Do the Democratic Socialists of Los Angeles Have A Race Problem?
With the recent popularity of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) members Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib, not to mention self-identified democratic socialist Bernie Sanders, DSA membership has grown substantially in recent years. With the radicalizing events of 2020, including dangerous working conditions and the murder of George Floyd, the DSA has experienced an explosion of new membership over the last 14 months in particular.
DSA’s Los Angeles branch (DSA-LA) has been no exception, gaining approximately 3,500 new members since March 2020. Despite this massive recent growth, DSA-LA has actively been losing members from one group: Black Leftists.
To learn the reason for this discrepancy, I reached out to several Black DSA-LA members, as well as Black former members and Black organizers who have worked closely with DSA-LA. All former members declined to be interviewed.
As a white woman, I will let the following statements stand for themselves, editing only for length and clarity.
Zack Washington, a Black member of DSA-LA since October 2019, is currently active within the AfroSocalist Caucus (AfroSoc), the Black Liberation Task Force, and the LGBTQ+ Caucus. I asked him if he knew of any Black DSA-LA members leaving the chapter.
“AfroSoc had twelve members in 2020 — all have left or become less active except me” Zack said. “And I know three more Black comrades from other committees who have left DSA-LA. [AfroSoc] had a list of 29 Black people who showed interest, who we reached out to to plug them in to DSA-LA chapter work. We had few successes after they learned about the hurdles that we [Black members] have to deal with.”
I asked him if he had ever experienced anti-Blackness within DSA-LA.
“Definitely.” Zack said, “It’s mostly been a structural issue as it pertains to me. I haven’t really experienced the nightmare scenarios of interpersonal racism. But I have been made familiar with many anecdotes. I’ve only had odd insinuations — they’re not necessarily overt. There’s the strange implication that it’s uniquely difficult to work with Black Leftists, or Black people. There are a lot of people in the chapter who don’t have much understanding of whiteness, and this is especially true for people who are not white and think they’re immune from having to examine that at all.
“We have issues with a lot of Black-lead organizations not trusting DSA. Whenever I bring up the specific issues that Black members point out with retention, I’m either given blank stares, completely dismissed, or given an excuse that either hand waves everything as a political disagreement or a procedural dispute.
“A lot of DSA-LA members insist on seeing through a lens of anti-identity and don’t understand that a multitude of Black people reject that framing. The question of identity not being a respected vector in which to engage with socialism keeps coming up in all manner of ways. Or they attempt to collapse the concerns of Black people in to one broad BIPOC category. We ended up losing the organizing body of Black members that we had and completely dropping the ball on how we can expand Black membership.”
Andrew Lewis is an Afro-Latinx member of DSA-LA who is part of AfroSoc and co-chairs the Housing and Homelessness Committee. I asked him if he had ever experienced anti-Blackness in the chapter.
“Yes, I absolutely have,” Andrew said. “Some of it has been subtle, some of it has been pretty blatant. First, there seems to be a trend not uplifting and even ignoring Black comrades in the organization — it’s nothing new, and it’s lead to a drastic withdrawal of Black members. Then there’s the very concerted, well-organized efforts against Black organizing. The majority of DSA-LA members are well intentioned and not actively trying to silence Black voices. But only a small percentage really show up, so when it comes down to who has power, who’s calling the shots, it’s an even smaller well-connected group of insiders.
“I don’t think this is a problem that’s not solvable. We can definitely get to where we want to be, but we have to rip off the bandaid, we have to have the uncomfortable conversations. There’s a retention issue with Black members in DSA-LA and it has to do with anti-Blackness. But there’s condescension, vitriol, not so subtle anti-Blackness that pops up any time we try to have those conversations.
“Again, DSA-LA is largely a group of well meaning organizers working toward common goals. But it’s one thing to say ‘Black Lives Matter’, to say you’re in solidarity with your Black comrades, and it’s another thing to put that into action. To uplift Black voices, to give up privilege — I get that that’s not easy to do. I just want to focus organizing, but we have to recognize that that can’t be separated from race. There can be no class reduction if we’re going to be effective socialists, we have to organize from an intersectional lens, otherwise it’s not organizing in reality.”
Shakeela, a Black member of DSA-LA in good standing, chose not to provide any additional identifying information during our interview. I asked if she had ever experienced anti-Blackness within the chapter.
“I have, and it’s perplexing,” Shakeela said. “Everybody has a different perspective of what socialism is but my initial understanding is solidarity, including standing up for marginalized people. I’m aware of my oppression as a Black woman, but I’m also aware that I’m not at the bottom of the totem pole. I have to look to people who are undocumented, who have disabilities, because those are the privileges I have. I assume that other people have already done the work and understand how to stand in solidarity with marginalized groups. It is glaring when that work has not been done by DSA-LA members. I thought maybe it’s because they’re not educated, so that’s when I started to be more vocal. And that’s where I experienced my first anti-Blackness. I thought it would be more discrete, but it’s glaring and overt.
“When you’re discussing and educating people, it is always important to include both voices — the people who actually come from those experiences. Otherwise you run the risk of being blinded by your own biases. Black Radical history is socialist history. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X, their fight wasn’t just on the labor end. Implicit bias manifests, whether intentional or unintentional, in whitewashing Black liberation and Black figures by misrepresenting their efforts in their activism to be mostly pertaining to economic issues. These actions are harmful when Leftists in DSA-LA are also avoiding the hard conversations, dismissing Black voices, and most importantly offensively co-opting and weaponizing the language of Black radicals to undermine the fight for identity related issues that may or may not encounter the economic landscape.
“Capitalism needs oppressive structures such as racism, ableism, those against LGBTQ+ people, in order to sustain itself. It allows for constant in-fighting and division, so to focus just on the economic means they’re not acknowledging the oppressive systems as a whole. I hope in the future we in DSA-LA have a more holistic view.”
I next spoke with Theodore Henderson, an unhoused Black Angeleno and local activist who created and hosts the podcast We The Unhoused. He works regularly with Street Watch, a coalition of organizers for housing and homelessness rights under the umbrella of DSA-LA.
“As human beings, they’re not going to openly say they’re anti-Black,” Henderson said, “but there’s a lot of bias I’ve seen and experienced. There’s a lot of conversation past unhoused people. Every time I bring this up to people in Street Watch, they walk right passed my perspective. They are well meaning but, with a few exceptions, they don’t seem to listen to us, to our stories. Anti-unhoused sentiment is steeped in anti-Black sentiment — forty percent of unhoused people are Black. And my voice is that of a Black man, who has created a podcast using his phone while living in a park. Even when I make that point, there’s dead silence in the group.
“ I don’t use curse words, but they can still get upset with those kinds of conversations when I’m very forward. When I become upset about something, I become very vocal about it. I’m not yelling or screaming, which is the sign of the ‘Angry Black Man.’ I can never get angry because it’s dangerous for me. When you see me get upset about something, it’s because something problematic was said and no one is saying anything. I have no more bandwidth to deal with people who ignore these issues.
“It’s not just Street Watch or DSA-LA, we’re all touched by white supremacy, so we have to be vigilant. These are the issues that every Leftist organization needs to deal with, how do we go about recognizing and compensating Black people. This is a conversation that should be in the very center of Leftist thought.”
After reading the above from Theodore Henderson, Zack Washington reached out to me to add that DSA-LA has made several attempts to address the culture of anti-Blackness within the DSA-LA chapter:
“We even had all of the leadership go through a formal training from AORTA [Anti-Oppression Resource & Training Alliance]. They were explicit in pointing out the characteristics of white supremacy culture, but there was lack of engagement with the material. Myself and a number of allies tried to draw connections between what was being explained and what was taking place overtly, but it was just read as rude and disruptive from the members that are the most frequent offenders.
“Now when I bring up cultural issues in the chapter I’m met with, ‘Just work harder, and have more one-on-ones,’ as a solution when I try to brainstorm solutions to problems that existed externally from me. As if it were my job to fix the racism from other members.”
If you are a member of DSA, please support the following BIPOC inclusive resolutions in the upcoming National Convention:
— Making DSA a Multiracial and Anti-Racist Organization
— Mass Campaign for Voting Rights
— Empowering DSA’s Mass Abolition Work
— Resolution on the Defense of Immigrants and Refugees
— Formation of a National Committee for Reparations to Black People
Anyone can read the entire slate from the Intersectional Socialists for Black Liberation of DSA-LA here, which includes additional important resolutions.
Regardless of organizational affiliation, I ask that all readers who are not Black — listen to your Black comrades and take action to raise their voices.
Full disclosure: I was a member of DSA-LA from December 2019 through April 2021 and participated in the Black Liberation Task Force with Zack Washington and Andrew Lewis. I am currently a member of Street Watch and The Organizer Collective (formerly Organizers in Solidarity).
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