People often ask me why I’m so obsessed with anti-racism. I talk about it, read about, and, obviously, write about it constantly. People wonder why I devote so much time, thought, and virtual ink to just one source of human suffering when there are so many to choose from.
I get where they’re coming from. There’s lots of injustice out there. Children live in poverty and suffer hunger and abuse. Women are denied reproductive justice. People with disabilities are routinely denied access to public life. And then there’s the privatization of everything, from basic services to water. Surely, turning shared natural resources into commodities that we manage for profit rather than to serve human need is a very, very bad thing, right?
Right. Roger on all that. But I’m still a race man. Why?
I started out in community work in order to be of service. I became a GED tutor, and later a provider of services to families in crisis. Once in that work, I started to see two things. First, that poor people will never receive their fair share of public investment in necessary services unless we win greater government accountability to those same poor people. Second, to paraphrase Dr. King, that charity, while vitally important, will never on its own relieve us of the injustices that make charity necessary to begin with.
In short, I figured out that the weak will always be at the mercy of the powerful. Ignorance, prejudice, callousness, even hate may be the rationale for injustice, but all the hate in the world doesn’t give you the ability to oppress people. For that, you need power. To truly help poor people and end poverty and injustice, we need to reorganize power where it is concentrated in the hands of too few people, no matter who those people are.
This lesson was reinforced by my experiences with the people I served. Hundreds of cases of domestic violence were presented to me over those years. In case after case, I saw how the abuse of power can result in terrible harm. But I didn’t just meet the victims. I also met hundreds of perpetrators. Those encounters revealed complex human beings who, in their calmer moments, were not that different than me. They were often the victims of violence themselves struggling to survive in a culture that gives many men little else but the privileges of masculinity to dignify their lives, and then teaches them to express that masculinity through domination and violence.
We treat those who commit acts of domestic violence as though they are outliers, but what if they’re not? I came to conclusion that we have to devise some other way of protecting victims than simply locking up all of the perpetrators. Our prisons cannot hold them all, especially since our culture keeps creating them as well as the conditions that are likely to trigger them.
Witnessing both the victimization and flawed humanity of perpetrators of violence as well as the remarkable resilience and compassion of violence survivors changed me. I came to see that we each have within us the capacity for great compassion, even in the wake of violence committed against us, and the capacity to do great harm. To reduce the risk of harm, and exaggerate our capacity for compassion, we need to reorganize power in ways that reward cooperation and conflict resolution, rather than brute force (something our Congress could stand to learn from).
That’s why I became an activist. I realized that in order to reduce oppression, we need to reorganize power. And it’s also why I became an anti-racist.
Racism is one of the most powerful rationalizations for the consolidation of unjust power in the modern world. In fact, racism was the definitive justification by which European settlers first accumulated the power to oppress whole peoples. And a culture of tyranny developed in the name of racism that continues to be one of the greatest obstacles to genuine democratic accountability in this country.
Racism causes us to rationalize oppression by convincing us that by dint of racial superiority some people have not just the right but the duty to exploit other people. Moreover that duty is founded in the notion that others are not just less human, but less divine, facilitating such extremes of exploitation that even slavery and genocide become possible.
Extreme exploitation results in extreme concentrations of power. And the means by which we exercise unjust power live beyond their original uses. As long as we allow them to live on, we are all threatened by them.
When people of color suffer, our suffering is no more an affront to humanity than the suffering of any other people. The color of our skin ought not be the rationale for justice denied, nor for justice served. But I’m passionately anti-racist because I believe racism is one of the ways we concentrate power in the hands of the few at the expense of the many. And those concentrations of unaccountable power that racism, among other ills, have created stand between us and a government accountable to all of the people in its care.