Coalition Building in the Fight for Equal Rights How can different ethnic groups work together to make social change? Farai Chideya asks Robert Lovato, former director of the Central American Resource Center in Los Angeles; Raphe Sonenshein, a professor at California State University Fullerton; and Van Jones, president of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in Oakland, Calif.
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Coalition Building in the Fight for Equal Rights

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Coalition Building in the Fight for Equal Rights

Coalition Building in the Fight for Equal Rights

Coalition Building in the Fight for Equal Rights

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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How can different ethnic groups work together to make social change? Farai Chideya asks Robert Lovato, former director of the Central American Resource Center in Los Angeles; Raphe Sonenshein, a professor at California State University Fullerton; and Van Jones, president of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in Oakland, Calif.


This is News & Notes. I'm Farai Chideya.

Last week, we looked at where the civil rights movement is headed. Today is part of our month-long series on civil rights. We discussed coalition building across ethnic groups. Joining me now to discuss the topic, we've got Van Jones, president of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in Oakland. Also, Roberto Lovato, former director of Central American Resource Center in Los Angeles -it's the country's largest immigrant rights group - and Raphe Sonenshein, a professor at California State University, Fullerton and an expert on political coalition building. Welcome to all of you.

Dr. RAPHE SONENSHEIN (Political Science, California State University Fullerton): Thank you.

Mr. ROBERTO LOVATO (Former Director, Central American Resource Center): Thank you.

Mr. VAN JONES (President, Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in Oakland): Thank you.

CHIDEYA: So historically, black Americans and Latinos have been relatively good at forming activist coalitions, but not so much now, including the immigration issue. Roberto, what's the state of play between African-Americans and Latinos?

Mr. LOVATO: I think it depends on where you're talking about. I think it depends on which Latinos and which African-Americans you're talking about. It's - we've entered a time where it's increasingly difficult to talk about what it means to be black, for example. Is Obama black? Is Clarence Thomas black? And so those are indicators, along with immigration. We're in an extremely complex time - racially, economically, politically. I've been traveling the country for the past four years, looking at these kinds of issues. And I find a mix of some really great and inspired things, and I find some very troubling and difficult things, and I find things that are just kind of tepid.

CHIDEYA: Give me an example of one success story and one story of tension.

Mr. LOVATO: Well, let's locate them both in Louisiana, New Orleans after Katrina. After Katrina, what we all heard about was Mayor Ray Nagin's comments about Mexicans coming in, which a lot of us found discriminatory - even racist. And what we didn't hear about were - was a lot of the coalition building that started at around that time between the religious groups, labor groups, and it's still going on to this day. That doesn't make news. Peace generally doesn't make news and doesn't sell CNN ads - war does, including, you know, what you hear in (unintelligible) about race war. That sells. That's sexy. It sells in media, it sells in politics, it sells in academia, it sells throughout.

CHIDEYA: Now, Raphe, there was - many people would argue a schism of a coalition that existed during the civil rights movement in the '50s and '60s of Jewish Americans and black Americans. And later on, during the black power era, there were fishers that developed. Is this something where there was a coalition between - and I'm not just talking here about blacks and Latinos, but between African-Americans and other groups of color that split, or was there never as strong a base to begin with?

Dr. RAPHE: It's closer to the second. And in fact, it's not so much that an existing black Latino alliance is fracturing. It's that it's really a new relationship that, in coalition terms, it was really the relationship between African-Americans and white liberals, principally Jews, that was the principal coalition across racial lines.

Everything from the civil rights movement to the election of black mayors in the '60s and '70s - and the top example of that was in Los Angeles. The coalition behind Tom Bradley for 20 years was almost overwhelmingly a black Jewish coalition. And what happened was, Latinos often felt like the odd person out in that coalition. They're sort of members sometimes, sometimes not members. What has really changed in the world in all cities and in American politics is the emergence of Latinos as a group that can't be ignored, and at the same time, a greater distance between blacks and white liberals, blacks and Jews. And so everyone's looking for new partners.

So what you really have now is two groups who everybody thought a long time ago would have been natural coalition partners, now sort of circling each other like in the ring - sometimes friendly, sometimes in conflict. But it's much more of a new relationship than people realize.

CHIDEYA: Now, Van, you're working on green jobs. You're based in the Bay - the Bay Area, Northern California - obviously very diverse. Do you find - there's been a lot of recent activity around civil rights, around the issues of justice in the criminal justice system. You've worked on that as well. Are issues like jobs going to bring as much of a coalition together? What are you finding?

Mr. JONES: Well, I mean, I think, you know, the Bay Area is really kind of - looks like the country is going to look where Oakland is the most diverse city in the country. So, you know, here, you know, you can't talk about the Asian community, you mean, the Mong(ph), do you mean the Filipinos, you mean the Koreans, even the Chinese, you know, talking about, you know, Latinos, you know, there's, you know, literally every nationality is here from all over the world.

So for us, I do think it's important to recognize that once you get to a certain place where no one group or no two groups are the dominant group, things change pretty dramatically. We found that, you know, all of our kids -black and Latino kids and some of the poor Asian kids - are going to schools that don't work, looking for jobs that don't exist, trying to find scholarships that don't exist, and getting herded off to prisons in disproportionate numbers. Those are common ground issues, kitchen table bread and butter issues that we've been able to build pretty interesting coalitions around here in Northern California.

Similarly, the question around jobs, we found, yeah, well, the national conversation is a sort of a baked discussion about, you know, immigrants displacing African-Americans and all this sort of stuff, most people are pretty clear that, you know, immigrants working in the fields do not close all these factories and shut down all these Army bases here in Northern California. And so…

CHIDEYA: But, Van, I have to jump in. There are maybe logical arguments about that, but there's real anger. There's people, you know, when I go out in the field and do reporting, there's a lot of anger among certain working class African-Americans. And maybe it's displaced anger but it's anger.

Mr. JONES: Oh, I get that.

CHIDEYA: So how do you deal with that?

Mr. JONES: Well, I mean, I think that the reason that you have the anger is because there's a lack of political leadership in the African-American community that's actually pointing to real problems and - point the real solutions to real problems. Whenever you start out in an organizing campaign, there's all kind of bigotry and bias and stuff there. But what I think is most important in this conversation is that where the campaign starts and where it ends are very different.

The civil rights movement created a context in which blacks and Jewish people came together. They came together, they were closer at the end of that movement. They weren't at the beginning. I think we've got to get back to a politics of possibility and opportunity that says all of us kind of struggling at the bottom in any scaling systems have a lot more in common and get a lot more done if you want together to fix these systems.

CHIDEYA: Raphe, there's a saying, likes don't like likes, meaning, people who are in economic distress or who have problems, you know, getting into the, you know kind of the promised land of American society don't always cohere. How do you change that dynamic if you're someone who's trying to change that dynamic?

Dr. SONENSHEIN: Well, that's a great point. You know, for years, people hoped that African-Americans and white working-class people would come together. And it never happened. And one reason was racial attitudes were so strong especially on the side of white working-class voters. I think there's a greater opportunity for working-class Latino and working-class African-Americans to come together but it's still - there's a lot of problems.

For one thing, take the New Orleans case. There were plenty of people in leadership positions especially at the national level, who actually put Latinos against blacks by making it difficult for blacks to return and then just as a minor point trying to suspend the Davis-Bacon Act to provide union wages to people who would work on construction jobs. That's what the Labor Department did until Congress intervened. As soon as Congress intervened and said everybody has to get a fair wage, a lot of that rush to bring new Latino workers in evaporated because everybody was going to be able to compete for the same jobs at the same level.

So some of it has to do with the fact that the system is now throwing two working groups together at each other. I also think that the media loves a conflict story. Now there are plenty of conflict stories in the high schools, in the jails, in prisons, and these are very, very exciting stories. But if you walk down in neighborhoods, say, in South LA that are mixed, you'll very often see people living very harmoniously on the same block doing the normal things people do in every neighborhood. It makes a lousy story, however.

CHIDEYA: In case you're just tuning in, this is NPR's News & Notes. I'm Farai Chideya.

We are talking about coalition building for civil rights across ethnicities. Talking with Roberto Lovato, writer with New America Media and The Nation, Raphe Sonenshein, professor at California State University Fullerton, and Van Jones, president of the Ella Baker Center for human rights in Oakland.

Roberto, let's back up a little bit, we are talking about coalitions between racial or ethnic groups. But there are racial and ethnic groups, for example, within the Latino community. You know, there's Afro-Cubans, there's Latin Americans, there's people who have a lot of different backgrounds, a lot of, you know, urban and rural and all these immigrants and American-born. How do you even start to build a collation when within the Latino community, the Asian-American community and increasingly, even the African-American community, you have to do coalition building?

Mr. LOVATO: I think we have to do a couple of things. The usual thing you do in coalition building is identify a vision - the unique vision and you organize around and you build leadership around. And you also have to identify the leadership and have information about who they are and who you are. And so we need to kind of give some nuance to understanding what it means to be Latino, for example. There are Afro-Cubanos, Afro-Cubans, Afro-Panamenios, Afro-Panamanians.

We have to really build our understanding of Latinoness, of Blackness. I've tried in my writing and in my work to understand - better understand and immerse myself in black politics in the United States. That's why I started off saying that there's no one way to be black. I mean I'm fascinated the way that Clarence Thomas is using the discourse of the civil rights movement.

There's not even a one thing - one way to view the civil rights movement. I've heard about Andy Young whose approach to civil rights means, you know, supporting Wal-Mart and into expansion into neighborhoods that are eventually going to be gentrified. So we really have to, you know, we have a lot of work to do and we're lazy, we shouldn't be in the world.

CHIDEYA: Well, gentlemen, in the time we have left, I want to move to the question of how you do build these bridges. We talked a little bit about it and first of all, I want to ask you, Raphe, what's the mountaintop? Where are people heading in terms of civil rights? I know that's a big question. And then, how do you get them there?

Prof. SONENSHEIN: Well, right now, I think a lot of people are lost, not knowing where to hit. But there is a goal. The goal is equality and fairness and justice. In other words, you don't form coalitions just because of the good feeling of being with other people who are different from yourself. Although, that's a great thing all by itself. It has a purpose.

Because in this country that's so fractured by race and with working people so fractured by race and ethnicity, the only way to have equality is for those groups to find a way to work together. But what we know about coalitions is it's always done by a small group of people in each community who become very familiar with the other community and in effect, show the way for people who would naturally rather just hang out with people just like themselves and say, I'm visiting with this person over here, why don't you come along with me tonight.?

Some of the best coalitions in the country are probably built by 20 or 30 people who act as sort of translators from community to community. Conversely, it takes fewer than 20 people to fracture relations between communities because it's much easier to do that. So all you need is one person with a megaphone to get up there and in effect, say, did you hear what they said about you? I think Roberto's right. This is the hard work. But it doesn't take everybody to do it. It takes a small number of committed people.

CHIDEYA: What about white folks?

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHIDEYA: To be perfectly honest, is it too late to bring working class white people into any kind of movement for economic justice?

Prof. SONENSHEIN: Well, I've been studying this for, I don't know, how many years. White voters who are working class will vote at progressive agenda, but they will not necessarily join an interracial coalition. That's just the reality. When you look in the room and see who's on the white side in the discussion, it's almost always going to be a liberal white person, often Jewish, not always Jewish, maybe well educated, maybe middle class.

And that's annoying to a lot of people because they believe that it should all be a big working class coalition. The reality is that working class whites are the repository of some attitudes about race that make it awfully hard. For example, if you do some polling on immigration, blacks may have concern about immigration, conservative whites, including working class whites can be kind of red hot up on that issue.

But it doesn't mean that people can't come together on issues like health insurance and stuff like that, it's just I wouldn't expect a big tent of everybody sitting around talking about, you know, how we feel about each other. That's going to be (unintelligible) working class.

CHIDEYA: Roberto?

Mr. LOVATO: I think that mountaintop is one, which we're getting along and conscious of the fact that we're getting along, more conscious than we are now or less mediated as in media experienced and one of which we have clouds cleared up - clear our view with a direct, you know, view of capitalism and our relationship to capitalism.

I heard Raphe mentioned the word system. People don't even talk about this system anymore. I'm so grateful for - to hear Raphe use the word, system because we need to look at the system. We don't just need to look at electoral politics and candidates. You know, are we for Obama or Clinton? No, because they both get funding from the same system. And…

CHIDEYA: But, Roberto, a lot of people would argue the whole reason that America has diversity is because of capitalism. People coming here to try to make their way. What do you say to that?

Mr. LOVATO: Well, yeah, people were brought here on slave ships because of capitalism. People's land was stolen in the Southwest, Mexicans, because of capitalism. Asians were excluded from the American enterprise by capitalism. And so…

CHIDEYA: But in recent years, there's been - I mean, a huge migration, whether you see it out of necessity or out of hope, so much to the reason that immigration has been. People trying to start businesses, make their way.

Mr. LOVATO: People desperate enough to cross deserts where they and their children die is also a part of this equation of what capitalism does to us. So it's a mix bag and that's why - but we don't even talk about it. We need to get a point - to a point where we're at that mountaintop. We're breathing clean air. It's clear. We have a clear view of what the real issues are.

Mr. JONES: Well, I definitely think that the question of economics, which is, you know, what's on the table now. And global economics, historical economics, the precedent economic system is something that's important. And what I take away from the conversation, though, is that a kind of economic populism that really points out, you know, the health care question, the public school question, you know, job opportunity. I do think that we've got to get more and more, back-to-back kind of kitchen table bread and butter. Maybe, we don't all get along. Maybe, we don't all like each other. Maybe, we don't all go to, you know, join the same coalitions. But fundamentally, there's got to be an agenda that is a majority agenda in the country for the people who, you know, are working hard every day for modest incomes. And that to me is where I see the most potential.

I do believe that, you know, Latinos, blacks, Asians and whites, but white folks as well, when there's an agenda there that speaks to them and that speaks to the opportunity for their kids, can rise above of much this bigotry. As long as we're just left, though, to be on their own, as best we can, we are going to be resentful of that next person who looks like they're different than we are.

CHIDEYA: Van and Roberto, Raphe, we're going to have to leave it there. Thank you so much.

Prof. SONENSHEIN: Thank you.

Mr. JONES: Thank you

Mr. LOVATO: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: We've been talking with Van Jones, president of the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in Oakland; Roberto Lovato, writer with New America Media and The Nation and Raphe Sonenshein, professor at California State University, Fullerton.

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