Racial justice is not a zero-sum game

On Friday I took a pleasant walk down Garden Street in Cambridge to the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. I was there to facilitate a discussion about whiteness with students and professors at the Banneker Institute, a summer research program for students of color led by Professor John Johnson. I arrived ready to lay down knowledge. But, of course, I was the one in the room who learned the most.

After some deep conversation and a break, Professor Johnson opened the second half of our discussion by proposing an exercise used in marriage counseling. “Suppose,” a counselor might say, “that a cleaning crew comes into your house while you sleep, and fixes everything that’s wrong with your marriage. When you wake up the next day, what’s the single thing your partner does that makes you say, ‘It worked!’?” John suggested that we imagine, instead, a complete overnight clean-up of white supremacy—a miraculous transformation that allowed us to wake in a racially just world. What would we see in the morning? The answers were personal, wide-ranging and profound. Think about it and see what you come up with.

I was conscious of a sense of apprehension. I offered, first of all, that I would step out of my front door and see a postal worker putting reparations checks in the mailboxes of my Black and brown neighbors. Then I said, “I think in a perfectly racially just world I wouldn’t have my apartment.” I live in a limited-equity co-op than enables my entire lifestyle. The rent is quite low and the space palatial. “I know for a fact,” I added, “that I have this apartment because of white supremacy”—thinking not only of the resources that the white founding members of the co-op were able to access, but of the whole structure of housing and wealth in this country. I went on to say that I might not have the education I do, because a person of color might have gotten my slot at Yale; my parents might not both have doctoral degrees; and so on. “That sounds fucked up,” I concluded, weakly. “I guess I have to think about it.”

A visiting professor, Dr. Jorge Moreno, leaned in from the other side of the room. “You’re talking as though it’s a zero-sum game,” he said. “You don’t have to lose for other people to be lifted up. A world without white supremacy benefits everyone. Maybe everyone would have an apartment like yours.”

It was as if he had gently lifted off the top of my head. I realized that in worrying over this question of whether I would give up my apartment—and in holding it up to myself, as I’ve been doing for months, as a sort of ultimate test of my commitment to racial justice (which I continually failed)—I was in fact perpetuating white supremacy. It’s white supremacy culture, after all, that tells us that there’s only a certain amount of power in this world, that resources are limited, that there isn’t “enough to go around.” White supremacy teaches white people to be afraid that some day someone is going to come around and take away what’s “ours.” White supremacy threatens us with the specter of loss if we attempt to change. As Isabel Wilkerson, speaking of the Jim Crow South, writes in The Warmth of Other Suns, American racism “control[s] the movements of blacks by controlling the minds of whites.”

And that’s what happened the day I led a discussion of whiteness. Thank you to Dr. Moreno, and to John Johnson and everyone at the Banneker on a sunny Friday right before the Fourth of July.

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