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Same Old (White Boy's) Song

Michael Albert


This winter's Whole Earth Review is their 20th anniversary issue and includes 85 articles chosen by the editors to inspire and inform Whole Earth's readers on the general themes of its "maverick reporting." The one-page articles come from poets, new-age activists, anthropologists, hippies, consumer rights activists, reporters, Earth Firsters, social ecologists, economists, computer scientists, and other Whole Earth and "small is beautiful" counterculture supporters ranging from Edward Abbey to Wendell Berry, Murray Bookchin to Jerry Brown, Hazel Henderson to Ralph Nader, Stewart Brand to Tim Leary, Ivan Illych to Gary Snyder, and Eric Utne to Anne Waldman. Of the 85 contributors, 100 percent are white and just under 90 percent are male.

The Nation, a progressive magazine publishing for more than 120 years and currently enjoying the second widest circulation of any left-of-center periodical, highlighted in its November 28 issue a symposium in which various Nation editors and editorial board members discuss "First Thoughts on the Election." Of the five participants, all are white men. Moreover, the group would have remained 100 percent white male had The Nation added all their regular columnists to the mix.

At the fantastically well-organized, well-attended, and well-funded anti-anti-communism conference held in Boston, Massachusetts, last November, talks, panels, and plenaries included speakers from all over the world. Though the focus was the dynamics and impact of anti-communism throughout the world, it also included its impact on foreign policy, public attitudes, on women and the women's movement, the black community, all kinds of politics, repression, etc. Of 151 speakers at the conference, 30 percent were women, and just over 20 percent were Third World (which reflects international more than U.S. participation). Of 32 speakers on major panels, there were 4 women, 28 men, and 11 people of color.

These are only three instances of racial and sexual imbalance that could be assembled covering the full range of left projects, publishing, and organizing.

My complaint is old hat, yes. But it is old hat because the condition persists—not because critics are knee-jerk nags.

Why should anyone care? Short answers include:

So why do imbalances persist? Here are some possible explanations of persistent racial and sexual imbalance and my replies.

(1) Imbalance is an accident.

Get serious! Accidents are random and go both ways. If sexual and racial imbalance were accidental, half the time there would be more women than men and more than a representative number of Blacks, Latinos, and other "nonwhites." This hardly ever happens. The "accident" excuse displays either extreme ignorance of what the word "accident" means or an extreme lack of ingenuity at alibiing Neanderthal behavior.

(2) Imbalance derives from habit.

What?! Habitual imbalance is racism and sexism. If this is someone's answer, that person should fess up to fancying Klan consciousness l excuse number 4 below.

(3) Imbalance arises because people reach out to folks they already know.

So why do publishers, editors, and conference organizers know mostly white men year after year? And why is this an excuse? Is laziness in the face of oppression a sign of political wisdom?

(4) Publishers, editors, and conference sponsors believe women, Blacks, Latinos, Asians, and Native Americans cannot write informative books or articles or give good speeches so it is a waste of time to seek their equal representation.

Please, this excuse is only included for logical completeness. Anyone for whom it applies needs more help than this column can offer, even if their delusions stem from ignorance rather than venality.

(5) Publishers, editors, and conference sponsors aggressively seek gender and racial representation but fail to find qualified folks and rather than reduce the quality of their product fall back on better trained, more experenced, white men who are, after all, the experts.

This is the workhorse, all-purpose answer. Many give and believe this answer. But it's bullshit on three counts. First, there are more than enough readily-available, highly-proficient Third World and women writers and speakers to provide excellent contributions on any topic any leftist might need. Second, white men often demonstrate little insight into critically important facets of topics they address—for example, about issues of gender, sexuality, and race. Third, note that even if racism and sexism has so isolated women, Blacks, Latinos, Native Americans, and others from writing and speaking opportunities that very few were skilled at these avocations; organizers, editors, and publishers should still seek racial and sexual balance even though they would have to include less experienced and less polished writers and speakers. Why? For the same reasons that apply when there are amply qualified folks but, in addition, because under the more difficult conditions no practice other than inclusion could as effectively inject new thoughts and experiences into the radical political equation or provide experience and polish where it had been previously denied.

I raise the issue of providing opportunity even to those who don't yet have "exalted skills" (assuming we could agree on what those might be) because it bears on the need to bring new people into the political circuit. The first few times out, most new people do less well than some old-timers. Experience (up to the point of inducing rote behavior) helps. But with a forward-looking timeline, editors, publishers, and organizers should make choices that continually develop new talent and new skills in new people. Now, instead, a few people are horribly over-extended, while new folks are not being developed.

But a question remains: Since many candidates do exist who would create better balance in books, magazines, and conferences, why do imbalances persist? Beyond special explanations of particular instances, I can find only four widely applicable answers.

So, what's the solution? Within the rubric of the values and focus of their projects, publishers, editors, and conference organizers must meet representative participation goals no matter how they feel about what the new folks are saying. And to make these acts of political integrity fiscally wise, funders, readers, conference-goers, and everyone who relates to projects, institutions, and campaigns of the left must welcome sexual and racial balance and must vote for it with feet, funds, and support.

Highly noticed and excoriated for at least two decades, racial and sexual imbalance in communicative and organizing projects can be eliminated as soon as we really want to eliminate it rather than merely discuss it.

Then perhaps we will address another less noticed balance problem: How many union members and how many working people who are not professional writers, lawyers, doctors, or university academics are represented in the pages and forums of the progressive political circuit? And, of the professional people who are represented, how many transcend their social circumstances to communicate non-academically and eschew issues that concern only "conceptual workers?" Don't the answers to the "why care" question at the beginning of this article apply not only to gender and race but also to class inclusion?