Unsustainable Dialogues

Teaching a “race and cultural minorities” class this semester, I discovered that the not-so-new idea of “dialogue”1 as the main means to resolve racial and ethnic conflicts that exist on and off American campuses is as alive as ever.  A sign of this is the excited enthusiasm that an idea called “Sustained Dialogues” has generated at elite conservative universities such as Princeton, Georgetown, and Notre Dame2 and spread on to less elite universities with more traditionally working-class students.

Sustained Dialogue Campus Network

“Sustained Dialogues” are not only endorsed by mainstream students; seemingly radical students also worship at this altar. The idea, which its promoters advertise as “not just talk . . . it’s a social movement,” was developed by a former CIA officer and member of the diplomatic team that helped Kissinger formulate his Mid-East Policy in the 1970s: Hal Saunders.3

It’s enough to make one’s head spin to hear student activists (including activists of color), who rhetorically speak with the same type of anger against racism that drove a Malcolm X or Stokely Carmichael to militant activism and some of whom may even profess to admire Frantz Fanon, embrace the ideas of a former CIA officer who has made a career of “humanizing” imperialism.  What is it that explains such a contradictory state of affairs? Should it be challenged?

Dialogue is not a bad thing, of course, but when it comes without the physical force of a political movement, just what can be expected of — much less won from — it?  Fanon may be still cited in courses on post-colonial literature, but his political insights have been virtually forgotten.  Otherwise, students might remember his thoughts on the use of “dialogue” in the heat of the intensely developed anti-racist/anti-colonial struggles for national independence:

At the critical . . . moment the colonial bourgeoisie, which had remained silent up till then, enters the fray. They introduce a new notion, in fact a creation of the colonial situation: nonviolence. In its raw state this nonviolence conveys to the colonized intellectual and business elite that their interests are identical to those of the colonialist bourgeoisie and it is therefore indispensable, a matter of urgency, to reach an agreement for the common good.  Nonviolence is an attempt to settle the colonial problem around the negotiating table before the irreparable is done. . . . But if the masses, without waiting for the chairs to be placed around the negotiating table, take matters into their own hands . . . it is not long before the ‘elite’ . . . turn to the colonial authorities and tell them: ‘This is terribly serious! Goodness knows how it will all end. We must find an answer, we must find a compromise’. 4

Fanon would probably check himself in if he heard self-declared activists professing loyalty to “sustained dialogues” as a “social movement,”5 especially since they claim they are directed squarely at issues of race and ethnic relations.  But that the idea has such an appeal is not terribly surprising, given the current commodification of university education in the US.  Part of commodification has been the institutionalization of radical student movements, exemplified by the increasingly popular phenomenon of “social justice” programs that provide careers to faculty and frequently channel student dissent into more acceptable forms of “resistance” that don’t require careful systemic analysis of capitalist inequality.  Faculty affirm their status as “critical” or “progressive” members of the academic community, and students experience the opportunity to network and meet potential future corporate and governmental sources of “validation” of their liberal political orientation.  What better commodity could one ask for from a university that makes diversity and future economic success key parts of its marketing campaigns to prospective customers?

It goes without saying that this approach, trapped in moralism, fails to ask hard questions about the limits of dialogue without prior political organization of masses of poor people, be they working or unemployed.  That was the precondition for any dialogues that the Civil Rights Movement pursued during the 1950s and 60s.  Ditto anti-colonial struggles.  In a period like the present one in which the gap between the haves and have nots increases with each passing day, one has to be all the more wary of programs like “sustained dialogues” that require little more than “validation” of experiences and “listening” skills.  After all, the power elite would be happy to “validate” a minority’s experience or right to their views and still turn around and vote for tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy.  Diane Coole throws into relief the fundamental weakness of conceiving the source of social injustice as lack of “respect” alone, which can be resolved through verbal expression of “support”:

Respect for those on lower echelons is patronizing; tolerance for those above irrelevant.  Class differences cannot be presented as incommensurate cultures, each with its own values internal to it.  Capitalism needs a reserve army of producers, just as it needs poverty both as an incentive and as a side effect of cheap labour.  This structural interdependence is evident as soon as ethical questions about distribution are introduced.6

However, asking structural questions threatens a social justice program’s promotion of individual responsibility and inter-group harmony at the expense of collective disruption by those lacking in material resources.  Do welfare rights organizations need to have “dialogues” with urban chambers of commerce or with bureaucrats? Is it really useful or even desirable for self-identified radical activists to engage in “dialogues” with Young Republicans?  Historically, this is not a strategy that has advanced the agendas of economically, culturally, or politically disenfranchised groups.  If anything, it’s distracted them from the need for far more important dialogues among already committed working-class activists and their allies7 seeking structural changes in the nature of class relations of power under capitalism — the redistribution of wealth downward, for instance.  Activists’ goals cannot be achieved if their starting point is dialogue without prior organizing of their own political base capable of making class-based political demands and willing to use collective disruption from below.8  Any other dialogues based on less are, from the vantage of such a movement, unsustainable.


1 Unquestionably, the earliest proponent of “dialogue” without demands was Booker T. Washington, whose ideological belief in the potential of such an approach for liberating southern Blacks dominated American racial discourse until W.E. Dubois finally and solidly subjected it to a systematic criticism.

2 That this idea initially took root at elite universities is not surprising given their tendency to train students for career tracks in the US Foreign Policy establishment. 

3 “A Conversation with Harold Saunders,” Carnegie Reporter 3.3 (Fall 2005).

4 Franz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth. 2004. Grove Press.  P. 23-24.

5 One of its appeals is its claim that it is “more than just a discussion, it’s a social movement.”

6 Diana Coole. 1996. “Is Class a Difference That Makes a Difference?” Radical Philosophy.  No. 77.

7 A recent documentary In the Eye of the Hurricane, produced by Jerry Lopez, explores the need for dialogue as equals between local activists from poor communities of color in Miami and outside anti-globalization activists whose ranks were typically more white and middle-class during the anti-FTAA protests in 2004. See also Manuel Pastor and Tony Lopresti, “Mobilizing Miami,” The Nation (13 November 2003).

8 Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward’s classic Poor People’s Movements lays this out in rich detail.

Stephen Philion Stephen Philion is an instructor of “Race and Cultural Minorities” at Hamline University and researches the impact of privatization on Chinese workers. Philion received his doctorate in April 2004. The first chapter of his dissertation “The Discourse of Workers Democracy as a Terrain of Ideological Struggle in the Moment of Transition from State Socialism in China” is available at <stephenphilion.efoliomn2.com/index.asp>.