In the wake of continuous acquittals of police officers killing unarmed Black civilians, racial justice activists across the U.S. continue to fight to hold the police and law enforcement agencies accountable for the increased controlling and surveillance of communities of color and the routine murder of Black people during police interactions and while in police custody.
Race Forward: The Center for Racial Justice Innovation defines racial justice as “the systematic fair treatment of people of all races, resulting in equitable opportunities and outcomes for all.”
Racial justice necessitates an end to broken windows policing, stop and frisk policies, the school to prison pipeline, privatization of public schools through charter systems, and more – all of which disproportionately impact people of color – while demanding culturally competent and affordable healthcare providers along with accessible medical facilities, culturally competent educators teaching culturally and historically accurate curriculum, and affordable, safe housing that builds up, instead of pushing out communities of color.
While racial justice has always been a rallying point for communities of color, contemporary examples can be witnessed by looking towards the gains of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s and 70s to challenge “separate but equal” policies in education, public transit, and voter’s rights.
Put plainly, racial justice is a framework for social change grounded in the belief that by identifying, challenging, and holding accountable the social and systemic inequalities that exists based solely on race, we can shift culture and practice toward a sustainable and just world. It is about fighting against the specific, disproportionate ways oppression and marginalization play out when directed towards people of color for simply being people of color. In order to achieve racial justice, we must also work to destroy white supremacy, which is the institutionally perpetuated oppression of peoples of color by white peoples for the purpose of maintaining and defending a system of power.
Racial justice calls for us to recognize the ways race influences not only our interpersonal interactions, but also our interactions with the state. It is an acknowledgement that people of color deserve dignity and to be recognized as full individuals.
In order to truly understand the fight for racial justice, we must understand the violent history of race as a social construction.
So, what is race?
From its inception, race has been a contentious category. Birthed from the violence and exploitation of people of color throughout global history, race has played a vital role in not only our development of self and how we navigate the world, but also the ways in which global systems, structures, and the powers that be interact with us.
History has shown us that race classification was created by a ruling class of white people during the early onset of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade with the sole purpose of making it easier to dominate, control, and exploit the labor of enslaved Africans while preserving the wealth and power of colonists. Said colonists were able to enshrine their power by creating a system of privilege and power that bestowed unearned benefits to those deigned worthy of the shroud of whiteness.
The justification of race, whiteness in particular, was bolstered by a system of racism propagated through the false narrative that deemed enslaved Africans, and anyone not included in the label white, to be less than human; with human now being commonly understood as white. It was this belief supported by racism and scientific bias that led to the idea that positive worth could be ascribed to the aforementioned categories of skin color, body shape, and intelligence and more based on their proximity to the Euro-centric ideal.
Race, meet racism
Racism is not a response to the existence of race or our acknowledgement of the category. Racism, as an ideology, was formed alongside race to further sustain the power of white elites. It’s not enough to create a system of privilege if you don’t have a system of discrimination to demonstrate the consequences of not falling into or belonging to the dominant group.
While one might be quick to turn to the dictionary to define racism, we should be mindful that dictionaries, like most texts, are created by people who are not without their biases and own self-interest. To paraphrase an often repeated and terribly sourced quotation “history is written by the victors.”
The dictionary is not an objective text and we should not treat it as such. Instead, we should look at it as yet another tool to propagate dominant social ideas and understandings of language. Which is to say, dictionaries serve as one way of legitimizing socially accepted language spoken, written, and conjured up by white people while disparaging the language of people of color.
To define racism, we must look outside of dictionaries. We must take into account the purpose of race (to divide and conquer), who is most impacted by this system (people of color), and how this belief has shaped social and institutional practices.
A sociological perspective would then define racism as “a host of practices, beliefs, social relations and phenomena that work to reproduce a racial hierarchy and social structure that yields superiority and privilege for [white people], and discrimination and oppression for [people of color].” This definition of racism takes into account the way in which our construction of race, as we discussed earlier, grants certain power and privilege to people labeled white while doing the exact opposite to people of color.
Understanding race to operate the way that it does, we can see racism manifest itself in the underrepresentation of people of color in mainstream media, except as stereotypes and caricatures. And when we do show up, it’s considered a threat to white people. The overrepresentation of people of color in police interactions and prison populations due to racially motivated stops and biased laws. And the biased reporting on people of color in news media, particularly Black people who are often made to be more threatening and violent than white people. And sometimes, it can be more insidious.
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Furthermore, through a system of racism, the classification of white, while not a get out of jail free card – except for when it is – by its very nature comes with a system of privileges or social conditions that make navigating the world in a shroud of whiteness, for lack of a better term, easier. This is not to say that white people do not struggle as individuals. Whiteness doesn’t negate gender, class, ability, and so on. But whiteness does often mean that white people are often given the benefit of the doubt, presumed to be innocent, in situations where people of color are often considered to be automatically in the wrong.
So how do we challenge and change this system? How do we achieve racial justice?
We can’t rely on ideas of colorblindness to move us forward. Not acknowledging race does nothing but invalidate the lived experiences of people of color and allows the current system to reproduce.
In order to challenge racism and achieve racial justice, we must have more explicit conversations about race, its construction, and its influence on our world. We must acknowledge the ways in which race and white supremacy contribute to and propels forward body terror and violence targeting communities of color, which includes queer folks, trans folks, dis/abled folks and so on, every single day. And then we must do the hard work of reprogramming and extricating our minds and bodies from these dangerous systems.
Kerry Washington puts it perfectly: “I’m not interested in sort of living in a world where my race is not a part of who I am. I am interested in living in a world where our races, no matter what they are, don’t define our trajectory in life.”
We must create a world where racial difference is celebrated, where cultural exchange is authentic and respectful, where “we are all human” has meaning beyond an empty promise.
Furthermore, white folks must examine your privilege and access to power! You don’t have to be a perfect “ally”. Solidarity is an ever changing, evolving process. But you must be able to acknowledge that racism and racial inequality are social problems that you contribute to regardless of your intentions or whether you feel threatened talking about race. You must be able to own this and have a conversation that is less about defending yourself and more about strategizing around how you can make yourself, as an accomplice, safer for folks of color. Here’s a good starting point!
[Featured Image: Four people stand outside at night in West Baltimore, Maryland, their arms linked, with serious expressions on their faces. They are taking part in a protest related to the death of Freddie Gray in Baltimore Police custody. Source: Arash Azizzada, Flickr]