A political party of people of color
Recently a unique development took place recently in The Netherlands.
In 2014 two Turkish members of the Dutch Labour Party in parliament, Tunahan Kuzu and Selçuk Öztürk, left the party because of its attitude towards racism and islamophobia. They started their own faction in parliament and eventually named their group DENK (THINK). Between 2014 and March 2017 they vigorously campaigned inside and outside on a platform against racism and islamophobia. The developed a program with radical demands, among others:
- The focus in government policy should not be on integration but on acceptance of diversity.
- The acknowledgement of institutional racism as the main problem.
- The establishment of a racism-register of people, organizations and companies the openly promote racism so that government can act on prohibiting business with or subsidies to them.
- Affirmative action and quota-arrangement in the labour market for people of color and women, starting with government jobs on a national and regional level.
- A specific quota of 10% for people of color in the top of the major companies in the Netherlands.
- Formal apologies and reparations for enslavement of black people in the former Dutch colonies and for the colonial wars in Indonesia.
- Decolonizing history and renaming of streets, tunnels, bridges and museums and stop the celebration of villains.
- Rewriting the history textbooks in the educational system that teaches about historic injustice committed by the Dutch.
- Total abolition of Black Pete celebrations in the public and private domain.
The daring confrontation in parliament with the white parties and the smart use of social media to expose racism in parliament earned DENK a reputation of courageous fighters in the struggle against racism and islamophobia.
The campaign against DENK
The media, political establishment and the white left in Holland immediately reacted with outrage to DENK. The critique was not just about political positions. It was the whole idea that people of color would dare to be non-apologetic and confront racism directly in parliament was unacceptable. So a campaign of vilification was started. Kuzu and Öztürk are Muslim fundamentalism. They are the fifth column of Turkish president Erdogan in Holland. They are a divisive force that is dividing people rather than uniting them. They should denounce the Armenian genocide. They should speak out against Erdogan’s policy to arrest people involved in the military coup against Erdogan. They are anti LGTB and anti women, despite the fact that their program calls for banishing homophobia, closing the wage gap between men and women and a vigorous policy against sexual intimidation.
So the whole operation was directed at shifting the focus from racism and islamophobia to other issues.
Personal attacks, lies, framing them as irrational and attacking the whole idea of a political party for people of color had the opposite effect in the different communities of color. DENK was admired for their non-apologetic approach of racism and islamophobia. They attracted followers outside the Turkish community. They broadened their base to the Muslim community as a whole.
In May 2016 a well know black former TV presenter, Sylvana Simons, became a member of DENK. Although DENK already had black members, her entry into national politics via DENK created a big stir. It was symbolic for the unity of all people of colour, especially the Black-Muslim alliance. She became a target of a smear campaign. She received countless death threats. Immediately forces came into action to divide DENK. Simons was portrait as a radical, anti-white person, that had nothing to gain by allying herself with Muslim men, who are also patriarchal.
These forces were eventually succesfull. In December 2016 Simons left the party without prior notice or discussion. A few weeks earlier her supporters had secretly founded a new party, Article 1. This refers to the first article of the Dutch constitution that prohibits all discrimination. She announced that her parte was founded on the theory of intersectionality that does not divide people, but unites them. She used the argument of divisiveness against DENK to justify her split.
Leading white feminist Anja Meulentbelt and leading LGTB-scholar Gloria Wekker supported Simons and Article 1 in her split.
On March 15 the elections took place for the 150 seats of parliament. To the shock and surprise of the white community and the white political establishment DENK gained three seats. The Labor party went down from 38 to 9 seats. The extreme right won seven seats (the party of Geert Wilders won five and another extreme right party won two).
Article 1 did not gain a seat. She got half of the votes needed for a seat. Simons mainly got her votes from the black community. The hope that white women and white LGTB would support her did not materialize.
The victory of DENK energized many people of color who actively participated in the campaign and in the discussion on social media. A united front of Blacks and Muslims would have strengthened the struggle against racism and islamophobia. The split was more detrimental to the black community. If Simons had stayed in DENK she would now have been elected to parliament, because she would be number three on the slate of DENK.
The first lesson is that in countries with large communities of color a political party that explicitly draws upon their support can have a major impact on the debate on racism and islamophobia, provided that they take a radical approach. Even if they get one seat, their voice in parliament has a major impact on the self-confidence of the communities of color and strengthens the struggle against racism and islamophobia.
The second lesson is that the unity of Black and Muslims is considered the most dangerous strategy by white power. That unity is a powerful force in bringing down institutional racism. That is why all forces of the white power structure (media, violent threats, politicians) are focussing on breaking that alliance. Unfortunately it succeeded for now, but hopefully activists from communities of color have learned this lesson and will work together to recreate this unity.
The third lesson is that the weakness of the theory of intersectionality has led to a shift in focus away from racism and islamophobia and has damaged the movement.
Hopefully these lesson will be valid for social movements in other European countries.