Building a Multiracial DemocracyMarch 6, 2023
The crucial role that labor unions can play.
When other children were dreaming of becoming astronauts, doctors or train conductors, Dr. Peniel Joseph had his heart set on being an organizer. That drive came from his mother, Germaine Joseph, who was an 1199 Lab Tech for nearly 40 years at Mt. Sinai Hospital in Manhattan.
Dr. Joseph remembers joining his mom on the picket line in elementary school, and that affinity with political activism only grew stronger during his teenage years.
“I was very active as a teenager attending different demonstrations,” he says. “When I attended Stonybrook University my freshman year, in the fall of 1990, we had sit-ins. The university still had ties to South Africa, and we had protests for that and for Black Studies to be a department and not just a program. It’s a department now.”
Watching his mother work with other 1199 members showed Dr. Joseph how multiracial solidarity could strengthen and underpin democracy. “My mother showed me Black women’s ability to be leaders, theorists, and organizers,” he says, “She spoke four languages and built solidarity with everyone. Even though we were in a racially segregated community in Queens, we would go out to Mt. Sinai and connect with people [from all backgrounds] with 1199, I would see that there was this wider world. It was a challenge because, as I learned, proximity is very important for solidarity and activism.” It is a lack of proximity that generally makes building multiracial coalitions difficult.
“We don’t live around each other, we don’t go to the same churches because of continued structural segregation,” Dr. Joseph says. “We have cultural differences in how we speak and organize, how we relate to each other. We have to be able to listen to each other’s stories, see how we fit into each other’s stories and then how we fit into the larger story of America that we’re trying to create and co-create together.”
Dr. Joseph continues, “It’s a story that has to confront racism, sexism, violence, and inequality that is a part of it. The only way we can build truly resonant and resilient multiracial solidarity is listening to each other’s stories and having whites and other groups who are in solidarity being willing to share power by giving up power.”
Labor and the healthcare industry have a vital role in building these coalitions.
“Healthcare is going to be the biggest industry in the 21st century in my mind,” Dr. Joseph says. “There is such a big rush of people that are about to be elderly and need home health aides, physical therapy, rehab, help with [getting] groceries, cleaning themselves, all that stuff.
Healthcare workers are key. Labor is trying to self-organize, which you see in all the recent strikes and [unionization efforts], but we need more help. We need more coalitions with people [inside and] outside the labor unions, like in higher education. When you see the strikes in higher education with graduate students that have unionized and being represented by UAW (United Auto Workers), we need that kind of solidarity to ensure the resiliency and strength of all our democratic institutions.”
According to Dr. Joseph, we are now living in a “Third Reconstruction” period—one that actually offers hope for the future.
“These are cycles [in history] where you see all these juxtapositions of progress and backlash,” he says. “You have a win of centering racial justice as a moral and political good nationally and you get the Obamas [in the White House]—but then voting rights and critical race theory are attacked, January 6, happens, etc. The backlash occurs because more people know the truth of our history, and there is a move to suppress that and not make it institutionalized.”
Dr. Joseph adds, “The past is not the past, history is a battle for the present and the future. History is the stories we tell ourselves that shape our legislation, culture, politics, resource distribution; it impacts who’s treated like a human being and who’s not.”
Joseph concludes, “I hope this is the last period of reconstruction and we won’t need more uprisings to achieve black dignity and citizenship. I hope we come out of this with real equitable outcomes for black people and achieving deep democracy which encompasses everyone.”