Racial/Ethnic Alliances

An alliance is ‘‘a close association for a common objective’’ or ‘‘for mutual benefit,’’ synonymous with the idea of a league, a confederacy, or a union (Friend & Guralnik 1960). One will find research on alliances between business organizations and between clients and therapists in psychotherapy. Here the focus is on alliances in social movements. Despite the importance of alliances in the success of any social movement, there  is no tradition  of focused research on the topic. For example, in social science research in the US, it is touched on in now classic social movement studies such as Ted Gurr’s Why Men Rebel (1970), Anthony Oberschall’s Social Conflict and Social Movements (1973), and Francis Piven and R. Cloward’s Poor People’s Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail (1977). Ralf Dahrendorf in Class and Class Conflict in Industrial Society (1954) explored the idea of alliances only briefly while explaining why conflict has not happened as Karl Marx predicted in the post World War II period. One central objective of this work is to present the underlying processes and principles by which social movements mobilize, are sustained, and then demobilize.

A variety of theoretical perspectives emerged out of efforts to follow up on these studies and present even clearer ideas of social movements which could also assist in our understanding of alliances. For example, social movement theorists have explored a number of issues and problems related to alliances: studies of levels of relative deprivation (Stouffer et al. 1949; Pettigrew 1964), of ethnic solidarity (Bonacich & Modell 1980), and of resources to mobilize (Tilly 1978). The shortcomings of these post war theories have led to a more the oretically diffuse approach which uses primarily ethnographies and case studies in order to derive new insights into social movements and alliances. This can be seen in chapters of Michael Jones Correa’s edited volume, Governing American Cities: Interethnic Coalitions, Com petitions, and Conflict (2001). In this collection of case studies, what is clear is that appeals to color and minority status are no longer sufficient in the post civil rights era. Rather, authentic appeals to important issues and interests across groups are necessary for successful coalitions and to avoid the intense conflict that occurs whenever one or the other group is excluded. For this reason, biracial coalitions may not be enough; such coalitions must now be all inclusive. Memphis is another example to illustrate this point. Until 1991 Memphis was the only major US city with a majority black population that had not elected a black mayor.  Infighting  and  competition among black city leaders and citizen aversion to candidates who attempted  cross racial appeals were all explanations. A black finally was elected mayor and worked to overcome these obstacles, and was able to hold an interracial coalition together for two terms. Several popular theories of voting and election strategy in urban elections were examined – black threat theory, urban regime theory, and deracialization. The urban setting was found to be the most important factor, suggesting that each site is unique enough and that no one theory can describe the prospects for or against multiracial political alliances (Venderleeuw et al. 2004).

Others have pointed out that it is rare for racial commonalities to overcome interminority tensions, highlighting the limits of race based coalitions; institutional barriers such as competition for  jobs  and  different  media images are more than sufficient to push inter group  dynamics  against  alliances (Rogers 2004). Women seem better able to mobilize around institutional barriers. There is something about black women’s multiple social identities that links multiracial blackness (African, Pakistani, and Caribbean) in Britain as a unified oppositional identity which can be invoked by black women activists in order to mobilize collective action (Sudbury 2001).

In looking at movements focused on economic inequality and for social justice between 1930 and 1990, data were analyzed on 2,644 ‘‘left’’ protest events that occurred on US college campuses. The availability of resources was important to the successful formation of within movement coalitions but not to the formation of cross movement coalitions. Local threats  inspire  within movement  coalition events, but it took larger threats such as the war in Vietnam and the draft to affect multiple constituencies and inspire cross movement coalition formation. This  research demonstrated that political threats sometimes inspire protest and that organizational goals do influence strategic action (van Dyke 2003). There are also examples where alliances resulted in bringing the power of the state to protect minorities. The  alliance of Canadian Jews and political liberals, following World War II, was very strategic. This  alliance prompted politicians to adopt the view that racial prejudice was a social problem resulting from an individual’s pathology, and led to laws being passed against it. In doing so, they managed to get discriminatory practices prohibited and set a standard of non discrimination for the law abiding population. This universalist philosophy has led to other minority groups which are now experiencing racial/ethnic discrimination to join the original coalition to continue legal reform (Walker 2002).

The potential for theoretically fruitful work on alliances will require investigators to go beyond the familiar black–white racial antagonism model. There are many more variations of ethnic antagonism, segregation, social identities, and even attitudes toward intermarriage that play into the potential for inter  and intraracial  alliances (Hirschman  1986). In addition, it is now a necessity for social movements to expand beyond national boundaries and  move toward  an  international  stance (Bowser 1995). For those who worry about the scope of western economic, political, and cultural structures and their worldwide domination, it can be assumed that these structures and domination can only be effectively influenced and challenged by counter international  structures  and  alliances (Waterman 2005). Given the little that we know about alliances, there is an extraordinary challenge ahead for both social movements and those who study them.


  1. Bonacich, & Modell, J. (1980) The Economic Basis of Ethnic Solidarity: Small Business in the Japanese American Community. University of California Press, Berkeley.
  2. Bowser, (Ed.) (1995) Racism and Anti Racism in World Perspective. Sage, Thousand Oaks, CA.
  3. Friend, & Guralnik, D. (Eds.) (1960) Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language. World Publishing, New York.
  4. Hirschman, (1986) The Making of Race in Colonial Malaya: Political Economy and Racial Ideology. Sociological Forum 1(2): 330 61.
  5. Pettigrew, T. (1964) A Profile of the American Negro. Van Nostrand,
  6. Rogers, R. (2004) Race-Based Coalitions Among Minority Groups. Urban Affairs Review 39(3): 283 313.
  7. Stouffer, S. et al. (1949) The American Soldier. Princeton University Press,
  8. Sudbury,  (2001) (Re)constructing Multiracial Blackness: Women’s Activism, Difference, and Collective Identity in Britain. Ethnic and Racial Studies 24(1): 29 49.
  9. Tilly, C. (1978) From Mobilization to Revolution. Addison-Wesley, Reading,
  10. van Dyke, (2003) Crossing Movement Boundaries: Factors that Facilitate Coalition Protest by American College Students, 1930 1990. Social Problems 50(2): 226 61.
  11. Venderleeuw, J., Liu, B., & March, G. (2004) Applying Black Threat Theory, Urban Regime Theory, and  Deracialization:  The  Memphis Mayoral Elections of 1991, 1995, and Journal of Urban Affairs 26(4): 505 19.
  12. Walker, W. (2002) The ‘‘Jewish Phase’’ in the Movement for Racial Equality in Canada. Canadian Ethnic Studies 34(1): 1 29.
  13. Waterman, (2005) The Old and the New: Dialectics Around the Social Forum Process. Development 48(2): 42 7.

Back to Sociology of Race