How to build a multiracial DSA

The “race and class” question has always been a vexing one for the U.S. Left, and today the stakes are even higher—because of the strategic deployment of antiracist rhetoric by establishment Democrats and the open white supremacy of Donald Trump and the far Right. Within DSA, many members feel that our organization is “too white,” a shorthand that includes many different diagnoses of and solutions to the problem. And although DSA members of color have striven to achieve a nuanced balance between developing separate networks (such as the Afrosocialists and Socialists of Color Caucus) and involving themselves in the general work of their chapters, these efforts have not yet brought working-class people of color into the organization at the scale needed to qualitatively change the makeup of DSA.

In developing a coherent approach to addressing this issue, it can help us to go back to the basics. We know that socialism will only be achieved through a mass movement of the multiracial working class. DSA’s explosive upsurge to more than 55,000 members is a promising indication of the potential of left politics in this period of economic, social, and ecological crisis. Yet our continued growth is not guaranteed, because it has been a phenomenon of the historical moment spurred by events largely external to the organization: Bernie Sanders’s campaigns, Trump’s presidency, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s victory. If DSA is to become a historical force in its own right, we must make the transition from a self-selected group to a truly mass organization capable of organizing all parts of the multiracial working class.

The question, then, is, “How should DSA chapters work in communities with which our current membership lacks strong organic connections?” DSA cannot and should not attempt to impose a program or agenda where its members would be perceived as outsiders. Yet our goal must be to eventually grow our membership and influence in every neighborhood in the United States.

Coalition work

One strategy is to join or launch campaigns responsive to local conditions that bring DSA chapters into coalition with allied left organizations led by working-class people of color. This approach respects deeply rooted political organizing already occurring on issues important to DSA while laying the foundation for building long-term personal relationships between our members and those of other left organizations. Engaging at the organizational level, rather than attempting to recruit unaffiliated individuals one by one, is also essential for establishing DSA’s institutional legitimacy and achieving the scale necessary for the socialist project.

Local chapters are already applying this methodology with success. Austin DSA joined a successful campaign to pass a $250 million bond for affordable housing alongside groups like the Austin Justice Coalition, a “community organization that focuses on improving the quality of life for people who are Black, Brown, and poor.” The chapter focused its canvassing in working class neighborhoods, which were disproportionately made up of people of color. As Tandera Louie, a member of Austin DSA, explained: “There have always been people doing the work, especially in black and Mexican communities here in Texas. So, instead of always having to take the lead, we coordinate and organize with other like-minded groups.”

In Los Angeles, when longtime leftist and DSA member Jackie Goldberg ran for a seat on the Los Angeles United School District Board of Education, the local chapter partnered with Eastside Padres Contra la Privatización, an all-volunteer group that self-organized to fight charter school expansion in East LA and Boyle Heights. Together, DSA-LA and Eastside Padres canvassed for Goldberg in neighborhoods typically neglected by electoral campaigns: communities of color in which the vast majority of residents are immigrants. “It’s important for our credibility and effectiveness to establish the expectation that intentional relationship building is what DSA does,” said Francisco Cendejas, a DSA-LA member. “Why unilaterally send our canvassers somewhere we haven’t been when we have the better option of partnering with good allies?” In both of these examples, coalitions formed around discrete campaigns deepened relationships between DSA and organizations rooted in the multiracial working class, opening up possibilities for future collaboration and mutual growth. There is, of course, no one-size-fits-all formula for successful multiracial organizing. Each chapter will have to adapt itself to its social and political context. But one principle will always hold true: DSA is at its best when it engages in the difficult and humbling undertaking of building alliances with others. If we commit ourselves to this work, we may someday find ourselves and our world transformed.