“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.
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.
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.
Starting this month, Organizing to Win’s (OTW) mission expands to include white supremacy disruption consulting and organizing strategy coaching.
If you read the Organizing to Win newsletter regularly (thank you!), you may have noticed an emphasis on what is sometimes called diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). While DEI programs are important, I prefer to talk about disrupting the root causes of injustice – white supremacy culture. While none of us committed crimes against humanity like slavery or genocide of Indigenous people, many of us benefit from their continuing legacy. It is up to us to break down that white supremacy culture and begin building a culture of justice.
While each OTW white supremacy disruption program is customized for the organization, key elements include exploring identity, building relationships and an emphasis on unlearning and learning new. Caution: light bulb moments ahead! 💡
Throughout my organizing career, some of my best ideas came when I could “think out loud.” I’m grateful for the support of more senior organizers who offered feedback and gently moved me back on track when I got diverted.
I look forward to providing that support to others. Starting in June, I’ll offer one-on-one and small group coaching. In these sessions, we’ll focus on talking through challenges, building skills and applying new training to real life situations.
To learn more about these ideas for your organization, see the newly updated home page. Or contact me here!
Most of the people I know express unqualified support for Black Lives Matter and defunding the police. Me too. However — and there’s always a but — is that enough? The problem isn’t that our entire criminal justice system is shot through with racism, from the “suspicious activity” that is reported to police to the extreme inequities in sentencing.
The problem is that our entire culture is shot through with racism. So many of us learn from birth that the face of danger in America is Black. We teach hate and fear, consciously or not. If we (mostly white people) don’t actively confront that learning and unlearn it, we’re contributing to the problem. If we really want to disrupt systemic racism, we have to be willing to question everything we know is true.
I’m willing to question the truth that I have a comfortable life because I’m smart and I work hard. I’m willing to consider that I might have a comfortable life at someone else’s expense. Were my parents able to buy a house in a good school district because of the legacy of housing covenants? Maybe. (Although we are Jewish. A housing covenant would have kept us out too.)
I’m willing to question the truth of history that I learned in school. Do I benefit from history textbooks that portray the Nat Turner rebellion as an unjustified bloody terrorist attack? Or paint John Brown as a wild-eyed traitor? Or present Indigenous people as passive victims with no agency? Or devote a grand total of one paragraph each to game-changers like Malcolm X and Cesar Chavez (if they’re mentioned at all)? Probably so, because it teaches us that American history is the history of white people. (Note the glaring absence of women too.)
I’m willing to question my assessment of “angry Black women” who confront store managers or bus drivers when they’ve been mistreated. Would I be treated with the same hostility or dismissive attitude (over and over and over again) if I complained? Probably not. (For searing testimony about the effects of daily racism and sexism on many women of color, read This Bridge Called My Back.)
I’m willing to question the existence of “proper English.” Maybe that’s just the English that middle-class white people speak in the 21st Century.
Dismantling racism is about more than passing better laws and electing different people. We have to change culture too. Sometimes one leads to the other, but not by magic.
What are you willing to question in order to help dismantle systemic racism?