On Friday, June 19, the Wire hosted a virtual conversation about racism, recent protests, and how Washington State policymakers should think about enacting reforms to address structural racism and systemic inequality.
The conversation featured April Sims, Secretary Treasurer of the Washington State Labor Council, Lee Lambert, Executive Director of City Year Seattle/King County, and Rep. Jesse Johnson of Washington’s 30th District.
In their opening comments, all three panelists spoke about how the protests have caused them to reflect on the roles they inhabit – personally and professionally, individually and collectively – in the societal fight for racial justice.
Fighting for justice in the name of individuals, Sims said, has sparked a broader conversation about the ways in which racism pervades social, political, and economic structures intertwined with the criminal justice system.
In addition to the call for justice, I think there’s been an overwhelming call to acknowledge and dismantle the systemic racism that is embedded into all of our institutions. I think we’re not just looking at policing, but we have to look at the inequities that are baked into government, education, prison systems, elections, and even in our own unions…so I think it’s been a real opportunity for awakening in terms of what we can do as individuals to impact the systemic racism that’s built into our institutions,” remarked Sims.
Johnson – who is one of four Black legislators in Washington State – pointed out a throughline that seemed to emerge between all three panelists. Reflecting on individual experience is necessarily a reflection on the way systems are built and, perhaps more precisely, the way systems evolve.
I’ve had this critical self-reflection of my own journey being a Black man in America and also this systemic piece as well. I feel like I grew up in this diversity, equity, and inclusion era as a millennial; where people try to act color blind or think we’re past race. The reality is while we’ve had racial progress, there’s been a progression of racism that’s veiled in our systems.”
Amid a protest movement sparked by a visceral display of overt racism, what of the racism that festers within the well-intentioned?
The conversation shifted to a discussion of color blind notions of race and the infallibility such a perspective gifts individuals and systems that perpetuate racism, good intentions and all.
There’s this notion you can be noncompliant or nonracist and yet not be racist. I believe personally there’s only racism or antiracism. There’s no inbetween,” said Johnson.
Johnson seemed here to be offering a new binary for examining behavior as it impacts race: racism vs antiracism. To look clearly at race in society where notions of “color blindness” or “post-racialism” have held purchase in some corners, a distinction that prioritizes outcomes over intentions becomes necessary.
In other words, should one’s behavior be evaluated based on a static designation such as “not racist?” Or should one’s behavior be evaluated based on whether it, in a given moment, contributes to conditions that lead to unequal outcomes?
Doing the work of antiracism does require a willingness to engage with nuance. Nevertheless, Lambert said the protests of late have displayed the impact of a moment when a racist outcome cannot be muddled with equivocation, or stripped of its racial implications.
There’s a growing understanding that racism exists in systems…in some sense state violence with police is maybe the easiest racist system to recognize. You can see it. There’s been a collective awakening, I think, among white Americans because there was no nuance in this video.” said Lambert. “The next step for people is to realize that the same system exists in our education space, workforce, etc. Rep. Johnson mentioned that he’s one of four African American members of the House. The way you know a system is racist is you look at the outcome. How can that be in Washington State that we have only four members of the Legislature that are African American. That seems to be a slight underrepresentation.”
To be an antiracist, as Lambert put it, is to unpack systems that yield deleterious racial outcomes and work to change the way those systems operate.
And no system is safe from scrutiny. Even public sector unions, often conceived as bastions of multiracial solidarity, have been forced in recent weeks to define their values in clear terms.
As the conversation shifted to the protests in Seattle, and the resultant expulsion of the Seattle Police Officer’s Guild (SPOG) from the Washington Labor Council, Sims provided an update on the efforts being waged inside the labor movement to ensure unions are antiracist institutions.
The conversations that are happening with the MLK Labor Council and SPOG are part of a larger conversation that we need to have in the labor movement around our values and principles and the work we need to do to help all of our affiliates to become antiracist institutions. If we accept as true that his country was founded on a system of racism…we also have to accept as true that every institution built on a system of racism is also inherently racist unless it is working to become actively antiracist,” said Sims.
So, what does the work of antiracism look like vis-à-vis public policy? Answering this question, Johnson discussed an upstream, systems level approach to legislating for antiracism.
I think personally we have to look at refunding the social safety net for the Black community. Whether it be economic justice – making sure that Black businesses have access to capital or seed money. We have to look at health care – making sure we’re looking at the social determinants of health…We have to look at housing and make sure there’s a pathway to home ownership so we’re not renting our entire live,” said Johnson. “Right now, I’m very focussed on this police issue and what we can do around that…I think we have to have localized transformation of police which is going to take an extensive planning process with communities so they can be the driving force of that. That starts with making sure communities are involved in oversight and accountability.”
Johnson also revealed that he would like to introduce a bill in a potential special session to mandate oversight and community-led boards at every single department across the state.
Turning well-intentioned rhetoric into actionable, antiracist policies will begin with a conversation. The three panelists engaged in a conversation that covers more than we have space to summarize, and it’s best heard from the voices who know these issues best.
The full video of the conversation is available above.
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