CARF spoke to Barbara Ransby, leading Black feminist and co-founder of African American women in Defense of Ourselves, about recent events in the US.
What is your attitude to the Million Man March?
I am worried by the way it has shifted the terrain of struggle – on the issue of sexism and women’s role and by its conservative message. A day of atonement? It is Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich, not Black men or women who need to atone. We cannot afford to replicate victim-blaming ideas at a time when our communities are under serious attack.
The attack on Black and Latino poor people in the United States is unprecedented. Welfare is going to be eliminated in the state of Illinois by 1999. Shelters are being cut back, the number of beds reduced, qualifications to get social service programmes are being increased while the money for other services is being decreased. That devastating attack really demands of us an aggressive militant response. So Farrakhan’s march coming in the midst of that attack is all the more frightening and dangerous. We have to respond by saying it is not the behaviour of poor Black people which is the problem, it is the system. Moreover, no progressive Black movement can afford to celebrate patriarchy and exclude Black women activists.
But the march is very significant and we are fooling ourselves if we dismiss it. We have to respond to it – at least by offering an alternative perspective. For me, in part, it brings home the need for a reinvigoration of a radical Black left intellectual and activist community that connects itself to struggles and us to each other. We are disappointed to see certain of our ‘comrades’ go out on a limb on this march and we want to say ‘that’s the wrong way to go’. But we haven’t created that community of struggle where we can critique and hold one another accountable. The trouble is that many of us in the academy have been trained in a very individualistic way of defining our politics that has hurt our ability to do the kind of collective ideological work that is required in order to respond effectively. And, secondly, we need to identify ways to translate that ideological work into a language which is accessible to people who are not academics.
Can we turn to the OJ Simpson trial – how did Black women feel about the verdict?
The jury was predominantly Black women, of course. And the majority of Black women, as far as I could tell, thought the decision was a good one. One explanation is that people felt that it was an indictment of the Los Angeles Police Department, which is notoriously racist toward Black men and women. People could very easily see the PD setting up someone in the way that OJ’s defence team suggested they did, because many of our own experiences are of racism with the cops, cops’ flagrant disregard for any rights and the contempt that is the norm for working class and lower-middle class whites (which is the background of most of the cops) towards ‘successful Blacks’.
But people did not factor in class. Had there been just a fraction of the evidence against a brother off the street without OJ Simpson’s money, he would be under the jail right now. Whether OJ was guilty or not, he purchased the defence. Whether he purchased justice or exemption from justice, I’m not sure. But clearly his class privilege was a buffer that tempered the racist treatment he would have otherwise received.
White women’s responses complicated things. I think a lot of that was racist. I heard a number of white women from national organisations saying, ‘this is not a race issue’. But it was a race issue and Blacks on the jury were, and should have been, seeing the case through their experiences of racism. White women could not have conceived of cops doing this.
What of the recent attacks in the US on affirmative action?
It was a reform that was offered as a strategy to defuse or misdirect the more fundamental demands that people were making for change. Its primary impact was to lift the aspirations of various petit-bourgeois constituents. But I think there have been positive effects too.
If you look at firefighters or other public service jobs they have been opened to people of colour, as a result of affirmative action laws. Whenever there is a reform like this there is going to be a contradictory effect. The response to the attack on affirmative action has to be a lot bigger than just pointing out how inadequate the programmes have been. We might critique programmes on one level but still defend on another the concept that this society does in effect owe something to people who have been systematically oppressed, marginalised and exploited by that society.