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Winter 2011

Fire in the Heart: How White Activists Embrace Racial Justice

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In Associate Professor Mark Warren's new book, Fire in the Heart: How White Activists Embrace Racial Justice, he uncovers the processes through which white Americans become activists for racial justice. Through interviews with 50 white Americans, who work in community organizing, education, and criminal justice reform, Warren shows how white Americans can develop a commitment to racial justice, not simply because it is the right thing to do, but because they see the cause as their own. Here Warren discusses these stories and how white Americans can do more in the name of racial activism.

Educators often believe that if we teach white people about racism and multiculturalism, they will become more tolerant and supportive of racial justice. Is more required?

I found that these cognitive strategies, while very important, are limited. Strikingly, none of the 50 white people I interviewed began to develop an awareness of racism through reading or learning the facts about racism. Instead, they report having a direct, personal experience witnessing racism in their community. This experience created a profound moral shock as they realized that members of their own community were violating the values of fairness and equality they held so dear. For example, [interviewee] Jim Capraro walked out of his home in Marquette Park, Chicago, in 1966 and directly into an open housing march of African Americans led by Martin Luther King, Jr. He witnessed his neighbors throwing beer bottles at the black marchers, while hurling racial epithets and trying to physically attack them. Capraro said, it was "the longest half hour in my life and changed my life forever." At college, Capraro heard [civil rights activist] Stokely Carmichael admonish whites to fight racism in their own communities, and Capraro has spent the last 40 years as a community organizer working for racial integration and economic development in his home neighborhood of Marquette Park, once a national symbol of racial hatred.

In the end, facts are "just facts" if they are not connected to real people that white Americans know. Analyzing racism helps people determine how to combat it, and that's vitally important. By itself, however, knowledge does not provide a motivation to take action. It answers the "what" to do but not the "why" to do it. Rather, I find that motivation comes through moral and relationship-building processes. Indeed, I found that while white people started off their racial justice activism out of a moral compulsion, they sustained and deepened their commitment by working together with people of color.

Why are building relationships across the color line so important?

White Americans do not directly face racial discrimination and most live largely segregated lives, residing and going to school in predominantly white communities. In fact only 15 percent of whites report having even one close friend of color. I found that it was only when the activists I interviewed began to develop relationships with people of color that they were able to fully grasp the reality of their racial experiences. For example, juvenile justice advocate Mark Soler knew the statistics on the growing criminalization of black men. In places like Baltimore, nearly half of all black men are in the custody of the criminal justice system in one way or another. However, it was when his African American colleagues told him their personal stories of harassment at the hands of the police that Soler began to grasp the reality of that experience in what he calls a more visceral way.

Relationships do more, however, than deepen understanding of racial experience. Through relationships white people can come to care about racism because it affects people they know personally and care about. Soler spent many hours driving to juvenile facilities with one African American colleague. His colleague shared stories not just about his own treatment at the hands of the police but also his personal anguish about how he should counsel his son about the police. The colleague's fear for what could happen to his teenage son became palpable to Soler in a deeply personal way. Soler's 30 year commitment comes from both his intellectual understanding of racism but also his visceral awareness and personal connection.

You say that we need more multiracial groups, institutions, and places -- does bringing people together always create unity?

One of the most important implications of my research is that we need more places where white Americans and people of color can build meaningful relationships with each other. But it's true that just placing people together is not enough. Multiracial groups can also replicate the racial dynamics of the larger society. Desegregated schools, for example, can produce very inequitable outcomes for students or end up internally segregated. Instead, whites and people of color have to work intentionally to create more equal and respectful relationships and to honestly confront racial differences. If whites (or anyone, for that matter) in these settings act in ways that discriminate, these practices need to be discussed, so that multiracial organizations can be places where people build truly human communities that practice equity and justice.

One of the education activists I interviewed, Katherine Carter, is the principal of Manzanita SEED Elementary School, a small public school that was started through a community organizing effort in Oakland, Calif. Carter works hard to create community-building and visioning processes amongst her diverse teaching staff and between the teachers and the low-income parents of color whose children attend the school. She asks members of this diverse community to discuss their core values: What kind of school community do they want to create for children and for themselves? She tries to promote open discussion of racial and other differences, paying attention to unequal power dynamics and discriminatory practice, in order to build an inclusive and united community. Carter leads her staff and this school community in using data and culturally appropriate teaching methods to produce more equitable outcomes for children. However, this diversity and equity-oriented practice grows out of the work of building inclusive community with shared vision and honest conversation.

Do young college graduates entering Teach For America or other community service opportunities indicate the beginnings of a new movement for racial justice in America?

There is growing concern among young white people about racism and a thirst for new approaches to dealing with race and new ways of working together. Many are struggling with their roles as white people in this work. The initial motivation for young white teachers entering urban schools appears to be the same as the people I interviewed, that is, they are concerned about racism as a moral issue and they want to make a difference. Unfortunately, though, half of the young people who go into urban schools will leave them within their first three years. We spend most of our time preparing people to teach yet pay little attention to nurturing their development as committed and effective practitioners. We teach curriculum but not relationship-building.

The people I interviewed sustained and deepened their commitment as they built meaningful relationships with people of color and developed effective, equity-oriented practice with them. They found purpose in their lives both in making a real difference in schools and communities and also in building caring, racially diverse communities that supported and nurtured them. As one of my respondents put it so succinctly, "I'm working to create the kind of community that I want to live in," one that treats everyone with dignity and respect and offers everyone the opportunity for high-quality education, good housing, and productive jobs. That is how these white Americans came to embrace the cause of racial justice for themselves and for all Americans, whites, and people of color.

Years of patient local organizing created the foundations for the emergence of the national civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. I believe we have to pay careful attention to the work of activists who are building the foundations for just such a movement to re-emerge in our era.