The Copenhagen shootings this past week once again have sparked fears around the world—including in the United States—of the threats of homegrown terrorism. Some, including Ed Miliband, leader of Britain’s Labour Party, urge world leaders to respond with unity in the face of rising intolerance in Europe towards both Muslims and Jews.
Here in the United States, leaders like U.S. Representative Keith Ellison, Democrat of Minnesota—the first Muslim elected to Congress—and members of his heavily Muslim district have suggested that other Americans coming together to integrate and accept Muslims on equal footing can help mitigate the disillusionment that sometimes leads to violence.
Such coalitions against injustice have a long history in the United States. As Charles Darwin, the humanist, naturalist and father of evolutionary theory who would have been 106 years old this month, wrote: “In the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.”
It is fitting and highly coincidental then that the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) celebrates its 106th anniversary this month, as well, and to consider how far we have come as a culture in our struggles with racial equality.
Although we often think of this heralded civil rights organization as organized by and solely focused on issues relevant to African Americans, it is actually one of the oldest and most successful examples of a multiracial coalition forged to advocate for racial justice.
Indeed, white, Jewish, and African-American men and women came together to found the organization, primarily in response to pervasive incidents of racially-motivated violence faced by black Americans at the time.
Among many other incidents, recent campaigns of police violence toward black Americans, racial profiling of Latinos in border states, and the typecasting of Asian Americans as perpetually foreign, reveal the continuing reality of racial inequality in U.S. society.
Yet, one obstacle to eradicating these and other contemporary instances of racial injustice is the tendency to separate them into black issues, Latino issues and Asian issues. Consequently, many Latinos, African Americans, Asian Americans, Jews and other ethnic and racial minority groups aren’t as invested in each others’ struggles for equality as they could be.
But it is when groups come together that real change becomes possible.
Perhaps members of different racial and ethnic minority groups fail to support one another’s struggles for social justice because they are not aware of the rich history of communities coming together for just this purpose.
Much like the founding of the NAACP, however, the 20th century is full of examples of cross-group coalition building to enact change. For instance, the fight for voting rights in Selma forged by both the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference was supported by Latinos and Jews.
Before that, lawyers involved in Brown v. the Board of Education, including Thurgood Marshall—who would go on to be the first African-American U.S. Supreme Court justice—practiced their arguments in a 1946 school-segregation case brought by a group of Mexican American families in California in the case of Mendez v. Westminster.
Japanese, black, and Jewish Americans filed friend-of-the-court briefs in both Brown and Mendez. Jewish Americans helped enable the creation and early sustenance of the Community Service Organization (CSO), one of the most significant mid-century civil rights groups for Latinos. In the 1960s and 1970s, Native Americans, African Americans, and Latinos joined forces in the Poor People's Campaign.
In other words, civil rights struggles have never been discrete, community-specific, racially isolated affairs. So, we should not isolate them now—not in how we commemorate them, how we write about them, nor in how we discuss or otherwise consider them.
If these examples of multiracial coalitions feel like a relic of the past, research from the Social Perception and Communication Lab at Northwestern University suggests that simple reminders of such historic and contemporary discrimination can galvanize cross-racial coalition building.
In a series of experiments conducted with social psychologist Maureen Craig, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, we found that Asian-American research participants who read about pervasive anti-Asian prejudice subsequently perceived themselves to be more similar to black Americans and evaluated blacks more positively, compared with Asian American research participants who read about a neutral topic.
A similar experiment with Latino participants found the same pattern; participants who were exposed to anti-Latino prejudice felt more similar to blacks and evaluated blacks more positively, compared with participants who were not exposed to those sentiments.
Taken together, this research suggests that reminding members of one racial/ethnic minority group of the discrimination their own group has faced, and continues to face, in society may be one route to promoting the types of multiracial coalitions formed during previous civil rights struggles.
To be sure, when the interests of different racial and ethnic minority communities do not align—or worse, are perceived to be in conflict—intergroup tension, not coalition, is the result.
In the 1970s, for instance, Chinese and Mexican Americans’ interest in bilingual education collided with African Americans’ interest in desegregation. This fissure among communities was revealed when Chinese and Mexican American communities in San Francisco publicly opposed a desegregation lawsuit filed by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
And cross-group coalitions have often been fleeting and difficult to maintain.
Still there are enough examples of diverse communities teaming up despite differences in order to pursue shared long-term goals that they might serve as models for contemporary activists seeking to bridge divides of race, class and short-term agenda.
There are reasons to be hopeful. Recently, blacks, Latinos, Arab Americans, and clergy from Christian, Jewish, and Muslim traditions, have teamed up to protest the shooting of unarmed black men and urge justice for those killed.
Why does appreciating such cross-racial collaboration matter? Why should we care about this history of collaboration among diverse racial and ethnic groups?
Because these instances of coalition—brief as they were at times—have created change.
Failure to remember these instances of multiracial coalitions undoubtedly results in missed opportunities to build support among a diverse array of potential allies. Greater awareness of our nation’s history of multiracial civil rights struggles might, therefore, propel members of different marginalized communities to forge new coalitions to combat contemporary forms of social injustice.
By separating—if not segregating—struggles for social justice, change is next to impossible. Until marginalized communities and their allies redefine self-interest, recognize common cause, and find ways to coordinate with one another, large-scale social change will likely remain elusive.