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Racism, the Left, and Pacifica Radio

by Tom Gomez Saturday, Jan. 10, 2004 at 11:30 AM

The writer ,a staff candidate for DC's WPFW's listener station board and a member of the DC Justice and Unity Caucus, gives a summary of the recent history of conflict within Pacifa radio network and some of the issues in its ongoing elections.

PACIFICA Holds Elections, a Victory for the Left?

Elections for Pacifica Radio Listener Station Boards began on January 5th. These elections will make Pacifica Radio the first non-profit in the nation to elect its leadership by a direct vote of its contributing members. As many of you may remember a centrist corporate board closely alinged with Capitalism and the Democratic party took over the left of center Pacifica Foundation during the 1990's. A settlement in 2001 returned control of the foundation to the progressives only after a massive national campaign that spanned over two years and involved tens of thousands of people and over a hundred arrests. An active listenership arose in the aftermath of that campaign that has continued to be interested in and involved in the ongoing discussion of the Pacifica foundation's mission, programming, and governence. The Pacifica campaign failed to produce a single unifying vision about these issues however and in the aftermath of the campaign deep and bitter divisions developed between different camps with differing ideas about what the left itself is and stands for.

Nationally the biggest of those divisions has arisen over the question of race and racial inclusion at Pacifica. The poles of that debate have been defined by groups of the active listenership at Pacifica's two largest stations NYC's WBAI and Berkley's KPFA. Because I am an active member of the NY based faction to most aggresively raise the issue of race at Pacifica, the Unity Caucus, I will attempt to refrain from defining the politics of those opposed to our position and invite such people to respond if they feel I have misstated their position.

First you might well ask yourself why is there a Unity Caucus at all? From John Brown then to Marylin Buck now there have been whites on the American left who have given their very lives in the fight against racism and imperialism....the left by definition opposes racism. While that is true, different people on the left have differing interpetations of what it means to oppose racism. Unlike imperialism, which involves peoples who live outside our borders and struggles that our involvement in is peripheral at best, the struggle against racism involves us here in this country. Opposing racism means inclusion, the sharing of power and resources between people of very different backgrounds who share common goals and ideas. Under that definition a person can be against racism who is not part of the left at all....and many are. As someone who has spent my whole adult life on the life on the left it disappoints me that I can go to a Republican fundraiser in DC (local or national) and see more racial diversity than is most often the case on the still largely segregated left, where a Nader fundraiser is not likely to be very diverse. As we all know though while both George Bush's cabinet and fundraisers may be diverse, the policies pursued by his government and his party hit hardest at Blacks and immigrants (the same can be said for his predecessor).

Hey don't get me wrong here I'm no Zapata, or Sandino who for his whole life had the conciousness I have today....I grew in understanding and I'm writing this to share what understanding I have gained, not to beat you up. I felt I had to say that because the debate here at Pacifica has become viscious. Many of us in the Unity Caucus feel that our enemies, and we've made a lot of them, are defending racism in order to hold onto power and control the foundations resources.

Lets go back to that idea of sharing power and resources as at least partially defining inclusion because I have seen some ideas of how to do that out there in the wider society that strike me as just plain wrong. In and of itself, for the group holding institutional power (control over the purse strings) to employ members of other racial groups is not anti-racist...J. Edgar Hoover had a Black cook and driver, he was deeply racist. If all of the decision making power over who is hired and what their responsibilities are(institutional power) is held by the members of a single group, no matter how that power is accquired, it has the potential to be racist (I make exception for the family owned business in some cases). In and of themselves elections don't guarantee racial balance. The composition of the US Senate would be vastly different if they did. Just as important as having an election is how it is conducted,. as we all saw in 2000. The government of the United States was set up to legitimatize and propagate the power of wealthy white men over natives, blacks, colonized Mexicans, foreigners, and women. One look at the Senate today should tell you how little has changed in the last 200 years.

While they may not have changed in 200 years, the rest of us have and the members of the Unity Caucus within Pacifica wanted for our bylaws to reflect another conciousness than the racist conciousness in power over the apparat of the state itself. We felt because Pacifica has positioned itself historically to be the voice of oppressed and marginalized people here and around the world that such people should have a voice in Pacifica. For that reason part of the active listenership in NY put forward a proposal to guarantee that our election didn't result in the establishment of something resembling the US Senate.

Our proposal called for additional seats to be added to listener station boards in the event that our progressive listeners returned listener station boards that looked like the Senate. That didn't mean we wanted to include some random people who fit into a demographic in order to celebrate "diversity". It meant including non-white activists doing work in our listening area to helping us develope a base of support in communities of color in such places as Oakland.

Under our proposal people of color involved in the governance of the foundation would represent actual constituancies in our listening areas, not just be people similar to those in power already but with a different skin tone or accent. We confronted a wall as solid as the one confronted by peoples in devolping world countries when they want power and resources controlled by multi-national corporations. At the national level whites hold institutional power at Pacifica, the programming reflects that and has historically reflected that.

The corporate culture, and that's what it is lets get real, that dominates the Pacifica Foundation is a culture that can mobilize 15,000, largely white, progressives to march and camp out to defend a station that is two or three miles from Oakland but who largely ignore that Oakland is there. NY's WBAI was the first station in the NY metro area to broadcast rap music. For a very brief time that meant we controlled the widespread dissemination of rap at its begining. If we had been willing to we could have shaped the developement of the whole genre. If we had been willing to do with rap in NY what is done with Jazz at 89.3 WPFW in Washington DC we would not be in financial crises we are in today. We could have promoted politically concious sound before the white owned corporations promoted a version that validated black stereotypes already enshrined in the white community and sold it back to Black America (and then resold it to white America). It would have been impossible to sell such an idea within Pacifica then and it would be impossible now in my opinion.

Now national leadership turns around and says we are going to have a vote, only paid members can vote, people of all nationalities can run, so we are not racist. That's the Berkley model. Those were the bylaws that they passed. The Unity Caucus didn't like that model. We don't think that the peoples who lack institutional power are to likely to be active members. So now across the nation we're being attacked as anti-democratic and "ultra-vanguardist" (I hadn't heard that one for a minute). If you're a Mexican agricultural worker who speaks Spanish are you going to listen to a station with no Spanish language programs? Is that going to be your source for news and public affairs? Are you and your freinds going to run out and pay .00 and run in the election to change that? I don't know about you but I'm changing the channel. We thought we could soften the impact of the new bylaws by offering a waiver to economically disadvantaged people in our listening area interested enough to vote.

We had vested interests here, I'll be honest, for example we can get a handful of left leaning day labors to vote for us because we support Spanish language programming. As we don't have such programming at now at WPFW though it isn't too likely the're going to come in and volunteer. We even got that one passed by the national board (someone was sick and someone else quit....we had a one day majority), but then of course our new elections supervisor, who is white, was appointed by the white majority, and comes from the whitest state in America consulted with an unnamed "Pacifica lawyer" (who was probablly also white and who I suspect sits on the board and leads the opposition or is married to her and hence is unnamed by her staff person) told him that it would be illegal to allow that and invalidate the election, we challenged but of course the judge agreed (can yah all guess his race by now).

At this point a few of my enemies are at least thinking that the centerist corporate board that ran the network for most of the nineties was an exclusively African-American board. They can't say that because they know I'd mention things like imperialism, slavery, and the holocaust, all of which were done by white people, but their at least thinking it. So now I'm going to answer the arguement no one makes and I'm not going to mention imperialism, slavery, or the holocaust again.

White progressives founded Pacifica. White America at one time long ago suffered from a lot of guilt brought on by those events I've agreed I won't mention anymore (that was before they discovered reverse discrimination). These feelings of guilt were particularly acute among progressives who stood up for inclusion. As C. Wright Mills (a white progressive) points out in Organizational Man the tendency in corporate culture is for those in power to promote the advancement of people like themselves. The institutional culture at Pacifica was and is similar in that regard.

So when those in power long ago thought about inclusion they thought about the inclusion of those who were educated as they themselves were, preferablly at good eastern colleges (no slight to Stanford or Oberlin intended) and came from 'good' middle class families. Such people could be counted on to act responsibly. Much of the struggle during the 1950's, 60's, and 70's was driven by a push for Black integration.These white progressives were not intimidated by those willing to be vocal about race matters, it was concern over these matters that had made an inclusion an issue for white progressives. It was regretablly a castle built on sand. Many of those most vocal about race and integration were careerists anxious to achieve for themselves little more than integration with the oppressers and divorce from the oppressed. Once in positions of institutional power such people sought to decapitate the left with its critique of "class privledge" and its desire for structural change. Now I ask you whose decision was it to bring in, retain, and promote such people to begin with.... cause it weren't ours.

That has been what its been like from our prespective since 2001. When the first vote on the bylaws revealed how deep and bitter the divisions were with no plan gaining a majority a mediation was held in Chicago to try to reach concensus. We came out of that mediation feeling really good about Pacifica. The whole time we were talking to the white majority though they were working the phones to get a revote in LA so they wouldn't need to compromise with us. They got it. It was outside the time frame mandated by the court...but the court extended its deadline after the fact.

My question throughout all of this is what will be accomplished that is of benifit to the left as a whole by continuing white America's legacy of racism within Pacifica? The Republican party is actively campaigning for people of color while white progressives kick us to the curb. . If you were a young person of color what would you want to be in? We should be nuturing understanding between ourselves, instead whites are fighting against us. In case you haven't notice the movement doesn't collectively don't have much real estate. Name a single city where the left can call a strike in even one sector like transportation for even one day...we can't.

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Listed below are the 10 latest comments of 10 posted about this article.
These comments are anonymously submitted by the website visitors.
Why would you be surprised Slick Saturday, Jan. 10, 2004 at 12:24 PM
Point Well-Stated.. Apache Saturday, Jan. 10, 2004 at 12:39 PM
Slick is wrong on the left Sisyphus Saturday, Jan. 10, 2004 at 1:29 PM
pile of fertilizer long time KPFK listener Saturday, Jan. 10, 2004 at 2:22 PM
schools more rational Sunday, Jan. 11, 2004 at 1:32 AM
comments more rational Sunday, Jan. 11, 2004 at 2:59 AM
Actually. . . Slick Sunday, Jan. 11, 2004 at 4:45 PM
Here's some research Slick Sunday, Jan. 11, 2004 at 5:11 PM
A brief response tom gomez Monday, Jan. 12, 2004 at 10:28 PM
zionists? long time kpfk supporter Wednesday, Jan. 14, 2004 at 9:04 AM

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