MLK

President Lyndon Johnson shakes hands with the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., after handing him one of the pens used in signing the Civil Rights Act of July 2, 1964 at the White House in Washington. Source: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, NYWT&S Collection, [reproduction number, e.g., LC-USZ62-111157]

‘Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.’ — Martin Luther King, Jr.

While the Green movement in this country is theoretically fully committed to diversity and equality, privately we are ready to admit that in practice we don’t manage to attract as diverse a constituency as we would like. Anecdotally we know that we are not seen as welcoming enough or robust enough in the eyes of people who are not the white majority in the UK, and while we are trying to do something about it, we still have a long way to go.

Martin Luther King Jr was famously said that he was ‘gravely disappointed’ with those who talked the talk but did not walk the walk – or in his words, the ‘white moderates’. One reason for this could be that those of us who are not part of a particular oppressed group are often timid or unsure about what our role could be in confronting discrimination when it is levelled at others. Perhaps it is time to change that; perhaps our progressive movement is mature enough to look squarely at the ways in which we could stop expecting minority groups to fight their battles alone, but engage with them and find out how we can use our positions of privilege to actively support them.

The reasons for taking on this challenge are multiple, but perhaps one of the most compelling one is that when one of us suffers from discrimination, we are all affected, whether we are part of the group that is directly targeted or not.  

On this blog, we ran an article by Steve Lloyd that our readers keep coming back to – so we can only conclude that it rings some bells. It talks about why it is important for Green Party members who are white to acknowledge their role in perpetuating discrimination against people of colour – because ‘when society is fair, everyone benefits’. He points out that simply staying quiet and not doing a number of simple things like admitting we have not done so well, listening, speaking up, engaging or encouraging, we are complicit with discrimination. While the article and the initiatives taken by its author are slowly leading to more action, its most notable and welcome effect has been of opening ourselves up to be challenged by our comrades in Greens of Colour who showed us that there is a lot we need to learn. This has so far led to some constructive discussions and engagement – watch this space.

But, as a progressive movement, there are more insidious and less understood ways in which discrimination can be used to confuse us and render us vulnerable. Take for example anti-semitism. It is a potent and dangerous mix of half-understood ancient beliefs that periodically and invariable result in the scapegoating of Jews for all manner of things that don’t go well in society. It was so in the Middle Ages, when Jews were first welcomed because of their skills, only to be fed to angry populace by the rulers as the source of all societal evil. It continued throughout the modern era, leading to the Holocaust when (among other things) Jews were accused of conspiracy to throw the world into the arms of communism, at the time considered the biggest ill the world had seen.

The wider point here is that anti-semitism sets up the general mechanism of oppression based on initial welcome followed by attack and expulsion. This not only means that if you are Jewish you never feel safe or are safe and you are always looking out for the next attack, but also that society in general operates on the tacit agreement that vicious attacks on ‘troublemakers’ and people who are different is OK. See the case of Ralph Milliband – thankfully in that instance, a wide coalition stood up to the bullies and confronted them, but in many cases that does not happen and everyone suffers a silent defeat.

Because your average world-changing, left-leaning movement will include a high number of members who (whether Jewish or not), are committed to the cause of making the world a better place and are likely to cause trouble for the system. But anti-Jewish oppression acts like a blanket silencing all of us, if we don’t engage with it and fully understand it. We know that we may very well end up being blamed for something or another that doesn’t go well in society if we stand up for what’s right.

At other times, of course, we get so preoccupied with our own difficulties that we lose sight of the bigger picture or the wider alliances that are possible. Every community’s experiences with oppression are unique, but there are striking parallels across expressions of racism. If you look at European anti-tziganism, Islamophobia and anti-Semitism across various eras, strikingly similar canards, libels, and accusations are employed. At different historical moments, minorities often become transferable targets in the same cross-hairs of prejudice. Within specific minorities we have an obligation to step in to combat racism against other minorities, not only as a moral imperative, but because our fates are intimately bound together. We can find strength and support in a common struggle.

Finally, even when we are moved to do something about the discrimination facing others, and theoretically engage with all the arguments, we fail to take the actual step of standing up to be counted, and (most difficult of all), confronting the groups we actually belong to when they are being oppressive, with a few notable exceptions, such as this excellent debate started by Jonathan Bartley arguing that Christians are not the ones persecuted in the UK, and that they have a long way to go, for example, on championing LGBTIQ rights. Pointing out to our nearest and dearest that they are treating others less favourably is perhaps the most difficult of all tasks, but many times this is how we stand the best chance of changing someone’s attitude, because of the bonds of trust that exist in those
relationships.

For very complicated reasons that we won’t go into now, every one of us feels that we are on the receiving end of oppression, even when we are busy hurting others. It is very easy for those in a position of privilege to feel like they are being oppressed. This is especially true within the struggle for equality, when people find their privilege being removed. This can be seen with the rise of Men’s Rights Activists, and now-tired complaints that there isn’t a White History Month or a Straight Pride. By recognising that we are all in some way privileged, we can avoid falling into this trap, and instead work positively to support our oppressed brothers and sisters.

Similarly, we need to openly address all mechanisms of oppression in our activist movements, including in the Green Party. Often, vicious circles of prejudice and discrimination are at the root of our vulnerability as activists and prevent us from being politically successful: like not being able to reach people of colour in large numbers because our largely white activists don’t have the personal relationships to make that happen; or not being able to welcome immigrants (eg. Roma) because we don’t understand enough about where they come from and the specific difficulties they face; like openly being ‘for LGBTIQ’ people but secretly not daring to stick our necks out when they are targeted in our own backyard; or becoming confused and unsure of ourselves when inflammatory accusations start flying around that we don’t feel equipped to answer.

Yet, there is nothing wrong with owning up to our prejudices and working to dismantle them – it’s just the first step towards gaining a deeper understanding of them and challenging them through our actions. More importantly, for those of us active in political organisations, it’s the first step towards making those organisations more representative of the general population. Because, in the words of Rashid Nix, ‘people can spot when you’re real’.