This discussion is an excerpt from a public discussion thread on Facebook. You can find it here.
Redneck Revolt: SURJ and Catalyst project focus on mobilizing white folks through white ally politics, inherently based upon a paternalistic model of white guilt.
This essay speaks to a lot of RR's theoretical viewpoints as we believe firmly that white folks have an active stake in abolishing white supremacy, and that white working communities can only see an end to their misery and exploitation by ending white supremacy. This stake in the struggle is an important difference in the basic analysis of our organization and SURJ.
Our experiences with SURJ show that SURJ relies heavily on a more traditionally liberal understanding of whiteness, white privilege, and the role of white folks in that struggle. Far from acknowledging and advocating for white folks to see their actual daily struggles as connected to the struggles of white working and poor folk, SURJ relies on an "ally" model that assumes that white folks can only act from some altruistic and paternalistic model of struggle. SURJ's model relies on the idea that white folks should struggle against white supremacy because it's what "good folks should do" and bases the struggle off a fake moralism that posits that white working people still must always act from some level of guilt for their whiteness.
This article focuses on this inherent political theory present in Catalyst Project and SURJ, and also answers quite clearly why SURJ and Catalyst have up until recently, more or less ignored or alienated and marginalized white working class people: they have instead focused on appealing to middle-class ideas of white guilt, based off white middle-class comfort.
The SURJ model of non-profit based struggle instead reinforces white supremacy on multiple levels, as it continues to uphold a class structure to their organizing that prevents real working class collaboration on a mutual and joint struggle, pretending instead that white folks should always take a back seat to the struggles of folks of color, instead of focusing on how the working class has a struggle, and that allegiance by the white working class to white supremacy is what subjugates the whole of the working class and poor.
Sasha Cervenka: What does SURJ stand for, and what is Catalyst? When did this start?
Redneck Revolt: SURJ stands for Showing Up for Racial Justice. Catalyst Project is the parent non profit that spawned SURJ and helps fund and lead SURJ. They have been around for a good amount of years.
Ray Johns: SURJ stands for Showing, (not standing) Up for Racial Justice. The name in itself is a testament to the intersectional approach we take (avoiding ablist language). I only got involved last year, but all my interaction with SURJ in opening a chapter and joining conference calls aligns perfectly with this article. If you read the SURJ values, you'll see that rather than relying on altruism, we in fact rely on our mutual interest in dismantling white supremacy. We recognize that we are not saviors to POC, but accomplices in the struggle because it is our struggle too. Rather than white folks taking a backseat, we center the organizing and experiences of POC because we recognize that they have been the most hurt by and have fought the longest and hardest against white supremacy. In everything I have seen SURJ do, poor and working class folks are centered. Their non-violent direct action training in DC this weekend is supporting poor and working class folks to attend. We talk a lot about how our struggles are related to white supremacy. And though it may not be explicitly stated in the organization's materials, I've also heard and seen discussion of whiteness as a social construct and we talk about how "becoming white" essentially erased our ethnic/cultural heritages.
Like I said I only got involved with the organization last year so I can't say what it used to be like, but I would ask everyone to please give it another look, because I'm in this together with groups like RR, and at this point from everything I've seen and experienced, the work of the organization is not at all at odds with the ideas expressed here.
Redneck Revolt: SURJ, under Catalyst Project, is not fighting against capitalism. It may be intersectional in that it combines different aspects of fighting oppression, but it does not actually center class struggle against capitalism as the basis of struggle against white supremacy.
We are not reductionists who believe that everything revolves around class. That said, however, unless your goals include the entire stripping and destruction of the capitalist project, white supremacy can never be abolished or destroyed. White supremacy and capitalism go hand in hand. And while Catalyst and SURJs leadership under Chris Crass talks out of one side of their mouths about class, they also go on to praise Obama's presidency and even go so far as to hero worship Michelle Obama, as if these folks are not complicit in the continuation and upholding of white supremacy and the exploitation of folk of color and working class people. In fact, the upper and middle class elements of both white and folks of color are almost completely centered and focused on in SURJ's organizing.
The basis of our theoretical praxis is divergent. We center the working class in our analysis, looking at the creation of systematic white supremacy as a tool of capitalism and the rich and ruling class. We see white supremacy as political and economic project, with social outgrowth into white communities. Overwhelmingly, SURJ's analysis continues to display the same issues this article discusses: focusing on whiteness and white privilege as something purely socially constructed. As if workshops on privilege and intersectionality will ever challenge capitalism and white supremacy.
White privilege and whiteness isn't a disease that white people are just born with. It is a systematic project that whites folks are lured into becoming the foot soldiers of because of promises of material and financial security and gain.
If we're wrong about SURJ, then that's great. Because we would like to be. But that said, where does SURJ's non profit funding go? Who gets to utilize the funds? What projects does the money go to? How many white middle and upper class folks are paid to some degree to organize? What material survival programs for poor and working class folks does SURJ organize or support?
Even your point about "non-violent" trainings drips with the language of movement policing and movement control. From Ferguson to Baltimore to the daily struggles of folks of color and working class and poor people... Marginalized folks don't focus on non violence to enact social change. Yet SURJ clings to these same models of liberal moralism and paternalistic organizing.
Beth Durruti: I have yet to see any material support come out of SURJ, no survival programs, no organizers coming from the working communities they claim to work with. It's all assuaging white guilt by self-flagellating about privilege and sending out tweets using the right #hashtags. Not only does their overly academic language and lack of material praxis accomplish nothing real for any marginalized communities that they claim to be "helping," that language is also inaccessible to many non-academic folks. Privilege politics frame all white folks as having the same material conditions, which is great if you're a middle class college-educated liberal trying to feel better about your status, but if you're a working white person working 2-3 jobs to feed your kids, you're completely left out of the conversation. At this point, the impacts of liberal ally politics alienating the white working class by treating them as backwards and unreachable should be taken very seriously. Y'all abandoned working white folks to the right and tokenized folks of color, and the only ones ultimately benefiting from SURJ organizing are the white middle class paid organizers.
Ray Johns: I hear it and I'm going to dig deeper. But I'm a working class organizer myself, and since I started I've seen their focal point shifting to supporting rural, working class organizing. Another of the core values is "enough for everyone," and explicitly calls out the false sense of scarcity that capitalism engenders. If y'all want to write it off as lip service until you see actual results I can't fault that, but I do hope what seem to be organizational changes (from what y'all have said vs. what I've seen) do bear fruit.