Brandon Terry | Rethinking the Problem of Alliance: Organized Labor and Black Political Life

by Brandon Terry and Jason Lee, August 2017, New Labor Forum

The enduring problem of the relationship between leading political currents within organized labor, and those prevailing among African- Americans and black advocacy organizations, has once again become a central concern of the left.[i] Unsurprisingly, the chief impetuses for this intensive focus are the seismic shock of Donald Trump’s surreal ascent to the U.S. presidency and the spectacular surge, and subsequent dispersal, of the Black Lives Matter movement.

As recriminations fly across entrenched axes of disagreement (i.e., identity politics versus class solidarity, racial consciousness versus class consciousness), it is striking how easily the familiarity of the questions and answers in this debate allow us to displace and ignore more disquieting inquiries into the premises and problems of these discussions. In the present, to put the matter bluntly, any discussion about the possibility of, or promise of, or pitfalls of, relationships between organized labor and black- led racial justice advocacy organizations must attend to internal deficiencies within both domains that threaten the potential value of such solidarity in the first place. Moreover, this critical attention must be informed by a grasp of the dynamic transformations within the American racial and economic orders wrought in recent decades.

This insight is especially critical in a moment where the anticipated and real constituencies of both groups are already precarious, and severely jeopardized by a deleterious political environment that neither has been able to effectively prevent. As a consequence, both American organized labor and independent African-American protest movements—especially the former— will face existential challenges despite the perception of renewed political activism and engagement from the broader progressive left. Even in the face of these challenges, however, the significant role that such movements play in advancing egalitarianism and justice suggests that salvaging their promise from these dilemmas is a project that deserves intellectual energy and political commitment.

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