Many people are asking what they can do in the wake of the murder of Trayvon Martin and the acquittal of George Zimmerman. This ‘action kit’ created by the anti-racist action group Showing up for Racial Justice (SURJ) offers some guidelines for steps designed for white people to take, but open to all.
Below are actions you can take in response to the Zimmerman verdict and violence against people of color, ranging from one minute to a lifetime of action. Please join us in making a commitment to take one or more of these actions in this important time.
Read about and watch videos on the aftermath of the Zimmerman trial and discuss them with white friends, family, and organizations. Check out these links:
Petitions are one way for us to show a united force. Please take a minute and sign these important petitions.
Share an image (like the one below) on your Facebook page and write a message about why it is important to you as a white person. Thanks to the artists who have offered to use their artwork for this project. Visit their websites to see more of their art. Paste the link onto Facebook, Twitter or Instagram if you post the picture.
10 MINUTE ACTION: Donate to a racial justice organization
There are thousands of organizations that are working to combat structural racism in different ways, nationally and in local communities around the country. These organizations depend on the donations of people: 85% of funding for non-profits comes from individuals. Whether you can give $5 or $500, it is a valuable action to contribute your money to make sure that this organizing, educating, and mobilizing continues.
Think about the work that you find most inspiring. Do you think national or local work is more important? Legal strategies? Education? Mobilization? Policy change?
- Look for organizations that are led by and working with people of color.
- Ask a trusted friend which organizations they think are doing good racial justice work.
- Make a gift. Write a check. Put it on your credit card. Sign up as a monthly donor. Whatever you can give will help them do their work more successfully.
Here are a few networks of great racial justice coalitions with local members across the country:
15 MINUTE ACTION: Write a Message and Snap a Photo
We are not Trayvon Martin: Spend a few minutes writing about how you have benefited from your whiteness. This can be in terms of education, housing, medical care, travel, police conduct, etc. Post it with your photo at We are not Trayvon Martin.
30 MINUTE ACTION: Talk to people in your life about race
Don’t be in such a hurry to condemn a person because he doesn’t do what you do or think what you think. There was a time when you didn’t know what you know today. ~ Malcolm X
It is tempting to separate ourselves from other white people who disagree with us on this or other racial justice matters. It can be painful to know that someone you know or care about holds views that you know to be biased. However, as white people committed to racial justice, a powerful way to create change is to engage other white people in dialogue, to see talking about race with them as our responsibility.
Think back to how your analysis and perspective were shaped:
- Listen well to what the other person is saying, and why they see things the way that they do.
- Ask questions to help clarify.
- Withhold judgement. The goal is to move them forward, not to prove something about yourself.
- How did the people in your life move you through dialogue? When was it about the presentation of facts that you didn’t know, and when was it about shifting a framework, asking questions, or a deeper connection?
The following are some suggestions for how to respond to conclusions white people often come to around George Zimmerman’s recent acquittal for killing Trayvon Martin. The goal is not to read these as a script. Feel free to modify as makes sense for your conversations and life:
Comment: “But the legal system worked the way it is supposed to. If Zimmerman were guilty, he would have been convicted.”
Response: “The legal system is biased against people of color. For example, African Americans are twice as likely as whites to receive the death penalty. If Trayvon had been white, Zimmerman would have done time.”
Follow-up Question: “How do you see bias in the criminal justice system playing out in your neighborhood, town, region?”
Comment: “The problem was the Florida law, with its broad definition of self-defense. It would not have happened in another state.”
Response: “The only thing different about this case is that we heard about it. People of color are being shot and killed all the time, under so-called fair laws.
Question: “What long did it take for past unjust laws to end or change (like Jim Crow, slavery, DOMA)?”
Comment: “The prosecution was incompetent.”
Response: “That may well have been true, but the real problem was that the judge prohibited any talk about race and racial profiling. That’s what the case was about.”
Comment: “But George Zimmerman is Latino. So it can’t be about race.”
Response: “It’s about race because his actions and decisions that night and the coverage and prosecution of the case reflected and held to racist ideology, that automatically deems a young man of color a suspect, and then guilty of his own death.”
Question: “How might structural racism impact the views of people of color differently than white people?”
Comment: “Well, it’s all over now. Time to get on with our lives.”
Response: “It’s not all over. Trayvon’s family can still file a civil suit, which has a more relaxed standard of evidence. And these laws are still on the books around the country. What would it be like if this had happened to your child?
Question: “What do you think would keep this real in white peoples’ lives when the headlines fade?”
Comment: “Then why not let the legal system play itself out.”
Response: “That can take years. What about all the African Americans and other people of color who face the threat of vigilante attacks and biased arrests every day?”
Question: “What do you think could make the legal system work for all people?”
Comment: “Even if people are upset, holding rallies doesn’t help anything.”
Response: “White people need to stand up for racial justice in a public, visible way. Only action can prevent more Trayvon Martins. What can we do today?”
Question: “What can we do today to engage more people more deeply?”
Comment: “I think there’s been too much focus on this one case. It’s time to move on.”
Response: “People aren’t concerned just about what happens to George Zimmerman, but about the ways in which the outcome here continues our society’s precedent of devaluing black life. It makes young black people more vulnerable to being a target for anyone who sees them as a threat.”
Question: “How do you think we can show that all lives–including African Americans and other people of color– matter?”
Comment: “But George Zimmerman is Latino/ Hispanic. How can he be racist?”
Response: “In this country, white skin/light skin people get certain privileges. While Zimmerman is Latino, he benefits from a system that prioritizes white people.
Question: ”How have you seen white people benefit in terms of education, housing, health care, immigration? I know in my family history, some people received _____ advantage. What about it yours?”
ONE HOUR ACTION: Do some writing
Letter to the Editor: Write an LTE about why this is an important issue for you and what needs to change. Send it to your friends, family, organizations, and to the local papers. Post it on our Facebook page.
Click here for tips on writing an LTE.
Here are some writing prompts:
- As a white person, this case matters to me because…
- The fact that a jury ruled that it was lawful for George Zimmerman to shoot Trayvon Martin demonstrates…
- Trayvon Martin would still be alive today if…
Now is an opportunity to check ourselves through some honest reflection and let that lead us to thoughtful action.
~ Claudia Horowitz, Stone Circles
1 HOUR + ACTION: Take a day off your usual grind and spend a few hours in the street!
(Sign from SURJ contingent in NYC march for Trayvon Martin, July 14, 2013)
For any action, meeting, or in-person event please take pictures or a short video and upload it to the SURJ Facebook page.
Go to a local action: There (was) a National Day of Action this Saturday, July 20th, and there will be many more to come. See if there is a local action near you and go with some friends. Make some signs to get your message out. Great messages to use:
- Black lives matter
- Showing up for Racial Justice
- Racial justice, not racial profiling
- Abolish “Stand Your Ground”
At the action: Engage with other white people. Talk to them about why they are there and whether they’re involved with local racial justice efforts.
Hold a house party: To discuss the Zimmerman trial and its connections to other issues such as racial profiling, the mass incarcerations and criminalization of people of color, and/or the impact of stand your ground laws in your state.
Use video to spark conversation: Use YouTube videos, a short movie, or an article on the Zimmerman trial to spark conversation with people in your community. Or go to a movie with a racial justice theme — like Fruitvale Station, about the killing of Oscar Grant by the transit police in Oakland, California — and meet for discussion afterwards.
In addition to the videos listed earlier, here are some possible videos to show:
ONGOING ACTION: Support the Voting Rights Act
With the Supreme Court’s recent decision to invalidate key sections of the Voting Rights Act there is a strong need to make sure everyone has access to a vote- particularly in communities of color. Support the Voting Rights Act. There will be national week of action August 24-28th with local actions around the country in honor of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. Join a Day of Dignity on August 28th. More details to come.
ONGOING ACTION: Join a local organization; get involved with SURJ!
We meet a lot of white people who care about the issue of equity and justice, but often feel alone and isolated in their neighborhoods, communities, and families. Within SURJ, many of us have also felt ostracized for not going along with the “norm” of how racism happens. That is part of why we come together–so that we have a like-minded, like-valued community who deeply cares that every single human being deserves to be treated with love and respect–and that with a supportive community we are able to take a stand, speak the truth, and be part of creating a better America and beyond.
Contact us to be connected to a local SURJ group or tell help form a local chapter.
If you have come to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together. ~ Australian Aboriginal activists
This is a historic moment. There is an opportunity to decide what type of person you want to be — someone who stands up against injustice in all its forms or someone who sits back and watches. What values do you want your peers and colleagues, family members and spiritual community, children and grandchildren to learn from you? As a white person, you have the opportunity to dig down deep and find the person you want to be and live it out loud.
Will you stand up for what is right? Will you dare to speak above the status quo? Will you rise to the challenge of being your best self?
PLEASE DO! We need you! We need your voice, your brilliance, your heart, your soul… we need you to be part of this moment, right here, right now, to create the world we want to all live in. Be bold with us, be courageous with us! No one is free until we are all free!
Showing up for Racial Justice (SURJ) was formed in 2009 by white people from across the US to respond to the significant increase of targeting and violence against people of color in the aftermath of the election of Barack Obama. The case of George Zimmerman is the latest in a long series of extrajudicial (outside the law) killings of people of color in the United States. We mourn the loss of life, see the impact on communities of color and believe that white people must partner across race and other differences to create social change. SURJ is here to provide resources and support for white people to make this happen.
We look to each other to change the world we live in one conversation and action at a time, and our efforts are to build a broad and deep movement of engaged white people to work in partnership with communities of color for real racial justice in the US and everywhere. Please join us as we build on a long tradition of white people engaged in racial justice work in our local communities, our states, and around the world.
The “Un-Fair Campaign,” a public awareness campaign about racism, is generating some discussion. In light of the recent video from BYU (see previous post), this campaign makes a lot of sense and is quite timely. The tag line is: “It’s hard to see racism when you’re white.” The idea behind the campaign: if we recognize racism, we can stop it.
The focus of the campaign is very clearly on white people and this makes sense given the demographics of the region where the campaign is posting billboards. The Twin Ports (Duluth, MN and Superior, WI) is a predominantly white community (89%).
The campaign is the work of several organizations committed to racial justice in the Twin Ports area, and grows out of a recent Knight Foundation report, called Soul of the Community. In a three-year study detailed in the report, researchers found that people in this region were less likely to say that it’s a good place for racial and ethnic minorities, immigrants, than those in comparable communities elsewhere. Based on these findings, anti-racist activists in the area are trying to change things through the “Un-Fair Campaign.” Here’s a brief description from the campaign’s website:
People of color experience incidents of racism every day, and they have long asked “when will white people in our community stand up and speak out about racism?” This campaign is part of a response to that question. Racial justice will never be achieved until we as white people address white privilege and work to change it.
The insight that “it’s hard to see racism when you’re white,” has been a central message here at this blog for some time, so perhaps not a new or controversial idea for regular readers here.
But the campaign (which just launched January 24) has already generated some heated backlash from whites who are not too keen on the ideas of having their whiteness pointed out to them, much less learning to notice white privilege or acknowledge racism.
The (white) mayor of Duluth has received death threats because of the campaign, and according to one account (h/t Lisa Albrecht, Assoc Prof, U of MN, member of leadership team of SURJ), other activists involved in the campaign are enduring a daily barrage of threatening emails and phone messages suggesting she should leave town, be raped because she ‘hates white people.’ And, of course, the campaign is getting a lot of play on the usual white supremacist sites.
The question the campaign – and the white backlash against – raises a perennial one for those interested in racial justice: how do you get white people to address white privilege and work against it? The Un-Fair Campaign is an innovative approach to this persistent dilemma. The next challenge will be how to use the backlash to further the cause of racial justice.
There is interesting new research just published about journalists and racism in the production of news. The research is reported in an article, “Coming to Terms with Our Own Racism: Journalists Grapple with the Racialization of their News,” by Emily Drew, Assistant Professor at Willamette University, and appears in the October issue of Critical Studies in Media Communication (behind a paywall).
It came as something of a surprise to me to learn that from 1990 to 2005, 28 major metropolitan newspapers in the United States sought to grapple with race relations and racism by devoting significant time, staff, and financial resources to launching systematic examinations of the ‘‘state of race.’’ (p.2)
photo credit: mfhiatt
Drew’s research was well-designed. She interviewed 31 of the editors and writers who brought their newspaper’s race series into being. In this research, she argues that explicit and intentional ‘‘racial projects’’ can foster antiracist consciousness in their producers and promote changes in news production. (p.3)
Specifically, she examines how a journalistic project that was seemingly about ‘‘them’’ (society), ultimately became about ‘‘us’’ (news media). Drew found that as journalists sought to ‘‘discover the facts’’ about how racism manifested in their communities, they began recognizing its manifestations in their own profession. As one editor put it, her paper’s race series, ‘‘challenged us to go beyond the rhetoric and hold up a mirror, an honest mirror . . . one that was not tainted by our own thinking that we were too sophisticated to be part of that.’’ (pp.2-3). Here is one of her respondents, explaining the change:
“We thought we were reporting on ‘them’ . . . those people, and organizations, and institutions that were still disenfranchising racial minorities. As it turned out, racism was about ‘us’ in the media, our news production, our editorial decisions and our own lack of diversity. (Editor of a ‘‘Race Series’’ at a major U.S. newspaper)” (p.1)
Returning to Drew’s analysis of this process, she writes:
“In the process of investigating how ‘‘new racism’’ operated in their local communities, journalists began engaging in a reflexivity, one that illuminated the need to probe their own institution’s relationship to race and racism. Most interviewees indicated that analyzing the media — let alone their own newspaper — was not a part of their agenda or design when they first began. But once the series began publication, community responses and discussions in the newsroom meant they could not avoid examining the racialization of their newsroom. As one interviewee noted, newspapers across the country, for 20 years, had been ‘‘guilty of their own sort of ‘benign neglect’ towards race as a newsworthy issue’ ” (p.8).
She concludes by talking about the dismay that some of the white participants in her research expressed about the lack of opportunity to address race:
Having undergone significant learning through the race series, one white journalist expressed tremendous frustration at the lack of opportunity wite people have to learn and grow. ‘‘There is not a forum in which we can discuss race, genuinely, with people listening. How can we have such a risky and honest [conversation] without a reason?’’ he asked. When white people have reason, and people of color have safe opportunities to address race and racism with openness and intentionality, they interrupt the mechanisms of racism that socialize people into blindness and silence about the structures of privilege and oppression” (p.16).
There are a number of things to note about this study, perhaps foremost is the focus on the process of news production which is often lamented for its role in the production of racist images, but too little studied. I also appreciate the nuance here in examining people who are “well-meaning” and filled with “good intentions” not to replicate racism, yet find themselves in an occupation and industry which does this in many unexamined ways.
If you’d like to read more about racism in the production of news, I recommend Pamela Newkirk’s Within the veil: Black journalists, white media. (New York, NY: NYU Press, 2000) and Darnell M. Hunt’s Channeling Blackness: Studies on Television and Race in America (NY: Oxford UP, 2004).(H/T to @dr_grzanka for that second ref.)
If you’ve been reading the news lately, I’m sure you’ve run across at least some coverage of a rather raucous Neo-Nazi rally that took place around noon on 17 April on the south lawn of Los Angeles City Hall. Approximately 50 members of the National Socialist Movement (NSM) attempted to stage a permitted rally, where they evinced their white nationalist call for all people of color to be forcibly removed from the Southwestern United States.
However, according to officials and media reports, about 500 predominantly white counter-protesters shouted down the NSM with cries of “racists go home” and “stop the Nazis” before things turned a little ugly—both police and the white supremacists were pelted with rocks, bottles, eggs and other items by the counter-protesters. Los Angeles Police Detective Gus Villanueva reported that several people received minor injuries and some were arrested (all those arrested were counter-protestors). In the wake of Saturday’s clash, an anonymous policeman was quoted in one report as saying, “It’s just one group of racists protesting another group of racists.”
(Photo Source: Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times / April 17, 2010)
That quotation caught the blogosphere ablaze, with left-leaning sites such as the Daily Kos proclaiming:
“… this is disturbing, beyond the obvious false equivalency being made as if Neo-Nazi’s are the same as those people who are offended by Nazi’s, and those people who are organizing for immigration reform,”
and respective comments on right-leaning blogs like Free Republic and American Power that the police officer’s remark was the “best line ever” and that the counter-protesters “are more dangerous, despite what the MSM keeps feeding us about ‘right-wing terrorists’ and ‘tea party violence’.”
What this kind of media framing accomplishes is the dichotmatizing of racial conflict qua whiteness into a war between the quintessentially “good” versus “evil” whites. Once the comparison is made, it begs us to answer the question: who is worse? Such discussive and ideological missteps then threaten to trap us in a public discourse in which talking heads battle back and forth over who is the “real” racist, a point that writer Ta-Nahesi Coates makes frequently at his blog for The Atlantic. Sociologists have long noted this phenomenon, Alastair Bonnett (2000: 10) writes the story of racism and antiracism is:
“…staged with melodrama, the characters presented as heroes and villains: pure anti-racists versus pure racists, good against evil.”
So also, Jack Niemonen (2007: 166-166) remarks that we often:
“… paint a picture of social reality in which battle lines are drawn, the enemy identified, and the victims sympathetically portrayed. … [distinguishing] between ‘good’ whites and ‘bad’ whites.”
Of course, there is hardly any question that racism exists, only over where it is, and who wields it—and that finding it is a matter of utmost importance. In “Beyond Good and Evil” (1886), Friedrich Nietzsche wrote:
“It might even be possible that what constitutes the value of those good and respected things, consists precisely in their being insidiously related, knotted, and crocheted to these evil; and apparently opposed things—perhaps even in being essentially identical with them.”
Accordingly, my own sociological research (Hughey forthcoming – opens pdf) bears out an eerie resemblance between White Nationalist and White Antiracist understandings of white racial identity. In previous posts here, I’ve shared research based on fourteen months of ethnographic study amidst a white nationalist and a white antiracist group. From this research, I found that both groups often relied on similar “scripts,” if you will, to construct a robust and strikingly similar understanding of white and nonwhite identity on a personal, interactive, micro-level.
Now don’t get me wrong.
Both pose different kinds of threats and there remain deep differences between White Nationalists (not to mention within that “movement”—it’s a heterogeneous bunch) and White Antiracists (so too, they are diffuse and varied) (for more on these points see: Zeskind 2009; O’Brien 2001). Yet, members of both engaged in what I call an “Identity Politics of Hegemonic Whiteness.” That is, they both possess analogous common-sensed “ideals” of white identity that function to guide their interactions in everyday life. These “scripts” serve as seemingly neutral yardsticks against which cultural behavior, norms, values, and expectations are measured. Hence, white identity is revealed as an ongoing process of formation in which (1) racist and reactionary scripts are used to demarcate white/non-white boundaries, and (2) performances of white racial identity that fail to adhere to those scripts are often marginalized and stigmatized, thereby creating intra-racial distinctions among whites.
We seem to resist this understanding because of the seductive reach of pop-psychology explanations about racism. For example, in The Nature of Prejudice (1954: 9) Gordon Allport remarked that prejudice is an individual “antipathy based upon a faulty and inflexible generalization.” A facile reading of Allport’s work has, unfortunately, saturated our culture and has turned many a layperson into self-professed experts of “hate.” In this model, “racism” is assumed to belong to the realm of ideas and prejudices and is little more than the collection of a few nasty thoughts that a particular “bad apple” individual has about another person or group. With this understanding in play, we can too easily come to think of racism as a bad thought or moral failing, and then proceed to divide the world into those that are “sick” with the “disease of prejudice” and those that are “healthy” anti- or non-racists. As Desmond and Emirbayer (2009: 342-343) recently penned in the Du Bois Review:
“This conception of racism simply will not do, for it fails to account for the racism that is woven into the very fabric of our schools, political institutions, labor markets, and neighborhoods. Conflating racism with prejudice … ignores the more systematic and structural forms of racism; it looks for racism within individuals and not institutions. Labeling someone a “racist” shifts our attention from the social surroundings that enforce racial inequalities and miseries to the individual with biases. It also lets the accuser off the hook—“He is a racist; I am not”—and treats racism as aberrant and strange, whereas American racism is rather normal.”
Simply put, white supremacy is the ether which we all consume.
Beliefs that racism is perpetuated by “stereotypes” and “prejudice”—that we all carry along in the black-box of our minds—absolves our social structures and culture of any blame. Concentrating either on neo-Nazi’s or counter-protestors or trying to weigh and balance which one is more or less racist, misses the point completely. And while the anonymous officer’s comment that “It’s just one group of racists protesting another group of racists” remains a violent oversimplification and slander ignorant of the nuances and difference, perhaps such a remark might invite us to consider the habitual, unintentional, commonplace, polite, implicit, and supposedly well-meaning dimensions of racist ideologies and practices that collude with the dominant expectations of white racial identity.
~ Matthew W. Hughey, PhD is Assistant Professor of Sociology and affiliate faculty member of African American Studies and Gender Studies at Mississippi State University. His research centers on racial identity formation, racialized organizations, and mass media representations of race. He can be reached at MHughey [at] soc.msstate.edu. His website is http://mwh163.sociology.msstate.edu/
>>>PS: If anyone is attending the Southern Sociological Society Meetings in Atlanta this week, I invite you to my panel where I will present some of my research on this topic. The title of my talk is “Beyond Good and Bad Whites: Ugly Couplings of Racism and White Identity.”
When I was in graduate school, Tom Pettigrew used to remind us that many white Americans hold their racial prejudices and stereotypes at a rather superficial level, mainly as a way of conforming to whites and the white supremacist culture/society around them. (He suggested that a smaller proportion held these views very deeply, as a Freudian-type “crutch” that held their very troubled personalities together.) The clear lesson he was offering is that for many whites some significant change in racial views should not be difficult. The learning context matters.
Recently, one of my former graduate students, now a professor, sent me this comment about a new white student in her class:
I am beginning a new semester of my Race class. I decided to formally introduce your “white racial frame” concept the first week of the semester this time…My students journal free-form every other week or so, and here is the very first journal entry I read. I particularly love the last line of the first paragraph:
White Racial Frame: When first entering this course I never imagined that within the first class session my mindset would be changing about race and the role it has in the world today. The idea of the “white racial frame” is what immediately caught my attention. The idea that there is a term for a frame of mind I never knew existed struck me. I am the typical definition of a “white girl” and I know it. Blonde hair, blue eyes, sheltered lifestyle and never struggled a day in my life, I know I am a white girl. I just never considered that my frame of mind about the world is compromised because of it.
I always thought of my life as fair. I had the ideal mindset that the United States represents all that is fair; everyone has their own chance and makes their own choices from a totally level playing field. It is only now that I can see that things may be set up differently. My view was that my parents work hard for what we have and that anyone can do the same for their families. Maybe it is a naive frame of mind to believe the world to be fair, but it was nice that way. It is only in more recent years I can see the trends that lead me to believe that all is not fair and the world is a tough place. I believe that is partially due to my sheltered life that I grew up with and partially because of the “white racial frame” that I did not know I possessed.
Society prioritizes the white race and does not even realize it. I have done it and only now realize it. Everyday simple situations I find myself choosing someone who is white for a job, or maybe being more comfortable with a white person than anyone else. Even in my relationship preference I have only dated white men. Have had several opportunities to do otherwise, but simply never acted upon it. Before this class I never questioned that the president has always been a white male (until Obama obviously). I am realizing that the “white racial frame” expands into so many things in our lives. It can be as simple as daily life within my own home, and can expand all the way into politics in the world. I am excited to be in this course to help open my mind to more of these situations and to educate myself more on the role of race in society.
Things can change. Excellent teaching and teachers matter.
I wanted to follow up on yesterday’s post about racist lyrics set to a holiday song with a counter example, this one of an anti-racist song. “Strange Fruit,” made famous by Billie Holiday, stands out as one of the most notable anti-racist songs ever written.
In 1930, two African-American men, Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith, were lynched in Marion, Indiana. Copies of a photograph of their limp bodies hanging grotesquely, surrounded by whites, smiling with satisfaction and pride, were sold as postcards in thousands of drugstores across the nation. News of this lynching moved Abel Meeropol, a New York school teacher, to write a poem, which he published in the New York Teacher, a union magazine. He later set the poem to music. The song began to become famous once Billie Holiday started singing it in Harlem’s Cafe Society, the first racially integrated night club in the US. Holiday’s own father had been lynched, so the song held a powerful, and personal, message for her.
Yet, the song faced opposition from the white power structure in the U.S. According to this account from Barry Healy at Green Left:
Holiday’s record company, Columbia, refused to record the song, fearing a racist backlash. Eventually she managed to record it with Commodore and it became her biggest selling record.
Meeropol, no stranger to struggle having served in the anti-fascist forces in Spain, was targeted because the song was seen as “anti-patriotic”. In 1940, a government investigative committee barred him from teaching because of his political beliefs.
The courage of both Holiday and Meerpol to speak out against the terror of white mobs, the cowardice of record company executives, and the backlash of government reprisals speaks to a special kind of courage required of those who choose to do anti-racism.
I saw a new documentary called “William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe,” about the civil rights lawyer. the film was made by his two daughters from his second marriage, Sarah and Emily Kunstler. it was interesting and much of the film was about racism, although none of the promotional materials hint at this. In this way, it’s much like the documentary “The Weather Underground,” which also focuses a good deal on racism.
One of the things that struck me most profoundly about the Kunstler film was the way that the language about institutional racism in the late 1960s early 1970s is so strikingly different from the way we talk about race and racism today. What I mean about the language around institutional racism is that Kunstler would say things like, “the white power structure” or “the racist court system” and “all whites are racist” and “we (whites) are responsible for letting this racist power structure continue.”
This language and way of talking about racism is all in the category of “stuff you just don’t hear anymore.”
The power of calling out the white power structure and the way that individual whites participate in this racism was clearest for me in the film when they were exploring the issue of the uprising at Attica Correctional Facility in upstate New York. Kunstler got called in as a negotiator for the prisoners. This attempt failed and dozens of people – both inmates and guards – were killed by the state who went in and shot them. after the uprising was put down, there’s this amazing archival footage of one of the white soldiers (national guard?) who went in to the prison, and he’s got his fist in the air, pumping it victoriously and he says, “Yeah, that’s what I’m talking about…. white power!” it’s just a chilling moment that also perfectly illustrates what Kunstler’s been saying throughout the film.
Following soon after that, Kunstler went to the seige at Wounded Knee to serve as a negotiator for Native Americans in AIM who were staging a protest there, demanding that the U.S. Government honor centuries of broken treaties. Kunstler was able to help avoid a massacre there and successfully defended Russell Banks and Dennis Banks, two of the leaders of the protest, at their subsequent trial in federal court.
Kunstler’s daughters (the filmmakers) were thoughtful about racism and their father’s struggle against it. I especially liked when they went back and tried to find out how their dad began to be conscious about racism. They included a brief section in the film that addressed this issue, noting that Kunstler’s race consciousness certainly didn’t come from his parents, who had black servants that used separate toilets and ate apart from the family in the kitchen. This is illustrated by home-movie footage of one of the nameless-black-servants in the family serving the grandmother and one of the filmmakers when she was a child.
The filmmakers were less thoughtful, in my view, in exploring their own racism around their objection to their father’s defending Yusef Salaam, one of the alleged “Central Park jogger rapists.” Years later, of course, Salaam’s conviction was overturned, and thus Kunstler’s defense of him was vindicated, but I wish the filmmakers had done more with this.
Returning to my point about the language around racism, the way the film is advertised and promoted and discussed (i heard a long interview with the filmmakers in which they never mentioned racism even once) is more typical of the way racism gets addressed today, which is in this oblique, passive-voice kind of way.
Today, to the extent that experts and non-experts even acknowledge racism, they may refer to “structural racism” or (in the world of public health where I work) “racial disparites.” But these all happen in the passive voice. Racial disparities just “happen.” There are no actors in today’s language of racial inequality. In Kunstler’s heydey (the civil rights era), there were clearly people who were responsible for the oppression of people of color, and it was white people acting in the interest of a white power structure. Losing that language, we’ve lost some clarity about what is at the root of racial inequality. Today, it seems, no one’s responsible as we live in this ‘racism without racists’ post-civil rights era.
David Reynolds, the author of an important biography of the white antislavery activist and abolitionist John Brown, did a NYT op-ed piece a few days back noting that this month marks the 150 anniversary of his hanging for organizing an insurrection against slavery. He gives historical background and calls for an official pardon for Brown. In October 1859,
With a small band of abolitionists, Brown had seized the federal arsenal there and freed slaves in the area. His plan was to flee with them to nearby mountains and provoke rebellions in the South. But he stalled too long in the arsenal and was captured.
Brown’s group of antislavery band of attackers included whites, including relatives and three Jewish immigrants, and a number of blacks. (Photo: Wikipedia) Radical abolitionists constituted one of the first multiracial groups to struggle aggressively against systemic racism in US history.
A state court in Virginia convicted him of treason and insurrection, and the state hanged him on December 2, 1859. Reynolds argues we should revere Brown’s raid and this date as a key milestone in the history of anti-oppression movements. Brown was not the “wild and crazy” man of much historical and textbook writing:
Brown reasonably saw the Appalachians, which stretch deep into the South, as an ideal base for a guerrilla war. He had studied the Maroon rebels of the West Indies, black fugitives who had used mountain camps to battle colonial powers on their islands. His plan was to create panic by arousing fears of a slave rebellion, leading Southerners to view slavery as dangerous and impractical.
We forget today just how extensively revered John Brown was in his day:
Ralph Waldo Emerson compared him to Jesus, declaring that Brown would “make the gallows as glorious as the cross.” Henry David Thoreau placed Brown above the freedom fighters of the American Revolution. Frederick Douglass said that while he had lived for black people, John Brown had died for them. A later black reformer, W. E. B. Du Bois, called Brown the white American who had “come nearest to touching the real souls of black folk.” . . . . By the time of his hanging, John Brown was so respected in the North that bells tolled in many cities and towns in his honor.
And then there were the Union troops singing his praises for years in the Battle Hymn of the Republic. Brown’s comments to reporters at his trial and hanging suggest how sharp his antiracist commitment was. For example, Brown’s lucid comment on his sentence of death indicates his commitment to racial justice: “Now, if it is deemed necessary that I should forfeit my life for the furtherance of the ends of justice, and mingle my blood further with the blood of my children and with the blood of millions in this slave country whose rights are disregarded by wicked, cruel, and unjust enactments,—I submit, so let it be done!”
Reynolds notes that Brown was not a perfect hero, but one with “blotches on his record,” yet none of the heroes of this era is without major blotches. Indeed,
Lincoln was the Great Emancipator, but he shared the era’s racial prejudices, and even after the war started thought that blacks should be shipped out of the country once they were freed. Andrew Jackson was the man of his age, but in addition to being a slaveholder, he has the extra infamy of his callous treatment of Native Americans, for which some hold him guilty of genocide.
Given his brave strike against slavery, Reynolds argues, he should be officially pardoned, first of course by the current governor of Virginia (Kaine). But
A presidential pardon, however, would be more meaningful. Posthumous pardons are by definition symbolic. They’re intended to remove stigma or correct injustice. While the president cannot grant pardons for state crimes, a strong argument can be made for a symbolic exception in Brown’s case. . . . Justice would be served, belatedly, if President Obama and Governor Kaine found a way to pardon a man whose heroic effort to free four million enslaved blacks helped start the war that ended slavery.
Brown did more than lead a raid against slavery. We should remember too that in May 1858, Brown and the great black abolitionist and intellectual Martin Delaney had already gathered together a group of black and white abolitionists for a revolutionary anti-slavery meeting just outside the United States, in the safer area of Chatham, Canada. Nearly four dozen black and white Americans met and formulated a new Declaration of Independence and Constitution (the first truly freedom-oriented one in North America) to govern what they hoped would be a growing band of armed revolutionaries drawn from the enslaved population; these revolutionaries would fight aggressively as guerillas for an end to the U.S. slavery system and to create a new constitutional system where justice and freedom were truly central. (For more, see here)
Today, one needed step in the antiracist cause is for all levels of U.S. education to offer courses that discuss the brave actions of antiracist activists like John Brown and Martin Delaney, and those many other, now nameless heroes who marched with them. And how about a major monument in Washington, DC to celebrate them and all the other abolitionist heroes? We have major monuments there to slaveholders, why not to those who died in trying to overthrow slavery?