REPOST: Peeling Back Systemic Racism in the Fight for Environmental Justice

 

This was originally written in early 2015. I feel this piece is pretty distant from where I am now. For example, the racist person I talk about clearly isn’t an ally, she’s clearly just a fucking racist. Also, no one can stay perpetually in solidarity, not even people paying me. Also, the way the section on Black liberal achievement was written could be interpreted as if those were the high points of the movement, when in reality the tail end of the 60’s, as well as the uprisings and rebellions, was way dope. But hey, read it anyway!

ENJOY yo!

To be Black in the United States of America in the 21st century is to be in a constant state of assault, compromise, and struggle. I have wrestled with and struggled to destroy traditional ideologies that reinforced both black inferiority and white supremacy. Dismantling Racism Works (dRworks) helped me to reposition myself during a time of renewed black political struggle. What follows is my brief overview of what dRworks taught me about post-Civil Rights Black America. I will also make the case that dRworks is not a one-time dialogue, but it is a manifestation of lived experiences and a short part of a long process of personal and social transformation.

dRworks helped me come to terms with the U.S. as an experiment in imperial conquest with touches of limited democracy. The foundation of U.S. power today is the vicious legacy of white supremacy, the genocide of indigenous peoples, and the enslavement of black people. Black liberation struggles have always given the U.S. a sense of hope. This hope came from a wide variety of movements including struggles to abolish slavery and the dismantling of Jim Crow. However, the history of Black liberation doesn’t stop there. Black struggle continues today.

After the end of the mainstream Civil Rights movement in 1968, Black people were subjected to immense state terror. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 represented the pinnacle of Black liberal accomplishments within the movement. Yet, these successes came at the expense of poor and working people of color, whose socioeconomic conditions were routinely neglected. Young people, poor people, and people of color around the country began to push for self-determination and anti-imperialism rather than integration and Black middle class interests. Urban revolt and insurrection soon followed.

During this period, Black revolutionaries fought explicitly against structural racism and capitalism. However, these activists and organizers were also being purchased by unaccountable elites (like Rev. Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson), murdered by state or private vigilante groups and individuals (like Malcolm X, Medgar Evers, Fred Hampton and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.), or entangled in the growing incarceration state (like Assata Shakur and Mumia Abu Jamal). Today, alongside the environmentally racist response by the Bush Administration to Hurricane Katrina and the near complete political capitulation on the part of the Obama Administration, is the meteoric rise of the Black Mass Incarceration State, described below by columnist Glen Ford:

“The Black Mass Incarceration State – or, as Michelle Alexander calls it, the New Jim Crow – penetrates and defiles every aspect of Black life. It killed Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin and Sean Bell and Oscar Grant and many thousands of other martyrs to police terror, stigmatized a whole race of survivors, and warped intra-Black social relationships beyond measure.”

Immense prison buildup coincided with both a new emphasis on law and order as well as a War on Drugs that continues to rampage through Black and Brown communities. Local police were militarized to the point that now they are nearly indistinguishable from military forces deployed in Afghanistan. The murders of Renisha McBride, Rekia Boyd, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and Mike Brown resulted in a new Black movement calling on the world to recognize that Black life does matter.(#BlackLivesMatter).

At the height of this new Black liberation struggle, I attended Dismantling Racism Works (dRworks), a multi-day training aimed at folks doing social justice work that exposes truths about race, white supremacy, and Black struggles. The dialogue centered on the history of race in the U.S., racism and white supremacy in the workplace, and broader conversations on race within smaller, focused breakout groups. The training not only reinvigorated antiracism within my own environmental justice work, but it also helped to situate me in history; much like what Ferguson was to Arielle Newton, dRworks helped to “heal my Blackness.”

The first major discussion of race was in pairs. Our facilitators, Cynthia Brown and Tema Okun, encouraged us to partner with someone we didn’t know. I partnered with a middle-aged white woman. We were tasked with opening up to each other about our pasts and the various ways in which we had both been discriminated against. I found myself talking passionately about growing up poor, the working class background of my own parents, and instances in which I had experienced personal and institutional forms of racism. We both shared personal and painful truths about our pasts. I walked away from that conversation in awe of what we were able to talk about and inspired about the work we were getting ready to do. Turns out, the person I talked to was Carrie Clark, the Executive Director of the very organization I work for!

The training was as much about learning how to liberate ourselves as it was about learning to lean into areas of discomfort. Part of that discomfort was in recognizing both the necessity and inadequacy of allies and the dire need for people to be in solidarity. Nowhere was this clearer than when the conversation turned towards recent uprisings in Ferguson, Berkeley, New York City, Greensboro, and many other cities across the nation. I made a few comments referencing Theodore Adorno, who wrote that to lend your voice to suffering is the condition of all truth, and Dr. King, who stated that “riots are the language of the unheard.” The conversation ended and tensions were clearly still high. One older woman approached me afterwards and proceeded to talk to me about how violence is never acceptable and kept asking me why Black people would burn down their own neighborhoods if they were angry with non-indictments.

After hearing this, I felt indignant. I felt that she had clearly missed the point I was trying to make. If folks in society are perpetually kept in silence, and the condition of truth is allowing the suffering to speak, then riots would be the inevitable result of transgenerational assaults on people of color generally and Black people specifically. I could tell that her intentions were good, but her intent and her impact were widely different. I told her what I could, that violence against Black people conditions the world that I find myself in; that that same violence resulted in me being hungry some nights; that that same violence which folks in Ferguson are resisting is the violence against which Palestinian peoples are fighting. But there was only so much I could tell her before her own communication began to reinforce the very racism this person was claiming to be against. Fortunately, Aiden Graham, our Field Director, was able to talk to her about why the same indignation she had about broken windows and burned cars should instead be turned towards bullet holes in Black bodies.

At that moment, I realized that allyship and solidarity are not the same. Allyship is a necessary component for both personal and social transformation, and it is inadequate. The older woman was present; she recognized that her views on race were clearly lacking, which is why she was at the training in the first place. However, her indignation at the oppressed as opposed to at the oppressor helped to reinforce the very racist assumptions she claimed to fight. She was an ally.

What we need now is solidarity. What we need now are people like Carrie, who despite cultural and historical divides, are able to have authentic dialogue that presupposes the importance of Black humanity. What we need now are people like Aiden, who recognized the racist character of the well-intentioned questions and are able to critique in a way that values both lived experiences. Carrie and Aiden showed solidarity. Allies ask themselves, “What can I do to fight for your liberation?” Folks in solidarity with those oppressed, dominated, and marginalized ask the oppressed, dominated and marginalized, “What can we do to fight for our liberation?”

In a recent interview titled “Building Movements without Shedding Differences,” Alicia Garza, a co-founder of #BlackLivesMatter, spoke about the necessity of valuing difference. This is what dRworks helped me to do. Black liberation struggles have been constant in this history of this country, and I want to make sure that the work I do is very much in that vein. My work is within #BlackLivesMatter, climate justice, and Queer liberation. My work is against imperialism, economic disaster, and systematic anti-black racism. My work is for my peoples, our planet, and our continued existence. Declaring the fact that #BlackLivesMatter isn’t just a claim about the nature of existence; it is a statement that Black life is imperative to human emancipation.

#BlackLivesMatter is a compelling 21st century movement in a centuries-old struggle for Black liberation. My organizing here in Greensboro represents all that I re-learned to be at dRworks: intersectional, radical, beautiful, worthy, and Black.

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