The following is based on an October 7th keynote address given at the 4th annual Co-op Impact conference of the National Cooperative Business Association (NCBA), originally titled “The Challenge of Achieving Racial Equity in Co-ops.”
I want to start by acknowledging the original stewards of the land, and my ancestors– those who were enslaved, those who toil without just compensation, those fallen and killed by police brutality, and other forms of anti-Blackness. And I stand on the shoulders of those who use solidarity cooperative economics for liberation.
Let’s begin by exploding a myth: Co-ops can’t be racist, right?
Our first principle is about open membership. We believe in and practice democracy. But co-ops exist in a racist society, especially here in the US. This is one of the countries that constructed and perpetuated notions of racial inferiority of some groups and racial superiority of people of European heritage in order to justify and strengthen our hierarchical economic system. We are the country that maintained chattel slavery based on African ancestry longer than any other country, and then codified anti-Black racism into our political and economic system in subtle as well as overt ways for centuries. Structural and institutional racism have cumulative effects and are woven into the fabric of our society. They manifest in our preferences, attitudes, psyches, and economic relationships, as well as our social and political relationships. It’s insidious.
So, co-ops can’t automatically be anti-racist. We have to deliberately promote and practice racial equity—and deliberately unlearn racist attitudes and stereotypes.
It’s also not good enough to be diverse. It’s not even good enough to be inclusive. Diverse means lots of representation from a variety of people with a variety of statuses. But it’s not enough if all those people don’t have an equal voice, or don’t feel comfortable trying to make themselves heard, or aren’t equally respected. Some people talk about diversity as making sure everyone is invited (say, to a dance) and inclusion as everyone there also being asked to participate (everyone being asked to actually dance) and included in the activities. But even that is not enough if the activities aren’t representative of everyone’s culture and interests, if the activities and expectations for success are still Eurocentric, if people are included only if they assimilate. Or if people are asked their opinion but then ignored or belittled—or have no significant leadership role or no real influence on decision-making. So, inclusion is not enough.
But what does equity really mean? I am not talking about equity in a business, or financial equity. I’m referring to social equity in a philosophical, social justice sense.
You may have seen a common graphic of three children trying to watch a baseball game over a fence. The fence is too high, and even the tall child can’t really see over it. So, “equality” is to give each child a crate or stool to stand on. But if each crate is the same height, only the tallest and maybe the second-tallest child can now see over the fence; the smallest child might not still see anything. So, what is more “equitable” is to give them different-sized crates. The smallest child might need a high crate (and might even need more help to get on the crate or stay on it, depending on how high it needs to be). There is another version that starts with one of the children being privileged and standing on top of a bunch of crates (no matter how tall they were) and the smallest child being additionally burdened by standing in a ditch. So, equality is just trying to get them out of the ditch. Trying to achieve equity requires more.
But, notice a lot had to happen and very deliberate measures had to be taken. What might be even more equitable and just would be to take the fence down. Why does there need to be a fence? If it’s about keeping people out, keeping the event exclusive, then giving the children access with crates might still involve security that’s there to keep people out. So maybe we also need to change the role of security. If we take the fence down, that means the owners decided it didn’t need to be an exclusive event. But, can they accommodate an unlimited number of people? And if the fence is more to keep the balls in so it doesn’t take as long to retrieve them, then there needs to be more thought to how to be inclusive and still keep the game running effectively. Here, I’m taking the ballgame analogy further. But you see the complications. Especially if exclusiveness is about money and making a profit—or even about people’s social preferences. How do you get people to stop being exclusive?
So, achieving racial equity and justice is not easy because all aspects of life and society have to be addressed for it to be more than just tokenism. Social relations, the economic system, power relations, efficiency assumptions—all need to be transformed.
Are we willing to do all that work? Are you willing?
How do we recognize the ways our co-ops perpetuate institutional racism and engage in racist microaggressions and exclusion? How do we check ourselves as individuals and organizations? Are we willing to do all the work? We can’t just say we aren’t racist and that we, of course, don’t discriminate. We have to really examine our own assumptions and practices—and examine how our co-ops actually operate, and the unintentional outcomes.
How do I see racism in the US co-op movement? There are six ways I want to discuss here.
1. Missing in Action
When I first started attending co-op conferences in the mid-1990s, there were no Black participants or presenters, unless we met in the South, and then there might be one or two presenters from the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund (FSC).
And where were the Black people? Some of the conferences and trainings were too expensive, but mostly the co-op community wasn’t focused on attracting Blacks or welcoming Blacks. They wouldn’t turn anyone away, but they didn’t make a welcoming space, and they didn’t do any outreach to Black co-ops or Black people. And, even after I started raising the question, mostly people would mention someone they knew or someone in the FSC, and that I was there, and that was enough. But I kept raising the questions.
But even when I first started inviting Black people, especially Black youth, into mainstream co-op spaces, the co-op movement wasn’t ready for them: Blacks told me that the costs were too high to participate, or the issues discussed not relevant. They felt alienated, and many didn’t come back—probably because of the invisible white privilege many cooperative members exude, and the lack of representation of Blacks in the materials, case studies, or concerns of the co-op movement.
But one more thing: the co-op movement in the 1990s and early 2000s hardly addressed urban issues and co-ops, and pretty much ignored worker co-ops. Young Blacks, even middle-aged Blacks, are interested in revitalizing urban areas. We had to have separate committees and meetings about those issues and sectors. So, it took decades to get co-ops to focus more on urban development. Now the worker co-op movement has brought co-ops to cities, beyond credit unions and housing co-ops.
2. White Privilege
The second way I see racism in the co-op movement is this feeling and notion that co-ops can’t be racist. I knew one graduate student at a prominent university who wanted to do her thesis on racism in co-ops, but none of her faculty thought that was an issue or an appropriate topic of study. Co-ops thought it enough to just be open, to have representation from FSC. Many didn’t see a need to be proactive until recently.
But the US co-op movement exudes white privilege. Peggy McIntosh in 1989, when she was associate director of the Wellesley College Center for Research on Women, wrote about white privilege as an invisible backpack of unearned assets. Whites are carefully taught not to recognize white privilege, as males are taught not to recognize male privilege. Co-ops don’t recognize their white privilege, though I think and hope this is slowly changing.
McIntosh notes that whites are taught to think of their lives as morally neutral, normative, and average, and also as the ideal—so that, as she puts it, when “we work to benefit others, this is seen as work which will allow ‘them’ to be more like ‘us’.”
McIntosh reminds us that power from unearned privilege can look like strength when it is in fact permission to escape or to dominate. Obliviousness maintains the myth of meritocracy, the myth that democratic choice is equally available to all.
I see much of that kind of white privilege in the co-op movement. We need to be much more conscious of these attitudes and this privilege. The invisibleness of it and the normalcy are toxic and difficult to address.
Then, imagine how male privilege and heterosexual privilege and ableism intersect with anti-Black racism…. Intersectionality. We have to be very deliberate. Doing just one thing, being sensitive and compassionate, isn’t enough. Being diverse isn’t enough, especially if we aren’t also genuinely inclusive and clearly addressing anti-Blackness and the other oppressions.
Individualism, tokenism, and invisibility also perpetuate institutional racism—BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, and People of Color] people can be present but lack voice and leadership. We have to be proactive and take action to correct and transform these injustices in the spheres we control.
3. Erasure from History
When I read co-op development materials, I often see no Black co-ops mentioned, no Black leaders discussed, no Black co-op history included. No Latinx people or Latinx co-ops mentioned either. No Native Americans. No Asians.
We are told that cooperatives started with the Rochdale pioneers in 1844, with no mention of the long history of economic cooperation among all peoples, especially early African societies and First Nations. There is not even a mention of Scottish and US early mutual aid and co-op societies. (Now there is a little.) And definitely no mention of rotating savings and credit arrangements, which almost all people of African descent use and are precursors to credit exchanges and credit unions.
We need to recognize the universalism of economic cooperation, communing, and cooperativism from early African civilizations to First Nations, and every population throughout world history.
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But BIPOC and non-Europeans remain largely written out of the co-op history and the information we share about co-ops. No wonder Black Americans tell me over and over again that Black people don’t have cooperatives. So I wrote a book about African- American co-op history! And this year, Esther West conducted a study of Latinx co-ops. But we still lack good materials and videos to attract BIPOC people to co-ops.
4. Class and Gentrification
Then, there are a few more subtle issues of racism in co-ops. I mentioned that many Black and Brown people couldn’t afford the training costs and conference costs. This also raises issues about income and wealth.
The co-op model itself creates assumptions about income contributions. The late Ralph Paige of FSC and I used to discuss this years ago. Cooperators are supposed to have assets they contribute to the co-op, but what about people with limited or no assets—they can’t cooperate or can’t cooperate meaningfully? But they have, throughout history.
Many Blacks who started co-ops, started them because they had nothing but ideas, energy, and sweat equity. Many of the Black co-ops let people buy their shares in installments for that reason. Even the Rochdale Pioneers bought their shares in installments, but the 20th– and 21st-century mainstream co-op movement focused on members bringing equity with their membership. This often leaves low-income and low-wealth people out.
The model for successful grocery co-ops for many years was based on the need for a white middle class to patronize the co-op. The assumption was that only whites would pay for fresh produce and organic foods—and only whites knew how to prepare it! This was in some of the manuals. So, does that mean Black communities can’t or shouldn’t have food co-ops? Or only if they can attract white customers? But historically Black food co-ops were one of the three most popular types of co-ops for African Americans in the research I did. (Credit unions and agricultural co-ops were the other two.)
So, this notion of what makes a successful co-op grocery story is very alienating and exudes white privilege. Also, that kind of attitude—that you can’t be successful without a white middle class—also justifies food co-ops coming into Black neighborhoods and helping gentrify them, since the assumption is that Black members and customers are unnecessary or marginal.
But land and rent are cheaper in many Black neighborhoods. Too often, the model followed was to open a food co-op there but ignore Black residents, attract whites in, and lay the groundwork for the neighborhood to become gentrified. There are too many cases where the co-op didn’t even meet with or connect with the Black organizations in the community, let alone invite Black residents and make them feel comfortable about joining. This alienates BIPOC people from co-ops.
5. Co-ops as Colonizing Agents
The US co-op movement doesn’t recognize the colonizing role cooperatives have played in North America (and I suspect some places in Africa and Caribbean and Central America), enabling white settlers to take over indigenous land—an early kind of gentrification—to exclude people of color and consolidate certain kinds of businesses using co-ops.
Historically, some Black co-ops were not comfortable joining NCBA or going to mainstream co-op conferences, so they held their own or didn’t attend conferences. Some prominent Black co-op leaders were tokenized and used but not supported. Many Black co-ops historically have been targeted by white supremacist terrorists. Even today, co-op laws still exclude. For example, some states’ co-op laws do not allow incarcerated or previously incarcerated people to be co-op members or board members. We have to look at how some of the legislation and requirements are still exclusionary—there are invisible exclusions.
6. Lack of Cooperation
We might be called cooperatives, but the co-op movement remains siloed. Often, consumer and producer co-ops are not worried about workers, who are often people of color. This is a huge problem and another reason why Blacks don’t see co-ops as being of benefit to them, because the co-ops they might work for don’t address their needs and might exploit them as badly as any other employer.
Another example of this siloing is in co-op education. Co-op education is too often seen as something that happens inside a co-op and not connected to co-op development, and not connected to training generations of potential cooperators so that we can increase the knowledge about and interest in co-ops and economic transformation. Co-op education is missing in public schools and universities. So, co-op information is kept inside the movement and remains mostly white.
I mentioned this siloing in my Co-op Hall of Fame acceptance speech in 2016. It’s part of what keeps us small and isolated as a movement. We don’t develop co-op supply chains and interlocking co-ops. We don’t use the resources from one co-op sector to support the growth and sustainability of other co-op sectors.
The larger movement was slow to support, and still hardly supports, the US worker co-op movement, which is the most diverse and inclusive of all the sectors. We still have the lowest percentage of worker co-ops of all the countries in the North, and we don’t have strong supports for our worker co-ops from the rest of the co-op movement. But US worker co-ops are one of the most racially, ethnically, and gender diverse and integrated of all the sectors—although it still hasn’t attracted as many indigenous Black Americans as we could. And FSC is a force in the agricultural co-op movement, but still just a tiny voice there. So, this siloing hurts us all.
Building a More Inclusive Co-op Movement
So, what do we do?
I try to focus on solutions! This has been a great conference so far. I’ve never seen so many Black and Brown presenters at a co-op conference before, except maybe a worker co-op conference. I’m encouraged that the US Federation of Worker Co-operatives practices language justice as much as possible and is one of the fastest growing co-op sections as well as being very diverse at this point.
The US credit union sector is very diverse. The housing co-op movement is pretty diverse. I see a growing movement and support for Black food co-ops and some movement in the rural electric co-op world. Columinate, a national cooperative of food co-op consultants, has been working on diversity and racial justice issues, compiled interviews about racial exclusion a few years ago, and now supports Black grocery co-ops. Excuse me if I haven’t mentioned a sector which has made progress or shows promise. We’ve made a lot of progress since the 1990s when I first got involved in the movement.
We have to keep getting out of our silos, within the co-op movement and outside this movement. We have to really practice Principle 6 of “cooperation among cooperatives.” But we also need to think about multiple stakeholders. We need more multi-stakeholder solidarity co-ops and more self-management and consensus building. We need fair-labor and fair-trade policies, and fair production/processing policies and ownership—and then need to practice those policies. We need to really practice Principle 7: concern for community. And I heard that some co-ops have a new “Principle 8” of diversity, inclusion, and equity. We can’t ignore those principles and values. In many ways, these are the cornerstones of cooperatives, but our co-op movement focuses more on the first five principles.
So, we have to stop thinking just as co-ops. We must create solidarity systems, be consciously part of the solidarity economy, and support and practice social justice. My research on African American co-op history found this to be the rule rather than the exception for Black-owned co-ops. Co-ops served an immediate need for survival or to combat market failure, but they also saw co-ops and economic cooperation as a solidarity and liberation strategy. Most of the co-ops saw themselves as part of a larger movement to benefit all Blacks—or at least all their neighbors—to solve community economic and health problems, to combat racial discrimination, to engage women and youth, to enable community ownership, and to amass collective wealth.
I hope you see that benefits can be gained by being proactive about racial equity and justice. The US co-op movement is starting to talk about and practice better outreach, being inclusive of histories, leaders, and role models. The US co-op movement is starting to change policies and practices. This makes all of us stronger and builds a sturdier, deeper and wider co-op movement.
We know there is a lot that’s working. Let’s learn from that.
Let us also learn from history. Here, I’ll mention two examples from Black co-op history in the South. The first is an example of how a coalition of Black cooperatives successfully developed informational and training materials to support and increase co-op development in Black communities, and then leveraged North Carolina state resources to finalize and disseminate them. The second example is about the power of progressive coalitions to address multiple civil rights and economic justice issues during a politically repressive time (1880s–’90s).
In the 1930s and 1940s, there was a strong Black co-op movement in North Carolina. With the backing of two Black education institutions, Bricks Rural Life School and Tyrrel County Training School, African American cooperators established strong cooperative networks, including co-op education, farmer’s cooperatives, equipment co-ops, credit unions, buyers’ clubs, and health insurance. The two co-ops formed a Black regional co-op association in eastern North Carolina. Then, in 1945, they formed a statewide coalition known as the North Carolina Council. The Council created manuals and workshops to promote and develop Black credit unions and co-ops. They worked with the state agricultural department to offer workshops throughout the state during the 1940s and distribute the manuals for free. This initiative exponentially increased the number of Black co-ops in the state. For example, in 1936, there were three Black credit unions, while by 1948 there were 98. The association also supported the development of 48 additional Black co-op enterprises, comprised by nine consumer stores, 32 machinery co-ops, 4 curb markets, two health associations, and one housing project.
The second example is from the 1880s. The Workingmen’s Reform Party in Richmond, Virginia, was organized in 1885 by the Knights of Labor. The Knights (KOL) were a labor union that supported 8-hour workdays, union wages, and worker co-ops. The KOL had to have separate Black and white district assemblies, but they worked together in the Workingmen’s Reform Party on a combined campaign in support of organized labor, gender and racial equality, and cooperative development. Together they won control of City Council. In 1886–87, the new city council hired a racially integrated, unionized local workforce including women workers and worker cooperatives to rebuild Richmond City Hall, displacing the previous administration’s use of convict labor.
There are some lessons in this. One is the importance of organizations and deliberate cooperative development. The periods in US history with the most Black co-ops were periods when there were strong Black organizations dedicated to co-op promotion and education. A second is that community support is key. Co-ops were stronger and lasted longer when the surrounding community knew about the co-op, supported and protected it. To be anti-racist, co-ops need to expand their notion of community—give back to community and benefit from engaging community.
I have recently been arguing that racial justice can’t be achieved without economic democracy and economic justice. But it is also the case that economic democracy and co-ops need racial equity.
It is a cycle. We have got to promote economic democracy and economic justice more. But we can’t do that with co-ops if we don’t address the racial justice issues.