Dear Books@Work Community:
Like you, I’ve been thinking a lot about racism, overt and systemic, violent and subtle. I’ve been shocked by the asymmetrical impact of COVID 19 on communities of color, and the economic devastation on the essential workers who hold our lives together.
I was profoundly moved by Ibram X. Kendi’s piece in The Atlantic. In contrast to the American dream, the Black experience in this country is a nightmare that has lasted for centuries. Grounded in the completely fabricated “science” of race, Kendi takes us to the roots of the system that has not only intentionally deprived Black Americans of equal rights and freedoms, but has made danger and imminent death essential to the American Black experience. “To be Black and conscious of anti-Black racism,” he writes, “is to stare into the mirror of your own extinction.”
The reverberating outrage over George Floyd’s murder (and every senseless killing before his) gives me some measure of hope that we, as a country, finally want to change the reality Kendi describes. But to make that change sustainable and meaningful, we must commit ourselves to more than just outrage. If the protests peter out and we return to “normal” life, whatever that means in a post-COVID world, then we will have failed George Floyd – again.
Black people dying simply because they are Black is inhumane and inhuman. We must never let this happen again. But eradicating Black death means fundamentally dismantling the systems and structures that devalue Black life, and thus limit housing options, healthcare outcomes, educational quality and attainment and earning opportunities.
A recent experience brings this close to home. Just before this widespread shelter-in-place, Books@Work finished a program with a group of community police officers and seventh graders in a school on Cleveland’s east side. The school is 97% Black, 3% Latinx; the officers were Black, White and Latino. The story-based conversations were open and generative, the connections deepening with each session. The kids and the officers were honest, thoughtful and fully engaged. They bravely shared fears and questions – kids and officers alike – punctuated by a few laughs.
As we were leaving our last session on March 13th, the kids were packing up to go home for an extended break. This would turn out to be the last day of the school year. One by one, they walked past the teacher handing in their tablets to be returned to a locked trolley. All over America, other children were being provided the resources they needed to continue the school year online. In this school, like so many other urban schools, these children of color were stripped of those resources.
I was speechless. When I recovered my tongue, I did speak. To my colleagues, my husband, even the participating officer whose own son, in a charter school in the very same district, was given a tablet to take home. But I did not raise hell. Stopping short of finding someone who could change these circumstances is tantamount to silence. My silence troubles me deeply.
It’s long past time for us to raise hell. We must commit to do the slower, more concerted work of deconstructing the systems that rob children of their educational potential, their families of their health and prosperity. We need to work at the system level to root out the violence and distrust. We need to make and find the channels to speak up and defy the stereotypes that make being Black a whole lot harder than being White.
But we also have personal work to do. At Books@Work we are committed to making the space to hear and value diverse voices. This is central to our mission. But making the space is not enough. We have to push ourselves to regularly find and enter those spaces with our colleagues and neighbors to listen to their experiences, to ask honest questions. Michelle Alexander explains, “we cannot solve a problem we don’t understand.” Listening – truly listening – helps us examine and reframe our own beliefs about the role we can and must play in creating an equitable and just society.
Talk may seem trivial – after all, the needed systems work is vast. But generative conversation, honest questions, and humble listening to diverse perspectives bring us closer to each other. Widening and diversifying the circle of voices we listen to helps us to personalize our own responsibility in making sure these systems change. In her must-read book, psychologist, professor, diversity leader and Books@Work board member Deborah Plummer shows us how open, authentic cross-racial friendships inspire and empower us to “get to we.”
Getting to we will take more than good listening. A facilitator at a Cleveland Neighborhood Progress-sponsored race, equity and inclusion training illustrated this point very visually. Imagine a game of Monopoly. A group of players are asked to join the game only after the first hour of play. Invited to a place at the table after the game had started might feel inclusive, but anyone who has ever played Monopoly knows that they will never catch up. American history, she explained, is like that game of Monopoly. It’s not enough to be asked to join the game. We can’t expect people to catch up – to the education, housing, health and prosperity they deserve – without destroying the systems that keep them down.
We need to stop the senseless murder of Black Americans. Right now. But that’s not enough. We need to create a society that celebrates and honors Black life, to craft a shared future that builds on diverse experiences, cultures and perspectives. We must stand against every injustice, not just the most egregious.
Protests are just the beginning. Philosopher Judith Butler wrote that protest gatherings are not themselves democracy, but rather “transient moments linked to a critical function.” That critical function is clear. May these protests set the stage for the challenging, emotional but important conversations we must have to achieve a common understanding, and the actions we must take toward a collective (and vocal) commitment: Black lives matter and Black life matters. To all of us.
Ann Kowal Smith
Executive Director, Books@Work
P.S. Want to learn more about our commitment to diverse, inclusive, and transformative conversations? Check out some of our previous blog posts:
The Moral Obligation to Think, 5/3/18