This is a letter first and foremost to people who, as I do, identify as white.
To grow up and go to school in this country is to have a multi-year, even multi-decade, immersive training in being racist. Of course, it’s usually not called that. It’s called history and science and social studies because they are taught through the lens of white supremacy. These are a few of the legions of patently false “truths” we’re taught: Martin Luther King, Jr. can be understood through a few broadly palatable, inspiring quotes; there is no mention of genocide of Native people; racism ended with the Civil War; and then it ended again with the Civil Rights Act.
Racism’s marbling and obscuring of every facet of our country is no secret to people of color. To be white is to be able to not have to look. To not see. To think we have plausible deniability.
Except when we can’t look away because cell phones capture the hunting of Ahmaud Arbery, the murder of George Floyd. We hear hollow excuses for the killing of Breonna Taylor, David McAtee, the extraordinary mortality rate of COVID in communities of color. White Americans are moved to do something about it.
Let us be clear. People of color have been “doing something about” racism for the hundreds of years our country has been here. Navigating, surviving, resisting, persevering, overcoming.
And being killed. By viruses, police and more. Killed by racism.
Against this lifelong indoctrination, too many white people now want the five-minute read that will explain racism and tell us the thing we can do to fix it, that will exorcise it from our spirit. But it took hundreds of years to get here. Anti-racism takes decades of personal study, change and daily workouts. It is not the responsibility of our friends and colleagues of color to guide us, teach us, hold us. White people, we have to put in the work. We have a lot of lifting to do. We have to read and learn and think. We have to hold each other accountable, and we have to show up again and again. Not just for a protest. Not just for a week. But for months and years. When the media isn’t looking.
People of color don’t need white people to save them — just to stop killing them. And that’s not just the police. It’s so much in our country, our systems.
COVID is a pandemic atop endemic racism. This moment is the closest our country will come during our lifetimes to a chance to rebuild our most problematic, inequitable systems from the ground up. In the next six to twelve weeks, policymakers, systems, and communities will be deciding on new paths forward. Whether systems are rebuilt on principles of equity, justice and wellbeing is far from a given.
But it is possible.
The spark of hope I am fiercely nurturing lies in a new, rapidly growing effort to advance a field-agnostic, people-first blueprint for transformation, launched by a growing group of nationally recognized system and community leaders and FFI. Together, we are transforming the systems that too often hold problems in place.
This is work to exorcise the historical, racist roots of so much public policy, and instead root policy in people's innate drive for wellbeing. This isn’t about reforming each system in its silo; it’s laying out a set of common principles and cross-cutting reforms, most of which have been demonstrated at a local level. In a few weeks, this group will be launching this as an online platform for change-makers. Stay tuned for more information and ways that you can get involved. This is some of the most hopeful work I’ve been a part of and the potential to co-create real and lasting change in our country is enormous.
When only some of us get to breathe, we must hold hope and rage together.
Educate ourselves, ally for transformation, act for equity. So that when we breathe, we all breathe justice.
Katya Fels Smyth