keeping three imperatives in mind. First, avoid the temptations of triumphalism. Second, put an explicit racial analysis front and center in national debates. Third, fight like hell.

The process of social change looks like an arc over several decades, but in the shorter term it has a lot of dips as well as peaks. As soon as we head into a peak period, it can be easy to assume that more victories will follow. Any such assumption would be wildly premature, certainly now, and possibly ever.

Triumphalism hurts us in multiple ways. It clouds our judgment about the strength of the opposition and its endless creativity. While a celebratory tone motivates many, it can also reduce the urgency for others to get involved. Our triumphalism can also humiliate the other side. Humiliation is a complicated thing. People of color have suffered a lot of it on a daily basis, but returning the damage is not in my list of movement values. While I’m not too concerned about Joe Arpaio, I am concerned about both his supporters and those who are ambivalent about immigration. When people with power are humiliated, they strike out, often by blocking implementation of the change we’ve just won. If we don’t want Joe Arpaio to be replaced with a clone, we need to remember that we have to constantly reach out to the uncoverted and keep building support for a new way of running our society. So celebrate well, but keep the crowing to a minimum.

There’s still a ton of work to do to centralize racial justice as a value, and to reframe key debates through racial justice, especially debates over the economy. The victories we are starting to see owe a great deal to our collective effort to re-humanize people of color in the public discourse. We need to keep doing that. But we also must go a little further to help Americans understand why taking down the country’s racial hierarchy will ultimately unify us. We need to avoid the temptation to advance blander versions of unity through "same boat" arguments that don’t hold up under close scrutiny. Better to have a real analysis that takes into account existing divisions, so that we can figure out how to bridge them rather than ignore them. Racial justice activists and thinkers should be all over Occupy Wall Street, for instance, helping to generate a racial analysis among Occupiers and in all economic justice efforts. There’s plenty of space for that, as evidenced by some 300 people who came to a workshop on organizing with a racial justice lens we did for Occupy Wall Street last week.

Finally, 2012 is a presidential election year–and that means lots of often difficult conversations that offer opportunity to introduce new people to racial justice. We need to keep fighting, through our communications and organizing systems. The election will generate large amounts of racialized, and straight up racist, rhetoric. A lot of it will be coded under themes of religion, tradition, universalism and ethics. We need to expose the racial underpinnings of those codes, and connect them to real policy decisions that hurt communities by punishing and dividing them.

Meanwhile, Black, Latino, immigrant and young voters will need to be protected from harassment. Voting rights are deeply threatened by voter ID laws in numerous states, and until very recently it appeared as though the Department of Justice wasn’t going to challenge them at all. Attorney General Eric Holder finally announced a thorough review of those laws earlier this month. But it’s not just about defending the vote. We also must create meaningful options for voters. So we should be prepared to take advantage of whatever pressure Democrats and Republicans feel to win voters of color to get concessions on both the policies they will support and the language they use.

I’ve been doing this work for a long time now, and every year it gets better. It’s deeply satisfying even when we’re not winning, because there’s inherent value in the process as every action generates reaction. But we need to gear ourselves toward winning, so that we can really prepare for the aftermath of victory–including winning more, implementing what we won and fighting off the backlash. All of that is coming in 2012, and more. Can’t wait.