“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.
“I like being weird. People remember you that way. They say ‘Hey, I remember you. You’re the weird one.’”
-Sylvia Gordon (aka my mom) circa 1980
You know how there’s one kid in every school that no one likes and everyone bullies?
Yep. That was me. Every day from 3rd to 8th grade.
Because I was one of three Jewish kids in the district (including my sister)?
I was a girl with opinions?
In third grade I was the new kid and it just stuck?
Because a popular girl got in a fight one morning with her parents and took it out on me?
Who knows? (Before you ask, teachers were no help. My third grade teacher said I was too sensitive; I needed to develop a “thick skin.”)
Somewhere around sixth grade, I started to realize that there were other people who were treated badly just for being who they were. And then blamed for it.
Let’s be clear. Six years of bullying is not the same as six hundred years of oppression.
The experience did give me an affinity for other people who struggle with acceptance because someone thinks they’re “weird.”
My mom’s “weird” quote was partly about embracing uniqueness. However, the stronger message was that bullying was more about the insecurity of the bullies than it was about me.
Bullying and White Supremacy Culture
Just like racism and antisemitism aren’t about people of color or Jews. Hate is about the insecurity, fear and inhumanity of the haters. It’s about their discomfort with questioning a version of “normal” that rejects everyone else. The return of antisemitism, rise in extremist violence and rehabilitation of hateful rhetoric all point to a return to a Jim Crow culture.
When the dominant culture puts the burden of undoing racism on people of color, we are blaming them for being “too sensitive,” just like my third grade teacher.
White supremacy culture should not be normal. If we’re going to build the culture that our value statements say we want, we have to question what’s “normal” and what’s “weird.”
Janedra Sykes, Catherine Shieh and I offer customized white supremacy culture disruption programming to explore these questions in nonprofit organizations and campaigns. Programs could include training, facilitated employee resource group conversations, white supremacy culture review and relationship-building exercises.
Not sure what a new normal could look like? Drop the word “weird” in the comments and I’ll reach out to talk about it. For an example, see the Services and Client Anecdotes page.
During every campaign I’ve ever worked, the field team faces a consistent problem:
Someone calls the cops on a canvasser of color, for nothing more than walking through the neighborhood with a clipboard and some door hangers.
Every. Single. Campaign. And it doesn’t happen to white canvassers.
Some resident, usually white (although not always), calls the cops about suspicious characters roaming the neighborhood. In the best case scenario, the cops roll their eyes at Karen or Chad, notify the canvassers that they’ve received a complaint and move on.
These cops are few and far between.
In my experience, most cops agree with Karen and Chad that Black and Latine people walking through a white neighborhood are up to no good. They track down those canvassers and demand that they leave (and not politely). Not wanting to cause trouble and following our instructions, the canvassers usually do.
By now, you may be thinking “What’s the big deal? The cops ask them to leave and they do. No harm. No foul.”
Lots of harm. Big foul.
There’s the pervasive belief that the cops only talk to someone if they’re doing something wrong. As soon as that person shows they’re not doing anything wrong, all is well, right? Wrong.
Any law abiding citizen who is stopped by the cops for no reason will feel a stigma. Pile on law enforcement’s terrible record of violence against people of color, and we have a recipe for lots of harm and a big foul against justice. Many people of color have lived a lifetime of “the talk;” getting stopped by the cops for no reason must be terrifying.
This throw-back to Jim Crow literally prevents you and the team from getting the work done. More importantly, it’s a manifestation of white supremacy culture that we, as progressives, are committed to disrupting.
Many of us who aren’t people of color automatically leap into “savior” mode and try to fight the power (the cops, the racist residents) right away, before considering the needs of the people who have been harmed.
Shout-out to Izzy Goodman of Better Outcomes Campaigns for her suggestion to call the local precinct at the beginning of the campaign. Let the leadership there know that canvassers will be in the neighborhoods exercising their first amendment rights to free speech and getting out the vote. If your campaign has a relationship with the union that represents officers in that jurisdiction, let them know too.
When it happens in your campaign anyway, there are three steps to take.
1: Protect the Well-Being of Canvassers
Your first priority is the well-being of the canvassers. If they don’t feel safe – both physically and emotionally – they can’t do their jobs, the campaign can’t get contacts and our equity values have been undermined. Talk with the canvassers to ask about their experience and how they feel about it. Ask what would make them feel safer, both physically and emotionally. (And remember, if you don’t share identity with the canvassers, their experience will be different than yours.)
2: Talk to the Cops
Next, call the local precinct to report the incident. Spoiler alert: they will get defensive. However, it’s important to talk to them about it anyway. The cops have to know you’re watching and it will send a message to the canvasser that you took them seriously. (Be careful not to identify the canvassers to the cops. Don’t make it worse.)
The cops will also probably insist that if a resident calls them, they have to respond. Really?!?! There are lots of residents “on the wrong side of the tracks” that might disagree.
If your campaign has a relationship with the appropriate law enforcement union, try asking a union staff person or leader to communicate with their members or counterparts in police management.
3: Report Back to Canvassers
Finally, report back to the canvasser. Tell them what you said to the cops and how you will protect their safety going forward.
Is this really hard?
Yes. Does it take time away from everything else you have to do? Yes. Will it give you anxiety to talk to the cops (on purpose)? Probably.
Not doing it undermines the campaign work, and even worse, our values of equity and inclusion. Disrupting white supremacy culture means disrupting it everywhere, including in our campaigns.