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So, I Was Thinking, What If...?

 

 

 

Sunday
Apr022017

All people for racial equity… adventures in organizing

 By Phillip Rowland-Seymour

Last summer my wife, two kids, and two eighteen-year-old cats relocated from Baltimore, MD to a suburb of Cleveland, OH. In the last three months, we lost our cats. I'd like to think that our Persian and Siamese cats, brown and white, were waiting until we were settled, to transition from the earth - they waited until we reached this racially harmonious suburb. In the last fifty years, the suburb has received notoriety for its history of racial tolerance (not objecting to the presence of anyone based on their race, at a minimum) and a need for racial equality (an equal regard to people of all races, at its best). Recently, a group of neighborhood residents have been meeting to help move beyond racial tolerance and racial equality, to promote racial equity (acknowledging the unconscious bias and historical inequalities) and support opportunity for all. I am a proud member of this group. We are social justice warriors.

Though in its nascent stages, we're getting to know each other and have been meeting about the nuts and bolts of forming a group, some of the things we want to do as a group, and how to organize a community of like-minded folks. SHARE ([suburb] Achieving Racial Equity) is intentional in using the word "achieving" as a reference to James Baldwin's The Fire Next Time. In this timeless book, Baldwin implores us to dismantle white supremacy and "end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world." We want to start with an attempt to “achieve our city.”

None of us are professional organizers. None of us do racial equity work professionally. We're just residents who are sincerely interested in holding our small city accountable for its reputation as one that supports and promotes racial equity. Thus far, we've created a Facebook group for virtual meetings and we've committed to meet in person (there have been five meetings in the last three months). We have a working vision statement (a [suburb] where equity is appreciated and normalized for all people in a community) and a working mission statement (to facilitate the individual and group activities that are necessary for [suburb] to be truly equitable). We've identified working groups (education, recreation, finance, housing choice, and judicial). People are now in the process of self-organizing around the working groups. SHARE is a work in progress, but what brought all of us together is that we want to "achieve our city."

We've recently met an interesting roadblock, one that the planners hadn't anticipated. Recognizing that the group is disproportionately white, we made an intentional effort to recruit more African American members. The question came up from one of our friends of color, "What do I tell my non-white friends about the group - to encourage them to join?" Why would black folks trust this mostly white group to work in our interest, and possibly at the expense of their privilege? This question had me stumped. I “get” the reason for the question and I understand the hesitance. It’s been evident since the the beginning of this country that social, economic, and political parity between races rarely exists. I’m sure that friend and many other people of color are wondering, “why are white folks interested in addressing it now? After brief reflection, my answer is that equity work is the responsibility of all people. Yes, as people of color who have historically been marginalized, the burden of our equality falls disproportionately on our shoulders. We have a real self-interest in not being dispossessed. But for our white brothers and sisters, especially those interested in being engaged in the black struggle, I hope they realize that their humanity is at stake. The essence of white privilege, codified in the aftermath of Bacon’s 1676 Rebellion and in the creation of the 1705 Virginia Slave Codes, is that white folks will always do better, always have better, and always be better than people of color - it’s a given, no matter their socioeconomic status. In the immortal words of President LBG, “...if you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.” I’m going out on a limb here by saying that most white people have been convinced of this hierarchy, and that nobody wants to admit it. Admitting that you benefit from this privilege runs counter to the myth of the Puritanian ethic-based American dream, “work hard and you’ll be rewarded,” bootstraps and all.

 For privileged people who want equity, even if only to gauge their own real (not inflated) value, I can only imagine the frustration that they feel in not knowing that they have what they have because they worked hard to be the best and earned something or simply because of their privilege. For me, that frustration would be maddening. Borrowing from another James Baldwin quote, this from his 1967 piece in The New Yorker, “Letter from a Region of My Mind,” “[w]hite people in this country will have quite enough to do in learning how to accept and love themselves and each other, and when they have achieved this—which will not be tomorrow and may very well be never—the Negro problem will no longer exist, for it will no longer be needed.”  

 We all need to open our eyes to the conditions of people of color, accept those conditions, and work to level the playing field. We need true equity. We can’t be complicit in the status quo and we need to know that by accepting things the way they are, we are part of the problem. SHARE can help white and non-white people, alike. For whites, it helps them re-discover a piece of their humanity. For non-whites, it provides opportunity. For all, it helps us reach a higher level of consciousness and ensure that our city lives up to its reputation for all of us.