I’d like you to reflect on a racially just America.
What would it look like? What would you see — in your neighborhood, on the news, at your workplace, in your child’s school? Think about the steps/strategies/tactics necessary to get there. Now, sit back. Relax. Reflect on these questions for a few minutes. Is an action plan forming in your mind or are you already engaged in this work?
Some folks have told me that they’re working for racial justice by volunteering at a local foodbank (or another social service agency) or by tutoring disadvantaged children. I used to cringe, silently, when I heard that. Not anymore. Now comments like those are a conversation starter.
America has a rich, and necessary, history of volunteerism. During economic downturns and times of human need, donations to foodbanks, for example, and volunteers to hand out food are critical. These actions keep people alive. When we look at food lines, depending on the location, we often see people of color disproportionately represented. While donating and assisting at the multitude of agencies assisting people in need is an important service, this is not racial justice work — even if those sites primarily serve Black and brown people.
The work is important. It is lifesaving. It is humane. It simply isn’t work for racial justice. It doesn’t change, or help to change, the racial imbalance.
Racial justice work would prompt you to consider: why do Black and brown people predominate among the needy in many communities? What are the conditions and circumstances that create this level of disproportionate need? What am I doing to change those conditions and circumstances?
Thinking about those questions might still lead you to see your work as a tutor as racial justice work. Tutoring –> better grades –> college –> good career opportunities –> a level playing field. If only we lived in a meritocracy in which this trajectory was real, but studies have proven that this is not the case for many, if not most, Black and brown people in America, and those differential outcomes start early in a child’s life.
So why do some people see strategies like those as working for racial justice? Just because the beneficiaries are Black or brown, is that it? It certainly feels good to volunteer. But, in some situations, I also see a negative side. Volunteering in social service or education programs clearly positions the haves and the have nots. While it may not be in the forefront of thinking, subconsciously, could there be some feeling of superiority? If the children are underprivileged? Are you overprivileged? You have the financial resources. They don’t. You have the academic credentials. They don’t. How does volunteering at the foodbank address the employment conditions that contribute to food insecurity? Does tutoring change educational systems or hiring practices? I know the response: It helped that family. It helped that child. Yes. Just don’t call it work for racial justice.
In racial justice work, there are allies and advocates, partners and collaborators, but there are no haves and have nots. Everyone is equal, bringing their perspectives and strengths to the table. This is the model of mutual aid societies in which all members bring something supporting the needs of others. Each gives and each receives. Assets, not deficits, are the driver. Mutual aid, not charity.
So, for those truly interested in racial justice work, I offer two resources. Corrine Shutack’s article listing 75 ways in which white people can support racial justice went viral in 24 hours and continues to grow as new ideas are added. It along with Ibram Kendi’s How to Be An Antiracist are two of the best guides. But you don’t need those resources, not really. Just look around you – your neighborhood, your child’s school, your workplace. If you deeply reflect on what is contributing to racial injustice in some aspect of your world, you’ll see your role in changing that. It is in the accumulation of multiple actions by many people that leads to the societal change necessary to achieve a racially just America.
Again, my intent is not to diminish or devalue volunteering at social service organizations or working to improve educational outcomes for children. I simply want to underscore what actually contributes to racial justice. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr said, “Philanthropy is commendable, but it must not cause the philanthropist to overlook the circumstances of economic injustice which make philanthropy necessary.” The service of the volunteer – their “philanthropy” – is often a stop gap, albeit valued and valuable, measure to solve an immediate, individual need, not an effort toward correcting a societal wrong. Those working for racial justice look well beyond immediate need, to examine why those needs exist in larger numbers among Black and brown people and then work to change those circumstances. That’s racial justice.