Intra-movement ethnic/racial conflicts

It is usually difficult for groups to work together across racial-ethnic divides. Research across a wide variety of movements reveals common tensions. I list below some of the common patterns and provide a partial list of references at the end. The first two patterns apply to all groups, whether their relationship involves a power hierarchy or just difference. The rest of the patterns relate to differences that are also hierarchical, when one group is larger, has more power, and has more resources than the other. When I contrast dominant majorities with subordinated minorities, I recognize this oversimplifies and leaves out some cases (e.g. dominant minorities, subordinated majorities, domination along one axis and subordination along another). This list of generalizations and patterns has exceptions. The list is doubtless incomplete but is especially important for opening the thinking of scholars or movement participants who have not reflected on these issues before.

  1. People have cultural differences in how they talk in public, how disagreements are handled, and norms and practices for running meetings and making collective decisions. Most people think their own cultural way of doing things is the right way and think people who behave differently are just doing it wrong. These differences arise regardless of hierarchies and also show up in groups that mix people from diverse subordinated minorities.
  2. People from different backgrounds have different experiences and interests that lead to somewhat different  goals and  visions of where the movement should go and what its agenda should be. Again, this is true regardless of hierarchies. And, again, most people are ignorant of the interests and goals of people from different backgrounds unless they have gone out of their way to learn about them.
  3. Members of dominant or privileged majority groups have habits of domination: they expect to be in control, think they have a high level of knowledge about the problems and how to fix them, find it difficult to defer to others, and are often blind to the dynamics of their interactions. I call this a “culture of domination,” building on Aldon Morris’s concept of “culture of subordination.” Less privileged minority group members sometimes accept this (perhaps from their own culture of subordination) but often challenge these patterns, leading to intra-group conflict. Privileged people are typically uncomfortable (sometimes unconsciously) when challenged by people in subordinated social positions and often fail to acknowledge what is going on in the conflict. Other times, subordinated minority group members remain silent and become disaffected and leave the organization without saying why.
  4. Dominant majority group members have more outside resources and political power, making it easier for their visions and agendas to gain traction. Dominant group members frequently control organizational purse strings through access to outside funding. They may rely on more expensive technologies such as email for communicating and have more experience writing position papers or grant proposals. Subordinate minority group members typically resent this and view it as a problem.
  5. In movements “for” subordinated minorities, the dominant majority group members typically have ties to and agendas linked to other movements and groups. The subordinated minorities themselves are typically less concerned about relations with other movements. Depending on the nature of their outside links, dominant majority group members are often (but not always) more moderate than subordinate minority group members.
  6. Dominant group members are much less likely to be repressed than minority group members. This leads to divergent tactics and concerns about shared fate. Who will suffer the consequences if things go wrong? Are the allies in for the long haul, or will they leave if things go sour?

In my “Ethnic Dimensions” paper I distinguish between group-focused mixed-ethnic “solidarity” movements in which majority group members support minority group members (e.g. White allies in support of immigrant rights or the Black movement or reformers addressing issues of racial disparities in criminal justice) and issue-focused movements that mix majority and minority members. The most common configuration in a “solidarity” movement combines relatively privileged volunteers or professional reformers from the majority group with less privileged members of a minority, while a mixed “issue” movement most commonly combines (or tries to combine) a numerical majority of people from the majority ethnicity with a numerical minority of people from subordinated minorities. Most of the difficulties working across ethnic/racial lines are common to both types of movements.

Issue-focused movements (peace, environment) and movements around other axes of domination (gender, class) that try to organize across lines of ethnic/racial hierarchies combining members of dominant majorities with members of subordinated minorities face most of these same conflicts. These organizations tend to be dominated by majority group members, and minority group members typically believe that the majority ignores their needs and assumes dominance without even questioning it. Organizations that form within racial/ethnic groups can also exhibit these or similar tensions across other dimensions, especially class (income, educational) differences but also gender (sex, sexual orientation, sexual identity) differences.

Even groups that are aware of these dynamics and try to counter them have a great deal of difficulty sustaining organizations across lines of social hierarchies and cultural difference. There are some successful examples, but they are exceptions. My reading of the research literature is that the most common model for success involves a segmented or coalitional structure that acknowledges difference. Employers have a long history of intentionally treating different ethnic groups differently as a way of weakening workers’ collective strength. Strong mixed-race or mixed-ethnic unions have typically had strong measures in play to guarantee that all groups were represented in leadership and, in some cases, actually formed distinct segregated units that stood in strong solidarity with each other. Other examples of successful cross-group coalitions or organizations almost always involve explicit recognition of difference and explicit organizational rules to ensure intra-organizational balance of power and representation from different groups.

Some references.


Appel, Liz. 2003. “White Supremacy in the Movement against the Prison-Industrial Complex.” Social Justice 30(2):81-88.

Brown, Cliff, and John Brueggemann. 1997. “Mobilizing Interracial Solidarity: A Comparison of the 1919 and 1937 Steel Industry Labor Organizing Drives.” Mobilization 2(1):47-70.

Cole, Elizabeth R., and Zakiya T. Luna. 2010. “Making Coalitions Work: Solidarity across Difference within US Feminism.” Feminist Studies 36(1):71-98.

Diaz Veizades, Jeannette, and Edward T. Chang. 1996. “Building Cross-Cultural Coalitions: A Case-Study of the Black-Korean Alliance and the Latino-Black Roundtable.” Ethnic and Racial Studies 19(3):680-700.

Eder, Donna, Suzanne Staggenborg, and Lori Sudderth. 1995. “The National Women’s Music Festival: Collective Identity and Diversity in a Lesbian-Feminist Community.” Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 23(4):485-515.

Gerteis, Joseph. 2007. Class and the color line : interracial class coalition in the Knights of Labor and the Populist movement. Durham: Duke University Press.

Hughey, Matthew W. 2007. “Racism With Antiracists: Color-Conscious Racism And The Unintentional Persistence Of Inequality.” Social Thought & Research 28(1/2):67-108.

Jung, Moon-Kie. 2006. Reworking race : the making of Hawaii’s interracial labor movement: New York : Columbia University Press, c2006.

Lichterman, Paul. 1995. “Piecing Together Multicultural Community: Cultural Differences in Community Building among Grass-Roots Environmentalists.” Social Problems 42(4):513-34.

Luna, Zakiya, and Kristin Luker. 2013. “Reproductive Justice.” Annual Review of Law and Social Science 9(1):327-52.

Luna, Zakiya T. 2010. “Marching Toward Reproductive Justice: Coalitional (Re) Framing of the March for Women’s Lives.” Sociological Inquiry 80(4):554-78.

Marx, Gary T., and Michael Useem. 1971. “Majority Involvement in Minority Movements: Civil Rights, Abolition, Untouchability.” The Journal of Social Issues 27(1):81-104.

Morris, Aldon, and Naomi Braine. 2001. “Social movements and oppositional consciousness.” Pp. 20-37 in Oppositional consciousness: the subjective toots of social protest, edited by Jane Mansbridge and Aldon Morris. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Strolovitch, Dara Zippora. 2002. “Closer to a Pluralist Heaven? Women’s Racial Minority, and Economic Justice Advocacy Groups and the Politics of Representation.” Pp. 3715-A.


See this collection of academic blog essays that address coalition issues.

Especially Michelle Gawerc on lessons from Palestinian-Israeli coalitions for peacebuilding.

Silke Roth on intersectionality a coalition building

Mario Diani on coalitions versus movements, arguing that movements require boundary definition and identities and commitments for the long haul and these are different conditions from short-term coalitions around specific goals

Suzanne Staggenborg on tensions between informal coalitions around similarity and intentional coalitions seeking diversity


Some movement or journalist writing discussing these issues

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