“Yes, it’s good, but sometimes politicians will do that and think they’ve solved racism.” – My mom, circa 1979
Once, when I was about 9, my family was driving through a city that renamed one of its major thoroughfares after Martin Luther King, Jr. Recently chosen by my fifth-grade teacher to write a special report on King, I was pretty excited to see the street sign.
“Oh, that’s good. They named a street for Martin Luther King, Jr. He was very important,” I said as we passed.
My parents gave each other a look. Then my mom dropped that knowledge about performative justice.
Whenever I hear of surface-level anti-racism measures, I think of that conversation. Symbols are important, but not as important as action.
Is it justice if a city renames a street, but doesn’t invest in the communities that street runs through?
If a city paints Black Lives Matter across an intersection but doesn’t curb police power, do Black lives really matter?
Is it justice if a district names schools after Cesar Chavez or Dolores Huerta, but systematically underserves the Latinae students at those schools?
The legacy of white supremacy has such a strong hold on our culture that it’s sometimes hard to see past the performance.
Even though most of us in the dominant culture (white, middle class, etc.) didn’t establish it, we benefit from it and therefore are responsible for dismantling it.
If we want to establish true justice in our communities, we must address the white supremacy culture below the surface, even in our own organizations.
Have you ever wondered if a gesture toward justice is enough?
For a deeper dive into these issues, check out my upcoming workshop, “Intro to Disrupting White Supremacy Culture in Nonprofits” this spring. See all the dates and RSVP here.
Trigger warning: there is some graphic language about the violence of slavery and the treatment of Indigenous people.
The bedrock of the American economy is the belief that everyone can be rich if we just work hard enough. For example, if you’re poor, you must be doing something wrong. Are you too lazy to get a better job? (See also: health care.)
Why? Because. . . slavery.
Not Just the South
As Matthew Desmond writes in the 1619 Project, American capitalism is based on the plantation economy. His essay is titled “In order to understand the brutality of American capitalism, you have to start on the plantation.” In it, he details the unholy alliance between enslavers, creditors, northern textile factories and the US government. This alliance developed the US cotton market, on the backs of indigenous people whose land and culture were stolen and enslaved Black people who were brutalized, all in the name of profit.
How did these people live with themselves? How did they sleep at night, knowing that they’d exploited millions of people for their own gain? Where was their conscience?
That’s where American capitalism collides head-on with humanity. If we can deny the humanity of people, then we can do whatever we want to them. Kidnap them, ship them across oceans in horrid conditions, sell them like livestock, torture, rape and kill them. We can spread disease and violence across thousands of miles, uproot people from their ancestral homes and rip children from their families.
Aren’t We Done With Slavery Though?
This capitalist denial of humanity is the root of oppression in the United States. It continues today in the form of police murder of people of color, denial of health care, the school-to-prison pipeline, the emotional labor we expect from people of color, dangerous border camps and so much more.
To believe in brutal American capitalism is to deny the humanity of people. For example, if we truly respected the humanity of immigrants, we could never force them into dangerous limbo in tent camps in Mexico. If we truly respected the humanity of Black people, the police wouldn’t shoot first and ask questions later (if they ask questions at all). If we respected the humanity of Indigenous people, thousands of Indigenous women wouldn’t go missing every year. (Talking about women, if we respected the humanity of women, there would be no rape.) Here’s one I bet you didn’t expect: If we believed in the humanity of rural, conservative people, we wouldn’t categorically dismiss them as ignorant and write them off.
Capitalism with Guardrails
Our capitalism needs guardrails precisely because we don’t respect fundamental humanity.
(Hint: a federal minimum wage of $7.25/hour and laws that permit employers to fire workers for organizing a union are not guardrails.)
I suspect that if you read this far, you were hoping for some neat resolution. For a happy ending where there’s an intersection between American capitalism and humanity.
But there isn’t. The two are incompatible.
If we believe in the humanity of all people, we couldn’t possibly exploit them enough to maintain our capitalism without guardrails. Guardrails can look like unions, restrictions on the greed of giant corporations, a living wage, universal health care, student loan forgiveness, an end to subsidies for planet-killing industries and more.
I prefer to deny American capitalism (which is a difficult position for a small business owner). I don’t really know what the alternative is, but I know that when workers and working families have power, things get better.
So let’s get busy building guardrails and building power.
The end of the year is often about taking stock, regrouping and refocusing.
While election work this cycle was important, it reminded me that the real work of Organizing to Win is about more than winning elections. It’s about building power. That’s why in 2023, I’m doubling down on outreach to organizations that want to build or strengthen organizing infrastructure.
Organizing requires holding two sometimes contradictory ideas at the same time.
Creating the Vision
On one hand, we keep a vision in mind. I’m working with a staff person from an organization that is in the beginning stages of transforming their organization from direct-service provider to power-builder. To keep us focused on this transition, I often ask her “what does it look like when workers have the power to hold their employer accountable?”
That question conjures up inspiring, visionary answers.
Planning the Work and Working the Plan
On the other hand, even the most meaningful vision won’t become reality by magic. That transition requires a plan, with specific steps, goals and metrics. Planning the work and working the plan isn’t always glamorous or inspiring.
Working that plan is what creates the magic.
The two concepts are sometimes hard to hold at the same time. There’s a risk of getting caught up in our own visionary rhetoric and forgetting the reality of work on the ground. There’s a corresponding risk of getting mired in the details and forgetting why we do this work in the first place.
Visions and Plans in 2023
In 2023, I’m looking forward to working with organizations on creating visions for power and building their organizing infrastructure to achieve them.
If you or a colleague is thinking about how to expand your organization’s vision, let’s make 2023 the year we work some magic to make our visions of justice into reality. Comment below or get in touch to find a time to talk.
May your 2023 be filled with visions and reality of equity, justice and happiness.
Don’t you love Halloween? The costumes. The adorable kids. The candy. (The day-after-Halloween candy sales.) The silliness.
I especially love all the witches. And by witch, I mean:
Since June 24, there are a whole lot of witches out there. We’re marching, raising money, speaking out, knocking on doors, making noise and running for office. We’re also organizing.
When women, or members of any historically excluded community, take control of ourselves, big things happen.
And that’s what organizing is all about. Every organizing campaign is about more than winning. In the very process of organizing, we transform ourselves and our communities. We take control of our lives and our future. Ask any worker who has organized a union at their workplace. The change is not just about the legal ability to negotiate a raise or better hours. The victory is in the transformation of the workers and the workplace into one where workers have some control.
When I worked with women union members in Florida during an election campaign, it was immediately obvious which members had organized their union and which had inherited it. Many members at long-time-union workplaces already participate in campaigns and contract enforcement.
Workers who had organized their union felt the collective power because they had built it. They were the first to sign up for volunteer actions. Every single member in that unit joined the political action fund. They surpassed their goals for engaging their co-workers and friends in the campaign. They were in total control of themselves.
Organizing is bringing people together to build power. When we have power in our communities, we take control of the decisions that affect our lives.
With guest co-author Sylvia Gordon (aka Mira’s mom)
On December 14, 2012, Sylvia turned 71. Also on December 14, 2012, Adam Lanza made sure 28 people at Sandy Hook Elementary would never turn 71. Sixteen of them wouldn’t even turn 7.
If that memory is a shadow over Sylvia’s birthday, we can’t imagine the extreme trauma that families in Newtown feel every December 14. Or families in communities that are torn apart by preventable gun violence every day.
The murder of more children on someone else’s birthday in Uvalde TX moved us to tears. Again. Not only tears of sadness for the parents and children who will never celebrate another birthday, but tears of anger and frustration.
Why does this keep happening? The thing is, it’s not just Adam Lanza. Or Dylan Roof. Or Payton Gendron. Or Omar Mateen. It’s the hostage situation the extremists have put us in and our culture of violence.
Out-of-control lobbyists have taken us hostage, preventing legislatures from passing common sense reforms. Also, there is a huge, gaping, black hole of leadership on the pro-violence side of this issue. (Yes, we said “pro-violence.”)
We must free ourselves from our captors and pass some new laws. Universal background checks on all firearms transfers, even gifts. Mandatory firearms training and liability insurance. Safe storage off-site, staffed by a licensed attendant. A ban on assault weapons. A ban on ghost guns. No gun ownership before age 25. A ban on large ammo clips. A national registry of gun violations so someone whose gun has been taken away in New York can’t get a new one next door in Pennsylvania.
And here’s the big one: repeal the Second Amendment. We have a well regulated militia. When the framers wrote the Constitution, there was no common defense of the newly-established nation. Now, we have the best trained and equipped military force in the world. We trust the members of our armed services to keep us safe. Also, if you support the police, then support their calls for stricter gun regulation.
Even if our wish list was fulfilled, it wouldn’t be enough. If we don’t address our culture of violence, then white supremacists, extremists, and plain old angry white men will find other ways to take their anger out on innocent people. Where is the leadership from gun owners? From conservatives? From the NRA?
We don’t ask people of color to solve racism, so why are we asking people who don’t own guns to solve gun violence?
Gun owners and people opposed to common sense gun reforms must step up. Real leaders will send the message to their sister and brother Second Amendment advocates that frustration, anger and fear of change are not excuses for violence.
Being angry is ok.* Owning guns is ok. But not together. It is not ok to take out anger by spraying gunfire on innocent people.
We are waiting for the pro-gun crowd to prove to us that gun rights advocacy and hate don’t go hand in hand. Until conservatives and gun rights advocates start shutting down the replacement theorists, white supremacists and otherwise disaffected (mostly) white (mostly) men with guns, we will continue to call them pro-violence.
*Anger that’s not ok: white supremacy. Transphobia. Misogyny. Homophobia. You get our point.
There. I said it. I’m not voting for him, ever. However. . .
This Politico piece, by Tim Alberta, about Amash is very insightful. For anyone who is tempted to think that he’s on your side because he’s against Donald Trump, don’t. However, he has a lot of great things to say about partisanship and economic disaster recovery. The piece is also a flash reminder of how sexist our politics are.
Amash spends four paragraphs hitting the nail squarely on the head about the similarities and differences between Biden and Trump and Democrats and Republicans. He sounds an awful lot like left-wing activists who complain that there is no difference between the parties. His comments about purity are particularly striking:
“When you get on the wrong side of people on the left, a lot of it sounds like things I hear from people on the right.”
“What they don’t recognize is that [Trump]’s a creature of this system where everyone is hyperpartisan and hates each other and where they’re told repeatedly, ‘If you don’t vote for our party nominee, you are selling out your family, your friends, your country to these people who want to destroy it.’ And that’s what both sides are told.”
Don’t worry. I’ll do everything I can this year to #VoteBlueNoMatterWho. But it has to be said: the polarization is not just their fault. We have purity tests too.
The surprising part of the interview was Amash’s advocacy for handing out cash. He has (justified) harsh criticism for the tendency of relief plans to reward giant corporations and wealthy donors of both major parties. The surprising part for a libertarian was this:
“If they did something like, let’s just send everyone some money, direct cash payments, as I suggested, universal monthly cash relief, there’s only one constituency for that. That’s the entire public. And they’re not getting much out of that in terms of politics.”
What populist, progressive, capitalism-questioning, near-socialist doesn’t love that idea?? (He lost me a little later on, with the typical ultra-conservative disparagement of the role of the federal government and the UN.)
Finally, another significant part of the piece is less about Amash and more about the sexism in politics. He spends most of a long paragraph talking about how great he is. He starts six sentences with “I am [something great about Justin Amash.]” What would we say about a woman who started six sentences in one paragraph with “I” instead of “we?” And listed all kinds of ways she’s great? Spoiler alert: it wouldn’t be that she’s a great leader.
In a time when everything is us vs. them, I hardly expected to have so much in common with a libertarian, right-wing, Tea Party, Freedom Caucus true believer. But here we are.