Redesigning Our Nation’s Institutions is Not Radical — It Is the Only Way Forward
Let me preface this by saying that I believe Black voices should be telling the stories of this time, and as a non-Black American, I would never pretend to know the black experience. But I see the violence and injustice that defines my country to its core, and I will continue to speak up against it when prompted. Because none of us is free until we are all free.
And in this particular moment, I want to speak up against the notion that demands to redesign our nation’s infrastructure for public health and safety is in any way “too radical”.
I want to speak to those non-Black folks who may have the privilege of living their lives without having to see and feel the legacy of slavery overtly playing out before their eyes and against their bodies every day. I need you to be ready to listen and understand.
Rethinking the purpose and functions of many of our country’s most central institutions is the only path to an anti-racist American society because so many of those institutions were built on racist foundations. They were built to maintain and reinforce the order of power in which Black Americans are inferior to their white counterparts because America’s very existence depended on it. We cannot tweak and reform our way out of such deeply inherent structural racism. We cannot remove racism from the foundations of our institutions without dismantling the institutions and rebuilding them. This is why such change is not radical, and it is in fact the only way forward.
In this moment, we are seeing new light cast upon the racism within the institution of the police. Policing is one of those institutions built on racist foundations. It started as slave patrols and anti-Black vigilante groups. Trying to change the goal and function of an institution with such foundations requires complete re-conceptualization and rebuilding. Reform will not work and has not worked. Reforming an institution designed to perpetuate the legacies of slavery and racism is like if you set a table, put all the fancy plates and candles and food upon the table, and then realized that the tablecloth is upside down. You can’t fix the tablecloth without taking everything off the table and trying again from the beginning because the tablecloth is the foundation of the whole set-up. Reform is like tugging at the tablecloth, trying to twist it without taking everything off. You won’t get it out, you’re probably just going to make it shift a little, and you’ll certainly break some of the things in the process.
Instead, you’ve got to take the whole institution apart and redo it. This time without the upsidedown tablecloth. Without the racism. Rethink its whole mission and purpose.
Apart from the police, public education is another one of these inherently racist institutions. As a public school teacher, I work incredibly hard and am deeply proud of the work my colleagues and I do in support of the successes and growth of each of our students. Despite that, however, I know that we are working within a system designed to keep our students down. I am a non-Black teacher who works in a 99% Black school, and I see the ways in which a society built on the exploitation and dehumanization of Black bodies affects learning outcomes of Black children every day. Under-resourced, over-policed schools are a threat to the health and safety of our Black children. I see it every day.
Within public education, there are a lot of good, anti-racist teachers. There are a lot of people fighting to get funding into Black schools. But these people don’t have the power on their own to take down the table, flip the cloth, and set it back up. On their own, they can only tug on the cloth. But racism is at the foundation of our public schools, so the whole table must be reset. The modern public school system was born out of a desire to groom white children for factory work and to make it extremely difficult at best — illegal at worst — for Black children to learn to read. Because an educated generation of Black children would surely disrupt the order of power. And to this day, to maintain that order of power, schools are teaching our children that slavery was an injustice of the past, bravely reconciled. They are teaching our children that Martin peacefully made sure we could all use the same water fountains. But they are not teaching our children the grave irony in that the same people who praised him for his nonviolent methods were also the ones who murdered him. In many cases, they aren’t even teaching our children Malcolm’s name. They aren’t teaching them about Black Americans’ relationship to healthcare or about redlining or about the Greenwood District.
We need to take everything off the education table, flip the cloth, and rebuild from there. We cannot say that we as a nation are ready to repent for our unjust, violent, inhumane foundations and move forward toward an anti-racist America if we are still hiding those very foundations from our children. They need to know. They are the ones who are going to change it.
Please stop thinking that the scale of the solution somehow doesn’t need to match the scale of the original problem. Please stop thinking that honest justice is radical. Because it is not. It is the only way forward. Nothing worth having comes easily, and an anti-racist American is worth having.
Support defunding police departments and re-allocating resources. It’s the step we need to take right now.