No Easy Victories: African Liberation and American Activists over a Half Century, 1950-2000
Edited by William Minter,
Gail Hovey, and Charles Cobb Jr.
Published by Africa World Press.
The 1970s: Expanding Networks by Joseph F. Jordan
The 1980s: The Anti-Apartheid Convergence by David Goodman
The following text is excerpted from No Easy Victories for web presentation on allAfrica.com and noeasyvictories.org. This text may be freely reproduced if credit is given to No Easy Victories. Please mention that the book is available from http://www.noeasyvictories.org and http://www.africaworldpressbooks.com.
Race and Anti-Apartheid Work in Chicago
Rachel Rubin has been an anti-apartheid and Southern Africa solidarity activist for two decades. She lived and worked in Manica province in Mozambique from 1990 to 1992. She is currently an attending physician at Cook County Hospital in Chicago and a specialist in occupational and environmental medicine.
Excerpted from “The Anti-apartheid Struggle: Did It/Could It Challenge Racism in the U.S.?” In “African [Diaspora] Studies,” edited by Lisa Brock, special issue, Issue: A Journal of Opinion 24, no. 2 (1996). Reprinted by permission of the African Studies Association.
Many whites, including myself, embraced anti-apartheid work, partly because we were outraged at the horror of South Africa but also because it gave us a way to fight racism here in the United States. I had always seen and disapproved of racism and from a very young age felt a need to fight against it. The anti-apartheid struggle gave me a solid way to do that.
In the mid-1970s, when I was in college, the campus I was on was so segregated and the institutional policies so paternalistic and racist that there were very few forums for blacks and whites to work together. The first fullfledged anti-apartheid group at my university, which I joined on its inception, was established by an African American who was a visiting artist on campus. However, as the organization developed, it became and remained an almost exclusively white organization. It worked in coalition with black groups and other more multiracial formations, but it never was able to make significant inroads into the African American community of the town or of the campus. Although this upset me and I was never totally sure why it was, it did not surprise me. Given the white power structure on campus and in society at large and some bitter experiences on both sides, there seemed to be little ground for working together. African American students feared white paternalism and insensitivity, while white students feared black anger, saying the wrong thing and then being rebuked. Unfortunately, I think most groups doing anti-apartheid work during that time were as segregated and separated as the communities their members came from.
Nonetheless, when I graduated and moved back to Chicago in the 1980s, I continued my determination to do anti-apartheid work. By this time there were more anti-apartheid organizations functioning in the country, and I joined, soon after its founding, the Coalition for Illinois Divestment in South Africa (CIDSA). It later became the Chicago Committee in Solidarity with Southern Africa (CCISSA). I served on the board and steering committees of this organization for nearly 12 years.
My experience with CCISSA was very different than my previous experience on the campus of the University of Illinois. CIDSA/CCISSA was conceived of and founded by a small group of African Americans and whites, and we maintained an equal number of African Americans and whites on our board. The group always had as many blacks as whites in its active leadership, and we were always careful to have black members or both white and black members together go to give talks or go to meetings as representatives of the group. CIDSA/CCISSA was a biracial collective. Our public as well as private faces were racially mixed.
In its first phase CIDSA successfully waged statewide divestment campaigns, working with primarily labor and church groups toward that end. As we reorganized ourselves into CCISSA we worked hard to place ourselves within both the white and African American communities, speaking at churches, synagogues, community centers, schools, etc. We also developed strong ties with resident South Africans. Our annual Soweto Day Walkathon was always a cooperative venture with black churches, community organizations, local politicians, and residents of the neighborhood we were to march through. Many of these links were forged by CCISSA members who had connections to those neighborhoods or communities. Slowly over the years this outreach garnered the organization a certain level of respect within segments of the black as well as certain white communities.
Problematically, though, to certain segments of the African American community in Chicago, we continued to be seen as a white group, albeit as the years went by, a well-meaning white group. This was because we were integrated and had an organization where blacks were willing to work with whites on an issue that some thought should remain in the African American community. In fact, it was felt by some, local black cultural nationalists in particular, that if anti-apartheid work was (merely) supporting black South Africans in their liberation struggle against the white apartheid regime then the solidarity movement was best seated within exclusively black organizations. It was believed that if whites wanted to help, then let them start their own organizations in their own communities. In other words, our very multiracial existence was seen as a problem.
This labeling as a white group was more fundamentally a consequence of the white power structure of this country. No matter what, when you have a group that is made up of whites and blacks that may on an internal basis function in a very equal way, the perception often is going to be that it is impossible to have equality on any level in a society where white racism has been so prevalent. This of course is not unique to the anti-apartheid movement. There were many feminist organizations in the 1970s who felt that no men should be allowed in women’s organizations, given their natural inclination to dominate. Similarly, whites and blacks often have different understandings of integration. Recent housing surveys have shown that whites often think 10 percent black/90 percent white is the optimal formula of neighborhood integration, while blacks interviewed in these studies see 50 percent black/50 percent white as the only meaningful way to integrate. Our organization had always been about fifty-fifty. Nonetheless, some continued to think that we whites were the ones dominating the leadership and that we were trespassers on black turf. In other words, if a political organization had both black and white leadership and membership, then the blacks must be tokens or sellouts, or at the very least would be wasting their time trying to work with whites.
The development of CCISSA with all of its issues did, in fact, advance the struggle against racism in the United States in two small ways. First, the dismissals of the organization as white forced many of us to deal with black perceptions of the limitations of whites doing antiracist work. It made us have to check ourselves and make sure that we did not fit that category. This probably would not have happened if we had not maintained our mul- tiracial membership. I think our determination to deal with the criticism made us better progressive organizers with African Americans as a whole.
Second, I think racial barriers were broken down in CCISSA and broken down through CCISSA. We did succeed in a small way as an antiracist collective and not only as an anti-apartheid organization. We created an environment, a network of friends that was multiracial and multicultural— hopefully a network that will remain intact for the rest of our lives. What bound us together was our sense of being political comrades. We developed an analysis together. We learned, studied, and strategized together. We made connections between racism and colonialism here and in Southern Africa and reflected on these connections in the activities we planned. We also illustrated over time to a great number of members in the black community that there were whites willing to struggle against international racism and blacks willing to work with us. However, we still need to overcome the continued racial segregation within progressive, left political work and we need to continue to confront the difficulties of overcoming internalized white racism if we are really going to tackle racism in this country.
This page is part of the No Easy Victories website.