Durban, South Africa, September 2001. I was walking through the huge exhibit hall as part of the World Conference Against Racism – a convening of thousands for racial justice worldwide. There in the midst of teach-ins and health educators and organizers stood a rather nervous crew of white South Africans. They were encouraging passersby to […]
In the current political climate where some forces are becoming even more strident in their efforts to advance racism and white supremacy and more organizers are courageously pushing to address racism head on, there are some advocates concerned about “triggering” potential supporters by bringing race (or really, racism) up in their communications. I want to encourage you to keep naming racism in constructive ways. Here are some lessons learned from my book Fair Game on effectively framing structural racism.
Take time to document patterns of unfairness and identify
practical solutions. Research is key when developing a landscape
analysis that surfaces both necessary evidence of unfairness and practical
steps toward change. The campaign to shut down a juvenile “super facility”
enabled a conversation on budget priorities, education, and rehabilitation.
In doing so, organizers reminded the public of what was really at stake: the
future of thousands of young people who deserved much better.
Every “why” leads us to a different “how.” The Right’s “why” stories
are bursting with cultural and biological pathology as an explanation for
everything from poverty and school failure to crime. Within this frame,
individuals are personally flawed in ways that limit their success, and social
problems are the result of those individual failings. When the opposition
starts that old song of pathology, it inevitably leads to policies that punish
individuals. Our job as progressives is to expose patterns and systems of
injustice in ways that help people understand the structural roots of these
issues, shifting blame away from victims. When we disrupt their frame and
assert a different story, things change.
Avoid the easy trap of telling individual, episodic stories to
advance the issue. Although sympathetic characters and moving stories
make for gripping entertainment, they don’t advance policy agendas over
the long haul. We need stories of the machinery, the institutional practices
that make things unfair, creating and exacerbating the problem. Books Not
Bars assembled a range of spokespeople from youth to academics to convey
a more complete, compelling account of the problem. When choosing
messages and spokespersons, make sure they will help illustrate why the
issue matters and how things should change.
Don’t ignore those most affected. You can’t build change without
building a base. A majority is built by expanding the base of supporters,
starting at the core and working progressively outward. Some recent
communications campaigns, including immigrant rights and affirmative
action initiatives, inadvertently got caught up speaking to the opposition’s
points rather than their base and likely supporters. A campaign responding
to an opponent’s themes and arguments generally serves to remind people
of what the opposition has to say about the issue. Books Not Bars reached
out to youth and ethnic media to ensure that their communications work
spoke directly to their base and supported their organizing efforts. They
invested in building voice and power among those most affected by using
community media to expand their base of active support for the campaign
while building for future initiatives.
Be mindful of your language. As advocates we must constantly
ask ourselves, “Are we speaking in terms that our constituents would
recognize as a close relative of their own thoughts and dreams?” Or, are we
inventing new words and ideas that neither they nor their spell-checks can
Reflecting on James Scott’s idea of the “hidden transcript.” For example, it
is common knowledge that people of color are regularly hassled by police.
Even prior to the public emergence of the term “Driving While Black,” talk
about racist treatment by the police was pervasive in African American
communities. Church leaders addressed it from the pulpit; kids talked
about it in the schoolyard; emcees rapped about it in hip-hop music. When
the term Driving While Black emerged, it was widely and instantly adopted
because it validated a community reality that had mostly been hidden from
In the hidden transcript, the oppression and alienation people feel first
emerges in private discourse, but effective communications reveal these
experiences as part of a shared story, surfacing the larger patterns that
cause people’s private pain. Supported by effective organizing and analysis,
we can help shape a collective understanding of why things are wrong and
how we can work concretely to make a difference.