Are you working for racial justice? How?

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.

 

 

My journey to understand racial justice

Today is the 10th anniversary of Trayvon Martin’s murder. Tom Adams, a blogger on racial equity and justice, spirituality and love, recovery and growth, and leadership and transitions, asked me to share my journey to understand racial injustice and justice. Since that journey started with Trayvon Martin, I share this post today.

(Note: the included video doesn’t tell the whole story, but, for many, it is an eye opener.)

 Learning about structural racism: One woman’s journey

Is racial injustice becoming clearer?

“I’m learning how to see. I don’t know what the reason is, but everything enters into me more deeply and no longer stops at the point where it used to come to an end.”

― Rainer Maria Rilke, Poet

 

Police activity around the January 6th Capitol insurrection and the 2020 marches for racial reckoning looked very different. In less than 24 hours, mainstream media was comparing responses. Peaceful protesters vs. armed insurrectionists. BLM vs. MAGA.

The image that aired most often showed National Guard troops stationed last summer on the Lincoln Memorial’s steps, protecting the monument, compared to a complete lack of the same to defend Members of Congress as people climbed the walls of the Capitol in January.

While January 6th sickened and angered me, I had two positive thoughts:

  1. For the first time in recent history, at least that I can remember, no Black person was killed or severely injured to focus white America’s attention on disparate treatment based on race. No George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Jacob Blake….
  1. Black people didn’t have to point out that there was a different police response to a primarily white crowd than to a largely BIPOC one. That difference was widely and almost immediately noticed and became a vital and consistent part of the story.

Does this mean that racism is becoming less invisible? I think so, and that’s good.

But it is not the entire story.

Racism—personal racism and structural racism—is becoming more visible. I’m just not sure that’s true for most of America. Consider these three categories of folks:

  1. The large segment of our country that denies racism (remember Ambassador and former SC Governor Nikki Haley on the first night of the Republican National Convention: “America is not racist” she extolled as she claimed her immigrant status and Indian heritage). These folks believe anyone can succeed in America if you play by the rules and work hard. No need to look deeper. Racism is not the problem. Work harder.
  2. The group that thinks they understand racism and disparity. They want to help, but they often focus on the surface, on prejudice and bigotry, not on the vast, hidden iceberg of injustice below.
  3. The truly segregated white Americans who rarely think about Black and brown people. Out of sight, out of mind. Not on their radar at all unless prompted by a media story (media stories that often contribute to fear of the “other”).

It’s that last category I want to focus on a bit.

Many white Americans live, work, and play in segregated parts of America. Not just rural America, as you may think, or suburban America, but all of America. They have limited contact with people who don’t look like them and rarely think about it. Racial segregation is their norm. Others proudly claim they live in a racially diverse community/city. Still, when you probe a little, you discover that’s not so. They actually live in a racially homogeneous enclave within that city, in the next county over, or even 20 miles away from the part of the city — typically the inner city — that makes it racially diverse.

I mention this because we are far more likely to understand people different from ourselves when we live, work, and play with them. Not just one environment (usually work), but all of them. Live and Work and Play. When different people come to your home, work with you, and regularly enjoy leisure activities with you and your family, those are your friends. Those are the people you care about. Those are the people you want—really want—to achieve the American dream. It is those folks you seek to understand, and it is for those people that you will see what prevents them from achieving their goals.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying you have to be best buddies to understand the humanity of people who don’t look like you or to work for racial justice. Clearly that is not the case. The racist behavior of individuals or racially unjust actions of groups seem clearer to many now and is regularly called out. White allies are seeking truth and working actively for societal change.  However, for many, it seems that something must prompt you to delve into understanding a people or a topic far afield from your everyday existence.

Yes, the invisibility is diminishing. I was glad for the two positive signs last month. But racial ignorance remains powerful in many corners of America. Until we address that, my fear is that racial justice will remain far away.

White people, there is so much to gain.

If you’re reading my blog, you’re probably among those fighting for racial justice, some at the macro-level of societal transformation, others working for enhanced understanding among family. Or maybe you’re just beginning to recognize and reflect on the depth, breadth, and impact of racial injustice.

Regardless, here is my question. What drives you: wanting the oppressed to have a greater opportunity or wanting to free the oppressor?  To my White readers,  today I want to call this out: True racial equity will bring significant benefits … to you.

You’re accustomed to hearing racial justice advocates  speak of the needs of the oppressed: lost opportunities, lost potential, a focus on ‘lesser than’ statistics, such as home ownership or educational outcomes. Tangible data is compared across races.  And by that data, the White population is better off than communities of color, on multiple fronts.  Because of this, the racial equity battle often focuses solely on gains  needed for the oppressed.

But, White people, have you ever reflected on what you will gain?

First, your own psychological well-being. You have to believe, to some degree, that Black and brown people are more criminal or less enterprising, for example, to accept their overrepresentation in prisons and underrepresentation in places of academic and financial success.  Noted author and activist James Baldwin suggested that White America needs to believe in Black pathology to justify what has been, and continues to be, done and to alleviate any obligation to fix the true problem.  Yes? No? Is there cognitive dissonance, a disconnect between what you say you believe (everybody has a fair chance) and what is the allowed reality in America?

Now to history. What has been lost to White people by not fully understanding our country’s history? As more comprehensive explanations of historical ‘facts’ are revealed, are you looking more critically at your heroes, at the foundation of America? Are you considering what/who supported your ancestors’ or immediate forbearers’ ability to pull themselves up by their bootstraps? Did they really do that? “Pull themselves up by their bootstraps,” I mean? No supportive government programs? Think about the GI Bill or preferential housing or unconstrained banking policies. No help from families or social networks better positioned to offer help?  How is your authentic sense of self affected? Is there some internal alignment that needs to happen to make your world view/your familial context more coherent with truth?

Then just one more thing. There has been a lot of attention given to the value of diversity in the workplace. Problem-solving, research has shown, benefits from different viewpoints, people with varying experiences of life. Varied thinking and cultures are enriching, not limiting. If this is true in the workplace, why would it be different in friendship groups or neighborhoods? What is missed by having racial homogeneity in so many parts of your life?

The balance of assets and societal power is unequal. That is true, but adjusting that imbalance doesn’t make anyone a loser. Everyone wins. We all win if fewer resources are used, for example, to imprison, freeing up more to support asset building, the true provision of quality education for all, clean water everywhere, or medical research. Who loses if more Black or brown people can purchase homes, building their wealth and ability to contribute even more to our country’s economic viability?

I know there is an intangible benefit to resolving the internal moral or psychological battle among some in the White community.  There is significant inherent value in embracing the humanity and worth of all people. And there is tangible value to more people contributing to the common good.

As I write this, I realize I am struggling to find the right words. I can’t make the case as eloquently as I would like. Still, I know that the deficit model of fighting for racial equity is neither the full story nor the best strategy. Self interest is a powerful motivator.  You must fight for racial equity as a benefit to the oppressor and to the oppressed. As Ibram Kendi has said if you aren’t fighting against racism, you are a part of the problem, a part of what is causing all of us to lose. Racial equity is a win for everyone.