A cautionary tale for this American moment: Before Hurricane Katrina, the board of a New Orleans hospital became concerned about the number of children being treated for measles and mumps. They approached a community organization for assistance in making families aware of risks to unvaccinated children and the availability of free immunizations. The leaders of the community organization were willing to assist, but only if board members agreed to go through anti-racism training first. The board declined, the proposed vaccination campaign was dropped, and children who would have been vaccinated were not.
Thirty years of working across the racial divide taught me that when any group insists on imposing its point of view and priorities, coalitions are aborted and potential power for change squandered. An example of a unilateral approach is in plain view today, as activists demand that adopting the “anti-racism” approach be required of anyone who wants to be part of making change, a ticket for admission.
One tenet of this approach is that in interracial coalitions, people of color must lead and Whites must follow. But if our goal is deep change on critical issues like community/police relations; voting rights legislation; strengthened public education; affordable health care; access to decent housing; sentencing, parole and probation reform; and expanding access to capital — and this is what abolishing institutional racism means to me — we must build maximum nonviolent power to influence decision-makers on these issues in a campaign that will last for years. This can only be done by diverse coalitions with shared leadership reflecting their member organizations.
If anti-racist activists or any other group is successful in positioning themselves as gatekeepers over the effort to challenge structural racism in the coming years, the outcome is predictable: Millions of people and thousands of organizations of all races, who want to see their country’s institutions cleansed of racism and who would bring significant power and resources to an interracial coalition seeking to accomplish that, will find allies elsewhere.
If anti-racism dominates a coalition, not all Whites will leave nor all Blacks stay. During a community meeting years ago, an exasperated African American woman said to me: “I am really tired of explaining how race works to White people; I’m looking for White people who want to work with me to change some things.” Diversity in coalitions is necessary but not sufficient; full inclusion is also required for maximum power.
The profound moral challenge facing America today is not simply to understand racism but to change it. As we saw in the first civil rights movement, and see again today in the second, demonstrations can be powerful conscience-raisers. But raising consciences is not a plan for changing laws, policies or practices.
That requires funneling movement energy into sustained political pressure, as Dr. King did in negotiating with President Lyndon Johnson for passage of the historic civil rights legislation that altered the course of a nation. Building diverse and inclusive coalitions working together at local, state and federal levels is required to move from protesting to disciplined political action that actually changes unfair policies and practices. If we fail, the inertia of institutional racism will prevail.
Black lives matter to every decent person, but a large majority of decent people don’t identify themselves as “anti-racist” and never will. Those who are committed to “anti-racism” and those who are not must join hands in the struggle against those who do not accept the full humanity of every child of God.
Michael A. Cowan is professor emeritus at Loyola University New Orleans.