Diagnostic Tools for Work Against Racism

Blatant racism continues to grow in strength during this twentieth century Post-Reconstruction period. The KKK conducts training for a race war, unhindered by our government. Four hundred whites in Philadelphia chant “We want them out,” when they see blacks moving into “their” neighborhood. In a Boston subway, two black college women are told by a white passenger that they should sit in the back. Cambodian children are accosted by whites who push dog shit into their faces. A police department attorney in a hearing about excessive force used by a white officer toward a Chinese man is allowed to use openly racist stereotypes and innuendo. Anti-Semitic acts are reported on college campuses and in neighborhoods. And in an affluent Boston suburb a black woman is confronted by police after leaving a boutique where she has done nothing more harmful than look at clothing.

While overt brands of racism are on the upsurge, “legitimated” by the politically conservative climate, I want to focus here on a more subtle racism, one germane to centers of white liberal strength. My observations grow out of extensive anti-racist work in more than forty school systems, thirty colleges and universities, sixty religious groups, fifty private social service agencies, community groups, government agencies, and work in a variety of Boston-based coalitions. Most of these groups are predominantly white in both participants and leadership. Here are patterns of behavior which characterize how those groups fall short of stated intentions to work against racism. They are offered both as critique and as diagnostic tools.

1)      There is a frequent inability to see that there is a problem internal to white structures, and/or to recognize that the problem is fundamental rather than a temporary aberration. Despite all the discussion about racism, and even while mouthing a recognition of the need for white institutions to change, most white leaders do not have a gut understanding that there is a very basic problem at hand. Any acknowledged problem is seen simply as something that “went a bit wrong along the way,” able to be corrected with a couple of workshops, seminars, or personal confrontations. This becomes a wonderful way to avoid the problem and thus contributes to the racism at whatever level it exists.

2)                             There is a reluctance to see the institutional and systemic nature of racism. It is much easier to think of racism as a phenomenon which affects personal relationships and one-to-one working situations instead of moving to an examination of institutional policies, decision-making, staffing, programming, and all the complex factors of systemic interaction. Again, it is easy for those of us who are middle-class whites to intellectually agree on the definition of an institutional problem. Efforts to act on those problems are usually only sporadic at best. By conforming to the present arrangements of our own institutions, we allow the racist forces to perpetuate themselves.

3)                             Another problem is the failure to address racism directly. Often in recent years when I have asked leaders of white social change groups what their anti-racism program is, I’ve been told it comes under some category other than racism. It may come under human rights or equity or race relations or, lately, economic justice. I can probably argue as persuasively as any of these leaders the case for a connection of racism to any of these issues. Still, I want to insist that in most cases subsuming racism under any other programmatic category usually becomes a way of burying it. A focus on racism is a focus on racism is a focus on racism! Anything else becomes another chapter in a long history of devices white people in the US have adopted to avoid dealing with racism. My conviction is to say over and over again that we must address racism directly.

4)                             The budget seldom reflects a major concern with work against racism. Budget is the bottom line. Budget reflects the real priorities; it is a fact of institutional life that most things cost money. Time, energy, and people talents often can lead to significant results with little money, but don’t let that divert you from the less pleasant fact that funding is necessary for most substantial programmatic efforts. Recently someone came to me asking for ideas on how to implement a program to attack racism, a priority now adopted by her school. The budget she had to work with for one year was less than $500. I proceeded to work hard with her to look at things that could be done without money, but it doesn’t take long under those circumstances to realize that a real institutional commitment was not there. Commitment is measured in two places-in the hearts of the people, and in the budget; we’d better get those two into a congruent relationship.

5)                             Another consistent pattern is the failure to act. We like to talk about racism. It is a fascinating parlor discussion, even good at coffee breaks on the job. We hold endless discussions about whether or not being “color blind” is an appropriate stance, whether or not now is the right time for our institution to address racism, how we should name what we’re doing, how to define the problem. I happen to think that all these discussions are crucial, but very often the discussion blocks action, or discussion becomes the action. Uninformed discussion is also a danger, but the more serious danger for most white institutions is that the discussion so often goes nowhere near action. We must begin to do something about racism.

6)                             Another typical pattern is to look for places other than in our own institution where we think people ought to bring about anti-racist change. It is, for instance, easier to organize support for anti-apartheid actions than for attention to racism here in the USA. Don’t for one second think that I would urge those college students rallying against apartheid to stop what they’re doing. But try to get the same numbers to commit the same time and energy to changing campus practices and policies which are also racist, and you’ll see what I mean. Very few people are willing to make commitments to long-range “backyard” change. Right now we have an opportunity to channel, but not divert, some of the anti-apartheid energy toward action against racism here at home as well.

My observations have been cast in negative language – inability, reluctance, failure to address, seldom reflects, failure to act. Those negatives can be turned into positive more easily than one might think. To my white friends I say, let’s get working together on the positives.

[This article originally appeared in Peace Work, a New England peace and social justice newsletter published by the American Friends Service Committee, Cambridge, Mass.]