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Do America’s Socialists Have a Race Problem?

Inside a raging debate that has split the country's most exciting new political movement

Erik McGregor/Pacific Press/LightRocket/Getty

On an afternoon in July, nearly 200 people packed into the ballroom of a local community center in northern Oakland for a general meeting of the East Bay chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). As they settled into folded chairs on the room’s faded wooden floors, the group ran through the week’s agenda, which included votes on the establishment of a code of conduct, a resolution to meet monthly instead of once every two months, and a proposal to support Cat Brooks, a black activist running for Oakland mayor. 

Three miles away at the Marriott City Center, Brooks was working events at the California Democratic Caucus. Brooks, a co-founder of the Anti-Police Terror Project, which provides support to communities of color in response to police violence, had been invited to speak on a panel defending Prop 10, a ballot measure that sought to repeal a 1995 law restricting rent control in Oakland and other cities in California. At the end of the event, Brooks checked her phone and found a stream of texts from people at the DSA meeting. The messages read: “You need to get here right now.”

Minutes later, Brooks stormed into the ballroom. A proposal to “prioritize” two other endorsements—for Prop 10 and a candidate for California’s state assembly—had snowballed into a referendum on Brooks herself, with critics saying she was too compromised to receive the DSA’s backing. The group’s support shouldn’t be given to people who are “a dime a dozen,” Brooks remembered one man saying. Like many of her rivals, she had pledged to expand affordable housing and reduce Oakland’s growing homeless population. Notably, she had insisted on cutting the city’s police budget in half.

At one point, Tur-ha Ak, a black organizer with Brooks’s Anti-Police Terror Project, asked to speak. As his turn approached, the young man who was chairing the meeting asked if Ak was a member. A number of white people had spoken before him, including Forrest Schmidt, 42, who was attending his first DSA meeting. “None of us had our credentials called,” he said. “Nobody said, ‘Are you a DSA member?’” When Ak responded that he was not a member, the chair asked him to take a seat.

The room erupted. The procedural rules were racist, Ak proclaimed, raising his voice over a cacophony of protests and chants. “The energy,” Brooks recalled, “turned into that of a white mob.” She decided to take the floor. “My name is Cat Brooks,” she said. “I’ve been organizing in this city longer than most of you have lived here.” In a brief, piercing speech, she accused the largely white crowd of being gentrifiers and then walked out, leaving members confused and outraged.

The debate quickly moved to Twitter, Reddit, and other corners of the internet. In an online essay, Jeremy Gong, an East Bay member who sits on DSA’s National Political Committee, the organization’s highest decision-making body, argued that Cat Brooks “weaponized” her race to coerce DSA into supporting her candidacy. He would not endorse her. The July DSA meeting, he wrote, was a textbook example of “race reductionism and liberal guilt politics.” By insinuating that white members were “the problem” when it came to Oakland’s gentrification, he claimed, Brooks had mistakenly reduced what was fundamentally a class conflict into a racial one.

Though a dustup among a small group of lefties in Oakland may seem to be a parochial affair, the controversy surrounding Brooks is part of a fierce debate about race within the newly invigorated socialist movement. Since 2016, when it had only 6,500 members, DSA has added nearly 50,000 members and over 125 chapters across the country. In 2018, two of its members—Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib, both women of color—were elected to serve in Congress, and 21 more won seats in state legislatures. Though DSA is separate from the Democratic Party, some of its members represent both institutions, while DSA itself is at the cutting edge of the broader progressive movement, a loud, insistent voice on issues ranging from universal health care to debt forgiveness.

But unlike other progressive groups, DSA has to contend with internal factions that are very seriously wedded to a certain strain of socialist ideology—one that emphasizes, as Karl Marx did, a churning class war that governs the history of humankind. For these socialists, an anti-capitalist movement must be anti-racist, since capitalism has been instrumental in the subjugation of minorities. But they are also weary of liberal politicians who, they say, exploit race to pander to minority groups, all while skirting the deeper class conflict at work. In the past year, these hard-liners have clashed on numerous occasions with other socialists, often minorities themselves, who contend that righting America’s unique wrongs requires an approach distinct from the universal precepts of historical materialism—one that emphasizes racism’s special impact on inequality, supra-class.

In the Brooks controversy and other incidents, these tensions have come to a head, badly dividing the movement and raising difficult questions about socialism’s potential as a political force in the United States. In important respects, these are the same questions that dogged socialism as an ideology throughout the 20th century—questions that America’s fledgling socialists are openly struggling to answer, on Twitter and in left-wing periodicals like Jacobin. Is socialism, as an ideology, capable of welcoming dissenting opinions? And how central should issues of race be in a socialist movement?


Around the time Cat Brooks stepped into the East Bay DSA meeting in July, a similar controversy broke out in the organization’s Philadelphia chapter. In an email to the chapter’s political education committee, a small group of DSA organizers had proposed a new book by Asad Haider, a University of California graduate student and editor of Viewpoint magazine, for a reading group. The book, Mistaken Identity: Race and Class in the Age of Trump, envisions a socialism that both addresses racism head-on and advances a class-based movement.

Haider adopts an understanding of identity politics first introduced by the Combahee River Collective, a black lesbian militant group, which held that “the most profound and potentially most radical politics come directly out of our own identity, as opposed to working to end somebody else’s oppression.” The idea is that an authentic socialist movement needed to go beyond a vision of “sexless, raceless workers”; it required centering the identities and lived experiences of marginalized groups, in order to address issues that wouldn’t necessarily be mended through economic reforms alone.

The political education committee responded that it was no longer creating new reading groups. So the organizers, who belonged to a subcommittee created in 2017 to develop local socialist campaigns, held the reading group anyway. On the day before the first meeting, however, they received a letter from the chapter’s leadership. The event, they wrote, was “unrelated” to the subcommittee’s stated purpose; the group was acting “autonomously, apparently as a protest.” Leadership provided an ultimatum: Stay focused on local political campaigns, or resign.

The two sides exchanged correspondence for weeks. Then, in late August, Jacobin published a scathing review of Mistaken Identity, penned by Melissa Naschek, the Philadelphia chapter’s co-chair. Attempting to engage in both class politics and identity politics, she wrote, was the left’s own Third Way: a “lopsided advocacy for particularist demands” that would lead the movement to a dead end. The only path to forging a mass socialist movement, she wrote, was by fighting for “universalist” reforms, like single payer health care and free college tuition. 

The essay sparked a heated, sometimes nasty intellectual debate, often conducted in the kind of dogmatic jargon that was once a hallmark of Marxist academia. The DSA members who originally proposed the book for the reading group interpreted the review as a blatant partisan attack. They released a statement arguing that Naschek’s “framing inherently privileges white identity.” On Twitter, Daniel Denvir, host of Jacobin’s The Dig podcast, called the review “class reductionism of sort that I hoped only existed in liberal identitarians’ caricatures of the left.” Adolph Reed Jr., a professor at the University of Pennsylvania who helped Naschek craft her review, blasted Haider’s arguments on a Marxist podcast, saying they “smell like a truckload of rotten fish.” East Bay DSA’s Jeremy Gong also came to Naschek’s defense in an article claiming the workplace to be the “primary strategic site of class struggle.”  

R.L. Stephens, a former member of DSA’s National Political Committee, argued that framing issues of racial justice in moral terms made these issues “either subordinate to or outside of class struggle itself.”* Haider himself penned a long, philosophical response to Naschek’s review. His book, he wrote, was “not a political platform, but a work of theory.” (He did, however, get in a jab: “Naschek dismissively proclaims that the [Combahee River Collective] was not a mass movement. Neither is the DSA.”) When I spoke to Haider, he lamented the idea that “there are two isolable, discrete phenomenon that can be parceled out into race and class.”

What seemed to be a drawn-out exercise in academic hair-splitting, however, revealed profoundly different approaches to organizing a mass movement, particularly around issues of race. “A lot of it is postulating more than it is significant differences on the left within DSA,” said Jack Suria Linares, also a National Political Committee member. “But I also think that in the long run those differences might grow.”

These ideological clashes, usually pitting DSA leadership against rank-and-file membership, have been largely limited to East Bay and Philadelphia, the only two major chapters in the country run by the Momentum caucus, a subgroup described in a 2017 Nation profile as the “most explicitly Marxist” within the organization, with a heavy focus on the campaign for Medicare-for-All. Momentum leaders pride themselves on a precise and strategic, if narrow, political vision. While DSA members in other chapters can form working groups to take on autonomous initiatives, that behavior is heavily regulated in the two Momentum-run chapters.

In public and private, DSA members in the East Bay and Philadelphia have expressed frustration at leadership. In October 2017, ahead of a meeting to vote on the endorsement of candidates for local office in Oakland, two East Bay DSA members prepared a statement demanding more agency. “To date, when members have proposed to do work outside of single payer, we have been told that the organization does not have the bandwidth or capacity,” they wrote.

In one notable dispute, a brake light repair initiative in the East Bay DSA was flatly rejected by the chapter’s co-chairs, who refused to put it up for a vote. The repair clinics first sprouted in New Orleans as a strategy to combat police brutality, as people of color are often pulled over for problems as innocuous as broken taillights. These traffic stops can even lead to—as in the case of Philando Castile—killings by the police. While DSA chapters across the country soon began replicating the program, and embraced it as an effective way to build a stronger working-class base, East Bay leadership remained strongly resistant to the campaign. In a private conversation, one East Bay co-chair insinuated to a member of color organizing the clinic that it would look like “white saviorism.” A former member of the chapter’s leadership referred to it as “charity” in a blog post.

In response, over 300 DSA members—a third of whom identified as people of color—from across the country signed a petition urging East Bay leadership to reconsider. “We are alarmed by what increasingly feels like the erasure of our voices and presence within the DSA,” they wrote. Weeks later, East Bay members collected nearly 100 signatures from their chapter, enough to bring the initiative to a vote at a general meeting. Despite protests from some DSA leaders, the resolution passed.

Momentum’s centralized approach stands in stark contrast to the emphasis on mutual aid and direct action in most chapters across the country. Bianca Cunningham, who co-chairs the New York City chapter and helped found DSA’s Afrosocialist caucus, agrees with Momentum leaders like Naschek and Gong that universal policies like Medicare-for-All and free higher education would disproportionately benefit people of color, but argues that they are not sold that way by the mostly white membership rallying behind them. “You have to take that extra step,” she said, “and do more to engage with that community specifically around their own needs and experiences.”


However, the idea that racial justice is a subsidiary issue to class, one exploited by liberal politicians for cynical gain, is common on the left. “It’s crucial that we not let our best impulses be weaponized against our interests,” Briahna Joy Gray wrote in The Intercept, criticizing politicians like Rep. James Clyburn of South Carolina who opposed free college tuition on the grounds that it would hurt historically black colleges and universities. Gray also cited the example of Hillary Clinton, who, in a dig at Bernie Sanders during the 2016 presidential primaries, asked, “If we broke up the big banks tomorrow ... would that end racism?”

DSA members are understandably wary of such entreaties, which end up pitting working-class people against each other. But the interests of race and class often cross in unexpected ways. Weeks after the East Bay DSA’s July meeting ended in chaos, Cat Brooks submitted a formal endorsement request to the chapter. An electoral subcommittee discovered that, from 2011 to 2014, Brooks had served on the board of GO Public Schools, a pro-charter school nonprofit that has led efforts to destabilize teachers’ unions and promote education privatization in and around the city. Brooks’s critics had found their smoking gun.

Members flooded the DSA’s website with statements and articles urging people to vote against her endorsement. Charter schools, which are publicly owned but privately operated, have had a uniquely destructive effect on Oakland. The city has the highest concentration of charters in the state, which, according to a recent report, has cost the Oakland Unified School District $57 million in funding every year. “I believe in public education. I believe in democratic socialism,” wrote one member in her statement. “I don’t believe that Cat Brooks is right for EBDSA.” 

But Brooks had changed her position, and had even told DSA that she supported “a moratorium on charter schools” in Oakland.** Still, DSA members remained unconvinced. Meagan Day, a staff writer for Jacobin and an influential East Bay DSA member, wrote that Brooks’s new position was “fantastic. ... But how can we be certain?” The reversal, she argued, was “too last-minute to constitute a meaningful political transformation.” On September 9, East Bay DSA voted against endorsing her. 

The actual story of Brooks’s “political transformation” is more nuanced. Mike Hutchinson, Oakland’s loudest anti-charter activist, who described his relationship with Brooks as “complicated,” recalled that as recently as two years ago, people were calling him “crazy” for his position against charter schools. When charters first began popping up in Oakland in the 1990s, they were sold to residents as a way to give them agency over their own schools. “It was tied into the self empowerment theme that goes back to the Black Panthers,” he said. It was only recently that public opinion shifted, and Brooks’s evolution was representative of that. When she reached out to Hutchinson to consult on her education platform, he was “happily surprised on how she moved away from the charter connections she had in the past.” He ultimately signed on.


The growth of DSA, especially in urban areas, has brought with it a similar set of complications. As of last year, the organization was roughly 90 percent white and composed of people mostly under 35, a palette often associated with gentrification in areas like Oakland, Philadelphia, and New York City. (When I asked DSA for updated numbers, I was told they are not currently collecting demographic data.) It’s a demographic makeup that can be off-putting and even intimidating to leftists of color, many of whom have left DSA or declined to join in the first place. When Cunningham would bring her socialist friends of color to DSA meetings, they would feel uncomfortable. “I would beg them to stay,” she said. She remembered telling them, “‘If you don’t stay, then the next people are going to come in and they’re going to say the same thing.’”

Most leftists agree that, despite the DSA’s overwhelming whiteness, it is committed to recruiting candidates of color like Tlaib and Ocasio-Cortez. But such efforts can also border on tokenism. When I spoke with the mostly white members of East Bay DSA’s leadership, some pointed out that, during their July meeting, an older member said this after Brooks stormed out: “If we don’t endorse her, what will black people think of us?”

Online, the debate about race can be particularly alienating to minorities. It is a space where small, intellectualized differences are made insurmountable, and where naked ideology sometimes supersedes the lived experience of organizers who have dedicated their lives to lifting up working-class people. “An organization like DSA might benefit from the kinds of racial sensitivity trainings that we hear about because those are real tendencies that have to get checked,” said Shaun Scott, a DSA member in Seattle. This is particularly true for Momentum, which has an outsized presence within DSA. The group’s modus operandi is predicated on a top-down structure; general meetings are infrequent and subcommittees are limited in their scope. Though small, the group is highly ambitious while also being dismissive of its critics, an attitude seemingly incompatible with DSA’s identity as a “multi-tendency” organization.

On the ground, these battles tend to be fought by proxy, through debates over organizing strategy. Disputes over brake light initiatives and canvassing for Medicare-for-All often have a racial subtext, and tensions between members and the communities they live in can be heightened by DSA’s prescriptive, dismissive attitudes. “As DSA, as relatively new kids on the block, as this predominantly white organization, it’s really paramount that we do that solidarity work,” said Shanti Singh, a co-chair of DSA’s San Francisco chapter, who was one of the signatories on the brake light petition.

Despite DSA’s anti-racist positions, many socialists of color believe there still hasn’t been a full reckoning when it comes to issues of race, nor a resolution between the beliefs of certain socialists and the world we live in. The urgency felt by activists of color doesn’t always exist in white spaces, noted Kristian Hernandez, a 29-year-old Latina DSA member in Texas. In November, two weeks after a gunman killed 11 people at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, the Proud Boys, a far-right chauvinist group, had planned a demonstration in Philadelphia, which was scheduled during the same time as the local DSA chapter’s general meeting. The organization’s South Jersey chapter had canceled its general meeting to join counter-protesters, but in an email, the Philadelphia chapter’s co-chairs, Melissa Naschek and Scott Jenkins, urged members to attend the meeting instead, to make quorum, calling the protesters “far-right LARPers,” a reference to people who dress up as fictional characters. “We shouldn’t be distracted by their theatrics,” they wrote. “Instead, we should push ahead with our collective goals.”

The decision drew scorn from other socialist leaders. “Countering right-wing anti-Semitism should not be a contentious issue,” Singh tweeted. Ultimately, it’s that attitude of downplaying discrimination, a perspective rooted in privilege, that worries leftists of color. They still need assurances that “at the end of the day, if push comes to shove, people are going to have my back,” Hernandez said. “Particularly white people.”

*A previous version of this article misstated R.L. Stephens’s relationship to DSA. He’s a former member of the National Political Committee, not a current one.

**A previous version of this article misstated when Cat Brooks updated her website platform on charter schools. Brooks notified DSA members of her change in position before the September 9 meeting, but updated her website afterwards.