Two days after the recent elections, I had the privilege of attending the national Facing Race conference, spending three days with 2,300 racial justice activists from across the country. After the devastating results, it was just what I needed: a space to grieve, make collective sense of what happened, and hear from many of the best organizers, thinkers and strategists in the U.S. about where we go from here.
While many of us were shocked at the election results, others were not. People of color in particular were clear that this election has simply exposed to the masses what they have been experiencing for generations, while giving license to bigots to more publicly express racist hatred and violence.
I write this letter to summarize some of the things I learned at the conference: about the meaning of the elections to people who care about social justice, and specifically, the role of white people who care about racial justice. I highlight individuals and organizations to acknowledge their good work and that these ideas are not uniquely mine.
While we all may fear the likely actions of the new Congress and President, people of color are scared, now, for their children. Black children are experiencing an escalation in public racial violence. A kindergarten teacher in Tennessee reported how a Latino child was told by classmates that he will be deported and trapped behind a wall, and asks every day, “Is the wall here yet?”
The only safe community is an organized community, and we all can play a role in protecting vulnerable individuals and communities – from the race-based hatred that has been unleashed, from deportation, from acts of violence.
According to Tarso Luis Ramos of Political Research Associates, “This is a 5-alarm fire moment, a fundamental political realignment…But we can’t move forward out of a purely defensive posture. We need to interpret the meaning of this election in the cause of justice. …Trump is going to betray many of the people who voted for him, and our job is to expose this betrayal and expedite it.”
Van Jones of Dream Corps noted that “Trump’s coalition is not as stable as we think, populists and conservatives don’t agree on many issues….The majority who voted for Trump don’t trust him…and our biggest danger is misreading the moment…. This [moment] is a big woke machine. Tens of millions of people of all kinds are shocked and upset and responsive to a progressive call to action.”
We were reminded that barely more than half of those eligible voted in this month’s elections, and Clinton won the popular vote. In other words, at most, one-fourth of the adult population actually voted for Trump.
We were also reminded of the powerful social movements of recent years upon which we can build: Black Lives Matter, Occupy, Standing Rock, immigrant rights and living wage movements, legalization of same sex marriage. There is a strong base of people to work with. We must build a shared analysis and framework for working together across issues towards fundamental long-term, systemic change.
The big question is, what do we – white people in particular – do now?
Here are eight suggestions:
- While there is a dire need for grassroots organizing and mobilization, it must be led by people who come out of the lived experiences of marginalized groups. There is a support role for white people, but we cannot develop solutions for other people’s realities.
- Our work is with other white people. This includes family members with whom we will be breaking bread over the upcoming holidays. We must meet people where they are at – but don’t leave them there. This is not about proselytizing. According to Coleen Murphy, an organizer from New Orleans, “When people feel connected, that they will be loved and okay no matter what, that’s when they can move forward.”
- We need to start by building relationships. According to Judith LeBlanc of Native Organizers Alliance, “You cannot separate systems change from changing the hearts and minds of people.” Making meaning of this moment is a collective process. Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) is calling on white people across the U.S. to host 1,000 house parties to engage other white people who are confused or unsure what to do, build connections, counteract the feeling of isolation.
- For those of us wanting to jump into organizing, there was much caution. Coleen Murphy, the organizer from New Orleans, noted from her experience after Hurricane Katrina that, “if people come in from the outside who have no analysis of class and race, they do more harm than good.”
- Self-education is critical to being effective. According to Mary Ferguson of the YWCA of St. Louis: “Decolonization is the work of white people, liberation is the work of people of color. People of color can liberate themselves without white people, although it would be nice to have white people working with us.” While many white people want to move right to action, sometimes we aren’t ready yet; our own learning is our first work, so that our action can be more responsible, informed and accountable.
- We don’t need to do it all, as individuals or organizations, but rather map out who is doing what, and focus on the space where we fill needed gaps and have the most to contribute. In particular, consider long-term systemic change by targeting the systems that have the most negative impact on marginalized communities, such as education, health care, criminal justice, and build a community we can come back to over time.
- We must get out and speak more publicly, with a clear, bold narrative and vision of justice and equity. SURJ urges white people to take risks, reach out to people who voted for Trump, call people in to a humanitarian vision rather than shame or discount them. Jose Antonio Vargas, through his White People project, found that about half of white millennials felt they were as much a victim of discrimination as people of color. We must correct this narrative, through a range of media including storytelling, writing, video, arts and cultural expression. We can’t rely on mainstream media to tell the story of systemic racism the way it needs to be told.
- Lastly, we each need to do the thing that moves us. We may not, and will not, always get it right. Doing something is more important than freezing with uncertainty or fear of doing the wrong thing. There’s plenty to be done that needs our attention and forward movement.
Glenn Harris of the Center for Social Inclusion noted that, “this election was a referendum on racism. We let the other side name race in explicit ways that were harmful and detrimental. Liberals did not name race. We all need to be much more explicit at naming race. We need to include white people but not center white people. We need strategies to help white folks understand that they are racist and how racism works.”
This is our moment to be the moral compass that our nation needs.