Black-Brown Relations: Are Alliances Possible?

By Klor de Alva, J. Jorge; West, Cornel | Social Justice, Summer 1997 | Go to article overview
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Black-Brown Relations: Are Alliances Possible?

Klor de Alva, J. Jorge, West, Cornel, Social Justice

Moderator (Ronald Wakabayashi): To begin, may I ask you both to share some of your thoughts on the issue of race in general and how your recent work touches on the matter of alliances?

West: Let me begin by briefly saying that I'm delighted to be here. And I'd like to thank brother Leonard Robinette [Chairman and Executive Director, WLCAC] and those at the Getty Center and Arco for having the vision and determination to bring us together, building on the rich legacy of Ted Watkins [Founder, WLCAC], who in so many ways was an exemplary organic intellectual, as both a progressive activist and institution builder. First, there is a real sense in which my own understanding of race builds very much on the kind of deep class concerns that brother Ted Watkins had, one that encompasses an understanding that it is very difficult to talk about race without talking about that larger economic, political, and cultural context, while always keeping one's eye on the internal dynamics of business elites, bank elites, cultural elites, and how they shape the very framework in which we not only confront one another, but perceive one another. And that's so crucial to me. The second point is that a Black-Brown alliance must always be understood within something bigger than itself. Jorge and I have had a longstanding relationship. We have been friends, taught at Princeton together, but we are not here just to chit chat and have a Black-Brown, touchy-feely kind of thing.

We are talking about ways in which larger ideals and principles, radically democratic ones, sit at the center of what ought to hold any desirable Black-Brown alliance together. I can imagine a whole host of Black-Brown alliances on which I would bring serious critique to bear, precisely because they would not be focusing on the various ways in which the working poor and very poor within our Black and Brown communities are actually being empowered. There are a number of Black and Brown alliances one can conceive of that are themselves in alliance with business and bank elites of a conservative sort, that are disempowering or setting up impediments to the empowerment of the masses, the vast majority of Brown and Black brothers and sisters. So in this regard Black-Brown dialogue is just an instance of what it means to take seriously a radically democratic project for the masses that keeps track of working people, the working poor, and the very poor, and at the same time tries to enrich the quality of our public life, which is a precondition for keeping that radical democratic tradition alive.

Klor de Alva: I have been working on questions of race and ethnicity for a long time in a wide variety of settings. However, the questions surrounding the relationships between Blacks and Browns had not been a central feature because most of my work had focused on interactions between indigenous peoples and Europeans and between Latinos and so-called Anglos. Over time, I became progressively more engaged with relationships between Blacks and Browns, Asians and Blacks, and Asians and Latinos. Yet in the course of my professional career there have been very few opportunities where those particular interests were nourished. After all, most people adhere to the dominant view that sees race and ethnicity as something essential. That is, they see race and ethnicity as something primordial, unchanging, fundamentally fixed and determinative. And that has been a very important assumption that has driven conversations about race and ethnicity in the United States and has made it very difficult to carry on a conversation like the one we are having now.

There are many conversations taking place between Browns and Blacks today. Most of them are based on mutual suspicion, fear, and stereotypes that we cannot repeat in public. There are many nasty ones I have been witness to, and accusatory and distrustful ones filled with anger and hate. My hope is that today we will be terribly frank and open so that we can use this opportunity as a springboard for many other, better conversations, among yourselves, among the people you all interact with, and in all the other settings where I hope Cornel and I will also have the chance to carry our discussions forward.

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