The Sistah Soulja moment - a beginning of the culture wars

Culture Wars and The Lessons We Still Aren’t Learning

Most recently, Hood Communist editor Salifu Mack sat down with Kali Akuno for an interview discussing his longtime and current movement work. During the interview, Kali talked about his days in the early ‘90s attempting to get organic African based revolutionary broadcasting networks set up. The reason? Kali noted that at that particular time there was an emerging organized right-wing formation on broadcast radio. 

“…it became very clear to me by 1990 that ‘the right’ was on that. I’d be going to some of these training [sessions] and I’d be right next to skinheads and clan members and all these forces of the right who were giving me skills. So it gave me a particular insight into what their thinking was… I could see, from being involved in those trainings, that it was serious. That it was organized. That they had a steady and growing cadre of folks and that it was moving more towards the right. And I could see what I would call the shortcomings and failures in our movements organizing at the time in trying to convince our own people that this was a viable tool that we should be using. Now, mind you, this was before the internet kind of blew up into the thing that it became in the mid-1990s. And so radio was a much more powerful tool in our communities, but there were some shortcomings of imagination that existed amongst our people and amongst the movement.”

Kali Akuno

The period between 1988 -1992 is the least studied and interrogated by younger organizers on the left today, yet most likely the most important to understand for both the domestic and global implications of today. During this period, as the Soviet Union was dissolving to an ultimate end, ‘culture wars’ emerged as pop-culture fodder. In the “We Don’t Need Another Hero’ episode of This Is Revolution, hosts Jason Myles and Pascal Robert discuss the first wave of daytime talk shows hosted by former newsroom journalists (Geraldo Rivera, Oprah Winfrey, Phil Donohue, etc) being the impetus for how ‘culture wars’ have been able to form from cultural commentary on real issues during the reemergence of a neo-nazi rise. 

The period of the dissolution of the Soviet Union brought forth developing antagonisms between colonized people and European Nation states confronting a new landscape of immigration in Europe due to a post-Soviet influx of Third World citizens into Europe. These antagonisms between colonized people and Europeans also expanded westward into the US all of which resulted in a growing neo-nazi movement throughout the 90s. As the Cold War was coming to an end, the desperate need to “define” America became a polarization of politics and culture known as ‘cultural wars’. As noted by sociologist James Davidson Hunter, ‘cultural wars’ were about “the meaning of America, who ‘we’ have been in the past, who ‘we’ are now, and perhaps more important, who ‘we’, as a nation, will aspire to become. What differentiates a culture war from mere disagreement is the extent to which attitudes coalesce into utterly opposed worldviews with competing visions for the future, and the perceived threat to what either side considers the right or acceptable way to live one’s life.”

This phenomenon, of course, made for great TV. The reduction of structural issues like race, gender, sex, etc. were flattened into individual ‘impassioned’ world views to be debated on national television for daytime ratings. Mainstream media galvanized on the opportunity to profit from the fights that ensued between “skinheads” and “Black nationalists” or “Christian conservatives” and “progressives”, focusing on ‘the soul’ of a nation whose citizens lived under the weight of stark economic disenfranchisement that plagued major cities across the U.S. in the late 80s/ early 90s.  

The political utility of fanning the flames of ‘culture wars’ became ever apparent during the presidential election in 1992. Following the infamous L.A riots sparked by police brutality and the ‘Rodney King verdict’, Sista Souljah, a hip hop artist, activist and political commentator, was quoted by the Washington Post saying, “I mean, if Black people kill Black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people? You understand what I’m saying? In other words, white people, this government and that mayor were well aware of the fact that Black people were dying every day in Los Angeles under gang violence. So if you’re a gang member and you would normally be killing somebody, why not kill a white person? Do you think that somebody thinks that white people are better, or above dying, when they would kill their own kind?” 

Sista Souljah was then invited to accompany Rev. Jesse Jackson and the Rainbow Coalition at an event to support his presidential campaign that also had then Arkansas governor and presidential candidate, Bill Clinton, in attendance. Following Jackson’s speech, where he also praised Sista Souljah for her committed activism and support for the campaign, Clinton got to the podium and proceeded to attempt to rip her to shreds. Clinton targeted Sista Souljah because she, at the time, had “a big influence on a lot of people” and that her (mis)quoted comments were “filled with the kind of hatred that you do not honor.” It was this exact moment, “The Sista Souljah Moment”, where it became obvious that ‘culture wars’ was not just a tool of the far-right, but liberals, as well. 

Clinton’s calculated public repudiation of Sista Souljah was intended to demonize not only her, but the entire “progressive” stance of the Rainbow Coalition by playing on “the future of America” that is the foundational fear that drives ‘culture wars’. Clinton, already a suspicious figure to the 12-year long reign of neoconservative politicians, used that moment to assure that he was, indeed, one of them. By unjustly targeting Sista Souljah, Clinton was able to thwart off the Rainbow Coalition, minimize structural racism and secure a win with a simple “both sides are bad” message to the American public. 

Why does any of this matter? 

The political shifting of the US and global landscape in the last decade is a direct result of a post-Soviet Union world. Making use of propaganda tools like radio which became the eventual framework for networks like FOX NEWS (and eventually cable news as we know it today) which is more commentary than fact driven, helped give rise to an organized right that we are confronting today. We are being confronted with an organized right that is in place to enter elections on every scale to push anti-people agendas to restore the ‘soul of America’ being framed as ‘culture wars’. We are being confronted by an organized right that is flocking to and training in these historically right-wing nationalist European countries emboldened by the fall of the Soviet Union and the continuous expansion of NATO. The historical elements of fascism post Soviet Union are very notable in the European Union’s responses today to the influx of Global South citizens at European borders. An influx caused by the devastation of their alliance with the US/NATO in the effort to expand Western imperial hegemony. The recent French election where Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen were in the overwhelming lead highlights those historical elements reemerging as a reaction to an interference with European nationalism. 

Domestically, once again, a fixation on ‘culture wars’ is being prioritized in obvious efforts to avoid the horrific material conditions for people living within the US. Inflation, austerity policies, massive unemployment, an eviction crisis, and an ongoing pandemic are all very real issues affecting the overwhelming majority of people in the U.S. Yet somehow, these structural issues are dismissed in favor of engaging speculative ‘culture wars’ which is nothing more than engaging reactionaries in anti-people debates. Similar to social justice being collapsed into police reforms, the structural economic disenfranchisement suffered by the masses of poor working class people in the US has been collapsed into ‘culture wars’. 

There is no mainstream serious engagement of the root causes of the disparities we are seeing in marginalized communities or any real opposition to a mainstreaming of fascism, instead liberals assist in the sidelining of real issues by taking up ‘single issues’ for campaigns and dropping it collectively post-win. In 2017, Nancy Pelosi remarked that “[abortion is] kind of fading as an issue” for democrats and that’s evident as women’s rights gets shuffled back and forth in higher courts. Recently in Kentucky, a federal judge just placed a temporary hold on a law that is attempting to restrict all access to abortion in the state and attempts at total bans are being made in Oklahoma and Texas with NO significant democratic party response. So long as abortion remains a ‘culture war’ issue for dems and not a concrete issue of health and class dynamics, it never has to really get dealt with.

Biden can remark that “we are in a battle for the soul of America” while crushing his supporters under the weight of his austerity policies. Biden can say with his chest that he will, “fund” the police to a cheering congress and back away from immigration with no consequences because, once again, structural issues are ‘culture war’ issues for dems. Entertaining reactionary anti-people debates by making symbolic oppositions to “Don’t Say Gay” laws in Florida or “Anti-CRT” legislature are the necessary steps for campaigns. Actually addressing structural inequalities are not. What does it mean to have a hearing on the January 6th riots in attempts to ‘restore and save America’ when those same elements were and still are being funded to train alongside neo-Nazis in Ukraine like the Azov Battalion? 

What the ‘Sista Souljah moment’ should teach us is that Africans can not afford to get wrapped up, once again, in the theatrics of ‘culture wars’ being led by a reactionary right, emboldened by a neoliberal opportunist democratic party and promoted by msm for ratings without understanding not only the intent of “culture wars” but who does it serve to continuously engage in it. Trans rights, mass incarceration, etc., are CONCRETE ISSUES— peoples centered human rights issues—- that must be addressed as class issues. The democratic party is all too willing to play its part giving lip service to the left and a wink to the right, while never providing ANYTHING for ANYONE except the corporate ruling class. The right continues to move along more organized and more emboldened to obtain the future of America they want. 

So long as the Biden administration remains on the side of the anti-people’s class while still garnering the support of Africans, we can never win the war waged on us. We NEED political power. These are the lessons history teaches us. Go back and fetch!

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Erica Caines is a poet, writer and organizer in Baltimore and the DMV. She is an organizing committee member of the anti war coalition, the Black Alliance For Peace as well as an outreach member of the Black centered Ujima People’s Progress Party. Caines founded Liberation Through Reading in 2017 as a way to provide Black children with books that represent them and created the extension, a book club entitled Liberation Through Reading BC, to strengthen political education online and in our communities.