In towns and cities across every state in the nation, protests have erupted in bitterness and rage. In the year 2020 — decades after the civil rights movement and black urban uprisings of the 1960s, and six years after the explosion of the Black Lives Matter movement — the sober reality is that black lives in America still do not matter in the face of daily injustice and police terror.
Racist attitudes, from the most embarrassing to the most pernicious, help reinforce white supremacy on a day-to-day basis. If state institutions — from violent police forces to segregated, unequal education to fatally disparate health care — form the bars that hold black America in second-class citizenship, the ideology of racism is the diet of the prison guards. For every Amy Cooper who calls the cops on a black man, knowing full well the potential consequences of such a call, to every white doctor who disbelieves a person of color when they arrive at the hospital, the repercussions of racist ideas are undeniably real.
It is therefore useful for people, especially white people, to examine their ingrained assumptions and implicit biases. Living in a racist society means absorbing bigoted ideas — they are the air we breathe. Humility and a sense of how much we have to learn is therefore warranted.
At the same time, the (often well-intentioned) rush these days among white progressives to soul-search and “check their privilege” risks allowing guilt to guide actions, causing them to stay on the sidelines, “mute themselves,” or retreat into internal reflection instead of building solidarity and joining the struggle.
White people “stepping up” to “take responsibility” for their privilege won’t get us very far. But forging real solidarity through concrete campaigns, protests, and movements can. There are a couple of reasons why.
First, our struggles are structural, and they are interconnected. We live in a society that quickly marshaled thousands of troops, dozens of curfews, and countless police armed to the teeth in response to protests, but that left hospitals without enough ventilators and PPE to deal with a deadly pandemic. We live in a society with devastating levels of homelessness, on the precipice of a potential wave of evictions, but that would rather spend money to arrest and brutalize people than provide decent housing.
The movement on the streets is insisting that we defund the police and redirect those resources to hospitals, schools, and public housing, recognizing that racial injustice and the economic strangulation of black America cannot be separated from our corroded public budgets and decrepit social welfare state. If we are going to root out racism, we need collective, mass action that can push for far-reaching material solutions and change the very political economy of the United States.
Think about two potential courses of action. A young white man, appalled by the racism of American policing, could spend his time stewing over the instances he allowed his unconscious biases to inform the way he spoke to a classmate or the advantages he received when applying for a loan. He could stop there. Or he could actively support the movement pushing for transformative change by organizing his neighbors and coworkers to join protests, mobilizing with his union to get police out of schools, or joining a local campaign to defund the police in his city.
Which line of action will have a chance of attacking segregation and the unconscionable lack of investment in black neighborhoods? Which will have a chance of breaking the ties between police departments and schools and dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline? Which will have a chance of funding the public hospitals and personnel that could address the deadly racial disparity in COVID-19 deaths and ensure everyone gets the care they need?
The obstacles to winning these kinds of far-reaching reforms are immense.
But if the struggle for racial justice is going to avoid being isolated and quelled, multiracial solidarity is essential. The movement will need a base that is wide enough and deep enough to force concessions from an entrenched power structure that benefits from the status quo.
That solidarity is not only necessary, it has a material basis. While white people clearly do not suffer under the boot of racism, poor, working-class, and even middle-class white people have much to gain from the fight for racial justice: one of the primary reasons the United States has such a lackluster welfare state and weak labor movement is that racism has been used to divide people and obscure their shared interest in challenging corporate and ruling elites.
This leads, secondly, to the question of the relationship between structural change and racist ideas. The social and institutional foundations of racism cannot be dismantled one person at a time through the lens of our psychologies. Systemic and deep, social changes require mass action and political organizing.
It could be useful or satisfying to argue with your racist uncle and try to persuade him to gradually shift his worldview. But sea changes in public consciousness — the kind of sea change that has led hundreds of thousands to pour onto the street despite the twin dangers of a pandemic and a police riot, millions more to identify with protesters, and triggered major cracks within the ruling elite — are ultimately a product of mass movements. Black Lives Matter has done more to transform public consciousness than anything since the upheavals of the 1960s.
Of course, we’re still left with a sizable swath of hardened bigots and racists. But these people are less likely to shift their views from private conversations, and more likely to reconsider due to the combined impact of the wide ideological reach of a mass movement; legislative action that makes concrete changes to desegregate neighborhoods, schools, and hospitals; and real economic progress, which would deliver a living wage, free higher education, and an adequately funded national health care system to improve the lives of working people and undermine racial disparities.
There is a rich tradition in the United States of multiracial organizing, and of white people putting their bodies on the line in solidarity with people of color to fight racism. To win substantive change, we don’t have to disavow one-on-one conversations or personal education. But we do have to set our sights much higher, on dismantling the institutions that entrench racial inequality and violence. That requires getting involved in political struggle, not just looking inward.