Editorial Disclaimer: In the run-up to Maine DSA’s Winter Convention, we are publishing pieces that focus on theory and debates within DSA. This piece is in response to Rose D’s January 8 article, “Diversity Requires Organizing.” These pieces reflect the opinions of their authors and not necessarily those of Pine & Roses.
Author’s Caveat: I am one sponsor of a bylaws amendment clarifying leadership diversity requirements for the Maine DSA and expanding them to include a disabled Steering Committee member but my views are my own; other sponsors have more reasons for their support of the measure which I hope they will voice as well.
Comrade Rose D., the Maine DSA’s current Agenda Co-chair and the Chief Editor of Mass, has offered a sincere and heartfelt post in Pine and Roses of January 8th urging that our organization move away from leadership diversity requirements which, she argues, throw “our queer, disabled, female or POC comrades into the organizing meat grinder.” I enthusiastically applaud the condemnation of organizational cannibalism—Soylent Green is made from people, but let the Socialist Diet be only plant-based and organically raised!
Though the comrade’s thesis is offered in the spirit of ardent pursuit of progress, it is founded upon some misunderstandings. Chief among them: achieving a diverse leadership in the DSA through existing and future requirements in the bylaws and other organizational efforts would not be an instrumental method of changing the demographics of the broader membership, which I am uncertain was ever the intention. She describes a diverse leadership as a means by which we might “declare ourselves a diverse chapter by fiat”—but this is not the case at all. When the Maine DSA has a diverse leadership, achieving a diverse membership is a separate, additional goal beyond that; the two goals can be in harmony, but diversity in leadership is its own value.
The communities of color in the state aren’t something we should seek to “make inroads” into in a colonizing manner—to convert to our own purposes, as the settler carved the Indigenous land up with roads and railroads and dredging and damming of waterways to condition it for settler purposes. Instead we should seek common cause with these communities and see them as sources of strength for the state and for the socialist movement in society. What makes up these communities of color, Indigenous and queer and disabled communities, we should seek to make an integral part of us as the Maine DSA.
Other effects that Rose names as unavoidable negative consequences of diversity goals are by no means inevitable; instead, they are the product of inadequate commitment on the part of the chapter to our existing diversity goals.
She should not have had to feel pressure as a queer, trans Steering Committee member to work to the point of burnout; instead the Steering Committee’s duties should be properly scoped and SC members should receive the support they need to balance their workload. Planning to replenish leadership in accordance with diversity requirements should begin well in advance of any possible vacancies.
The pressure should be placed on cis members of the organization instead of trans members, men instead of women, and white members instead of members of color. Certainly, if the burdens of equity and diversity fall solely on the shoulders of marginalized and disadvantaged people—if Black people always have to explain racism and white supremacy to White people; if women always have to learn to do everything “backwards and in high heels,” to perform exceptionally and overcome extra burdens merely to compete on a level playing field; or if a physically disabled person is faced every day with obstacles they’re unable to overcome by themselves in a world built only for the able such as stairs they can’t climb or doors they can’t open. In short, if burdens for all in need of a fighting chance are laid on the pioneers alone, if the task of breaking every glass ceiling and making inroads into the wilderness of prejudice and systemic bias is left to the fortunate and talented few who first make it past these obstacles and who are already occupied with holding their own, then history shows us equity and diversity cannot persist. The system must be changed in ways that are not superficial.
Rose cites Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò,who, argues against simply “handing conversational authority and attentional goods to those who most snugly fit into the social categories” in question, asserting that “[d]oing better than the epistemic norms we’ve inherited from a history of explicit global apartheid is an awfully low bar to set.” Táíwò continues,“The facts that explain who ends up in which room shape our world much more powerfully than the squabbles for comparative prestige between people who have already made it into the rooms.” Even more starkly, Saoirse G and Olivia M, in a piece republished by Mass and cited by Rose, points out “[q]ueer and trans people are a minority both globally and within the United States–without solidarity, we cannot survive.” So the question of successfully achieving liberation for the marginalized and disadvantaged, democratically and in the course of socialist victory, is an existential one: we cannot leave to chance whether we get the job done.
Rose’s piece also describes pressure placed on DSA leaders of minority and disadvantaged identities by abuse and attack from outside sources, citing an essay published by a trans game designer who was hounded and persecuted by an anti-trans, toxic arts and culture organization that had targeted the essayist. To factor in this kind of abusive and misogynistic behavior to the DSA’s own policies is to give those abusers power; instead we should chart our own course, in defiance of the haters and malcontents, make our own choices about our leadership, shield our leaders from abuse, and give them every kind of solidarity and support to perform at their peak for the socialist cause. It must be recognized that aspects some comrades’ identities increases their “cyber bodyguard” needs above those of other leaders. And we must work even harder to ensure that our membership includes a diversity of leadership candidates so that no one who steps up to serve is called upon for more than they’re able to give.
Conversely, the point of diversity requirements in leadership isn’t simply to motivate “filling the pipeline”, as it were, with strategically-politically-useful rank and file members, though doing so can be complementary and has its own benefits for the organization. It isn’t crudely about market share in organizing or quotas. The reason to have a Justice Sonia Sotomayor or a Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson is deeper than just having the colors of all the teams in the league represented. Justice Sotomayor, as a Latina, and Justice Jackson, as a Black woman, each bring perspectives and knowledge from their lived experiences that the White male majoritarian members of the Supreme Court of the United States cannot simply emulate in the course of their deliberations even if they wish to, no matter their erudition nor flair for jurisprudence. Famously, groups of men or majorities of men almost always achieve a reprehensible state of affairs concerning abortion.
Similar to the incompleteness and errancy of the justice dealt by an all-white-cis-het-male SCOTUS, a movement for the civil rights of gays and lesbians in late twentieth century America could not stay true to its course without the “BTQIA+”, without the constituency and the historical and future leadership of trans, queer, nonbinary, and other identities that unite in that common cause. To live in a just society we must all be just and seek to be governed by justice; not merely seek justice each for ourselves.
So the intent of committing socialist organizations to diversity in leadership goes beyond representation, to improving socialism itself and bettering our socialist organizations. Among the many capable and competent socialists who can serve, we want to insure that the disabled socialist, the Black socialist, the trans socialist, the Indigenous socialist, the nonbinary socialist, all have a hand on the tiller because, though we all hold the same core values, they will steer by different stars.
Our esteemed Agenda Co-chair is right to oppose tokenism, like Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. before her. We certainly should not go to the effort to increase representation of minorities and the disadvantaged within our organization and then use them to create a fragile appearance of diversity. We shouldn’t just be checking an item off a list or positioning these new leaders in front of cameras like visible-minority Trump supporters clustered behind the podium. We don’t want leaders who perpetuate the Great Man History of Socialism and who also just happen to be women; instead we want to at least pass the Bechdel-Wallace test and go well beyond it. We want to embrace and elevate these comrades so that we can give them power—for our sake as an organization, not for their sake—so that when we as socialists pursue power for the working class we genuinely and honestly pursue power for the whole working class, now and going forward. Hence, simply including diversity as an afterthought in a longer list of goals—a back-burner attempt at a rank-and-file demographic mix similar to that of broader capitalist society—and hoping such representation will filter through to diversity in leadership at an unspecified point in the future, must be acknowledged as a different goal from actively pursuing leadership and working-class power that is queer, disabled, female, Black, trans, Indigenous, immigrant, and refugee.
To provide a concrete example: I attended the 2021 national convention as a delegate from Southern New Hampshire DSA, where we passed DSA’s first platform incorporating various multi-racial and anti-racist planks, as well as planks related to ethnicity and some Latino-specific ones. In spite of that accomplishment, in the convention Slack, I witnessed a Latina delegate from the Western U.S. asking whether a channel or other discussion area could be created for Latin delegates to network and discuss issues of common interest. While I watched the thread, one reply came that a particular staffer might be the person to ask, but that she was very busy; otherwise the sound of crickets was the response.
All the delegates, as representatives of our chapters empowered in the highest decision-making body of the DSA, should have been tripping over ourselves to furnish space and accommodation for comrades from these groups—without being asked, really, but definitely once the request had actually been made. The ethos and logos of diversity must pervade the organization and be a factor in every choice and action for socialism to truly be of the people and of the working class. It cannot be an ornament or a decoration; it must be the thread our sails are woven from and the decking beneath our feet. It must be the keel that holds our course and which everything is built upon. To achieve such an integral level of diversity, one that bonds and strengthens the entire organization, we need not just a diverse membership, but an intentionally diverse leadership.
By stretching for the goal of ensuring marginalized and disadvantaged representation in leadership, and disciplining ourselves to fulfill our stated principles, as an organization we might find ourselves moving beyond our comfort zone. But that’s a good thing rather than something to avoid: putting in the effort up-front to secure a diverse leadership, and committing ourselves to the infrastructure to maintain that diversity at the top, will be essential to weathering the storms ahead and reaching the far shore of a socialist future.