One of the essential elements in the building of a cohesive social movement across communities of color aimed at dismantling structural racism is the formation of a common identity that is a marker for a common worldview and set of politics. Drawing upon the history of the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s when the terms people of color and Third World peoples signaled a common identity across communities in the struggle against racism, economic exploitation, and colonialism, I pose that this identity formation is an imperative for 21st century activists.
While the term people of color is still popularly used in today’s context, it has lost much of its political content and has become more descriptive.
In addition, many millions of people migrating from Africa, Asia, the Pacific Islands, the Caribbean, the Middle East, and Latin America are being introduced to new racial categories and have no reference point to adopt this identity. Moreover, from the point of view of some African American activists, the term has been used to liquidate the particularities of the black freedom struggle and to downplay its foundational role in fight against white supremacy.
The Historical Context
In the 1960s and 1970s, social movements from diverse communities came together to forge a common identity, a shared worldview and analysis, and in many cases a shared strategy in the pursuit of justice and liberation.
Groups like the Black Panthers, the Chicago-based Puerto Rican group the Young Lords, and the Chicano organization the Brown Berets forged close ties to battle what they saw as their common enemy—imperialism and white supremacy. In his last days, Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. strengthened his ties to United Farm Workers leader Cesar Chavez to organize a “Poor People’s March on Washington.” Indeed, it is Dr. King who is credited with first using the term, “citizens of color” in his “I Have a Dream” speech at the 1963 March on Washington. And the 1984 and 1988 Jesse Jackson for President campaigns and the Rainbow Coalition brought together millions of self-described people of color and progressive whites under an explicitly anti-racist, anti-war, pro-immigrant platform that shook the rafters of the Democratic Party.
The use of the term people of color became widespread in the 1970s and replaced the term “racial and ethnic minorities.” First popularized in the writings of radical theorist Frantz Fanon, this new identity gave political content to people who were struggling against racism and economic exploitation—African Americans, Chicanos, Native Americans, Asians and Pacific Islanders—all people who were considered “the other” by many in the mainstream white community.
Dr. Salvador Vidal-Ortiz summed it up this way:
“People of color explicitly suggests a social relationship among racial and ethnic minority groups[…] People of color is a term most often used outside of traditional academic circles, often infused by activist frameworks, but it is slowly replacing terms such as racial and ethnic minorities[…] In the United States in particular, there is a trajectory to the term—from more derogatory terms such as negroes, to colored, to people of color[…] People of color is, however it is viewed, a political term, but it is also a term that allows for a more complex set of identity for the individual—a relational one that is in constant flux.”
Social justice and political activists in communities of color—from reformists to revolutionaries—used the term people of color and popularized it within their communities, as they called for broad coalitions to challenge the white power structures and to win transformational change in the political, social, and economic order.
The usage of the term mirrored international developments that preceded the multi-racial alliance building that was occurring in the United States. In 1961, a movement of so-called “Third World” countries, largely former colonies in Asia, Africa, the Caribbean and Latin America joined together and helped to found the Nonaligned Movement (NAM). As a bloc of “underdeveloped nations”, NAM called for a “New International Economic Order” and for a revolution in values.
In the U.S., the term Third World peoples became interchangeable with people of color.
Activists linked the struggles of communities of color in the US with the struggle of their nations and continents of ancestry.
They also forged political and cultural ties with activists and leaders in countries of the Third World and NAM. Through these international alliances, the global dimension of racism and economic exploitation was crystallized for activists of color in the United States and promoted in their communities.
In “The Latent Universal Within Identity Politics”, George N. Katsiaficas explains:
"This racial project is more than just the ‘dark other’ of the supremacist white subject. It is my argument that there is a history among non-white peoples of an affirmative construction of unified identity and solidarity along the common axis of being “colored,” “third world,” or “other.”"
In examining the significance of the Third World/people of color (TW/POC) designation, Katsiaficas states:
"A second reason why TW/POC is an important racial project has to do with its potential as a key category of new social movements[…] [T]he categories of TW and POC emerged from social movements of the 1960s and have continued to be associated with radical democratic and left political projects[…] [TW/POC] has stood in for “the working class” as the agent of historical change; it has served as a “meta-narrative” of otherness to counteract essentialist claims of nationalism; and it has acted as a site upon which progressive people of color can construct their own politics[…] The TW/POC formation is important as a prefigurative project of embracing difference."
21st Century Solidarity
While the term people of color remains in the popular lexicon today, it has lost much of its potent political content, as the social and political landscape has changed. The term Third World has all but disappeared from the political and social discourse.
Several factors have contributed to demise of these terms. By methods of co-optation, assassination, infiltration, intimidation, and incarceration, the state destroyed many leading political and social organizations in communities of color and in the process, decimated the political and ideological infrastructure that has been built up for over a decade.
Another reason is the changing demographics in the US that has been occurring in rapid fashion since the 1980s. Millions of people from Latin America, Africa, Asia, the Pacific Islands, the Caribbean, and the Middle East have been subjected to racialization US-style but do not share the history or trajectory in which the TW/POC identity was forged. In addition, the rise in anti-black racism in the dominant society and its replication in other communities of color has fostered a reluctance among many African American activists to identify as people of color. Even Black immigrants from the African continent often get socialized into a mindset that criminalizes African Americans and labels them as “the other.” Among African Americans, anti-immigrant sentiment has, in some cases, impeded the building of relationships and alliances. And in some cities, forced competition between African Americans and immigrants, especially those from Mexico and Central America, for geographical space, entry-level employment opportunities and political representation has created a distance and a dissonance between communities.
Race Forward Director Rinku Sen describes a 2007 encounter with two immigrants:
I spend a lot of time with immigrants and refugees from the global south who are not only unfamiliar with the term, “people of color,” but quite hostile to it. […]A Somali woman and a Vietnamese man told me that they didn’t relate to the label, and indeed, didn’t think their struggles had anything to do with race[…] They were disinclined to spend much time figuring out the racial dimensions of anti-immigrant rhetoric or how to make common cause with US-born people of color, especially Blacks and Latinos. I gave the group a little lecture about how identities change through a combination of what happens to you (the external) and how you react to those events (the internal). It can be hard to accept, but a new context demands a new identity[…] The American context demands an understanding of the country’s racial history and hierarchy. Luckily, the human spirit is flexible enough to hold existing identities while adding elements that help us adapt.
However, the political climate and consciousness in communities of color is changing in the new millennium. Millions upon millions of immigrant and their allies took to the streets in 2006 in a powerful display of resistance to xenophobia and racism. During that time, the Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI), an organization comprised of Black immigrants and African Americans was founded in Oakland, California. BAJI’s explicit aim is to engage African Americans in the struggle for immigrant rights and to involve immigrants of color, especially Black immigrants, in building a common struggle against white supremacy and the excesses of capitalist exploitation. And in 2014, the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement raised up in dramatic fashion issues of anti-black racism in policing and criminal justice. BLM spawned solidarity groups, like Asians for Black Lives and Latinos for Black Lives in recognition of the foundational role that anti-black racism has played in sustaining racial inequality for people of color and maintaining the dominance of corporate and political elites.
Current efforts to shape the identity, consciousness, and politics of the social justice movement point us in the right direction. BAJI Executive Director Opal Tometi, a second-generation Nigerian American and a cofounder of Black Lives Matter, has called for what she terms, “transformational solidarity,” which she defines as “the commitment and practices of liberation for sake of self and community with knowledge that all communities are intertwined and an injustice undermines true liberation for all.” BAJI and its sister organization Priority Africa Network (PAN) have been particularly focused on fostering the development of a Pan African identity among African Americans and Black immigrants. Through communications strategies, i.e., videos, digital storytelling, speeches, op/ed pieces, etc.; African Diaspora Dialogues, i.e., facilitated conversations between African Americans and Black immigrants; and popular education curricula and trainings, BAJI and PAN have worked to transform the consciousness and self-perceptions of their constituencies.
The National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA) and other organizations that are predominantly comprised of people of color, both foreign-born and native, has been promoting the identity of “low-wage worker” as the glue that binds constituencies together. While neither NDWA nor BAJI focus on forging a multi-racial identity, their efforts are nevertheless instructive. In addition, since people typically hold several self- and group identifications simultaneously, the work of these organizations and others can be built upon.
Quoting Katsiaficas again:
"The future of the category of “people of color” lies in its capacity to articulate a common positioning as the binary to a crumbling white supremacy while at the same time serving as a site of tense but productive interactions between racialized communities who harbor no a priori affirmative notions of solidarity. Increasingly, too, these communities will come to the formation of “people of color” from vastly different economic and political locations. Nevertheless, as long as white supremacy and racism continue to exist, this racial project will retain its discursive salience and political necessity."
The rise of muscular social movements in communities of color in the 21st century provides an opportunity to link communities in common struggle and to forge a common identity in order to wrestle with racial othering, xenophobia and structures of inequality. The context has certainly changed since the 1960s and 1970s.
Nevertheless, the imperative of building strong ideological and political alliances among communities of color as the anchor of a broad social movement capable of winning transformational change is on the immediate agenda.
With the issues of income inequality, immigrant and refugee rights, and anti-black racism on the national stage, the right-wing backlash is in full swing. The racial anxiety of white working class people about the changing US demographics and their deteriorating economic status have combined to produce a reactionary grassroots social movement based upon white nationalism. Corporate and political elites, in pursuit of obscene profits and inordinate political power, have manipulated these fears and incited deep divisions, poisoning the well of reason and human compassion.
The task of reclaiming people of color as a profoundly political identity or forging a similar identity that signifies an alliance among those groups affected by white supremacy and structural racism is on the agenda of today’s left and progressive social movement. A movement rooted in communities of color conscious of itself has the potential of creating an incisive analysis, an inclusive strategic narrative, and a social justice movement that confront white supremacy and racial inequality while at the same time breaking through the defenses of distressed white working class people, addressing their declining fortunes, and bringing them into the fold. This is the challenge of the 21st century.
Gerald Lenoir is the Identity and Politics Strategy Analyst working with the Haas Institute’s Network for Transformative Change.