Anti-racist action: ending racism takes external effort and internal, reflective work

Over the course of our Racism as a Public Health Crisis series, we’ve examined suggestions offered by Dr. Camara Jones, past-President of the American Public Health Association, in a lecture on taking action beyond making declarations to address racism as a public health crisis. Her first two steps of action included 1) name racism and understand the forms it can take and 2) identify the mechanisms by which racism operates.

The final step is organize and strategize to act.

Step 3. Organize, strategize, and act

An article published in Health Affairs remarked on how, “It is far easier to mitigate the harmful effects of systemic racism while leaving in place the unfair systems and structures that produce those effects.” Current efforts often focus on attempting to provide relief from its symptoms—inequities faced by Black and Brown communities. There has also been more societal awareness to address racism at the interpersonal and individual levels. However, harm will persist without efforts at the institutional or structural level.

It is far easier to mitigate the harmful effects of systemic racism while leaving in place the unfair systems and structures that produce those effects.

In her theoretic framework on the 3 levels of racism, Dr. Jones illustrates that those with “the power to decide, the power to act, and the control over resources”—government, corporations, foundations, and media—have the power to address and begin to dismantle racism. Her helpful allegories demonstrate that institutionalized racism is the most dangerous to society, and that once it is addressed and the sanction of governments has been removed, it can begin a ripple effect that allows the other levels of racism to “cure themselves”. Interventions must occur at ALL levels, especially in government and policy, because racism is pervasive in all systems.

Most of the declarations across 25 states did not include actions for change

In a previous blog, we discussed a policy brief by Frontiers that analyzed and reviewed 125 resolutions and declarations across 25 states, finding that the majority did not include any action steps, concrete plans for allocating resources, or funding to reduce the effects of racism. It also found that a majority of them were passed on the local government level and that resolutions often included pursuing training and a review of hiring practices. While these are helpful efforts, the policy brief recommended the need for investment at the state and federal level of government, and increasing capacity and providing tools for the work in order for there to be change that is sustainable and has deeper impacts. It also suggested that resolutions need to include plans for how skills and knowledge gained in trainings will be implemented.

While many would say that governments have all of the power to make these changes, power exists at all levels for everyone to help end racism.

Change must be codified: temporary programs cannot create lasting change

While many would say that governments have all of the power to make these changes, power exists at all levels for everyone to help end racism. Authors in the HealthAffairs article recommend that it is necessary to change systems, laws, policies, and practices because temporary programs cannot create lasting change. It also adds that changing white attitudes and biases will be crucial, in addition to addressing racism on a systemic level. There must be a collective effort across society to end racism.

What can institutions do to dismantle institutional racism?

Research and policy experts must be willing to study, explore, and advocate for more equitable legislation. Legislators must be willing to support and pass new legislation that addresses the ills of racism, even if it means being the first to pilot a new idea or finding a way to better implement an “old” one.

Philanthropic and private foundations must be willing to fund the research and work of Black and Brown-led organizations that are serving marginalized communities, building, providing, and advocating for more equitable services and programs. Foundations that fund research underpinning policy must include racial equity assessments in proposal evaluations. They must be patient and commit to providing funding for diversity, race, equity, and inclusion efforts over significant stretches of time, understanding that the centuries-long impacts of racism are complex, and will take time to amend. Ignoring this will lead to more solutions that only address racism’s symptoms, not its root causes, and that perpetuate the cycle of racism.

Organizations must be willing to diversify their workforces, and invest in equitable pay, as well as the necessary tools, training, and consultants to help them to create a more inclusive work culture. They must be willing to change inequitable policies, and correct their own missteps and contributions to harm, regardless of tradition and attachment to those traditions, or the history of the organization. Advocacy for equitable policies and laws from various sectors (e.g. faith, academia, private businesses, nonprofit, health and health care, etc.) is also critical in helping to stir public support. Leaders must be willing to listen to the ideas and woes of their Black and Brown staff, increase their own knowledge of DEI principles, then apply that knowledge and become ambassadors in the workplace. They must MODEL DEI principles and behaviors, and be willing to provide disciplinary action and accountability for egregious and offensive behavior. The Center for Community Solutions has begun its own journey in trying to become a more equitable workplace.

Individuals must be willing to say and do the wrong thing, on the way to understanding and doing the right thing. They must be willing to speak up, support, and help in the DEI journey. That may be joining a committee, offering an idea, asking Black and Brown colleagues what they want to see, APOLOGIZING for microaggressions as they happen, and BELIEVING the experiences shared with them, no questions asked. Additionally, understanding and empathizing with the anger and frustration of Black colleagues who are often asked to be patient with white counterparts who are disbelieving of, stagnant, indifferent, or ignorant to issues of racism, while waiting to no longer be oppressed. Other times, it means not reacting with fear to the anger and frustration of Black colleagues. A fear of being disliked or seen as a “bad racist” often becomes a silent excuse to say nothing and stay out of the fight.

A fear of being disliked or seen as a “bad racist” often becomes a silent excuse to say nothing and stay out of the fight.

Decisionmakers must be transparent and offer meaningful resources

Dr. Jones encourages anyone who is part of the decision-making process to ask if they are creating space for those who have a stake in the outcome to join the conversation. Similarly, Frontiers admonishes that decisionmakers must be transparent and partners with communities that are most impacted, centering them in the process. This looks like providing them with opportunities to co-lead in making decisions, and the resources (financial and otherwise) to do the work. There must also be intentionality in recognizing the unique intersectionality of various groups, and the multiple sources and effects of oppression they experience when creating solutions. Frontiers further recommends that holding systems accountable to implement mechanisms to measure and document progress through data and other specific metrics is essential to help ensure better outcomes.

Everyone must be willing to initiate their own learning in this process. “Not knowing” is no longer an excuse, because there are plenty of ways to find the knowledge. We all must be willing to endure the discomfort of “getting it wrong,” trying and failing, and doing the work to be creative in developing solutions without always looking to BIPOC family members, friends, and colleagues to tell us what they are or to lead every initiative and discussion.

Be willing to do the (internal and external) work

These steps may not feel prescriptive enough for those of us who prefer a step-by-step plan for addressing racism and its impacts, who are ready for change NOW, or for those of us who feel uncomfortable with wanting to do the right thing, but never feeling as though they can get it right.

Let me encourage you: there is not ONE complete and right way to change racism. It will take EVERYONE’s willingness to try (AND fail) and to reflect on their own contributions to perpetuating racist ideas, beliefs, and behaviors, AND on how they can contribute to ending it. As an individual, and as a member of their own families, communities and organizations. Ending racism takes external effort AND internal, reflective work. We have all been marred by its effects, and our beliefs and experiences guide our behaviors and interactions with others. Those individual behaviors and interactions are what collectively come together to create a society that cyclically perpetuates racism and its harmful effects.

There is some uncertainty that will come with this process, but also space for creativity. Everyone’s experience with the impacts of racism are different, which means that there is just as much room for ideas on how to change it. There is no shortage of tools, resources, voices, organizers and practitioners who are already doing the work to help dismantle racism.

We need action from everyone

The missing link has always been ACTION from EVERYONE. We have always had plenty of ideas—especially Black and Brown people—but those ideas have not always been listened to, elevated, and/or implemented. And Black and Brown people cannot be the only ones speaking up in meetings, organizing and protesting in communities, or finding ways to bring ideas to fruition. Neither should they be expected to solve a problem that they did not create, and that their white counterparts generally benefit from.

Many people say they do not speak up or offer ideas because they do not want to overshadow their counterparts, or just don’t know what the answers are. But, history has taught us that individuals are willing to find solutions for personal and community problems—and HAVE found them—for issues that they are truly passionate about, even when there are obstacles and resistance. The question I pose to those who find it difficult to join the effort is: are you passionate about it? Or are you indifferent to the pain, suffering, indignity, and oppression that your colleagues, neighbors, friends, and for some, family members endure EVERY DAY? When we are able to honestly answer this question, we may find ourselves more able to move past internal and external forces that stifle our creativity to form solutions, and listening to and joining others who are fighting to truly end this public health crisis. Efforts are already underway, ideas are already brewing, and resources and tools are at your disposal—you only need to do your part. FIND PASSION, then ACT.

Racism permeates societal norms and values, affecting everyone.

Racism permeates societal norms and values, affecting everyone. Because these are built collectively across society, it is almost impossible for the oppressed to change them alone. Consequently, EVERYONE must be honest and intentional in actively taking steps as a whole society to combat racism, because it is not enough to just be “not racist”—the concept of being anti-racist. We must realize and be willing to tap in to our collective power as a whole society and all do our part to end racism. This is work that must be done not just by the oppressed, but everyone.