As we enter 2021, we ride a teeter totter of choice. Will we, in the new year, support and pursue whiteness as America’s dominant narrative and cultural base, or will we be leaders and participants with millions of people marching in streets worldwide to protest social inequities and strive for greater racial justice? Reflection on the seesaw decision ahead brings to mind the first stanza of a Langston Hughes poem:
O, let America be America again —
The land that never has been yet —
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
“I like your analogy of a teeter totter; it’s perfect,” says Jeff Chang, during a lengthy phone conversation in late November. Chang is an author, award-winning journalist and the vice president of narrative, arts and culture for Oakland-based Race Forward. The organization is the East Bay home of the Government Alliance on Race and Equity (GARE), a national network of local governments working to achieve racial equity. The multifaceted Race Forward conducts fact-, science- and data-based research on the impacts of race on social, economic, public health and cultural issues, publishes a daily news site, Colorlines, and is host/presenter of Facing Race, the country’s largest multiracial conference on racial justice. Founded in 1981, Race Forward in 2017 united with the Center for Social Inclusion; expanding the organization’s racial justice advocacy and grassroots organizing with increased training, expert consultancy, alliance-building, support and leadership for community campaigns and other initiatives.
“The country is at a reckoning point,” says Chang. “The 2020 election is another reflection of the crossroads. We’re trying at Race Forward to fire up the imagination for what America can become. To move us away from genocide, domination and white supremacy to a country that is equitable, multiracial and sustainable.”
Chang says that while the Black Lives Matter movement delivered mostly spot-on messages this year, efforts to convince doubters or deniers—and even supporters who might waver under pressure—must be ongoing. “We need to win the narrative,” he insists. “We have to show people they aren’t going to lose. We all gain and become stronger as a society and individually if we work to fight to end racism. This whole debate is framed as a zero-sum game and that idea is what the Trump administration has tried to fan. This false replacement theory—that someone always has to be at the top and someone else on the bottom—white supremacists say means that if people of color are at the top, then white people have to be on the bottom. They say that if Black people achieve justice and their full rights, white people are going to lose.”
Chang says this picture is flawed and does not illustrate the world Race Forward is trying to create. But articulating a better future requires describing in specific and broad terms—minus hyperbole—a world in which not only material goods are shared, but also deeper values such as offering freedoms and liberties to all people, creating institutions, governments, businesses and culture that establish justice as central and actively, equitably sharing America’s bounty and privileges therein.
Which begs the question: Doesn’t sharing mean some people will have to give more than others? Is there some denial or self-deception in suggesting no one will lose anything? While admitting that sharing means no one gets the “whole pie,” Chang sticks to his resolve—leaning on a belief that altruism delivers intrinsic rewards. “We’re not coming for your money, kids, relatives or for you,” he says. “We’re working to change the narrative that says it’s a game and asks how many points we can gain in a lifetime. Another narrative says we should be looking out for each other. If we live equitably, everyone can be happy in this.”
Chang observes that mutual aid societies form most often when there is social chaos, but he acknowledges there is cost and peril during times of turmoil as well as during times of relative peace. “People’s instincts for good come to the surface during chaos, but often at tremendous cost,” he says. “I wonder, how can it then be that when there’s no disaster, we’re always pushing ourselves in the direction for more disaster?”
Instead, we should strive for balance, he suggests … which reintroduces the teeter-totter analogy and the thrill we experience when we cooperate with a buddy and sit suspended, having managed to make the board remain level. “We’re not meant for exact stasis, but what we’re after is still a difficult balance to achieve,” he says. “We’re after a better future than if we have someone always given all the resources and the other person always abstracted and oppressed.”
In the simplest terms, Chang says a person can say, “This person at the other end of the beam is my friend and I don’t want something bad to happen to him/her/them.” By extension, Chang says the choice is as simple as that and as complicated as the things society has layered on: slavery, freedom, segregation, Black and brown bodies not owned by self but owned by others for their benefit and exploitation, white supremacist power structures and more. “We have to undo those systems placed on people—like indigenous folks when the dominant power structures say this land, America, doesn’t belong to you. It’s ours. I say no to that.”
Chang says the first step in the direction of change is already underway. “The language has shifted,” he says. “The normative has changed, with athletes, businesses, schools, and institutions having to reaffirm that they believe Black Lives Matter in a public way. That’s something we haven’t seen in U.S. history.”
Even so, at the bi-annual Facing Race conference held online this year, 4,200 participants heard keynote speaker civil rights leader Reverend Dr. William Barber deliver an urgent message. Barber unpacked four centuries of history and said the future of the racial justice movement will rise from activists in the Deep South, perhaps in North Carolina where the originally live event had been scheduled to be held. “We had six different workshops and a plenary session,” says Chang. “We talked about movement journalism, Native American narratives, reproductive justice, climate justice, housing, dance education. We literally sorted through hundreds of submissions so you can’t help getting a sense of the diversity of the narratives.”
Chang says the conference is powerful because presenters are people who are active on the ground every day. “They’re in institutions, communities, schools, government, storytelling and performance practices, energy programs,” he says. “It’s dizzying and reaffirming to know that folks are advancing racial justice in millions of different ways.”
In Oakland, Chang watched community organizing fade in the years after Race Forward first launched. Societal pushback and shifts in legal policies claiming to be “color blind,” instead increased policing in communities of color. Rather than a neighborhood concerned about nighttime safety receiving funding for more streetlights, the focus became putting more law enforcement officers on the streets.
He suggests that during the 1970s, legislation that shifted money out of education to fund the police or support segregated schools—even if the stated intention was to provide targeted measures meant to address racial inequities—further disempowered people in communities of color. “People sitting at the intersection of harm know better what is best for making sure resources are put into community organizing for the benefit of people of color,” he says. “We work to shift the decision-making back by working with folks on the ground and linking them nationally to others to strengthen the racial justice movement. We lift up and stand behind folks actively working to change their communities and institutions on a day-to-day basis.”
During Biden’s first 100 days as president, Race Forward intends to push the administration to take realtime racial justice action. Specifically, by revoking Trump Executive Order 13950 that bans racial justice work and language in federal government, grants, funding and contracting. “There are keywords in 13950 that trigger that ban and punishment. We’re going to get them to un-ban them,” Chang says. “Banned language—like unconscious bias, systemic racism, white privilege and other terminology—we want the Biden Administration to supplant the order with an order that says we’re going to center racial justice words and work in our future.”
Race Forward staff will also ask the administration to address other topics including housing inequities, environmental justice and prison-policing abolition. He says “prison-police abolition” is a broad term that speaks to the defunding of police in prisons and the reinvestment of those funds into education, health care, housing and other areas. “It reinvents the way we think of safety, security, policing. Throwing more money at policing and building prisons is the old way. Rethinking that course of action to build healthy and sustainable communities is what we are thinking. We know that increasing incarceration and the heavy policing of communities of color has not worked to make them more healthy and vital. It’s done the opposite.”
Regarding the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on people of color and the best way for people to conduct independent, data-based investigations of the facts and issues, Chang recommends people use the Race Forward resources, but also visit the Racial Data Lab website. The lab project is part of Boston University’s Center for Antiracist Research and was founded by Ibram X. Kendi after he wrote a series of essays for The Atlantic about the need for racial and ethnic demographic data demonstrating Covid-19’s effect on people of color.
Asked what big issues related to the pandemic might become the nation’s focus in 2021, Chang predicts evictions and reduced life expectancy will dominate discussions. Returning to the playground analogy and the idea that the world will benefit most if whoever is down is allowed to rise up to level the platform, Chang says the largest overall task will be undertaking real, actionable steps to achieve that steady state. “We want people to share and move to a more equitable world,” he says. “If we don’t, we go back to a dog-eat-dog world. We simply have to figure out the steps away from that imbalanced world and then make them happen.”