THIS SPRING, white feminists and African-American and Latino leaders met in Washington to announce unified support for affirmative action. In Chicago, businesswomen and contractors of color have joined together to do likewise. In Massachusetts, gays and lesbians, white women, lawyers of color and unionists have opposed Gov. William Weld's nomination of Charles Fried to the state Supreme Judicial Court because of Mr. Fried's past opposition to abortion and set-asides. In the San Fernando Valley in California, local chapters of feminist and civil-rights groups plan voter registration drives to stop California's anti-affirmative action movement.
"Right now, we're playing a game of defense, trying not to get pushed backward," said Patricia Ireland, president of the National Organization for Women. "With women, we started this century getting the right to vote, and we'd like to end it with another victory."
Victory requires these alliances. The U.S. Supreme Court has snipped more limbs off affirmative action and has jeopardized voting districts that were created to assure African-Americans political representation. The House voted to ban abortions at military bases. The Senate denied Dr. Henry Foster his surgeon general's stripes because he performed abortions. Homophobic heads of South Boston's St. Patrick's Day Parade won the right in the U.S. Supreme Court to ban gay and lesbian marchers. The Republican Congressional Committee is circulating a fund-raising letter that targets a "most wanted" list of liberal Democrats; 22 of the 28 Democrats are African-American, Latino, female or Jewish.
The alliances are required because President Clinton cannot be counted on. Bill Clinton recently blamed "extreme right-wing" forces for Dr. Foster's defeat. But it was he who caved in to the right on Lani Guinier, Joycelyn Elders, homosexuals in the military and health care. He is the one who is waffling onaffirmative action. When you are a gay and lesbian activist and you are greeted at the White House by guards wearing gloves, you wonder about how seriously Bill Clinton cares about your cause.
The new friends are off to a good start. Many white feminists admit they have benefited more from affirmative action than African-Americans, who have been scapegoated as unqualified. "The opposition to affirmative action has attempted to exclude women from this debate on purpose," said Katherine Spillar. "It is a deliberate strategy, because they know that affirmative action for women is popular. And they dare not wake a sleeping giant that is in fact the majority of the American electorate."
To sustain such alliances, women's, civil-rights and gay and lesbian groups must grow from self-interest politics and amplify each other's causes. Feminists, invisible when Ms. Guinier was sunk, need to deal with their own racism. Men of color need to condemn domestic abuse and stop crying racism to hide sexism. White homosexuals have to avoid a self-absorption that resulted in leaving African-Americans out of the struggle against AIDS. African-Americans have to drop the homophobia that drips freely from many mouths.
There were some promising alliances between groups seeking the vote for white women and those wanting it for African-American men after the Civil War. But they dissolved as white feminists were bought off by racist politicians and African-Americans argued that black men had to get the ballot first to legislate against the brutality of white men. The hope for alliance did not die. In 1912, W.E.B. Du Bois wrote that African-Americans should back suffrage for white women, even if white women were as bigoted as white men.
"Every argument for Negro suffrage is an argument for women's suffrage," Du Bois wrote. "Both are great moments in democracy. There should be on the part of Negroes absolutely no hesitation whenever and wherever responsible human beings are without voice in their government."
It is quite clear now that targets of the right who hesitate to speak with one voice when they have the chance will be left with no voice. Katherine Spillar, of the Feminist Majority Foundation, said: "It is a deliberate strategy. . . . We are not going to play into a divide and conquer strategy. We will not be divided against racial minorities on this." In fact, former California Assembly Speaker Willie Brown said the best spokeswoman for affirmative action would be a white female university professor, whose background is engineering. "That person would have more credibility," Mr. Brown said. "There would be an assumption of competence just by looking at her."
Just 15 years ago, James Baldwin said, "The women's liberation movement is a little like the gay movement in that it is essentially a white middle-class phenomenon, which doesn't have any real organic connection with the black situation on any level whatever." The attacks on all these groups give them a chance to prove Baldwin wrong. If homosexuals, African-Americans and white women struggle for each other as well as with each other, they do not have to worry about whether the right wing gives them credibility. The right wing will be adrift, befuddled as to how its attempt to divide and conquer failed.
Derrick Z. Jackson is a Boston Globe columnist.