Antiracist Social Movements

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Antiracist Social Movements




Vibrant social movements have defied myriad forms of racial oppression across the globe. Strategies, tactics, and ideologies have varied widely, with challenging economic domination as a common theme. Antiracism has encompassed challenges to genocide, the seizure and/or control of land and other resources, slavery, and the exploitation of human labor. Antiracist social movements have also targeted cultural degradation, political exclusion, and many other patterns of racial prejudice and discrimination.

Racism became intertwined with colonialism throughout the period of European conquest of Africa, the Americas, Asia, Australia, and Oceania. In response, subjugated peoples around the globe forged collective struggles against European imperialism. Anticolonial movements in many areas of the world initially were explicitly framed in terms not of race but of resisting outside colonial powers. Across time, many of these struggles became increasingly racialized, reflecting the racism embodied in global capitalism. Racist European powers have been joined by other industrialized nations, particularly the United States, in subjugating people of color over the past two centuries.


Antiracist resistance is shaped by the particular manifestations of race and racism in any given system of racial oppression. The forms that antiracist activism has taken are not linear and often occurred simultaneously. Because of the distinctive development of racism in different countries around the world, no one example can accurately represent all antiracist social movements. However, the examples below reflect central, overlapping dynamics of antiracist activism in different historical periods and countries. These movements have been local, national, and transnational in character.

The survival of racially oppressed groups has birthed cultures of resistance and antiracist collective consciousnesses. These two intertwined phenomena typically emerge simultaneously and have forged the foundation of formal political movements.

The continued use of traditions, language, and religion has sustained racially oppressed groups and defied racism. Cultures of resistance do not merely replicate preconquest cultural forms, but are dynamic. They often unite previously diverse groups and result in the synthesis of more than one culture. For instance, the Garifuna culture arose from the intermarriage of shipwrecked Africans (en route to be slaves) and Arawak “Indians” on the Caribbean island of San Vicente. This group resisted military conquest by the English, Spanish, and French for centuries before they were forcibly relocated to coastal areas in Guatemala, Honduras, and Belize, where they continue to fight against racial discrimination today.

Throughout the Americas, slave communities developed rich cultures of resistance. Slaves fought racism on both individual and collective levels. Slaves engaged in work slow-downs, played dumb, and stole property. Across generations, they passed on survival strategies that took the form of music, art, dance, and religion/spirituality.

Slaves also defied racist oppression by escaping. In Brazil, thousands of escaped slaves formed the quilombo of Palmares in the 1600s. Palmares was a self-sustaining agricultural kingdom that withstood Dutch and Portuguese military attacks for nearly 100 years. In the United States, runaway slaves formed Maroon communities and sometimes joined indigenous communities/nations such as the Seminole in Florida. In the United States, a vast network of conductors, stations, and pathways formed the Underground Railroad that led thousands of slaves to freedom. This collective action threatened the institution of slavery and provided powerful symbols of resistance for future generations.


Antiracist collective consciousness—a shared identity of belonging to a group that faces and defies systemic racial oppression—has often developed within cultures of resistance. Compelling examples of antiracist collective consciousness are seen in the history of indigenous, slave (and former slave), and immigrant populations. In the early years of the twenty-first century, Middle Eastern immigrants have had to overcome their own national, religious, and ethnic divisions to create collective identities that foster resistance to xenophobic, racist practices and policies in France and other industrialized nations. Antiracist activists have worked to raise awareness among members of racially oppressed groups to demonstrate that poverty, low wages, inadequate housing, and the like are not the result of individual successes and/or failures but stem from institutionalized racism that benefits whites and marginalizes people of color. For example, in the 1960s, the Alianza de Mercedes Federales (the Landgrant Movement), led by Reies Lopez Tijerina, documented the roots of Chicano/a poverty in the illegal seizure of family- and community-held land grants by Anglo settlers in the southwestern United States during the second half of the nineteenth century. While galvanizing collective consciousness has been a constant strategy in antiracist activism, it is an ever-changing process as diverse, intersecting communities of color—indigenous, slave/former slave, immigrant—build coalitions. For example, indigenous people and people of African descent in countries such as Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru have found common cause in challenging their respective governments to recognize political autonomy, land ownership, and human rights. Antiracist consciousness, often intertwined with anticolonialist consciousness, has been articulated in cogent political analyses by antiracist activist-scholars around the world.

Another key strategy among antiracist activists is to raise awareness about racial injustices, not only within the specific group targeted but also among external groups— domestic whites, other communities of color, and people living in other countries. Black and white abolitionists publicly exposed the atrocities of U.S. slavery in speaking engagements and written tracts across the United States and in Europe. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, African American activists such as journalist Ida B. Wells published books and articles and spoke internationally to bring to light the horrors of lynching—a practice that terrorized black communities and played a key role in maintaining white supremacy in the United States. Quiche-Maya advocate Rigoberta Menchú (1984) detailed the ruthless torture and violence used by the Guatemalan government to enforce inhumane work conditions for indigenous people. In the early years of the twenty-first century, sweatshop workers in countries such as Indonesia and El Salvador have risked death to educate others about the inhumane employment practices of multinational corporations operating within the web of global racist capitalism.

Antiracist activists have relied on the mass media to educate and mobilize people to take action. They have written novels (One Day of Life [1983] by Manuel Argueta); written letters to and articles in newspapers (the abolitionist Northstar) and magazines (the NAACP’s Crisis); and produced art (Chicano/a mural art in the United States), films/videos (Rabbit-proof Fence [2002], which illustrates aboriginal defiance in Australia), and music (Bob Marley’s antiracist reggae lyrics). For more than a decade, the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (Zapatista Army of National Liberation, the Zapatistas) has garnered national and international support for the rights of indigenous people in Chiapas, Mexico, by skillfully using the Internet to disseminate their communiqués. Antiracist solidarity that grows out of these and other antiracist campaigns plays a key role in pressuring elites to concede to antiracist demands.

Having documented the particular forms of racial injustice in their community or nation, activists often apply pressure to different social institutions to bring about social change. After years of negotiation between Inuit leaders and the Canadian government, the Land Claims Agreement Act was passed in 1993, creating the newest Canadian province of Nunavut in 1999. This historic event also illustrates a sovereignty movement in which an indigenous group successfully regained much of its land and natural resources as well as a level of political autonomy.

Antiracist activists employ letters and petitions to government officials, companies, and the mass media to push for racial equality. Frequently this has been done to challenge racist legislation and political policies such as the Fugitive Slave Act and Jim Crow laws in the United States and the Pass Laws in South Africa. In turn, political pressure is applied to promote antiracist laws such as anti-lynching legislation in the United States and immigrant-rights legislation in Britain. Decades of antiracist legal work by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) led to the pivotal U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, outlawing racial segregation in public schools in 1954.

Direct appeals have also been made to international organizations. In 1919, Japan submitted a proposal for racial equality to be included in the articles of the League of Nations; facing opposition from delegates from Britain, Australia, and the United States, it was overturned by the chairperson, U.S. president Woodrow Wilson. In the 1950s, W. E. B. Du Bois pushed the United Nations to recognize the denial of civil and other rights to black Americans as a violation of basic human rights outlined in the Geneva Convention.

Around the globe, antiracist activists have developed a vast repertoire of protest strategies to expose racial injustice and apply pressure on racist governments and other entities. Abolitionists organized boycotts of goods produced by slave labor. Civil rights activists in the United States implemented bus boycotts in their struggles against racial segregation in public transportation. Marches and rallies against racism have been organized to gain media coverage. The 1963 March on Washington, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his captivating “I Have a Dream” speech, received widespread media coverage that publicized the mass base of the civil rights movement.

A key strategy in many antiracist social movements has been civil disobedience. Indians utilized innovative and disruptive acts of nonviolent civil disobedience to force the British colonizers out of India. Mahatma Gandhi’s philosophical and strategic model of nonviolent civil disobedience had a profound impact on antiracist movement participants around the world, including the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s sit-in tactic challenging white-only public accommodations in the U.S. South in the 1960s. Since then, variations of the sit-ins have been employed by various antiracist groups, including students of color, AIDS activists, and prison-rights activists.

Labor unions have sometimes acted collectively against racism, and strikes have played a central role in antiracist collective action. For example, the black miners’ strike for higher wages in 1946 galvanized the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. In the United States in the 1990s, striking was one of the key tactics used by Justice for Janitors to win higher wages and benefits for many janitors, disproportionately people of color.

Antiracist movements have also occupied land seized by white settlers and white-dominated governments and corporations. In the 1970s and 1980s, the Maori land-rights movement occupied land held by the government and real estate developers as part of broader campaigns to challenge racism in New Zealand. Members of the American Indian Movement took over Alcatraz Island in 1970 to dramatize the plight of Native Americans. Antiracist protest has also taken the form of graffiti, guerrilla theater, student walk-outs, and the disruption of government and corporate meetings. Antiracist slogans and demands have been publicized in fliers, broadsides, T-shirts, buttons, and bumper stickers.

Antiracist protest has also included activities that are technically legal but are threatening to local, national, or international power structures. For example, civil rights activists in the U.S. South tested federal laws prohibiting segregation on interstate buses, mounted massive voter registration drives for blacks, and established Freedom Schools to educate both children and adults. With the interconnected goals of providing for the basic needs of urban blacks and catalyzing antiracist political consciousness, Black Panther Party chapters across the United States created extensive grass-roots programs (free breakfast and after-school programs for children, adult literacy and political education classes, street cleaning, free health clinics, busing family members to visit loved ones in prison, and the like).

Many Black Panthers also became experts in local, state, and federal law to monitor, document, and challenge police abuse. Citing the constitutional right to bear arms, the Black Panther Party and other groups such as the American Indian Movement defended themselves against racist law enforcement officers who routinely brutalized antiracist activists, assassinating movement participants in the 1960s and 1970s.

Faced with centuries of systemic violence and exploitation, antiracist movements have sometimes utilized armed struggle. Slaves burned crops, sabotaged machinery, and orchestrated slave revolts. Slave rebellions were a regular occurrence in the Caribbean and South America. While less common in the United States, many revolts were planned and some implemented, including the raids on white slave plantations led by escaped slave Nat Turner in Virginia that left over fifty people dead in 1831.

The use of armed struggle by antiracist activists in the twentieth century typically occurred only after decades, often centuries, of European/white-orchestrated violence and arduous efforts to negotiate peacefully with European/white elites. For example, the African National Congress engaged in nonviolent political organizing for half a century before deciding to use armed struggle (bombings of military buildings, assassinations of apartheid leaders) in the wake of the 1960 Sharpesville Massacre in which South African police murdered nonviolent protestors. In the 1970s and 1980s, the Southwest Africa People’s Organization used armed self-defense against the South African military after decades of apartheid rule in what is now Namibia.

Antiracist social movements have typically utilized a range of strategies that vary over time, depending on level of popular support, resources, elite responses, and other factors. Antiracist movements have historically faced elite cooptation (governments giving token positions to people of color, foundations providing funding for individualistic educational and social service programs) and repression (intimidation, surveillance, misinformation campaigns, infiltration, prosecution and imprisonment, destruction of property, and physical assaults and assassinations). Both cooptation and repression have contributed to divisions within movements themselves. Social movement organizations have often experienced conflict around strategies (nonviolence versus armed struggle, separatism versus integration). Many antiracist organizations have marginalized poor and working-class people, female, and LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) activists, a dynamic that in turn has led to internal tensions. Such tensions have sometimes catalyzed the development of other movements. The women’s suffrage movement in the mid-1800s emerged within the context of sexism in the abolitionist movement. Over a century later, sexism in both the civil rights movement and the antiwar movement catalyzed the growth of the “second wave” feminist movement.

Antiracist social movements have profoundly changed the political, economic, and social landscape in many parts of the world. Slavery was abolished in the Americas, and de jure racism was outlawed. Antiracist social movements, particularly the U.S. civil rights movement and the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, have provided ideological and strategic models that have been utilized by other movements, including women’s movements, antiwar movements, LGBT movements, disability rights movements, and the AIDS movement.

While living conditions, educational and job opportunities, and political power for many people of color have improved, racism persists, often in new and more complicated forms. Antiracist activism in the twenty-first century targets a plethora of crisscrossing issues such as war, environmental injustice, farmworker rights, immigrant rights, violence against women of color, welfare policy, health care, HIV/AIDS, the criminal justice system, homophobia, and the dismantling of affirmative action. Antiracist activism has increasingly taken aim at the racist practices of multinational corporations, international financial institutions (International Monetary Fund, World Bank), and the foreign policies of the most powerful industrialized nations. This has increasingly involved the development of coalitions and alliances between different organizations, communities of color, and antiracist whites, often at the transnational level. The continuing transformation of racism and its modern manifestations—from genocide in Darfur to the mass incarceration of African Americans in the United States to anti-immigrant violence in Europe— will necessitate evolving strategies and alliances among those who challenge racism in all its forms to create more just societies.

SEE ALSO Abolition Movement; American Indian Movement (AIM); Anti-Apartheid Movement; Civil Rights Movement; Feminism and Race; Global Environment Movement; Indian Rights Association; Latino Social Movements; Reproductive Rights; Turner, Nat.


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Galeano, Eduardo. 1973. Open Veins of Latin America: Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent. Translated by Cedric Belfrage. New York and London: Monthly Review Press.

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Brett C. Stockdill