In 1965, I was in Montgomery, Alabama, working as a member of the group that supported the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, called "Friends of SNCC." After a day of hard demonstrations in which many of us had been beaten, we all took refuge in an African-American church that night. In the heat and humidity of that sanctuary, surrounded by sheriff's deputies and the KKK, not knowing if we would be shot, burned out, or just beaten, we rallied our spirits. At one point, SNCC organizer James Foreman stood up and said, in effect, "If they won't let us sit at the f----- table, we'll knock the legs off the table." Surrounded by the forces of law and order, with the entire apparatus of a completely white power structure aiming to crush us, Foreman's imagery made perfect sense.
Today, largely as a result of such struggles by civil rights activists, farm workers, Chicanos, Puerto Ricans, the American Indian Movement, the women's and gay/lesbian/bisexual movement, environmental activists, and many others, an important fundamental transformation has occurred and is still occurring. Prepositioned elements for a positive rebirth of community now exist that can transform the United States. The main task is to pull these elements together.
Unlike 1965, when we confronted an essentially homogenous system, we now have a more diverse and nuanced environment in which many progressives from these earlier struggles occupy "gatekeeper" positions in what used to be exclusively white, male-dominated, mainstream institutions.(1) think of my friend, Dr. Hardy T. Frye, a determined and courageous young SNCC field organizer, who went from the burned church fields of Alabama and Mississippi to become the director of the entire University of California's "Community, University, School Partnership" program that is linking inner-city communities with educational opportunity. I think of the Hispanic, Black, and Women's Caucuses in the Congress, none of which were possible in 1965. For example, in 1960, only three percent of delegates to the Democratic National Political Convention were African-American. In the 1980s, this climbed to 17.7%. The number of African-American teachers increased from 150,743 in 1960 to over 500,000 in the 1990s. Similarly, the number of African-American elected city officials went from 280 nationwide in 1965, to over 7,000 in the 1990s. There are now some 30,000 caucus groups of African-American and Latino professionals in institutions ranging from police departments to churches (Childs, 1992). However small such numbers are relative to the general white population, they represent important increases in the number of people from previously excluded groups occupying gatekeeper positions in U.S. institutions.
Of course, as demonstrated by the example of the anti-affirmative action, African-American Ward Connerly, who serves on the Board of Regents of the University of California, there are no guarantees that being a "person of color" equals having a progressive attitude. Nor is gender a guarantee of worldview. Nonetheless, numerous surveys continue to show that, overall, there are fundamental liberal/progressive outlooks that many African-American and Latino men and women gatekeepers bring with them. As Vilfredo Pareto suggested in his theory of elites, many of those who get "absorbed" into institutional settings bring with them a portable set of community "inclinations" that come from their cultural-political roots. Pareto points out that:
In moving from one group to another, an individual generally brings with him certain inclinations, sentiments, attitudes that he has acquired in the group from which he comes, and that circumstance cannot be ignored (1965:112).
For a highly visible example of such portable community "inclinations," consider California Representative Ron Dellums, a social democrat and former Chair of the House Armed Services Committee. Dellums continues to emphasize his original support for social programs, even while engaging in the compromise politics that are part of being a member of Congress. …