by Sam O’Bryant
Since 2011, I have worked on projects and initiatives that have deliberately and intentionally discussed the role of race and equity in America. My work has included planning regional conferences on racial healing in the American South, hosting community conversations on race in the Delta, and even promoting black male achievement within urban education reform. Prior to 2011, when I worked in a local government office, I was able to incorporate messages about environmental justice into a largely commercialized discussion on the emerging green economy. In short, I speak equity and I likely know racism when I see it. If you add my personal experience of growing up in the Mississippi Delta, living in a voluntarily re-segregated community, one might say I have a unique perspective of understanding systemic racism from cradle to career. The one thing I can offer, having lived my life and worked this career, is that this work hasn’t gotten easier. Sure, I can deal with a lot. But I am not the problem. The work is tough and I hope this explains why.
1) You Have to Understand That Racism and Oppression Evolves
Because we exist right now and see racism and oppression right now, it is easy to talk about fixing what’s wrong right now. But that can be a mistake. This happens most frequently when people speak on addressing poverty. This current state of poverty, which disproportionately impacts black people, did not happen yesterday or last night. And it likely won’t end in 3-5 years, per your recently approved grant award. This local concentration of poverty began when white politicians used government dollars to tear down black, middle class homes. It continued when these same politicians decided to erect an interstate highway through what used to be a middle class, black neighborhood. Removing home ownership, a means of wealth accumulation for most Americans, from a black community effectively puts them on a path to poverty… especially when housing segregation and redlining are the laws of the day. This is why baby girl, momma, and grandmomma can’t escape that cycle. You have to call out old policy and replace it with new, BOLD policy that changes systems and promotes equity. Teaching poor people to budget with money they don’t have doesn’t get them (or us) very far.
2) You Have to Become Comfortable with Using Phrases Like “White Male Supremacy” in Mixed Company
Throughout the history of America, oppression has been created and enabled by white men. These white men were usually in key positions of power, shaping and influencing the laws that govern us. The Supreme Court, established in 1789, was exclusively white and male until 1967. Even now, in 2017, the demographics for leadership in government, commerce, and non-profit organizations are overwhelmingly white and, often, male. No lie. This can be intimidating when working within these systems and trying to understand root causes of the problems we are tasked to address and, ultimately, solve. Even if race isn’t the issue (which is usually is), it will be adjacent to the issue and some bold soul has to speak that truth. And believe me when I say this, NOTHING gets a room quieter than saying white supremacy. But it is a reality that we have to deal with. If your organization is governed by mostly white men, its executive team is mostly white men, and they’ve never been intentional in hiring women or people of color in executive roles, the issue is white male supremacy. This doesn’t make them tiki-torch toting terrorists, it just means that they have no frame of reference beyond their own. And they don’t understand how that frame of reference oppresses people and suppresses opportunity for people that don’t look like them. But sometimes they do understand and that’s a whole ‘nother problem.
3) People of Color Can Enable White Supremacy
Just because you work in a majority black city, with an organization that overwhelmingly employs black people, and your clients are overwhelmingly black… that DOES NOT mean you are an agent of equity. Racism works systemically and this is why it is important to view things from a systemic view. Was this system originally built to empower people of color? Has the design of the system changed since people of color became the majority? Do you, as an employee, deliberately and intentionally, seek to create ways to empower people of color in this system? If you answered “no” to any of these questions, you probably enable white supremacy. The needs of people of color, black people in particular, are uniquely rooted in the oppression that was created specifically for them. Because racism is systemic, we have to be intentional in its dismantling. We can’t have good intentions and hope we’re doing the right thing. You have to game plan to do what enables equity… even if that means scraping the original and building something new.
4) Creating Equity Can Be Lonely and You Might Get Fired
Remember when I mentioned being bold about saying and using “white male supremacy” in meetings where the impact of white male supremacy is obvious? Yeah… that doesn’t win you many new friends and your old friends may not invite you to the next round of meetings. Equity is lonely work because it makes people uncomfortable before it makes them think. During that moment of being uncomfortable is when people start to lose friends or even lose their job. In professional sports, we have seen this played out with athletes. Colin Kaepernick is the most recent example. Despite being a Super Bowl caliber quarterback with stats better than, at least, 15 starting NFL quarterbacks, he can’t get a team to sign him. Why? Teams were uncomfortable with his stance… a stance rooted in criminal justice reform and the prosecution of egregious acts of police brutality. Although Colin is not employed, his stance gained traction as other players knelt or displayed a raised fist. Recently, the National Football League has endorsed criminal justice reform in a letter to be sent to the US Senate. It’s not the endgame, but it is progress.
Remember that equity, as it is being marched out, is new to many organizations and new to many of those in leadership. There will be some misunderstandings. Some people will argue that it isn’t needed right now. Others will insist that it’s the same as equality. These people are wrong and need to stop talking. Simply put, equity is giving people what they need. It is not giving everyone the same thing. What people need can be best measured by taking a critical look at what they have been denied, systemically and historically.
Sam O’Bryant currently serves at the Senior Director for Equity & Partnerships at SchoolSeed Foundation. Sam is a graduate of Alcorn State University and is an advocate of historically black colleges and universities. In his spare time, Sam likes to figure what he’s going to do with his spare time.