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"How White Activists Embrace Racial Justice,"

by Mark R. Warren November/December 2010 issue of Poverty & Race

How can white Americans come to care enough about racism to take action to change the systems that produce and perpetuate racial inequality in this country? Communities of color have long organized to build the power to press for change. But that is not enough. Greater support among white Americans is necessary if our country is to make further progress in advancing the cause of racial justice. If the nature of racism 30 or 40 years ago was one of overt racism, in my view the problem today is largely one of white passivity in the face or continued racial inequality. Although intentional and overt racism is not always necessary for institutional racism to persist, positive action is required in order to change institutions and policies that create and perpetuate racial injustice.

However, if white people are not victims of racial discrimination themselves, and if their closest family and friends are not victims of discrimination, how can they come to care enough about racism to take action against it? I sought answers to that question by studying 50 white people who became committed activists for racial justice. I asked people how they first became aware of racism and this is one of the stories I heard:

Jim Capraro grew up in Marquette Park, Chicago, in the fifties and early sixties, a child of Italian Catholic immigrants. His neighbors, like his parents, were white working-class ethnics who had moved out of Chicago’s inner city to this neighborhood of modest homes. Jim’s family and the nuns and teachers at his Catholic high school taught him that the future was bright, that America was the land of opportunity, “the greatest country in the world.” When Jim was sixteen, however, he experienced an incident that would alter his sense of the world profoundly. It was the summer of 1966 and Jim’s parents had just given him permission to use the family car for the first time on a date. This was going to be a big day for Jim, but not for the reason he had in mind.
Jim took a break from preparations for the date and walked out of his house—straight into the middle of an open housing demonstration in Marquette Park. He recounts what he saw:
I saw a huge crowd of white people, four or five deep, on the sidewalk going out into the street. There were policemen with batons holding them off away from the street. People were throwing beer bottles, just hurling them, at something. Across the street there’s some big hubbub, and I could see black people. I could also see clergy who were not black. They all had signs, and the signs said things like End Slums, Open Housing. It was a demonstration. And it was going past the Marquette Park monument…. People are jeering and yelling, “N-ggers go home,” and it’s terrible. It’s ugly. And it was so strange, because literally twenty minutes before, I’m thinking, “got to gas up the car. I’m going on a date!”

At the intersection, a black couple came up in a car and got stopped at a stoplight. The crowd pushes past the police and surrounds this car. I remember this so vividly —it’s a Corvair, Chevy Corvair. Crowd totally surrounds the car. The people inside the car are really afraid. I mean, they’re just terrified. People start rocking this car back and forth. The people inside are literally huddled. The light is red. They’re stopped. There’s a crowd all around them. A girl about my age jumps up on the hood, screaming and yelling, and swearing at the people inside, and kicking at the windshield in front of the driver. I remember thinking she would have mangled their faces, if there wasn’t this windshield in the way.
Jim returned to his house and this is what he said, reflecting on the day’s events:
I don’t know that I was there more than a half an hour, maybe forty minutes, but it was the longest half-hour in my life. And it changed my life forever. Kind of an epiphany, I guess. When I went home, that night I couldn’t sleep. I had this never-ending stream of thoughts. Everything I thought I had learned or was led to believe, I thought was a lie. We’re not the greatest country in the world. I was always taught that we were the greatest. Six years ago, John Kennedy was elected President. What happened? What just happened two blocks from my house? This can’t be the best neighborhood. Look at what people do? Look at how they were behaving. Anybody could grow up to be President—I believed this, right? Well, I didn’t think the people who were marching in the park that day had any shot at ever being President.

I got mad. How dare these people do this stuff? This is a democracy. People have a right to say things and march, and think of themselves as being equal with everybody else, and in fact be equal to everybody else.
Jim went on to college and heard Stokely Carmichael give a black power speech challenging whites who cared about racism to stop coming South to help African Americans and combat racism in their own communities. Jim took that charge seriously and stayed in Marquette Park where he helped found the Greater Southwest Development Corporation and has spent the last 40 years combating redlining and white flight, and working for economic development and stable racial integration in a neighborhood that had become a symbol of Northern racism.

Seminal Experiences and the Moral Impulse to Act

Jim’s story is a powerful one, and it’s the kind of story I heard from almost everyone I interviewed. Jim had what I call a seminal experience where he directly witnessed racism. This direct experience generated an anger at injustice, but more so at the violation of deeply held values of fairness. This led Jim to what I call a moral impulse to act for racial justice. Although Jim and the other white activists I interviewed began their activism with this kind of moral stance, their commitment to racial justice grew and deepened as they began to take action with others to create change.

The 50 white Americans I interviewed were active in three fields: education, community organizing and development, and legal advocacy work, often around criminal justice issues. I selected the respondents by mapping the fields of racial justice activism and consulting with leaders of racial justice organizations in those fields. I looked for people who self-identified as white and who worked for institutional and policy change. I wanted to make clear that I was not studying people who saw themselves as “saviors” of people of color, but rather as serious collaborators with them. I interviewed people from a range of ages, both men and women, from across the country, including activists in the Bay Area, Los Angeles, Chicago, Milwaukee, Dallas, New Orleans, Greensboro and the Baltimore/Washington area. I conducted extensive interviews with each activist focused on their life histories and activist trajectories. I also asked them about their contemporary understandings of their experience working to build multiracial organizations, to influence the beliefs and behaviors of other whites, and their own understanding of their place as white people working for racial justice.

The Power of Relationships with People of Color

I analyzed the interviews and constructed a model of the development of commitment by white people to racial justice. Activists start with a moral impulse but do not stop there. The second key process occurs as white activists build relationships with people of color. I found, first, that white Americans learned more deeply about the realities of racism and came to see their own experiences as white people in a different way through these relationships.

Penda Hair is the co-director of the Advancement Project in Washington, DC, an organization that works with communities to advance racial justice through law, public policy and strategic communication. Penda had a seminal experience growing up in Knoxville, Tennessee, that helped shape her commitment to racial justice. She eventually went to college and law school and then got a job with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, where she traveled the country fighting discrimination and voting rights cases. Penda built relationships with her black clients and with black colleagues at LDF through which she started learning more about the realities of racism. Here she describes an early experience (using pseudonyms):
My first case was a claim of promotion discrimination by the postal service in Jacksonville, Florida. My first client that I put on the witness stand was a person named James Douglas, who had applied for something like 25 or 30 promotions at the post office. He was a mail carrier, African-American. I went to his house, met his family, and talked to him about all these jobs. He had been in the army in World War II. He had gotten a college degree and a master’s degree, and the only job he could get was working as a mail carrier.

It occurred to me that my father did not have a college degree or a master’s degree, was roughly the same age as Mr. Douglas, had come out of the army and had gotten this nice job at Union Carbide. He worked his way up through the ranks. We always thought we were deserving because my father worked hard. He got up at 5:30 in the morning to make sure he was there on time. He worked the swing shift, which means that he worked one week 8 to 4 and the next week 4 to midnight, and the next week midnight to 8. That was a hard life for us, we thought.

But when I saw Mr. Douglas’s life, it was like, “Oh, I’m privileged.” For the first time I understood in a different way that I was racially privileged. Because of my father’s ability to get that job at Union Carbide, I got put in the best high school in the city where we lived and got the education that allowed me to go to Harvard. I could see that Mr. Douglas’s kids probably didn’t have as many of those opportunities. I saw the intergenerational effect in a personal way, but I also saw it in a structural way in all the promotions that he had been denied, and the way that other people in the class action case were kept back.
Penda built close relationship with colleagues, where she learned more:
One night we were in the car driving home from a class action meeting with a white man and black woman in the front seat, Sam and Barbara, and a white woman and black man in the back seat, me and an expert witness. We were stopped by a police car. I remember it was on a dark road and there didn’t seem to be much around. We were driving by railroad tracks. Barbara and Sam freak out. We look like two interracial couples. The tension and fear became so palpable in that car immediately. “Oh my God, you know, this is lynching territory.”

At first I was totally oblivious. To me, policemen were benign. They give you speeding tickets every once in a while, but otherwise they protected you. I just remember that feeling of fear sweeping through that car and I became afraid also. We were sitting there in the dark, and these bright lights were shining from behind. Then at some point I hear Sam say from the front seat, “The police officer is a brother,” which meant he was black. The police officer was black. Then of course the tension all goes away. He gave us some routine warning. We had a light missing or something. But everybody else in that car knew to be afraid. I didn’t even know to be afraid. So it was one of the first times I started seeing victimization from the other side of the color line.
I found that relationships with people of color led to something more than understanding for the white activists I interviewed. Through these relationships, white activists began to care more personally about racism because it affected real people they knew and cared about. For example, Penda eventually became head of the LDF’s office in Washington and was there when President Bill Clinton nominated Lani Guinier, a close friend and former African-American colleague at LDF, to be Assistant Attorney General for Civil Rights. The right wing immediately attacked her as a “quota queen,” and Clinton abandoned her in what was widely seen as a humiliating dismissal.
Lani was attacked because of her views on voting rights and so it was personal in the sense that, well, I’m a voting rights lawyer. I have the same views as Lani. If she can be attacked and humiliated publicly, then that’s essentially saying the same thing about me. And then it was personal in the sense that Lani was staying at my house part of the time when she would come down to do her D.C. round of meetings. I remember I had just had a baby. At the time, when the newspapers were writing all these things about how anti-white she was, I remember her sitting in my house in the rocking chair, holding my white, blond-headed baby. And it was just surreal. How can this happen? How can they paint a picture of her that is so beyond reality, and yet they get away with it?

Moral Purpose and Moral Vision

If some whites start out with a moral impulse leading them to do “for” people of color, through relationships white activists start to work “with” people of color and care more deeply about racism. However, they have still not embraced the cause as their own. The third piece of the puzzle is what I call the development of a moral vision. I found two parts to this. First, the white activists I interviewed report that racial justice activism provides a meaningful life for them. For example, Josh Kern attended a Jewish high school that fostered social justice values. But after college, Josh pursued a career in business consulting. Disillusioned, he went to Georgetown Law School, was placed in a high school in Washington where he had a seminal experience that ignited his passion for educational justice. Josh went on to help found the Thurgood Marshall Academy, a civil rights-oriented public charter high school in Washington, DC. Josh reflects on the trajectory of his life in this way:
Those high school years were years that I really felt myself develop and become my own person. It took me ten years to get that back. This time in my life and that time in my life were the only two times where I really felt alive, good about what I was doing, connected in a way that felt like I’m a whole person.

I find it very fulfilling, very meaningful. It gives my life purpose and it’s something that I’ve come to feel passionate about as I’ve gotten immersed in it. I actually think this work has been incredibly beneficial for me, because it feeds me in some way. I believe in it in my core. I’m trying to articulate why I do it. It’s not easy to say, but I know this. I wake up every morning and I’m excited about the day’s work. In three years of consulting, I never woke up and was excited about what I was doing.
I found that activists gain this sense of moral purpose through working together with others. Bay Area organizer Ingrid Chapman stresses the sense of community she finds in her work:
I have been so inspired by the different work that people are doing. It gives me a sense of possibility and gives me inspiration to continue to struggle and continue to build my hope that another world is possible. For me that is really big. Lots of people that I know want to just disengage because they have no hope that another world is possible. They are disconnected from struggles for social justice and feel totally disempowered and have turned to drugs and alcohol to make it. That sense of community helps me keep going in a world that is really disempowering and really degrading in a lot of ways.
I asked people what kind of society are they working to create. I found and analyzed six components to what I call the visions that they articulated. What was striking was that almost everyone led with a notion of human community. Activists report that they are trying to build a new kind of multiracial society and community where people care about each other, treat each other with respect and where everyone’s full potential can be developed. Indeed, activists say that this new kind of community is needed because racism undermines the humanity of whites as well as blacks. The Chicago community organizer Madeline Talbott put it powerfully and bluntly with an analogy to Noah’s ark:
I think being white and privileged in a racist society, you feel like you’re one of the family members of Noah on the ark. You hear all the people beating on the doors trying to get in and you’ve got to find a way to open the door. This work allows you to crack the door open, which otherwise you’d have to kill yourself. I mean that’s the way it feels to me. You feel like that kind of privilege is killing you. It’s one of the things that makes white society less connected and less welcoming and less warm because it’s constantly protecting itself from the people and the flood on the outside. It’s a terrible way to live.

Even though I probably started in order to help, I’m here for me now. I’m getting huge benefits out of this myself. There’s no sacrifice. I’m doing what I want and I get to experience change and wins and transformations and be a part of personal relationships that you couldn’t get in America any other way. It’s a great opportunity. I feel that very deeply.
Activists, whether explicitly faith-based or not, express a moral vision very similar to Martin Luther King’s Beloved Community. Z. Holler, a retired Presbyterian minister and one of the organizers of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission on racism in Greensboro, North Carolina, described it this way:
Where everyone is honored and respected for who they are, where the brokenness and the sins are recognized. We help one another see our weaknesses. Others help us see what we don’t see. We help them see what they don’t see. Together, if what we see in each other is grossly unjust, we call it by name. We try to come to grips with it. We forgive one another. We move ahead as best we can. And that means policy; that means the structures of government; it means what you do with the economy. The goals you pursue.
Milwaukee community leader Reverend Joseph Ellwanger put it this way:
It is practicing antiracism and insisting that we work together across racial, ethnic, denominational lines. That in itself is a living out of what King describes as the Beloved Community. So we’re not just working for the ultimate goal of social justice, which certainly is what we’re working for. But we’re also working at building community and in the process we have to dismantle some of the expectations and the fears and the structures that our society has built.
The people I interviewed are not primarily visionaries; nor are they moralists. They are practitioners who believe that racism blocks a more progressive social and political agenda that would materially benefit the vast majority of white people as well. But I found that what sustains them is not just the day-to-day practice, but rather working together in relationship to build a new kind of community. Indeed, their moral visions are worked out in the present through taking action with others across racial lines.
Roxane Auer, a young labor organizer in Los Angeles, perhaps summed it up best:
It’s not really about contributing to someone else’s cause. I feel that I’m contributing to the world that I would rather want to live in.… I think extreme inequalities hurt everybody. For human beings to be very complete and really experience the full sense of community or a full, happy life there needs to be more equality in it. So I see it as serving myself. I see it as working for what I want, not just what they want or need. It’s what we all need to be happier and more centered and fulfilled in this world.

Heart, Hand and Head

My findings run counter to much conventional wisdom. Efforts to persuade white Americans typically focus on the cognitive dimension. If we can get whites to understand racism and discrimination, we believe they will oppose it. Or we make rational arguments for the interests of white Americans in racial justice. For example, it costs more to incarcerate a child than to educate him or her. However, I found little evidence from my research that knowledge alone moves many whites to caring and action. Hardly anyone I interviewed said anything like: “I read about racism in a book and decided to do something about it.” Rather, I found knowledge to play a supportive role in the development of white people’s commitment. Knowledge about racism is critically important for determining how to combat it. But it does not provide the motivation to do it in the first place. Numbers are “just” numbers if disconnected from real people whites know and care about.

A more compelling approach places knowledge and interest-based arguments in alignment with the moral and relational processes that engage values and foster caring and commitment. I sum this up in the model of “heart, hand and head.” Whites come to racial awareness and commitment when their values are engaged (heart) through action in which they build relationships (hand) that align with knowledge and interests (head).

Progress in moving larger numbers of white Americans toward racial justice will not come easy. We know that local community organizing efforts over many years built the foundation for the emergence of civil rights movement in the fifties and sixties. The activists I interviewed are working hard with people of color and other whites to build a new foundation for just such a movement to re-emerge in our era.

Mark R. Warren is Associate Professor of Education at Harvard University. This article is a summary/précis of his just-published book, Fire in the Heart: How White Activists Embrace Racial Justice (Oxford Univ. Press, 2010). A sociologist, he has published extensively on community organizing efforts to revitalize urban communities, transform public schools, and expand civic and political participation. He is the author of Dry Bones Rattling: Community Building to Revitalize American Democracy (Princeton Univ. Press, 2001). mark_warren@

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