What will you risk to fight racism?

I just finished reading Crusade for Justice: The Autobiography of Ida B. Wells.  I suspect many are unfamiliar with her name and her work.  This African American journalist, born into slavery in 1862 in Mississippi, was among the first to speak out against lynchings. Loudly and continuously, she used her voice to say that lynchings were not the legal punishment for falsely stated rape, or disrespect, of white women, as was often suggested. Sexual assault was the deceit. The real crime, committed consciously or simply by accident, was disrupting the established racial norm. A Black person had overstepped. At a time when Black people were persecuted and killed for any number of actions, but particularly for questioning or acting against established racial practices, Ida B. Wells spoke up. She did not allow any threat to her safety to silence her response to injustice. She was fierce.

Throughout history, many have risked their lives for what they knew was right … fair … just.

Others have stood by, seeing injustice, and said and done nothing — afraid of the risks.

Which camp do you fall into?

What will you risk for racial justice?  Friendships? Community standing? Financial benefits?

Will you:

  • Speak up when a friend, family member, neighbor or acquaintance makes a racist comment?
  • Speak up when coverage of a news event seems to be biased against one race or group?
  • Speak up when a policy proposed by an organization with which you are affiliated or employed seems to be racially unfair?
  • Decline work that contributes to racial injustice?
  • Recommend interventions to promote racial justice in those spaces in which you have a voice?
  • Promote learning (books, podcasts, documentaries) and actions that will broaden the knowledge of people in your sphere of influence about race, racism and reparative justice?

Can you say yes to all of the above? If not, you are more afraid of what you might lose than what you might gain.  Instead of a commitment to racial justice, you are worried that a person won’t still be your friend if you speak up about a comment they made or an action they took or that your neighbors will shun you if you say something about racism at a community meeting, or that you might risk advancement or maybe even your job if you speak up. Those are real concerns. Just know that if you have them and if they stop you from speaking up, regardless of your heartfelt sentiments, you are enabling racism.

When former quarterback Colin Kaepernick decided to kneel during the national anthem to showcase the inhumane treatment of Black people by police, he risked his career and lost it, but he elevated an issue and demonstrated integrity. More recently, while not working for racial justice, Congresswoman Liz Cheney decided to speak up against a different type of injustice – treason. She knew she risked her position in Congress, but she did it anyway. Like Kaepernick, she gained the respect of many and demonstrated integrity and a moral consciousness even while losing her position.

Your profile may not be as public as that of Colin Kaepernick or Liz Cheney, but loss is relative and yours might be as significant – loss of friends, loss of community stature, maybe even loss of job. Only you can decide what you are willing to risk and possibly lose.

We must take racial injustice as a personal affront. We must learn that some things and some people aren’t worth holding on to if they jeopardize society. Think about it. Reflect on it, and decide if you are truly an anti-racist, ready, willing, and able to take a stand for a better society, a racially just America. I hope so.

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Postscript:  If your silence is driven by not knowing what to say or how to say it, here’s a guide from the Southern Poverty Law Center that I’ve found helpful.

 

 

 

 

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.