Scan the crowds at the George Floyd protests and the number of white faces inspires hope. For now, hope is all it is. We’ve seen a remarkable groundswell of white Americans determined to dismantle racism, but many may be wondering how. What can I do to go beyond expressions of support toward material, meaningful, sustainable action?
Fighting racism means going beyond gestures of goodwill. Racism isn’t as much about attitudes as systems. Attacking those systems requires more than kindness. It might be helpful to think of antiracism for white people running in three phases: Focus, Learning and Action. Those phases are not necessarily sequential. These stages are best imagined as a cycle, always in motion, where one step refines the others. There are actions I can adopt today, while others might not make sense for me until I’ve done more to refine my focus and learn. To be effective, antiracism should develop into a lifestyle, integrated into all the other elements of responsible citizenship.
Focus – Discover the Ground Beneath My Feet
Americans have remarkably little awareness of where they live. We are far more alert to racial outrages unfolding a thousand miles away than we are to the laws and practices that extort minorities in our own zip code. This is by design. Much of the infrastructure that preserves white supremacy operates at the most local level, from zoning laws to police practices. Our obliviousness to these local practices has tremendous impact, because individually we have far more capacity to influence local outcomes than those far from us. If more people understood the discriminatory practices written into their own communities, it would be much easier to dismantle them.
Whatever issues gain my attention or whatever actions I feel compelled to take, I should start by asking how I can relate these concerns to the place where I live. Something disturbing will likely happen in that moment. Here’s a helpful suggestion – if a certain issue doesn’t affect (or threaten) me personally, I may be chasing a shiny object instead of making an impact.
As I turn my attention to my community, I will feel an urge to tell myself that these things don’t happen here. I will be reminded of all the “nice” people I know who “aren’t like that.” And if I press the matter much further, discovering some of the disturbing local practices contributing to white supremacy, I will realize that raising these issues will draw a lot of ire to my doorstep, or impact my career. That’s the moment when the world will discover whether I’m serious, or just virtue-signaling.
If I’m not fighting racism in my zip code, among my friends, neighbors, family and coworkers, then I’m probably not fighting racism at all. If my commitment to antiracism doesn’t cost me anything at home, then I’m probably not on the field. Maintaining a center on the ground beneath me helps me remain focused on choices and actions that matter, rather than drifting into performative, unhelpful behaviors that only serve to assuage guilt.
Learn – Read and Ask Questions
The first rule of racism is don’t talk about racism. White supremacy survives in our age largely by enforced ignorance. Everyone will come to this fight with a different set of background knowledge. Ibram X. Kendi and the Chicago Public Library have published an excellent reading list. More resources follow below. Pierce the protective veil of ignorance around racism with a comprehensive education, but don’t stop there.
Wherever I may be on my journey, I can start my education today with a commitment to ask uncomfortable questions in sensitive settings. That commitment should be followed with a willingness to shunt aside the evasive, formulaic answers I’m likely to receive and insisting that these questions be addressed honestly.
Keep in mind, otherwise “nice” people are likely to surprise you with their hostility to these simple questions. Merely raising these issues is considered incivility. Be prepared to face and overcome a lot of resistance.
Here are a few key questions to ask, along with background information and the most promising people to whom these questions should be directed.
Question: Why is our neighborhood white?
Who to ask: Your councilperson, mayor and local officials along with realtors and neighbors.
Background: Roughly three-quarters of urban American whites and around 90% of whites in smaller towns live in a neighborhood that is markedly whiter than its surroundings. In other words, the vast majority of American neighborhoods remain aggressively segregated by race. Odds are, your neighborhood is a lot whiter than you realized and this has consequences for people of color in terms of jobs, transportation, education and economic opportunity.
Residential segregation is the bedrock preserving white supremacy by protecting the white ignorance and “innocence” that feeds white fragility. Thanks to residential segregation, white people enjoy the privilege of not watching white supremacy work and feeling disconnected from its effects.
Much of our housing segregation is a product of federal and bank policies in the first half of the 20th century that aggressively enforced racial segregation (redlining is one of these policies), but it didn’t end there. Your town or neighborhood today is likely using preferential zoning laws and rental practices specifically designed to keep minorities out under the cover of “preserving property values” or attracting “the right kind” of homeowners. Does your town block the development of high-density housing? Are landlords permitted to screen out tenants who use Section 8 vouchers? Is your town reviewing its building practices to ensure a mix of construction that would include lower-cost housing? These are just a few of the factors that contribute to residential segregation, but they’re the easiest obstacles to remove. Ask these questions and follow up with pressure on your elected officials for change.
Question: Why are our schools white?
Who to ask: School board members and candidates, PTAs, civic leaders, neighbors.
Background: White students comprise only 48% of public school students in America, yet the average white student attends a school that is overwhelmingly white. Schools now are more segregated than they were in the late 1960’s. This is not a Southern problem, as school segregation is far more pronounced in Northern cities, with the Northeast experiencing the most entrenched racial segregation.
School segregation is a function of residential segregation. Whites in the ‘60’s fled urban areas to establish new apartheid bastions within driving distance of the economically vital city centers, thwarting attempts to break down segregation.
As education becomes more critical than ever to economic success, the concentration of white wealth in isolated neighborhoods and school districts dries up resources that might have contributed to economic advancement for minority students.
Important follow up questions include, how much local tax money get shared among larger geographies to support schools? What does our state do to equalize school funding across districts? How could district lines be changed to alleviate segregation?
Question: Why is our church white?
Who to ask: Pastors, church boards, fellow members.
Background: Martin Luther King, Jr famously remarked that “the most segregated hour of Christian America is eleven o’clock on Sunday morning.” That has not changed. Research by Christian publisher, Lifeway, found that 80% of Protestant churches are segregated. Among the most avid churchgoers, white Evangelicals, the overwhelming majority insist that nothing needs to be done about this.
Many mainline Protestant churches would like to address this issue, but don’t know how. If they probe far enough, they discover that in addition to latent habits and practices that alienate non-whites, they also suffer from the same downstream impacts from residential segregation that reinforce white supremacy in other ways. Some follow up questions include, have we even tried to address this? Have we used our influence to address the other aspects of segregation in our communities that contribute to our isolation? Have we engaged in outreach efforts with minority churches, including joint youth activities, pulpit sharing, and community service activities?
Question: What does our company do hire/promote more diverse candidates?
Who to ask: CEO, your manager, colleagues, board, shareholder meeting, earnings call.
Background: Workplace diversity is a hot topic now, with companies going so far as to hire diversity officers and “inclusion strategists.” Most companies seem to recognize that breaking down walls to the hiring and advancement of women and minorities will be a matter of survival in the near future, but many still resist doing the hard work to make it possible. Too many senior and middle managers believe that there aren’t enough qualified candidates. Too many still aren’t willing to confront habits inside the company that undercut non-white, non-male employees. Follow up questions to ask include, are we recruiting at historically black universities? Are hiring managers required to interview minority candidates? What feedback are we getting from female and minority employees who leave the company? How many female and minority candidates are on the board (and why so few)?
Actions – Start Dismantling White Supremacy in Your Backyard
With a mindset centered on the place where I live and an education in key issues, I’m ready to start taking forceful actions. Here are a few suggestions.
Listen. If you’re fortunate to have good personal relationships with people of color, listen to them. Don’t flinch. If they come to trust you then you’re going to hear things from them that are likely to sting. Cowboy up and embrace a chance to learn and grow.
Seek out and support black-owned businesses. Every dollar I spend is a vote. Every purchase I make moves the balance of power among different players, whether I want to see this reality or not. I can tear down white supremacy with money I would have been spending anyway, by making an effort to be aware of where that money goes.
Thanks to the layers of segregation that keep our communities apart, there’s a very good chance that you don’t know of any black or minority owned businesses. Tackle that problem. Find ways to use your spending that support minority enterprise.
See something, say something, especially in the company of white people. Thanks to our assumptions about civility, silence feeds white supremacy. Do everything in your power to create an atmosphere in which racists feel they have to flee or hide. Don’t let racist comments go unchallenged from board rooms to social media to the Thanksgiving table. This is especially important where the stakes are highest: at work. Do not make exceptions for family or friends.
Be vocal about diversity in your workplace. Help contribute to an atmosphere in which racist comments or practices are confronted and hounded into obscurity. Press your employer on hiring diversity. If you’re in a position to perform hiring, seek out candidates with diverse backgrounds. If you feel you’re not getting enough resumes from diverse people, then find out why and fix that glitch. The problem is almost certainly on the hiring side, not in the pipeline of candidates.
Find ways to contribute to efforts of all kinds, community, economic and social, that are led by people of color. And be content to be a contributor in those efforts, rather than a Karen. Particularly in the black community, segregation has starved many grassroots community efforts of resources that white groups take for granted. Help bridge that gap without bossing people around. This may be harder than you think. And don’t limit your imagination to politics. Little Leagues, soccer clubs, PTAs and all kinds of community organizations could use support.
Demand accountability from political and community leaders on diversity issues. Raise these issues repeatedly, in every available forum.
Look for ways to expand your charitable giving to include programs important to racial justice. If you don’t know of any in your area, find them. Donations don’t need to be large to matter. The mere act of giving forges valuable ties that wouldn’t have existed otherwise.
Attend local demonstrations. When people in your community organize public events or demonstrations on racial issues, be there within your physical capability. Presence, like speech, is a powerful statement that can influence opinions of those around you.
Make an effort to forge ties of friendship and community beyond your racial bubble, subject to some caveats mentioned below.
Make bigotry of all kinds politically expensive. Use whatever leverage you can muster in community groups to bring issues of segregation and diversity into public forums, especially city councils and school boards. Every elected official at every level of our government expects powerful pressure from white bigots. Very few of them expect any community support for diversity or desegregation efforts, much less pressure in that direction. Change that. Make sure that bigotry has a political price right where you live.
Talk with your kids about race. Thanks to generations of segregation, odds are very high that your kids are growing up in a manufactured white bubble despite your best intentions. Break that down in every way you can, from cultivating relationships across the race line to cultural exposure, travel, books and personal expressions. Train them to confront racism where they see it and fuel their courage. That includes openly confronting red-hats in your wider family who might spout racist garbage, making this moral imperative clear for the next generation.
What Not to Do
Don’t be disappointed if your initial efforts to advocate for racial justice feel awkward. Most of all, don’t take errors or missteps personally. It’s not about you. A lot of your white peers with the best of intentions find themselves adrift, embarrassed, or even hurt by what they experience as they emerge from their white bubble. This is a journey. If you find yourself doing something that you come to recognize was unproductive or even racist, don’t go hide. Learn and keep growing. A few light warnings might be helpful.
Don’t expect a cookie. Understand that people of color are likely to greet your efforts at reconciliation with a degree of skepticism. They should. It’s bad enough when they have to deal with racists. It’s worse sometimes when they have to cope with the clumsy and occasionally destructive influence of well-meaning white folks. Be aware that you’re late to this party. Bring a sense of humility and a willingness to serve something larger than yourself. Expect to be uncomfortable at times.
Don’t create awkward situations for people of color in pursuit of validation or support. Public gestures of racial goodwill can be inspiring. They can also be intrusive, demeaning and performative. If you’re buying a coffee for the black patron in line behind you at Starbucks, are you doing it for them or are you doing it to feel better?
Being called out for your race is generally not a great experience, whether the person doing it is sporting a MAGA hat or a Black Lives Matter t-shirt. As Jesus is supposed to have said, “give your gifts in secret.” To the extent that gestures of racial harmony should be visible, that performance should in most cases be directed at the white community. To the extent they are directed at a single person, they should avoid placing that person in an awkward light, or putting a burden on them to congratulate you.
Don’t get carried away trying to “make black friends.” Concentrate on breaking out of your white bubble first by bringing greater diversity to your lifestyle. When you’ve found your way to a more diverse environment, those relationships will follow in natural course.
Be very careful about moving to a black or minority neighborhood. The easiest way for me personally to break down barriers of segregation is to move to a majority-minority neighborhood. As always, we should be suspicious of the easy way.
Winning the battle to tear down barriers to black home ownership in currently white neighborhoods would be much harder than just moving. It might also be the worthier fight.
Having white families bring their capital, influence and political power to minority neighborhoods can, theoretically, be helpful, if those white families are willing to make common cause with their new neighbors. If they support local institutions, lend their voice to community causes, and bring their spending power to minority-owned businesses, they can be boon. This rarely happens.
Instead, new white residents tend to form ties with other new white residents. Their spending flows toward large outside businesses that follow them into the neighborhood. Rising home values crowd minorities out of what had been a haven, while obstacles to minority housing (and financing) in other neighborhoods remain, placing black homeowners in a vise.
Gentrification is too big a subject to be fully addressed here. If you’re thinking of moving to a black neighborhood and you don’t want to wreck it for everyone else, be prepared to learn and make a lot of adjustments. And maybe consider alternatives.
Don’t ask black people to educate you. My black friends have day-jobs. They weren’t sent here to be my Merlin. Being open to listening is important. Forging relationships is great. It’s a bad idea for me to pester my black friends with questions about race as if they owed me something. And for God’s sake, I should never ask random black people to teach me things I could have learned by picking up a book or making some small effort on my own.
Don’t ask black people to carry your pain. Let’s talk about White Guilt. When white people come to recognize the role of race in American life, it often leaves them with some very negative feelings. Some people respond by sinking deeper into a racist bubble. Others see work to be done and start looking for ways to solve these problems. Many well-meaning white folk sink into a funk, searching for ways to absolve themselves of responsibility for a horror they may just be waking to. This can lead to some destructive behaviors, especially when it includes a reckoning with a personal history of racism.
Do not place the burden of absolution on your black friends or acquaintances. Don’t go looking to them for forgiveness, or for confirmation in some form that you’re “one of the good ones.” If you come to recognize that you’ve done something specific that had a negative impact on someone, by all means feel free to make amends for that, but don’t demand some blanket certificate of nonracistness.
Whatever we may do personally, we should remember that racism is a system. Focus on that system. If you feel some cloud of guilt or negativity from your whiteness, focus on fixing the problem rather than gaining some brand of absolution.
There’s a narcissistic quality to White Guilt that steers sufferers toward hollow, performative gestures. Efforts to scrub off the stain, to establish oneself as independent of the benefits of white supremacy are worthless. We didn’t invent slavery and we can’t shake off its legacy by flailing ourselves or begging black people to congratulate our good intentions. Black Americans carry burdens left to them by our ancestors. We have to do the same. Don’t ask them to carry those burdens for you.
Skip the flagellation. Take the resources you’ve inherited from a racist system and divert them into a no-quarter fight to replace that system. Whatever action I might consider in the fight against racism I should be asking whether I’m doing it to fight that system, or to absolve myself.
Don’t make excuses. Speaking up about racism at work could put my job in jeopardy. My visible actions to undermine white supremacy might put me at odds with people I love and isolate me from family. Decided to join this fight could cost me in ways that matter. That’s not an excuse. One person’s willingness to speak can inspire others. If the cost of these actions is worrysome, then the remedy is join forces with others at act as publicly as possible. Nobody said this would be free, but the more we act in solidarity the harder it will be for racists to punish us. And whatever consequences I might face as a white person in this system, they will be trivial compared to the cost of the same action to people of color.
White people have a unique opportunity to tear down this corrupt system of racism, but we all stand to benefit from its demise. Racism explains why we lag behind every developed country in developing an affordable health care system. It explains our bizarre and lethal gun problem. Racism undermines our efforts to benefit from immigration, corrupts our law enforcement, even stymies our capacity to respond to a deadly pandemic. Racism is a persistent, deadly drag on our potential.
What we do to destroy racism, we do to build a safer, freer, more prosperous world for all of us. People who think of themselves as white have a unique opportunity to exploit the glitches in this racist system, but what we do to dismantle it serves to benefit our children as much as anyone else.
We live in a golden age of information. The above-cited reading list from Ibram X. Kendi and the Chicago Public Library is an excellent resource for books. Below is a brief collection of additional resources available over the web, including shorter-form reading and other media. Feel free to share others in the comments.
Letter from a Region in My Mind, James Baldwin, The New Yorker
The Case for Reparations, Ta Nehisi Coates, The Atlantic
Investigation of the Ferguson Police Department, US Justice Department report on predatory policing.
The True Story of the Free State of Jones, Smithsonian.
The Freedom Riders, American Experience on PBS
I Am Not Your Negro, by Director Raoul Peck, from unfinished works of James Baldwin.
Many Rivers to Cross, by Henry Louis Gates on PBS.
The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution, from Independent Lens on PBS.
The Eugenics Crusade, American Experience, PBS.
Slavery by Another Name, PBS.
Relevant posts from Political Orphans and previous blogs: