Free From The Inside Out: A Cursory Examination of Racism’s Reach Within Social Movements
Recently, I had the opportunity to speak in-depth with a twenty-something year old college student and community activist. We were on our way to observe a legislative hearing in Annapolis when a discussion about the state of racial justice in Baltimore’s social movements emerged.
As she shared some of the internal struggles and questions that she has about organizing alongside those whom classify themselves as “White,” I couldn’t help but to feel like I was listening to a familiar song whose words I have long memorized.
In sharing a bit of her story, she was telling my story. She spoke about how, in the name of social justice organizing, well-financed and/or well-connected, White liberals have exerted disproportionate levels of power in rooms full of young, African1activists. She spoke about the levels of discomfort that she has when suggestions made by “professional” organizers (i.e. White folks) are granted instant credibility while community residents who speak from experiential wisdom tend to be at best tolerated or trotted out to be used in supremely scripted ways. She spoke of the economic pressure that she’s faced in having to take a job that, by extension of the paycheck, censored and suppressed the fullness of her revolutionary spirit. (This is what Dr. Judson Jeffries calls “Careerism” and what author, Michael Porter describes as “paycheck slavery” in his book Kill Them Before They Grow: Misdiagnosis of African American boys in American classrooms.) Finally, she spoke of the internal debate that she experiences—often wondering if her perceptions and feelings are merely figments of her imagination and if there is anyone else who identifies with her.
Thankfully, during that car ride, I was able to affirm her feelings and testify to their validity based on my own experiences. In fact, I believe, that while not well connected, there is a growing number of American Africans in Baltimore who are beginning to voice a common refrain involving White supremacy’s reach into social movements that involve the Black community. We rail, and rightly so, against a vicious social and political system of exploitation, dehumanization, and oppression of Black people in the so-called United States of America, but we don’t often analyze racism/White supremacy’s influence within and upon Black social movements.
Take Baltimore for instance.
In this city, we are not regularly given to unfiltered analysis or discussions related to how those who classify themselves as White liberals or progressives impact social movements in communities of color. It is assumed that progressive Whites will be involved in Black organizing. In many social justice circles, it is assumed that White people will take leadership roles (whether explicitly or by way of more discreet influence). It is assumed that the focus of door-to-door organizing will happen in the Black community, not in White neighborhoods. It is assumed that White, Western values and ideals should be the goal of the group’s action. When interracial social justice groups gather in Baltimore4 to engage an issue that disproportionately impacts Black people, there is little objection when the terms are defined, the strategy is decided, and the “appropriate” partners are identified for the Blacks in the room…if they are in the room!
When one begins to raise questions about the injustices that are allowed to go on in the name of social justice organizing in the Black community, one is quickly muted and told that it’s really classism not racism or White supremacy that is the main culprit. (It’s hard not to get suspicious of social justice activists and organizers who never want to talk about racism/White supremacy and White privilege.)
This dynamic found within and upon Black social movements produces an arrangement that simply perpetuates the system that activists purport to fight against. Though it is wrapped in the veneer of “pseudo-social justice,” when it’s all said and done it is still an exploitative, dehumanizing, and oppressive social arrangement—just a more benevolent one.
Say It Loud
Instead of African people being empowered to speak to their own issues, in their own ways, and decide their own partners, and craft their own solutions, the current social arrangement ensures the continued and collective subjugation of African people to the White Power Structure. This is how Black people in Baltimore can be the numeric majority in terms of citizenry and the outright minority in what Dr. Neely Fuller calls the nine major areas of people activity2…including the nonprofit and social change sectors.
For far too long, African people have been turning to the “benevolent” White progressive community for answers, definitions, validity, strategy, and acceptance. And it is clear that that approach isn’t working and I dare say it will never work!
As South African Black Nationalist Steve Biko wrote: “We [Black people] must learn to accept that no group, however, benevolent, can ever hand power to the vanquished on a plate.”3 As ironic as this may sound coming from a Christian Pastor, no one is coming to save African people! As the Holy Quran says in 13: 11, “Verily, never will Allah (God) change the condition of a people until they change it themselves (with their own souls).” This Surah helps to make clear that the liberation of African people is primarily the responsibility of African people.
This is why I embrace Black Nationalism (locally) and Pan-Africanism (globally). For me, they are intertwined philosophies that not only put full responsibility for liberation within the Black community, but they also provide a relative framework for self-determination in light of racism/White supremacy, as thoroughly explained in Dr. Amos Wilson’s Blueprint for Black Power: A Moral, Political, and Economic Imperative for the 21st Century. According to Brother Malcolm X, Kwame Ture4, and countless others, Black Nationalism says that Black people should control every aspect of the politics in their own community. (This is a foregone conclusion in other ethnic communities.) Pan-Africanism, very simply put, speaks to the unity
and dignity of the hundreds of millions of African people throughout the Diaspora and on the continent of Africa—calling us together to see each other’s problems as our own and to see in each other the solution.
Black Nationalism and Pan-Africanism did not emerge out of a vacuum. They are sensible responses to racism/White supremacy that especially now present themselves as viable avenues for communal empowerment given that the more integrationist and gradualist approaches have not been able to provide uplift to the masses of Black people in Baltimore or in fact, this country.
A Word To White People
One might be tempted to read and hear in the unfiltered Black Nationalist perspective and conclude that there is no role for White people in Black people’s struggle for social justice and human rights. This would be an incorrect conclusion. White people certainly have a role in racial social justice movements.
However, that role is first as students—not as teachers. As Paulo Freire explains, “Who is better prepared than the oppressed to understand the terrible significance of an oppressive society? Who suffer the effects of oppression more than the oppressed? Who can better understand the necessity of liberation?”5
Authentic White allies of the African liberation struggle are those who come first to learn and one of the first lessons will be on how they benefit from the social arrangement constructed by the White Power Structure—irrespective of their political party, philosophical leaning, or economic standing. They will examine the privilege afforded them by the system (not inherent) and learn how to use that privilege responsibly. They will learn how they are dehumanized themselves by racism/White supremacy and understand what Freire means when he writes, “only power that springs from the weakness of the oppressed will be sufficiently strong to free both [the oppressed and the oppressor].”6 They will not professionally position themselves on the periphery of Black oppression for the purpose of financial gain and credibility. (There are far too many so-called White allies who are making tons of money and being awarded numerous grants for their “messianic work” in the Black community— while the Black people they “serve” are left out in the cold when it’s time to collect the checks!)
Then after being re-educated, those in true solidarity will position themselves to be led by African people especially as issues that disproportionately impact the Black community are engaged. They will check their privilege and any semblances of false generosity at the door to stand in solidarity with, instead of assuming superiority over. The bulk of their activity within self-determining Black social movements, however, will not be in the Black community. White allies of African liberation struggles will know that their responsibility is primarily to the White community. They’ll resist the temptation to constantly find themselves in Black social settings while keeping their own personal/professional circles unchallenged and comfortable with the status quo.
A Way Forward
The world over has been blessed by a myriad of social movements, but as we’ve experienced them, we’ve realized that the ends do not justify the means. The path that we choose in order to bring about a more just society should be one that dignifies the humanity of all involved. Unfortunately, the prevailing character of too many social movements (and especially the nonprofit and foundation class7) in Baltimore is one that allows for racism/White supremacy to permeate the most
“progressive” circles. It is incumbent upon us who dream and work for a new society to search out the inner rooms of our own organizing. We must begin asking the kindsvof questions that make us uncomfortable and challenging the unspoken assumptions that govern our social justice activity. We must quickly discard the old arrangements that provided safe haven for a softer form of White supremacy within our movements and give space for new arrangements of power, leadership, and values to emerge. It is no question that the White Power Structure that dehumanizes, exploits, and oppresses us can be dismantled. The question is can we recognize its infection within us and within our movements and provide the proper antibiotic so that we can experience a holistic freedom from its poison.
Rev. Heber Brown, III is pastor of Pleasant Hope Baptist Church in North Baltimore and blogs at www.FaithinActionOnline.com.
1 African, Black, and American African will
be used interchangeably throughout this
2 Neely Fuller, Jr. states in his seminal work,
The United Independent Compensatory Code/
System/Concept: a textbook/workbook for
thought, speech, and/or action for victims of
racism (white supremacy), that the nine major
areas of people activity are: Economics, Edu-
cation, Entertainment, Labor, Law, Politics,
Religion, Sex, and War.
3 Biko, Steve, I Write What I Like, 1978.
4 Ture, Kwame and Charles V. Hamilton,
Black Power: The Politics of Liberation, 1967.
5 Freire, Paulo, Pedagogy of the Oppressed,
7 Thorough analysis of the Nonprofit Indus-
trial Complex is provided in the wonderful
text, The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Be-
yond the Non-profit Industrial Complex edited
by Incite! Women of Color Against Violence.