Racial Justice in the United States

By the Inclusion NextWork team in partnership with Dennis Parker, based on our community conversation held on April 22, 2018

Racial justice is one of the most difficult issues to address and discuss. The conversation is rife with emotion, historical trauma, defensiveness, and complexity. In recognition that racial differences play out in particular ways in countries around the world, in the United States there is an unfortunately long track record of silencing those who have stood up for racial justice. Often, real grievances go unaddressed or are overshadowed by those who have the privilege to turn away. The recent emergence of the narrative about American society being “colorblind,” while perhaps good-intentioned, does more to obscure and marginalize the very real differences in lived experiences endemic to this country.

Before we move on, let’s first acknowledge the long lineage of racial justice advocates from around the world on whose shoulders this conversation stands.  Within the context of the United States, social justice champions such as W.E.B Dubois, Dolores Huerta, Michelle Alexander, John Lewis, Wilma Mankiller, Grace Lee Boggs, Bryan Stevenson, Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay, Cesar Chavez, and so many others have written, spoken, educated, and advocated on behalf of creating a more racially just society for centuries. And yet, despite watershed moments such as the abolition of slavery, the codification of the Civil Rights Act, and the election of President Barack Obama, we still have a long way to go to achieving a society where one’s race no longer determines life outcomes.

We need to be race aware. It is therefore with the goal of keeping this nuanced topic front and center, especially in a time of national discord and polarization, that Inclusion NextWork was delighted to have Dennis Parker, Director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Racial Justice Program, facilitate a conversation on race and racial justice. During the discussion between Dennis and the participants, many important themes emerged, a few of which are highlighted below:

1)     Cultivating racial justice requires addressing individual attitudes and social systems. Beyond the more obvious interpersonal examples of racism that include using racial slurs or epithets, and racially motivated hate crimes, there exists a far-reaching, interlocking system of institutions, policies, and practices that disparately impact different racial groups. The way our society operates today remains heavily rooted in centuries of racist practices. All aspects of American life ranging from immigration, health care transportation, job and professional opportunities, housing, voting rights and access to polling stations, education, the justice system, relationships with law enforcement – just to name a few - are impacted by one’s race. The institutions behind each of these parts of life don’t exist in isolation (e.g. – the school to prison pipeline), and must be addressed systematically if change is to be sustainable.  

2)     When it comes to race, white people as the dominant group need to be a part of the solution. If American culture and national discourse around race is going to change, white people need to be involved. Traditional conversations about the privileges white people hold are often met with defensiveness, particularly in a context where we all supposedly “pull ourselves up by our bootstraps.” Asking people to acknowledge and dismantle a system that benefits them makes this work doubly difficult. However, if social justice practitioners and advocates can engage the white majority by enrolling them as allies committed to a mutual cause of a better tomorrow rather than holding each individual personally responsible for the privileges of their group, the space for collaboration and partnership can emerge.  Without bringing white people into the conversation, the status quo won’t change.

3)     Proactive and continuous focus on race, even in spaces that self-identify as liberal or progressive is imperative. We are all human. Sometimes our best intentions fail to align with the impact they have others. Commitment to a social good mission alone doesn’t necessarily ensure that in practice, our daily interactions and decisions are devoid of a disparate racial impact. In spaces “fighting the good fight,” we must be especially mindful about continually assessing how we show up to others and how we impact those around us. Starting from a baseline that we all have more to learn and asking for feedback are important first steps towards more inclusive social justice work. 

4)     In order to create racial justice, this examination needs to be continuous. Because American society is so heavily racialized, organizations and institutions should be using race as an interactive lens through which to assess all decisions and actions. Akin to an environmental impact statement, groups committed to addressing the racial impact of their work or mission can create a racial justice impact statement. Organizations that make race an intrinsic criterion for decisions set the example for individuals to do the same in their personal lives.

Effectively addressing questions of racial justice in the United States requires first acknowledging the ways in which race continues to operate in our society today. Laws and policy changes aren’t enough, nor should they be mistaken for cure-alls. It is everyone’s responsibility to engage in these ongoing conversations, and in their respective spaces, bring a racially cognizant lens to their communities.

To that end, we warmly invite you to share your thoughts in the comments section below. We would love to hear from you about your experiences working towards racial justice in your organization, community or personal life.  Keep in mind that the beauty of diversity is that we each have a perspective to share and ask that all comments be respectful and designed to further, rather than shut down, the conversation. Some starting questions to ponder are below:

  • What are the challenges you encountered and when have you been able to drive positive impact?
  •  If you live outside of the United States or have spent any time in other parts of the world, are there patterns or unique challenges you have noticed in different contexts?

More information about Dennis:

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Dennis Parker (@DennisDParker) is director of the ACLU Racial Justice Program, leading its efforts in combating discrimination and addressing other issues with a disproportionate impact on communities of color. Parker oversees work to combat the “School-to-Prison” pipeline, the profiling of airline passengers subjected to searches and wrongfully placed on watch lists and the racial bias in the criminal justice system. Prior to joining the ACLU, Parker was the chief of the Civil Rights Bureau in the Office of New York State Attorney General under Eliot Spitzer. He previously spent 14 years at the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund. Parker has also worked with the New York Legal Aid Society. He teaches Race, Poverty and Constitutional Law at New York Law School. He graduated from Harvard Law School and Middlebury College.

Jonathan BraxtonComment