A DIY Guide to Institutional Change for Racial Equity
A brief checklist for self-reflection:
A few last words
In the lead up to the Civil War, defenders of slavery called it the "Peculiar Institution." They called it "peculiar" to indicate that slavery in the American south was "special," different in kind from other, supposedly harsher systems. I have witnessed a disturbing temptation to think modern America is "peculiar" in the same way, that the oppression present in our nation is different than in other countries simply because our anthem says we live in the land of the free. But that is a lie, a dangerous one because it feels safe, because it soothes our souls in the same way that calling slavery "peculiar" may have quieted the consciences of those who did not fight for its abolition.
Institutions are made up of individuals. Like our society, they are what we make of them, the collective product of what we decide to accept, the choices we make. This means your choice matters. It always has. Free societies are not created and maintained by words on a page alone. We are only free if we all choose to make it true. The choice to confront reality requires moral courage. The truth is that there is much work to be done, that we are still far from grace, that the work of creating a more just society is endless. But that is precisely why we all need to take personal responsibility for it. If you benefit from privilege in any way, it is your dutyto redistribute it. None of us are free until all of us are free.
This guide is my attempt to pass on what I've learned. I write it in the hopes that it will help you avoid the mistakes I've made, so that you can do better. Most of all, I write in the hopes that our society can learn to better value and uplift Black folx and other people of color.
I struggled with whether to write it. First, because there is a danger that institutional reform can be a distraction from the ultimate task of building power to demand changes on a societal level. Second, because I wasn't sure I was qualified to comment.
As to the first, fighting for change at institutions is a means to an end, a way to further the goal of a just and anti-racist society. I'm still not sure as to the second so I'll let you be the judge. I have enough experience fighting institutional inertia to know some of the pitfalls but perhaps not enough to become too jaded or too invested in the systems that need to change. In any case, the question is whether the principles and guidelines I've outlined work. And that, you will only know when you try.
No one can be an expert in creating change. The very nature of pushing for structural shifts is that success makes you obsolete. The only real change is fundamental, is systemic. If you can easily imagine the changes you are fighting for, it is not change at all.
While doing research to write this, I stumbled upon an interview of Kathleen Cleaver, a member of the Black Panther Party. In answering a question of how to transform a system built on inequality and avarice, she said, "Well, you just have to get up and do it. And everybody has to agree that that's what they want to do and there's nothing more important. And it would take probably fifty-some years." When asked whether she could imagine this happening, she said yes but perhaps not in her lifetime. All I'm asking is for you to imagine this can happen during yours.