Alexis Farmer: The best revenge is your paper

Wednesday, February 24, 2016 - 2:54pm

Beauty, perseverance and possibility: three adjectives that embody the blend of attendees of the 21st annual Black Solidarity Conference. Over this past Valentine’s Day weekend, more than 400 Black college students representing 50 colleges and universities nationwide networked with one another and participated in small group discussions at Yale University. The series of college uprisings regarding race relations over the past few years set the tone for the conference, titled “The Miseducation: Changing History as We Know It.”

In anticipation of the conference, I was elated with the idea of being surrounded by young Black people uniting themselves in a space to learn and heal from the ongoing physical, political and economic violence administered against Black bodies. But by the time the conference concluded, I felt slightly underwhelmed by the conversations taking place. Instead of the conference serving as a place for sharing best practices for protesting, creating tangible demands and building cross-campus alliances, our comments largely centered around the growing pains of being Black at a predominately white institution.

The barriers to inclusion, diversity and equity of Black university students at predominantly white institutions are obvious flaws in higher education institutions that students can easily rally around. However, the more obscure but ever-present symptom of systemic oppression is the overlap of class and race. The consequences of systemic oppression on race and class have been conjoined as the thesis for Black mobilization, without critical examination of their intersectionality in contemporary Black movements. In consequence, some of the Black university students’ demands for racial justice can be narrow in scope.

At the BSC, I could not help but notice that there were no community college students or nontraditional students in attendance. Students at the conference primarily attended elite institutions. In the workshop titled Why Class Matters, the majority of attendees were from professional middle-class families, and a few students were from working-class families. We were able to afford the time and money to spend a weekend at Yale discussing issues pertinent to the Black community.

As much as I had anticipated learning protesting strategies from university students at this conference, I realized that the majority of Black social movements across the United States this year were grassroots-organized, and largely led and participated by working-class Black people. Where were their voices in this conversation? The voices of the working-class Black activists who protested in Chicago, Baltimore, Cincinnati and Ferguson. The voices of Detroit community organizers who make time to enact social change in their neighborhoods.

The students of BSC were a fusion of activists and academics in the making. Both are necessary for collective movement building. Academics and activists come from a diversity of class statuses; their class backgrounds serve as examples for building mixed-class coalitions for racial justice. The impact of class on the structural violence that takes place in Black communities underlies the overarching goal of racial justice. Without directly addressing class, how can we accurately and authentically ensure all Black interests contribute to the movement?

American historian Henry Louis Gates Jr. said, “The class divide is, in my opinion, one of the most important and overlooked factors in the rise of Black Lives Matter, led by a new generation of college graduates and students.” The Why Class Matters workshop facilitator used Gates’ statement to highlight that African Americans have primarily focused their efforts on fighting racial injustice, so much so that addressing class impacts has been on the peripheral of modern racial justice movements.

In my opinion, the class divide within Black America is not overlooked, but collateral to current racial justice demands. After all, racism is inherently intertwined with economic, political and social injustice, and therefore cannot be completely untied to the struggle for racial justice and social equity. Throughout history, Blacks have consistently called for better housing policies, living wage rates, and equal access to quality education and health care.

Booker T. Washington beckoned African Americans to concentrate their energy on industrial education and accumulating wealth. The Black Panther Party’s Ten-Point Program demanded tangible policies that tackled economic inequality as a means to obtain racial equity. Today’s racial wealth gap is wider than it was in the 1960s. Economic mobility has always been a priority in Black liberation. Income and wealth divides within Black America have generated a secondary marginalization of low-income Black people that social movements indirectly address. The Black Lives Matter movement’s guiding principles do not explicitly state economic justice as a platform, but says it could be encompassed in the “Black families,” “Black villages” and “collective value” precepts.

The assessment of class impacts on Black movements needs to be more intentional in order to mobilize direct action for racial justice that is inclusive of all Black Americans. The lack of intentional reflection about class explains why class is not overtly included in the framework of current racial movements.

How often do we ask ourselves what the strengths and limitations of our class backgrounds are, and examine how our backgrounds inform our approach to racial injustice? How can we be more inclusive in ensuring all class divisions — poor, working class, professional middle class, upper class and even a portion of the “1 percent” — have their voices and interests in conversations around social change?

Discussing class is a messy topic. I left that workshop with more questions than answers, but I came to two realizations: 1. Cross-class alliance building is fundamental to securing Black liberation by helping the most marginalized populations and 2. Beyoncé wisely noted that the best revenge is our paper, and Blacks need to ensure everyone has the paper to bring our material and political aspirations to actualization.

Alexis Farmer can be reached at akfarmer@umich.edu.