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It started with the recent violent upheavals in England -- not where you would expect a diary on women’s issues to start.
I happened on to a blog about the Tottenham riots where commentators were locked into an argument, each focusing on their particular identity issue: “Were the riots caused by racism and police repression, resulting in the questionable death of a black man in the Afro-Caribbean community?” Vs. “Were the riots a class response by young unemployed Brits to the increased unemployment and social service cuts?” I wanted to raise two further questions: 1) Why are race and class anger presented as mutually exclusive questions? And 2) Where was the perspective on women in the riots since women and children will be the group most effected?
Question 1: Race/Ethnicity vs. Class:
Given the Afro-Caribbean community’s history of colonial and racial oppression plus their continuing over-representation in poor communities, it is not surprising that the catalyst for the first of the current riots came from this community. The recent uprising in Tottenham started in response to the death of a black man at the hands of police. The Afro-Caribbean community immigrated here several generations ago. Because of institutional racism, Afro-Caribbeans continue to be over-represented in the poorest working class communities. This is further compounded by the fact that, ever since Thatcherism, instead of job creation, the neoliberal solution to lack of jobs and the resultant poverty has been police repression. Police harassment has been a long standing issue in the Afro- Caribbean community in England, culminating in a series of riots in the 1980s, the most notable in Brixton. The recent influx of new immigrants and other refugees of color only added to racial tensions around police repression.
The initial uprising immediately turned into a broader more militant series of riots in other parts of the city and the country. British youth in other communities (including working class Irish and other ethnic minorities among new refugees) also have fewer and fewer job opportunities available to them. As police repression is the only government response to control joblessness,. working class youth in general identify with anger and resentment toward the police, much as they did in the 1980s. This need not negate the question of race/or of class, but should bring together two different histories of class struggle, hopefully integrating them, and giving a fuller explanation of what is happening.
Before I get into further analysis, I wish to point out that the “class” vs. “racial identity” fight that currently seems to be going on is a false dichotomy since the “class” side of the debate is not really representative of class struggle, but represents another “identity” group fighting for recognition of its issues. People of color and women have always been in the forefront of the class struggle as long as you do not limit your analysis to the European white male trade union model. That particular identity group was formed during the Industrial Revolution which was a product of a specific theory of change based on a specific time period and work structure in Western Europe.
It is also important to point out that, the exclusion of people of color and women from the “traditional“ working class paradigm was intentional: first, by male-defined unions, later from US Fair Labor laws that failed to cover workers who did not fit into the industrial model of the working class (agricultural workers and women doing caretaking and reproductive work). That definition of class excludes most of the workers in the world. African slaves built America and Europe derived its wealth on the backs of colonized workers of color. Women have always worked both outside the market economy caring for children and in certain peripheral industries in the market economy, primarily in the textile industry (where they started the first major strike in the US). This is why it is so frustrating when the impetus among white leftists is to, once again, ignore the obvious role of racial and ethnic subgroups, when analyzing the rebellions in London. And, again why is an analysis of women’s role (or lack of it) entirely left out, even though they are the main group affected by the cutbacks? At least people of color raised the race issue, hence the fight.
Question 2: Where are the women? And why aren’t women questioning why they are not represented in the discussion of the uprisings?
Generally, the women’s movement has been defined as a bourgeoisie white middle class movement, mostly by white middle class male leftist who are always looking for an excuse to avoid the “woman question.” This, of course, would automatically exclude women as a category in relation to the recent riots since the left does not connect the women’s movement to race or class issues. When women of color or working class women raise issues of oppression, it is generally assumed that the oppression is due to their race or their class. But this is an incomplete analysis and covers over the gender dynamics, which ultimately are important to an analysis of the role of women in the recent events in London.
In an excellent blog by Seeta8 entitled “The Theft of Wealth from People of Color,” the diarist discussed the wealth gap between black and white single women, primarily using the prisms of race and class. The statistics clearly show that the most significant group impacted is black women who end up with “negative” wealth, compared to over $14,000 net wealth for white women. (Lifting as We Climb: Women of Color, Wealth and America’s future.”)
This, however, only tells part of the story: The wealth gap, for women is, in fact, defined as the total wealth a woman has obtained, minus any wealth contributed by inheritance or a spouse. In the overall wealth gap, women have 8% of the wealth of men. Since black men have had limited access to the wealth cycle, black women do not have as much access to wealth as white women, even indirectly through marriage. Marriage rates are always lower when there is no hereditary wealth to consider. The rate of Afro-Caribbean women who are not married is 42% while that of all British women is 13%. (The Factbook: Eye-Opening Facts on Everything Family).Once you are single, your odds of accumulating wealth on your own are even lower. This is even more true for single moms of all races/ethnicities as motherhood limits your odds of accumulating wealth even more due to time spent on unpaid work, raising children and lost work opportunities.
So women’s status in relation to the patriarchal institution of marriage, as well as class and race, define women’s oppression. Women outside the sphere of individual male control, especially in the Afro- Caribbean community, must rely much more on the social safety nets provided by society – free public education for their children, public health clinics, national retirement insurance, etc. Not only have these services been inadequate even in “socialist” England, but these very services are being cut worldwide in an effort to “re-privatize” women’s labor so that capitalist society, as a whole, will not be held responsible for the cost of women’s work outside the market. The fact that the patriarchal system is slowly breaking down without providing an adequate alternative structure to deal with social needs outside of the capitalist market is another big question.
The communities that rioted are not only made up of men. Since the social service cuts will effect women and children the most, it would be interesting to get a sense of how many of the grassroots leaders in the neighborhoods where the uprisings occurred are women and what that means. While unemployed young men (and some women or “girls” as one article put it) might be the most visible members on the street during the riots, on a day to day basis women (especially single mothers) are the majority and strong leaders in their churches and community struggles. Organizations such as the African Caribbean Self-Help Organization (ACSHO) deal with issues such as housing and education discrimination, healthcare and issues of police harassment. In the Afro-Caribbean community, 25% of business owners are women -- more than in other cultures. The Afro-Caribbean community has recently produced two well known women writers -- Zadie Smith, author of White Teeth which describes multicultural London and Andrea Levy, author of Small Island which describes the problems of children born in Britain to Jamaican parents.
Most leftist theories of change and revolution suggest that change will be made by the people who need it most. If the women in the poorer communities are the community caretakers and have to provide for the children, the sick and the elderly, will women’s role in the uprisings be to find the progressive vision that will move the community forward? If most of the women in the poorer communities are single and/or single Moms, will it be more important to them to work to improve, if not at least maintain, the society’s social service network that is necessary for all the nurturing functions in society? But most of the articles surrounding the uprisings do not touch on this. (except to show pictures of a bunch of white people cleaning up the neighborhood to defend it against the maurading “gangs.”of youth led astray by “the Afro-Caribbean degenerate culture.”)
So where is the discussion and response from the “women’s movement” itself? Due to white women’s greater access to marriage and wealth advantage, the “women’s movement”, as a group, has focused most of its energy on those feminist issues that cannot be solved by their economic privilege and/or social standing. While access to abortion is an issue, the fact that poor women cannot always pay for it receives little attention. The middle class married woman who wants to work and have children can always hire a Nanny so childcare becomes less of a priority. So most women in what is loosely defined as "the Feminist Movement" do not, in general, tend to see issues of poverty as women’s issues -- unless they have to leave an abusive husband or are dumped, with the three kids, for a trophy wife. And poorer women (often primarily women of color) are encouraged to put aside the issue of gender and only consider their oppression in terms of race and class.
The point is, if we want to understand the current upheavals in England, we need to acknowledge and integrate all of our identities into our movements –black unemployed men, white male leftists, the new black middle class, white feminists, youth, black women, other ethnic minorities, poor people, single moms. We have to think of how to channel the anger and energy from the uprisings. We do not have to define it only in terms of a class response or of an anti-imperialist or anti-racist response or a pro-woman response. Of even, for that matter, in terms of a violent response. Women, especially Afro-Caribbean women have been the backbone of the community and the nurturers. Mobilizing the women in the community is vital to solving the crisis from a long term perspective instead of an immediate reactive response.
This week, Britain decided to “borrow” a U.S. Police chief with a record of high arrests to quell the London violence. Instead, the British government should have taken a page from the way Cornell West and Travis Smiley are dealing with U.S. labor unrest. How they are going from town to town, talking to poor people, to get solutions from the community(this includes many white workers as the “middle class” workers movement slides back into the ranks of the regular working poor). Instead of dealing with these issues as separate struggles, they are trying to bring them together into a more integrated class struggle where those most oppressed, the racial minorities, are in the lead . Maybe we can find a place where women as a whole, and women of color especially, fit into that struggle.