Building Solidarity and Dealing with Racism

In 1971, when I was “lead organizer” for what became the All Peoples’ Coalition (APC), I learned a different approach to dealing with some racism I encountered among working-class whites.

APC was a federation of some thirty organizations (churches, block clubs, the neighborhood shopping strip’s merchant association, tenant associations, and other groups in Visitacion Valley, a small neighborhood of about 20,000 people in the Southeast corner of San Francisco.

“Vis Valley” included a number of sub-neighborhoods, including Little Hollywood, Geneva Towers, Geneva Terrace and Sunnydale Housing Project (where I grew up).

Its people ranged from low-to-moderate, and a few middle, income. It was ethnically and racially quite diverse. In San Francisco poverty and race politics, it was largely ignored. While racially “integrated,” there was also substantial racial tension in the neighborhood, particularly between the working class and lower middle-class “white ethnics” (Irish, Italian and Maltese)

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and the African-Americans.

In my “organizing plan” for building what became APC, I had Sunnydale groups I was hoping to recruit to membership, and the Visitacion Valley Improvement Association (VVIA) largely made up of white ethnic homeowners.

VVIA wanted to talk with the Sunset Scavenger Company, one of San Francisco’s two garbage companies. The company refused to meet.

A major obstacle to Visitation Valley Improvement Association (VVIA) joining the newly forming community organization was its President, Joe Brajkovich. It was from him that I learned what VVIA wanted from Sunset Scavenger Company: a dollar a year lease use of a small lot it owned so that it could be used as a “postage stamp” park in Little Hollywood, and a better way to cover its trucks so that debris wouldn’t fly from them as they passed through Little Hollywood on the way to the City Dump. In the days before “packers,” garbage was piled in an empty bin on the back of the garbage truck that went from house to house picking up its load. When the truck was filled, a big canvass was spread over the top of the load and tied down on the sides of the truck; things would fly out from underneath the canvass littering the truck’s route. Every truck that went anyplace in San Francisco passed through Little Hollywood on its way to the dump.

Joe Brajkovich, President of VVIA, was the 1972 George Wallace-for-President Campaign Coordinator for San Francisco. Wallace was the racist former Governor of Alabama who spewed a mix of populism and racism. His success with white working- and lower-middle-class voters sent a chill down the back of mainline Democratic Party activists; he was a warning of what became the “Reagan Democrats” phenomenon in 1980. Whenever I talked with Brakovich about becoming part of the organizing committee that created APC, he unleashed vitriol about Sunnydale Housing Project, Geneva Towers, blacks, welfare recipients, and how they were all subsidized by working people like himself and his neighbors who had made it in America by pulling up their own bootstraps. When we met, he would rant and rave about “them” getting everything.

I just listened. I listened to what pained and angered him, and what he hoped to accomplish for his members. He was pained by the fact that the neighborhood was going downhill (which, in fact, it was if you looked at things like housing deterioration, city services, and other “standard” indicators); that the Sunset Scavengers ignored his requests to meet; etc. He wanted to deliver for his people.

He was angry that he couldn’t get “city hall” (or the scavenger company) to meet with VVIA and deal with it on these issues. He was most angered by the fact that the neighborhood had a “broker,” a man named Henry Schindel who owned lots of property in Vis Valley, who set himself up between “downtown” and the neighborhood and dispatched favors here and there to keep himself in that “broker” position.

I kept bringing our conversations back to this point: Brajkovich wasn’t getting respect for VVIA and he didn’t have the power to do anything about it. I wasn’t telling him anything he didn’t know. But I did have an idea how he might get what he wanted: by joining with “those people” he didn’t want to join with. Whenever he gave me his litany about “them,” I asked him whether what he was doing now was working. I did that for about three months. Meanwhile, a number of groups in the neighborhood were in the process of becoming part of the organizing committee that was putting together the founding convention of what came to be All Peoples Coalition (APC). If he wanted his issues to be part of the convention’s resolutions, his people to be among the officers, and a voice in the adoption of a constitution and by-laws for the organization, then he would have to join.

Here’s the picture I painted: As a member organization of All People’s Coalition (APC), VVIA would be able to bring its issues to the federation. With support from Black and white residents who lived throughout Visitacion Valley, VVIA would be able to negotiate with Sunset Scavenger on both littering and the empty lot. Brajkovich finally recommended to the VVIA membership that it join APC. And he didn’t propose a constitutional amendment excluding Sunnydale and the Geneva Towers.

In fact, with APC support, an agreement was reached with the Sunset Scavengers on both littering and the postage stamp park. Ron Morton, President of APC, was part of the negotiating committee. He was an African-American locksmith whose shop was on Leland Street, Visitacion Valley’s neighborhood commercial strip. Other African-Americans who lived in the Federally subsidized Geneva Towers participated in some of the direct action events that pressured the Scavengers to finally meet; so did some people from Sunnydale.

In the brief period preceding the following story, APC had undertaken campaigns for improved neighborhood traffic controls, recreation facilities, job opportunities and public housing. In the Mayor’s revenue sharing hearings, APC demonstrated itself to be the “voice of the neighborhood.”

About a year later, the tenants in Geneva Towers, with APC organizing staff assistance, developed the Geneva Towers Tenants Association (GTTA) and joined APC. By that time probably 80% or more African-American in its make-up, the 500+ units high-rise Towers stood out in more ways than one in a neighborhood that was primarily single-family homes and duplexes. (Years later, the Department of Housing and Urban Development paid to literally blow the high-rise Towers up and replace them with townhouse subsidized units.) GTTA wanted the Towers management company to meet with it and negotiate a series of improvements and services in their two buildings. After showing up for a first meeting, the management refused to further discuss things with its tenants. Direct action by the tenant association followed [link to The People Fight Back: Building Tenant Union].

Eddie Wafford, a retired Teamster Business Agent living in Visitacion Valley, showed up on a Saturday morning to ride a rented bus to the Towers owner’s home in nearby fancy Marin County. Eddie shared the anti-Black prejudices of his fellow Irishmen in the neighborhood. But he was a member of the Visitacion Valley Improvement Association (VVIA), attended APC’s founding convention and participated in some of the action that led to the agreement with Sunset Scavenger Company.

By that time I’d gotten to know him pretty well. Given what I knew about his feelings toward blacks, I was a bit surprised to see him, and said so when I first saw him that morning. On the way home from the picketing, he and I had this conversation:

Mike (M): I was a little surprised to see you here today, Eddie.
Eddie (E): Why’s that, Mike?
M: Well, you know, you told me a while back you didn’t have much use for Black people, particularly those living in the Towers.
E: Aw, that was before I got to know them and they showed up for me and Little Hollywood. This is the least I could do.
M: So how do you feel about the Towers people now?
E: There’s some real nice people here, Mike.
M: Whose interests do you think were served by the way you used to think about the Black people here?
E: What do you mean?
M: You think about it, and we’ll talk a little more later.

When we talked about it later, Eddie understood that “downtown,” the Sunset Scavengers and Henry Schindel, the old-style neighborhood political “broker,” were the people who benefited from his prejudices against his black neighbors.

I’d learned this approach to dealing with race from an old union organizer, who told a similar story about how he’d bring Appalachian whites into the United Mine Workers Union-which organized on an integrated basis.

The racist President of VVIA may have never changed his mind about “them” or “those people.” But some of “his people” did, Eddie Wafford included. Equally important, they concluded their interests were better met in relationship with people they hadn’t wanted to work or associate with in the past. I wouldn’t have gotten to talk with the VVIA people if I had “led with race”–telling Joe Brajkovich that he and his members were wrong about their racism, were “privileged whites” or whatever. The door would quickly have been shut or the phone hung up when I called.

My conclusions:

1. Draw the “boundary lines” (industrial union, multi-racial/ethnic turf or multi-racial/ethnic organization which chapters join) so that people come into relationships with “The Other.”

2. Look for circumstances of cognitive dissonance–when people’s experiences don’t fit the stereotypes they came to the experience with.

3. Use self-interest issues-either of the “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” or bigger ones of the none of us can handle it alone variety-to create opportunities for new relationships that cut across historic lines of division.

4. Place those self-interest issues in a larger framework of justice, fairness and democracy values.

5. Those circumstances, interests, values and relationships create teachable moments-opportunities when an organizer or educator really can get people to change their minds.

My observation is that, contrary to what most sociologists and “leading with race” organizers say, working class peoples’ prejudices can quickly disappear or at least be put on “the back burner” when the circumstances are right and the conversation provides a new way to frame reality.

Mike Miller is author of A Community Organizer’s Tale: People and Power in San Francisco, and directs ORGANIZE Training Center.

2 Responses

  1. Lena Rothman
    Lena Rothman

    I agree that leading with race and telling white people that they’re privileged before them being ready to hear it doesn’t work well, nor does pointing out to a middle class person that they have class privilege work very well. Seems to me that a person with privilege won’t even look at it without something in it for them (at least in this story). It sounds like a job well done though.

  2. Sharon Peterson

    I realize this is an old post. Hope my comment is OK. If not, please delete.

    One issue is that if you (general “you”) need to work with a certain organization, and you’re an organizer who also happens to be a member of a racial group that is disliked by the leadership of said organization — then, by your very presence and existence, you’re leading with race.

    This is even more true if your entire membership is composed of people from said disliked racial group.

    Under such circumstances, the other organization may not even be *able* to hear a self-interest-based, pragmatic approach.

    Has anyone successfully bridged the gap when this dynamic is in play?