If you followed Bernie Sanders’ resurgent campaign for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination in even a cursory way, you heard about the scourge of the “Bernie Bro.”
He’s portrayed as a particular type of white man, one who refused to vote for Hillary Clinton (sexism!), backed Sanders (spoiler!), and is now trying to take the Democrats down a peg by joining up with the Democratic Socialists of America (racism, or something!).
That person exists. He’s taking up space in independent bookstores and talking too much in social justice circles the nation over. It’s also an appealing and convenient stereotype, a carefully crafted straw man, for anyone who makes their living churning out an opinion column a week.
But erasing people of color from the narrative is deeply ahistoric at best and intellectually dishonest at worst. Martin Luther King Jr. espoused socialist ideals, Cornel West was an honorary DSA chair, U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA) and Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN) are both members of the progressive congressional caucus; Princeton Professor Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor writes extensively about black liberation in a socialist context, and University of Pennsylvania Professor Adolph Reed Jr. has condemned identity politics as “neoliberalism.” Communists organized against racism in Depression-era Harlem and to desegregate the blood supply of the Red Cross during World War II.
And it’s not just in the past: socialists of color are running for office across the country and winning, like khalid kamau (who capitalizes his name in the Yoruba tradition) a city councilman and Democratic Socialist in South Fulton, Carlos Ramirez Rosa, a 26-year-old queer and Latinx activist elected to Chicago’s City Council, and Chokwe Antar Lumumba, a radical leftist who was elected mayor of Jackson, Mississippi.
Still, the trope has straddled the DSA, which was once largely irrelevant in national electoral politics but has seen its membership grow by 400% since Sanders campaigned openly with socialist ideas, with something of a perception problem—the idea that socialism is for white dude bros only.
Splinter spoke with several of these activists—gathered in Chicago last weekend to set the DSA’s agenda for the next two years—about how to abolish capitalism while creating an inclusive movement, what socialism has to offer communities of color, and why the time is now to embrace an alternative to the two-party system.
These interviews have been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
When did you join DSA?
What made you want to join up?
What made me actually realize I wanted to join up was realizing the folks in my local area who wanted to start the chapter were badasses, they were amazing folks.
I come from a union background, so I’m used to organizing to win, I’m used to organizing to fight, and I’m used to organizing around issues. And while I feel like I have a strong ideology that underlies that, I don’t like sitting in a room full of folks who are just there to talk about how great their ideas are. That’s cool, I’m glad folks have an ideology, I’m glad they have time to read, I’m glad they have time to kind of deep-dive into those things. I’ve always fundamentally felt that if we aren’t making tangible changes in folks’ lives, then I don’t give a shit what you believe or what philosophy you’ve read or your course of study, it just doesn’t matter.
So from a strong background in labor organizing, how did that evolve into desire to be involved in socialist politics?
I feel like I was born radicalized. I come from a Mexican background, my mom was from Michoacán, Rancho, a rural area of Mexico. When she was around 15, she got documents to come into the United States. My dad was an undocumented immigrant from Mexico City. They both made it to the United States in the ‘60s during that wave of immigration and through luck and hard work, my dad really made the American Dream happen. He moved us into the suburbs of Los Angeles, we were well-established in the middle class, but that was certainly not true for the rest of our family. They were all kind of spread over Los Angeles and East L.A., so as a very young girl, really coming to confront the class difference of our privilege and how that class privilege insulated me from certain oppressions, but not all.
It was a very weird dynamic, and whenever I would hang out with my family, we would talk about that. From a young age that really made me think, ‘There’s something wrong here.’ I didn’t necessarily have the vocab to explain why as a young person, but my folks really pushed me to get an education, saying this is how you make it in the U.S., you have to work two times as hard, five times as hard—I feel like you have to work a thousand times harder these days.
Teaching then further radicalized me. It was promoting the systemic issues head-on, right? I was a math teacher, so I really tried to bring in social justice and, you know, kind of culturally relevant curriculum. I was at Crenshaw High School, so when I started teaching, the teacher in the classroom next door was a big union organizer. So he mentored me, saying, ‘You’ve got a fire in your belly, let’s do this.’ So while I was probationary I just shut the hell up and the minute I got tenure, I was elected co-chair, I just dove into union organizing.
Do you think there’s a stereotype about socialist spaces being dominated by white men? How’s that borne out with your experience?
I don’t feel that way. I went to an elite private school for my college. I was used to being the only one in the room—sometimes the only female, sometimes the only brown female, sometimes the only brown person. I was also used to being in all-white spaces because we made it to the suburbs.
When I look around here, this is not an all-white space. I don’t see that, and I certainly don’t feel it, right, because it’s not just about the demographic composition of a place, it’s also about, what is the behavior in the culture of that place?
I’ve found this space to be very inclusive. If folks only want to see the white men in the room then it means you’re deliberately ignoring me. If you’re making that accusation, it’s because you’re deliberately choosing to see that—I’m right here. Here I feel the camaraderie is strong and that my experience is really valued, not just as a woman of color but also because of my experience. So that’s really validating.
If you had to do a little elevator pitch for what socialism has to offer communities of color, what would that be?
Communities of color have always had a strong background of resistance, socialism, and an interest in social justice and equality—not just what those mean as words, but what it really means to be making a difference in folks’ lives.
Everyone’s liberation is tied up with our own. You can’t be free if I’m in chains. We’re taking the model [of traditional electoral politics] away and bringing it back to us, so that the power is with us as people and in those relationships we build, so especially if folks of color are tired of hearing this bullshit, this is a great space to start doing something about really changing that power dynamic.
What first got you interested in social justice work and socialism in particular?
So I have a good friend whose brother was killed in this neighborhood of Chicago called Englewood. We first met in 2006, I did an interview with her on my show, Stockton to Malone, and in college, we became really tight, pretty much right away. I would hear her talk to her brother on the phone, he was like 12 at the time, and she’s really excited to see he’s getting good grades, and she’s like, “He’s gonna make it out like I did.”
By the time we were juniors, she had basically stopped talking about him, and the next thing I heard about him from her was, “Oh, Richie has been doing armed robberies in mall parking lots and breaking into people’s house, this shit is real.” So, junior year, we started trying to figure out if she could take custody of him, how to get him out of this neighborhood. We couldn’t find resources to more comprehensively intervene. She tried to move him out, it didn’t work. He had been shot once, and she was waking up in the middle of the night. She’d call me crying. He ended up getting killed when he was 19 after being paralyzed for a year, he got shot again and had been to jail on a gun possession charge.
So it’s a big part of my life. When people talk about violence in Chicago, they fetishize it but also dehumanize it at the same time. People need not just resources in the abstract, they need stuff that speaks to them emotionally. That’s the foundation of organizing, is the connection between people. It’s in how you feel about yourself and the world around you that gets changed and is the stuff that makes you fight. It’s not just the fast money for a kid like this. It’s the fact that people have his back. He knows what it’s like to lead. It’s more than just the money. Because people know they’re going to die, they know they’re going to go to prison. It’s a feeling that keeps them in the game.
When I started working for the union Unite Here, some of the black organizers in this union were former drug dealers. It was everything I knew Richie needed. I know I’m onto something here, this is bigger than just some Scandinavian welfare state model. You’ve got to actually connect to the people in the streets, in the struggle, because that’s how we organize. It has to be an affective experience.
I’m running for the NPC right now along with this team called Praxis, and we’re talking about base building as the foundation for any real, meaningful socialist project.
What do you mean by base building?
I mean connecting to people, actually trying to built it from the ground up. Here’s an example: in Pennsylvania, there’s this project called Put People First!, that’s a base building project where they set out to have poor people organizers in every county in the state of Pennsylvania. They’re pushing for universal healthcare now, but they started out by just going out, going door to door, going canvassing, just to get people united around this slogan: Human needs are human rights. The organizing goal was to create organizers among the poor.
DSA wants to focus on healthcare, so what we’re pushing is a piece of what BLM and BYP [Black Youth Project] came up with, this divestment and reinvestment framework when it comes to police and the prison system. Across the board, the biggest drain on budgets are policing and prisons. Why is that? It’s because they don’t want to pay for these services. When you have an austerity regime, you cut these services and reinforce the prison system, making it not just the service of last resort. It becomes the first priority for dealing with the contradictions and excesses of capitalist brutality. You cannot remedy this system without taking on the issues of prisons and police, which means talking about violence not just in a way that’s abstract, but actually confronting it in a meaningful sense.
A wide-eyed delegate, floored by his luck running into Stephens in the hallway, interrupts our conversation stops to tell Stephens how much he admires him and his work. “I love Praxis! I love everything you guys want to do!” The delegate enthusiastically says. Stephens accepts the praise and offers his comrade a warm hug in response.
How do you balance organizing priorities with members of the DSA who say you should be focusing on influencing electoral politics?
This is probably the most controversial thing I’ll say. I’ve been talking about the positive stuff. Even if you follow every rule for power building from below, it requires a revolution. So whether you do stuff with the Democrats, whether you form a separate party, the reality is the capitalist class has power outside of the electoral realm and that’s why they win. The electoral realm is about legitimizing power you already have, codifying it into law, giving it the legitimacy, which is about the right to use violence.
That whole quote about “socialism or barbarism”—barbarism is already here. People are being brutalized and they’re dying every day in the most horrific and preventable of ways. That is true barbarity—to die when you don’t have to, to suffer when you don’t have to, to have your hopes and dreams extinguished when it doesn’t have to be that way. That, to me, is barbarity, an assault on the very soul of a people. The only way that’s going to change is through a fundamental shift, and I believe in that.
Revolutions are impossible until they happen. The abolition of slavery was impossible until it happened. So our task right now is to lay the seeds for a deeper change.
Oh, and can you give a shoutout to my Mama?
We started out talking about one of the Saturday morning session’s controversies: delegates on the floor said a representative from Wisconsin challenged the New York City delegation for sending 75% women to the convention, arguing the chapter must’ve enforced gender quotas.
Is that kind of closed mindedness or sexism something you encounter in leftist spaces?
I find that the kinds of people that make those kinds of statements aren’t very present, a lot of the time we don’t even know who they are or where they came from because we have 2,000 members, and they’re certainly not the most active members, I’ll put it like that. [laughs]
How long have you been involved in DSA?
What made you join?
Bernie. My union, CWA, endorsed him. I actually lost my job due to union organizing. When I lost my job, Bernie actually came out and rallied with me outside the Verizon Wireless store. It inspired me to want to get behind him and learn more about what he’s been talking about.
Was that also your introduction to socialism more broadly?
I always considered myself to be a Christian Socialist, I just grew up like that. But socialism as an an actual action or organization, I wasn’t familiar with or ever apart of an organization.
What do you mean by Christian Socialism?
I grew up in a very religious household, and I would say I probably got some different things out of having to read the Bible all the time than maybe the people who were telling me to do it thought I would. I think that Jesus was a Socialist, and I think basically in the Bible they’re warning you against greed and capitalism, and I think a lot of people miss that.
With a religious upbringing, were your parents also politically on the left?
My parents were actually Republicans and still might be, maybe not now, but they were for sure.
Do you not really talk about politics with them?
We didn’t really talk about politics before. Identity-based politics, yes, but politics as a broader conversation, no.
Speaking of identity politics, that’s become kind of a four letter word in some circles, depending on who you talk to. What role should identity politics play in the politics of the left, if any?
I’m a firm believer that everyone has their entry point into the movement, and we, as people on the left, should not be denying folks the opportunity to mobilize issues that are important to them while still tying it to a class-based analysis. So I think the reason identity politics could be a dirty word is because liberal Democrats have co-opted it to manipulate and divide people, and I think that we need to reclaim that narrative and really use it to organize around things that are important to people.
As a strong Bernie supporter, I’m sure you were aware of this effort among the liberal commentariat to paint large swaths of his supporters as all-white Bernie Bros. What’s your response to liberals who believe that?
I acknowledge that Bernie Sanders did not do a great job of expanding his message to really address communities of color head-on and he was visibly uncomfortable talking about issues of race.
I would say now it’s our job to reclaim this narrative. We reject the narrative. We’re here, we’re people of color, and we hear a lot of these abstract terms about the working class and diversity, normally coming from white, cis males who understand oppression from theory. Women and people of color understand oppression because it’s their lived experience. We have a unique experience to add to theory.
You helped draft the resolution to establish the Afro-Socialist caucus, which was approved this morning. Can you tell me more about how that idea came to be?
A year ago, when we had our membership explosion, the question came up as to whether we should form a caucus for people of color. I was originally against the idea because I felt like I didn’t want to be separated from the rest of the group.
As we continued to see our membership grow, people of color would reach out to me and say ‘I’m really uncomfortable in this majority white space’ and reach out to me for guidance or to express their disappointment that it wasn’t diverse or even reflective of our neighborhoods in New York City, so how could this organization really be building power? I wanted to address their concerns, so I came up with this idea to have Afro-Socialist happy hours, which was for DSA members of color along with other black people and people of color on the left in general so we could start to establish a community. I was overwhelmed by the support in the very first one. We were able to engage with folks who were in DSA, never thought about being in DSA, because there was such a need for this type of community. That transformed into a series of happy hours in New York City, with members coming from as far as New Jersey and Long island to say, ‘This is important for me, and it feels good to be in a left space not dominated by white males.’
I find in our coalition-building, it’s been particularly helpful in our racial justice work to be able to act as somewhat of a buffer between this overwhelmingly white organization and the work they want to do. We also want to dispel the narrative that socialism is only for Bernie Bros or white men. We are black people, we care about issues that affect people of color, we care about issues that affect women, and we’re socialists. We want to give people the opportunity to learn more about our solution to capitalism, which would not be black capitalism, it would be Democratic Socialism, and also revive the black radical tradition.
How long have you been involved in DSA?
I’ve been involved in DSA since just after Trump’s election, but I was a socialist organizer for seven and a half to eight years in Portland. I wasn’t involved in DSA then—I was bouncing around other socialist organizations—but they were much, much smaller at that point. In Portland I also did LGBT organizing and I was heavily involved in Occupy Wall Street, Fight for 15, Black Lives Matter, and most recently, before I moved from Portland two years ago, Palestine. I went on the delegation to Palestine with Interfaith Peace-Builders.
You were part of the team that helped draft a resolution in support of the movement to boycott, divest from, and sanction Israel (also known as BDS), which the convention unanimously approved. Why was it so important that the DSA speak out on this issue?
DSA was really one of the last big, progressive organizations to choose to have a voice on that, to endorse it. We can devote a lot of resources to the BDS movement as well. Going and being in Palestine two-and-a-half years ago and hearing—there are barely any words to describe how brutal the occupation and siege in Palestine really is. Palestinians asked our delegation, even if we didn’t do anything else, to please bring back their stories. So this is one way we can show solidarity with the Palestinian people and help end the occupation. Just like in South Africa, decades ago, organizations on the left around the world came together to help end apartheid. We have the same thing happening here.
African-Americans in particular have always been a reliable base of support for the Democratic Party. What can a group like DSA do to push those people a little further left?
One of my platforms running for the National Political Committee is that the DSA needs to do a couple things for a couple populations. We need to do concrete organizing in rural communities and in black and brown communities. We need to have organizers on the ground, building relationships with people and getting involved with all the different programs, like violence prevention.
A lot of the programs that the Black Panther Party advocated for back in the early 1970s—like free breakfast and community programs—I think the DSA needs to take a look at their 10-point program and think about starting some of those programs in black communities. There would be a lot of support. It would take some years, but slowly but surely, they’ll get that support.
Why are programs like offering free breakfast or help finding work easy ways to improve people’s quality of life?
Well, because capitalism isn’t offering that. Look at the South side or the West side [of Chicago], you have food deserts in a lot of places. There’s an enormous amount of neglect, so there’s a lot of places where you have to go very far for a grocery store. Healthcare in poor black and brown neighborhoods is sorely lacking. I would like to see the DSA team up with, for example, free and mobile health clinics, and help spread that around even more. A lot of the services that capitalism is not able to offer, I think DSA is able to show that this is the kind of society that we want and if we’re able to show people this in their concrete lives, that’s how they’re going to be convinced.
Correction, 4:58 PM EST: This post originally misstated Chokwe Antar Lumumba’s name and history. His father, Chokwe Lumumba, was elected mayor of Jackson, MS, in 2013 and served until his death February 2014.