Addressing Philly DSA’s Race Problem

In a recent article in The New Republic, Miguel Salazar asked readers whether America’s Socialists (primarily those in the DSA, the largest socialist organization in the US) have a race problem. Controversies in Philly DSA feature prominently in the article, specifically the censure of the Local Initiative Local Action Committee (LILAC) by the Steering Committee for holding a reading group on race without the approval by the Political Education Committee, and the Steering Committee’s decision not to postpone a general meeting and engage in a counter-demonstration of the Proud Boys. A member of our Campaign for a Better Philly DSA recently shared an essay about her experiences as a woman of color in the chapter, and it supports Salazar’s conclusion: white socialists have a lot of work to do to make our movement more welcoming to the broader working class, a step we will necessarily take if we are to succeed in our goals.

Inspired by our comrade’s essay and the resonance it had with several comrades of color, we supported a resolution that would try to address this issue in Philly by creating an Ad Hoc Diversity and Engagement Committee to study the problem and its potential solutions. You can read the full text of the resolution in the chapter’s December General Meeting packet, but the tasks assigned to the new committee would be straightforward:

  1. Design a survey to learn more about the chapter’s current racial and class makeup and query members’ engagement.
  2. Interview current and former DSA members about how race has influenced their experiences in the chapter.
  3. Interview Philadelphia workers, activists, and organizers outside the chapter to learn how they approach organizing diverse groups.
  4. Prepare a report to share its findings with the rest of the chapter.

This will not instantly fix any of the problems with Philly DSA, but it is a crucial first step to finding out what the problems are and generating potential solutions.

The December general meeting failed to reach quorum so the fate of the resolution remains unknown. At the meeting, a group of members who are part of a closed, Momentum-aligned caucus handed out voting guides that urged people to vote against the resolution. Their motivation read:

“This is a corporate, Clinton-style solution to an organizing problem. Diversify DSA by fighting for real political changes that engage the diverse working class, like Fair Work Week. Let’s propose positive, real political work that engages diverse groups, not internal bureaucracies.”

The disingenuous invocation of Clinton misses the point of the resolution, which offers a chance for our chapter to reflect on what we’ve been doing and potentially improve our organization. That said, there are two points of agreement to highlight: diversifying Philly DSA is an important goal, and our best path to achieving it is through the political work we do. Engaging non-typical members does not happen as a by-product of the perfect campaign, it must be deliberately included and worked on in every campaign. The Diversity and Engagement Committee will talk to diverse groups and learn how we can better do this, rather than relying on anybody’s assumptions about what projects will attract people to our organization.

It’s important to highlight that the strategy of the Diversity and Engagement Committee is not a call for tokenism. The practice of using “token minorities” to distract from legitimate concerns about white supremacy or misogyny is common in conservative and liberal political movements alike. The goal of the committee is not to find individuals from an under-represented group and convince them to join the chapter, it’s to learn from people how we can change our culture or choice of political work so that people want to join our chapter. Tokenism will not build a successful mass movement; it’s crucial that workers of all backgrounds and identities are given equal voice in our work and build projects that reflect their daily realities.

Although all workers are affected by capitalist oppression, people experience this oppression differently — many of these differences are driven by identity. Organizers work best with other workers when they have common points of reference. The cynical use of diversity by neoliberals has made some socialists skeptical of the value of diversity for its own sake, but by learning to organize in a diverse group of socialists, we build solidarity and strengthen our movement.

We ask members of Philly DSA to support our commitment to this vision for the chapter, and support the resolution to create an Ad Hoc Diversity and Engagement Committee. We're excited to work with our comrades to make a better, anti-racist Philly DSA.

Eamon C. & Garett M.

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