On white supremacy
Overcoming what we’re up against requires far more than coming to terms with race
In the past week I’ve received countless messages of love and support in response to recent events that shed light on race in America. To be honest I had never expected to find myself in such a situation, and as a result, felt unprepared to thoughtfully respond to people that asked how they can help “me” beyond voting, donations, and protest.
In reflecting on what I might say to this loaded question, much of my hesitation comes from recognizing that white people feel bad or guilty right now. The truth is: overcoming what we’re up against requires far more than coming to terms with race; we need to address the system that reinforces it.
Racism is an idea, “a mode of thought that offers a particular explanation for the fact that population groups that can be distinguished by ancestry are likely to differ in culture, status, and power,” but white supremacy is what weaponized race in the United States. White supremacy is the “systematic and self-conscious efforts to make race or color a qualification for membership in the civil community” that have a tendency to “push the principle of differentiation by race to its logical outcome.”¹
Most people are repulsed by the thought of being racist, but we all live in a society deeply rooted in white supremacy — one that many of us have never questioned. This is an unsettling reality, but as long as we continue to accept the status quo of white supremacy, racism will exist to the exclusion of black Americans.
I say all of this because I want people that are focused on racism, and possibly feeling bad or guilty about it, to redirect their energy into dismantling a system so subtle and heinous that it continues to disadvantage black Americans in the absence of legal racism.
Components like policing, the criminal justice and penal systems, public housing, and even education work closely together to keep white supremacy intact, but so do discriminatory employment practices.
Our country’s government has failed black Americans, but corporate America and Silicon Valley have too. Dismantling white supremacy will require an overhaul of every component that reinforces the system, and business practices are long overdue. Black employees at top tech companies continue to publicly voice concerns about discrimination at work, feeling unsupported by their companies. Despite hiring initiatives, demographic representation at these companies is rarely above 5% in a country with a black population three times that percentage. The EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission), the government organization responsible for protecting workers’ rights, is so overwhelmed with complaints that it drops cases every year. Companies can decrease recidivism, the tendency of a convicted criminal to reoffend, by offering qualified applicants that have been through the system stable jobs, but few consider interviewing qualified applicants with criminal backgrounds, even when tax breaks are available. Given today’s circumstances, it’s hard to be optimistic about the promise of fair employment, but I think we can all make a difference where we work.
My ask is that people see the system for what it is, and help make real changes at work — where most Americans spend their time.
If attrition, low representation, and an overwhelmed EEOC are a sign of anything, it’s that a lot of what we’re doing in the workplace isn’t solving the right problems. My advice would be to listen closely to the people that you want to support and then offer what you can — your skill, rank, social capital, or plain old job security — to act in service of these people so that they can lead you to a genuine solution that works for them. The worst thing you can do is make assumptions about what people want or need.
Finally, I’m not waiting around for change or feeling sorry for myself, and I know a lot of other people that share my disposition are involved in different ways too. The system will be dismantled — it’s only a matter of time.
If you’re interested in hiring people with a criminal background, please explore Defy Ventures. I am a volunteer.
Fredrickson, George, 1981. White Supremacy: A Comparative Study in American and South African History. Oxford University Press.