On Sunday, January 17th, the First Unitarian Universalist Church in Nashville invited us to be one of several speakers at their MLK Day Celebration, focused on the State of the Dream. It was an inspirational afternoon with plenty of calls to action from social justice organizations working hard to build MLK’s dream of a just society and beloved community. Two members of the SURJ-Nashville steering committee spoke at the event and below is the transcript of their speech.
BRAD: Good afternoon, everyone! At the onset, we would like to make it clear that while we are here today representing SURJ Nashville, we actually have a policy that mandates that our Steering Committee be majority female. Unfortunately, we were the only ones available for today. We just wanted to let you know that this is not the patriarchy at work here.
BRENDAN: Hi! My name is Brendan. And I have racism in my blood. As I’ve heard it said, I’ve too often thought I hit a triple when really, I was born on 2nd or 3rd base as a white male, propped up by white power & privilege.
BRAD: Hi! My name is Brad. And I also have racism in me & have been propped up in real ways by white power & privilege. We don’t mean to be too dramatic. Our point is that racism and white supremacy are so deeply rooted in our culture, especially in Southern culture, that white folks are innately complicit in the pain caused by racism. It is our belief that until we as white people own this fact, we will continue to perpetuate physical, psychological, and emotional violence against people of color, dehumanizing ourselves at the same time.
BRENDAN: As a quick story of my own position & its ties to white power & privilege, I’m 34 now but in high school I was arrested for vandalizing store windows, I smoked more marijuana than I can remember, & tried various drugs like cocaine. And we know white people use & sell at the same rate as folks of color, but three-quarters of those incarcerated for drug crimes are people of color. If I grew up black, I’m certain the times I was stopped I would’ve been searched & that i would’ve been stopped so much more than the handful of times i remember. I’m not exaggerating when i say i expect i would’ve spent time in juvenile detention.
BRAD: For me, I recall a moment when I was about 9 or 10. My mother and I drop my grandmother off at a grocery store in rural West Tennessee where I was raised. We wait for her, parking the car at the curb near the door. My mom sees a black man walking towards the store and instantly asks me to lock my door. I don’t know if that man heard our doors lock from the outside, but what I heard is that I should be afraid of people who look like him. And do you know at what age I finally heard from another white person that they had had similar experiences and the impacts of those experiences? 27
BRENDAN: So who thinks racism is a problem still? Raise your hands up high…we agree. We were going to spend more time presenting some facts to nail that home, but in order to own the white role in this, we’d like talk about the question of work we’re involved w/to try to disrupt some roots of that racism.
So what are the roots that lead to racism and so many of its corrosive consequences? In part, it’s simply that racism was born when white people claimed that those with more melanin in their skin are inferior; from there, white folks took power by force, building systems & policies – formal & informal – that treat black and brown people as inferior, making the lived experience of our black and brown sisters and brothers defined by historic and present-day oppression.
So what has been and in too many ways still is wrong with white people? Or as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said in March of 1968, the month before he was assassinated:
“The thing wrong with America is white racism. White folks are not right. Now they’ve been making a lot of studies about the Negro, about the ghetto, about the slums. It’s time for America to have an intensified study on what’s wrong with white folks…Anybody that will go around bombing houses and churches, it’s something wrong with him.”
You could add the question, what is wrong with a white guy who would murder nine black churchgoers in Charleston? Or a policeman who, within two seconds of arriving, would shoot dead a 12-year old black boy in Cleveland? Or Metro Nashville Police Department (MNDP) officers & policy folks who would admit to racially disproportionate practices – as the MNDP chief of police did to Nashville Organized for Action and Hope (NOAH) – and then continue to profile black & brown folks? Well, we agree with Dr. King: it should be studied, but we also believe white folks are being organized better into racist groups and for our racist tendencies.
For example, the number of hate groups has reached an all-time high since President Obama was elected (which played into the formation of Showing up for Racial Justice in 2009, in close partnership with our very own Highlander Center in East Tennessee). The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) estimates 23 hate groups are active in Tennessee, 10 of which are KKK groups and 6 of which are in the Nashville region. One local group is called the “Original Knight Riders Knights of the Ku Klux Klan.”
Also, Donald Trump’s divisiveness has inspired an increase in web traffic that recently forced Storefront, one of the most popular white nationalist websites, to upgrade their computer servers. And a national organizer for the Knights Party, the standard-bearer for the KKK, to say, “the KKK, for one, has a new conversation starter at its disposal.” And locally, we’ve seen Trump bring out hundreds if not thousands of people with at least two visits to the Nashville area recently.
Lastly, in terms of being out organized, white folks are in white enclaves more than any other group: 75% of whites have “entirely white social networks without any minority presence; the same is only true for slightly less than 66% of black Americans.”
White folks need better options than this. And we need to see that the measure of our complicity in oppressive systems & racist ways of being is equal to the level of our dehumanization, to the destruction of our own humanity, all while black & brown folks end up more oppressed. But “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free,” as Mississippi Civil Rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer said. So we need collective liberation, as local folks like Chris Crass and others like bell hooks have talked about, which is a good transition to one way we’re doing what we’re doing with SURJ.
BRAD: Showing Up for Racial Justice, or SURJ, is a national network of groups and multi-racial individuals organizing white people for racial justice. Through community organizing, mobilizing, and education, SURJ moves white people to act as a part of a multi-racial majority for justice with passion and accountability. We work to connect people while supporting and collaborating with local and national racial justice organizing efforts. SURJ provides a space to build relationships, skills, and political analysis to act for change.
Our focus is on working with white people who are already in motion. While in many activist circles, there can be a culture of shame and blame, we want to bring as many white people into the work of taking action for racial justice as possible. So rather than calling people out for their racist behaviors, we call them in. White civil rights leader Anne Braden, once said, “The battle is and always has been a battle for the hearts and minds of white people in this country. The fight against racism is our issue. It’s not something that we’re called on to help people of color with. We need to become involved with it as if our lives depended on it because really, in truth, they do.”
We know that we will have to take risks. Everyday, people of color take risks in simply living their lives with full dignity, and right now we are in a moment where young Black people are taking risks everyday. We challenge ourselves and other white people to take risks as well – to stand up against a racist system, actions, and structures everyday. We know that in that process, we will make mistakes. But we will keep showing up again and again for what is right and what is just.
There can be an impulse for white people to try to get it right – to have the right analysis, the right language, the right friends, etc. What SURJ was called upon to do at our founding was to take action – to show up when there are racist attacks, when the police murder people of color in the street, their homes, OUR communities. We maintain ongoing relationships, individually and organizationally, with leaders and organizations led by people of color. We also know it is our work to organize other white people and we are committed to moving more white people to taking action in local communities in the name of racial justice.
So how can you get involved in this work?
First, we invite you to do some reflection. What does your inner circle look like? What is your vision for a just society and how are you acting on that each day? If someone were to ask you, would you say that you are a non-racist because you don’t participate in racist actions? Or are you an anti-racist who takes stands up & speaks out against racist actions, policies, and practices?
We are a new community-based organization less than a year old, and we would love to have you join us. Lucky for you, we actually have a meeting coming up this week on Wednesday, Jan 20th. We are meeting at Scarritt-Bennett in Scarritt Hall in the International Room from 7pm – 8.30pm. We have membership meetings once a month, and we would love for you to join us in the movement. You can find us on the web at surjnashville.org, with Facebook at Showing Up for Racial Justice Nashville, and Twitter @SURJNashville.
We live in a time of great hope and possibility, yet the potential for a just world for all of us is not possible when racism and oppression keep us divided. This can make us forget how closely connected we truly are.
Racism is still present throughout all of our contemporary institutions and structures. Racism is devastating to people of color and is closely intertwined with all systems of oppression. It robs all of us- white people and people of color- of our humanity.
We honor and learn from the long history of people of color and white people who have been unrelenting in their struggles for racial justice, and ending all systems of oppression.
We are showing up to take our responsibility as white people to act collectively and publicly to challenge the manipulation of racist fear by the ruling class and corporate elite.
We know that to transform this country we must be part of building a powerful multiracial majority to challenge racism in all its forms.