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

the mainstream.


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.