Making Room for Racial Justice in the People Power Exploding Around Us

Bringing our movements together is key to re-conceiving the American Dream.

By Rinku Sen Oct 05, 2011

Over the last few weeks I see a certain poetry in two movements that have emerged: one to save Troy Davis, and end the death penalty. And another to control corporations, especially those of the financial industry, with Occupy Wall Street. The first speaks to social control, the latter to economic control–two sides of the same coin.

The intense protests have been riveting as both online and on-the-ground activism have gained momentum and been covered by mainstream media. The efforts to save Troy Davis were tragically unsuccessful, and Wall Street continues to operate, business at usual. Still, policy and institutions that perpetuate inhumane capital punishment and corporate greed are, for the time being, under scrutiny.

While the racial dimension of the criminal justice system is obvious to many people, the movement to reform Wall Street may be less so. In economic justice, it is particularly tempting to ignore the links between race and poverty, as well as the profound influence of sexism and sexuality on economic hierarchies. 

Everybody’s suffering, and these wedge issues are so often used to divide the working class that many activists lean toward a universal framework for making change. The problem with a universal framework is that what is dominant also gets called universal. 

My friend Anita Earls said once that in this country, we have something called "universal white man" standing. I don’t think Anita would mind if I added "straight" to that description. She means that white men are the standard of universalism, and if something doesn’t affect them, it is considered a side issue and not part of the universe. Given the terrible conditions in which the average white man finds himself these days, I certainly agree that we need to speak to the specifics of their situation. But addressing other systems of oppression, and the people those systems affect, isn’t about elevating one group’s suffering over that of white men. It’s about understanding how the mechanisms of control actually operate. When we understand, we can craft solutions that truly help everybody. Building movements that include groups that explicitly address the racial, gender and sexual dimensions of our economic system is key to that process.

How to do this well is the question facing Rebuild the Dream, the new effort to transform the nation’s political and economic debates. I spent yesterday at the Take Back the American Dream conference, where a team of people led by Van Jones built momentum toward a 10-point economic justice plan. The attendees were beautifully multiracial and multigenerational, and I was encouraged to see so many of the groups we work with providing leadership, including the National Domestic Workers Alliance, the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United, New Bottom Line and others that have been covered at

The challenge remains, however, to fully integrate seemingly non-economic concerns that pre-occupied all of the people who attended a workshop on wedge issues that I joined. My co-panelists were Carol McDonald from Planned Parenthood, Darlene Nipper from the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force and Jackie Mahendra from The four of us told our stories about how we countered conservative attempts to grind down American support for reproductive rights, LGBT liberation, the DREAM Act and racial issues like affirmative action. The common message from the panel was that we have to tell our own stories on our own terms if we’re going to reframe these debates, and tie them to an economic justice agenda. I don’t have enough room here, but numerous organizations have explored the link between being a woman, being of color, and being queer to being poor. 

Near the end of our panel, the audience raised questions about how far along Rebuild the Dream is in that process. Carol McDonald said that "women get involved when you speak to their issues and to their experiences. If you don’t speak to them directly, it’s hard to activate them." Rebuild the Dream’s 10-point plan for change doesn’t mention the dynamics of discrimination, and people wondered when and how they’d be addressed. There are lots of ways that could happen. Inserting a focus on labor law expansion and enforcement that prevent bias as well as protect workers’ rights, for example, would bring those questions squarely into the framework, and many groups at the conference are working on just that.

Making room at gatherings, as Rebuild the Dream has done, for people who are moving a linked analysis and agenda is a great start. That principle of linkage should continue to operate, so that a broad view of who gets to shape the American Dream permeates the analysis, demands and actions that emerge from this configuration. 

To go even further, though, this probably isn’t just about exploring race, gender and sexuality in the economy, but also about reaching out to movements that are about expanding social and political rights, like the movement to end the death penalty. Civil rights, feminism, the fight against homophobia–they joined the labor movement in transforming America throughout the 20th century, as Jones frequently points out. Connecting to social movements is a tricky proposition for an effort that is focused on economic change, but it can be done. Bringing our movements together is key to re-conceiving the American Dream. Throwing off both social and economic control is the goal that defines today’s dreamers and the nature of their dream, whatever their identity.