White Fight

Fifty years ago, hundreds of young white and black Americans united to desegregate buses across the South. These Freedom Riders, as they came to be known, drew vivid attention to the inhumanity of segregation, and their collective action marked a turning point in galvanizing white support for the civil-rights movement. Since the summer of 1961, many Americans have continued to fight widespread inequality and racism. Yet despite remarkable progress -- including the election of an African American president -- many forms of racial injustice remain deeply entrenched in American society.

Nearly 40 percent of all black and Hispanic students will fail to graduate high school this year, double the rate for white students. Economic hardship is also drawn across racial lines: More than 30 percent of blacks and Hispanics live in poverty compared to 13 percent of whites. The criminal-justice system reflects these inequities in a disturbing pattern. Of the 2 million people incarcerated in the United States, more than half are black and Hispanic. The combination of poverty and criminal-justice policies that disproportionately single out people of color has led to social and moral crises in cities like Washington, D.C., where three out of four young black men -- and more still in the poorest neighborhoods -- can expect to serve time in prison.

While there is no 21st-century counterpart to the Freedom Riders, there is a vibrant movement of white activists dedicated to working alongside people of color to combat racial injustice, particularly in local communities and institutions. I recently interviewed 50 white racial activists for a study designed to understand how white Americans become aware of racism and organize against it. What I learned is that few are moved to action by statistics, however distressing they may be. Rather, directly witnessing racism struck their conscience. Such powerful moments demonstrated to white participants, many of them young, that cherished values of fairness and justice could be violated with ease. Although studies show widespread racial discrimination, these kinds of direct encounters with racism are still rare for many white Americans who live largely segregated lives; only 15 percent of Americans report having even one confidant of another race. Overcoming passivity about systemic racism may require a life-changing experience, but once aware, white activists can form strong multiracial relationships that lead to social change.

Many white Americans start this kind of activism in college. For white students who grow up in predominately white communities, college is often the first place where they meet people of color in large numbers and begin to build meaningful relationships with them. That experience, like volunteering in a low-income community, is more likely today than it was 40 years ago. In 1971, only 9 percent of entering college freshmen were nonwhite; in 2006, that figure was up to 24 percent.

The activists emerging out of these circumstances appear less ideologically driven than in the past and more focused, for example, on how to reform schools to better serve low-income and minority children. This particular issue has interested so many younger whites that securing a Teach for America position, which is typically located in schools serving low-income communities of color, has become competitive, like landing a Wall Street job. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of white college graduates are pursuing more traditional paths to teaching in urban schools. In general, the number of college students who volunteer for community service and action projects has risen sharply in the past decade. By 2005, 3.3 million college students volunteered regularly -- nearly 600,000 more than three years earlier. (A 2006 report found that the volunteer rate among white and nonwhite college students was 32 percent and 24 percent, respectively.)

Josh Kern, 37, discovered firsthand how the contrast between privilege and poverty in the education system can be a catalyst for activism. While attending Georgetown Law School in his mid-20s in 1999, Kern volunteered at Ballou High School, one of the worst high schools in Washington, D.C. He was shocked by the neglect and poor conditions that the school's black students faced. Kern went on to work with a group of law school students to found the Thurgood Marshall Academy in 2001, a civil rights-oriented charter high school in one of Washington's poorest neighborhoods; 98 percent of students in the school's graduating class now go on to four-year colleges. Kern described his contrasting experiences: "It was being at the law center and learning about how law is the means and justice is the end, and then driving two miles away and seeing a place where there's really no justice."

Many young white Americans care deeply about fairness and are outraged and inspired to act when they directly witness racism. A commitment to racial justice like Kern's grows and deepens as white people find ways to work with people of color in multiracial groups. The volunteer teams that worked on Barack Obama's presidential campaign are one high-profile example of these partnerships, but most of the everyday work happens at the local level in schools, community-organizing groups, and other activist settings.

A growing number of outfits, such as the People's Institute for Survival and Beyond, offer training on multiracial collaboration to community organizations and nonprofits to enable and support efforts to address injustice. Among the curriculum taught by the institute are courses on developing leadership, sharing culture, maintaining accountability to a community, and identifying positive and destructive power dynamics. Such training is designed to address the many challenges of multiracial activism, including a fragile or nonexistent trust between people of different backgrounds and apprehension of having frank discussions about race. Unity and a deeper common humanity comes not by avoiding the discussion of our differences but by acknowledging them in the context of shared goals.

Interracial cooperation in the 1960s civil-rights movement foundered when young black activists perceived whites as dominating and insensitive; today's activists are much more attentive to how societal racial dynamics can infect multiracial efforts. Still, participants can exhibit racialized prejudices or behavior, and whites, in particular, can react defensively when challenged. Activists need to create settings where a modicum of trust has been established so that people feel comfortable enough to debate issues openly, even as they recognize that racial change is never an entirely comfortable process. Otherwise, such discussions can degenerate into moralistic personal attacks, thereby undermining multiracial efforts.

Christine Clark, founding vice president for Diversity and Inclusion at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, says that tough conversations about the privilege of skin color are best had in the context of developing solutions to discrimination and inequity. "Yes, confront all of these really complicated, painful things about what does it mean to be white, upper-middle-class, whatever your privileged identities are," she says. "But do that in a context that allows people to feel like they can do something about it -- not to escape feeling bad ... but in a way that allows them to become a part of something that will solve the problem."

Indeed, we need to learn how to raise moral concerns, not as moralism but as identifying values that undergird caring and just communities. The activists I interviewed do more than condemn racism as a moral outrage; they articulate a moral and political vision of a just community and invite other whites into its construction. This vision seeks a decent quality of life for all -- in education, jobs, housing, and health care -- while it fosters true human community based on care, respect, and reconciliation.

Many whites can come to see the cause of racial justice as their own when they build meaningful relationships with people of color and when their values and interests are directly addressed. Today, many white Americans are focused on making a difference in their local communities as they try to forge new kinds of relationships across color lines and develop novel solutions to racial injustice. This is slow work and will not yield a quick resolution to racial injustice in this country. Yet these local experiments may well prove crucial to building a foundation for a new national movement for racial and social justice, one that can eventually attract broad participation and support among the nation's white population.

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