Your Street Painting Won’t Protect Black Lives – Next100
Commentary   Changing the Game

Your Street Painting Won’t Protect Black Lives

Sentimental speeches, public art, and motivational commercials do not equal systemic change. It’s time we start prioritizing policy change.

The viral murder of Trayvon Martin in 2012 started a vocal and unapologetic conversation about this country’s painful history as well as its ongoing, systemic lack of effort in protecting Black lives. The phrase “Black Lives Matter” first appeared in 2013 in Alicia Garza’s Facebook post, “A Love Letter to Black People.” After Eric Garner, Mike Brown, and Tamir Rice’s murders, we saw a spike in the phrase being used as a hashtag on multiple outlets. Shortly after, the controversy and the alternative phrase “All Lives Matter” followed. This fight has been continuous and steady until reaching a head this year, amidst an unexpected global pandemic. With a country already frustrated and weary about COVID-19, we all sat at home and saw injustice go viral once again.

The murder of George Floyd made a wider group of people look inward than had done so before during the Movement for Black Lives. In response to this senseless killing, people began speaking out more than ever. The support began to roll over into the activities of companies, nonprofit organizations, and even politicians. Whereas before politicians would be anxious about saying the words out loud, the phrase “Black Lives Matter” has now been painted in streets, on murals, and plastered all over different parts of our cities. Politicians are planning elaborate photo ops to show their support. Companies are using the movement as a marketing tool for their brands. Social media, television, and radio have become one large competition to see which company will have the quickest and most creative response—even as they thrive in a collapsing capitalistic structure that is not benefiting Black people in the least bit.

There is an uncomfortable amount of love this country has for performing; and we are expected to believe the small performances are enough.

But black people will no longer settle for gestures and performances. There is a difference between performative activism and proactive anti-racism, and that difference is actually crystal clear. Pretty content that does nothing for the liberation of Black people is performative and unproductive. Instead, companies, politicians, and organizations must be more proactive and prioritize action that improves the lives of Black people everywhere—and in systemic ways. While not an exhaustive list, here are some actual next steps people can be making to protect Black lives.

Be honest. Be transparent. Own your mistakes. Get better.

The best first step you can take with your privilege is acknowledge it, its harm, and its impact on others. The difficulty of taking this step is rooted in accepting that you as an individual may be contributing to a wrong, a difficulty which leads a lot of people to shy away from this level of public accountability. For example, over the years, this country’s largest charter school network, Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP), where I was a student and for whom I worked after college, has received substantial pushback for its anti-Black practices and the privilege of its leadership. The interesting thing about KIPP is that this is something they routinely acknowledge themselves and vocalize the desire for improving. In a letter sent to every KIPP alum across the country, co-founder Dave Levin wrote:

“I did not do enough as we built KIPP to fully understand how systemic and inter-personal racism, and specifically anti-Blackness, impacts you and your families – both inside of KIPP and beyond. It is clear that I, and others, came up short in fully acknowledging the ways in which the school and organizational culture we built and how some of our practices perpetuated white supremacy and anti-Blackness.”

Levin continued with specific practices that he believed harmed students and promised solutions. Although these are just words, publicly accepting the impact school policy had on people’s lives is a start. Where will the network and the senior leadership take these words? That is up to them.

Look inward: How do you include, support, promote and empower Black people in your own backyard? What does your org chart look like? How are you treating every single one of your employees?

One of the very first ads I saw declaring that Black lives matter was one produced by Nike. Nike has historically sat comfortably at #1 as the largest sport brand in the world, representing athletes such as Colin Kaepernick, Serena Williams, Lebron James, etc. Despite its popularity with Black Americans and Black athletes, Nike’s executive team does not include a single Black person. If supporting the success of Black people is a priority, it should start right in the company’s structure. Historically speaking, Nike has also been known for its awful treatment of immigrants in the production of its product.

Bottom line is: Black people don’t want nice ads and commercials without valuing actual employees. We do not want you to elevate and benefit from just a few of our most famous faces, while treating so many more of us inquitably. Black people need the protection of people to be prioritized in the production of the products that exploit the image of Black athletes. If you say Black Lives Matter, then Black workers also matter.

When you finish talking, do something. Do everything, focused on making systemic policy change for Black people.

“What can I be doing?” is a question Black people everywhere have been hearing from white people way too much over the past month. The answer to this is always something that shifts the needle toward real systemic policy change for Black people.

  • Donate. All across the nation, there are small and large groups of people who are organizing and donating their time, energy, and bodies toward achieving liberation, even amidst a global pandemic. If the idea of any of this intimidates you but you have the ability to provide resources for the people on the front lines, give. $5 is a pack of water for protesters sitting in heat, $250 can be a push for a family grieving a loved one whose life was lost, and $1,000 can provide bail for people arrested while disrupting.
  • Amplify. Policymakers respond to pressure. It is their job to represent a group of people, and if at any point they are receiving a mass push to change something, that demand becomes a lot more difficult for them to ignore. Sign a petition calling for justice then post it everywhere. Use the relevant hashtag to get a demand trending. Attend a rally or ask others to. There is so much power in numbers and a united front will always win.
  • Set aside time to learn. With the number COVID-19 cases increasing daily, the likelihood that we will be spending more time to ourselves is slowly increasing. While this time could be used to stabilize mental health, practice mindfulness, and prioritize survival, for those that have extra time, it is also a great time to read, listen to podcasts, and find other anti-racist resources.
  • Have difficult conversations. When we think about where we tend to grow, both ourselves and others, it’s in personal spaces. When presented with the opportunity, talk to your parents, kids, or cousins. Challenge your grandparents, uncles, and aunts. Because we never know when our loved one will be in a predicament, it should always be a priority to have difficult conversations early on.
  • Advocate and organize. Most companies and organizations have direct ties to either other companies and organizations or to politicians. Instead of spending a bunch of time in the boardroom crafting marketing ploys, this time should be spent creating institutional change across the entire capitalistic structure our country houses.
  • When you push for something, push for systemic policy change. The movement for police reform is critical, but far from the only way in which people are agitating for changes in policies that don’t value Black lives. Raising the minimum wage disproportionately benefits Black workers. Expanding access to health insurance disproportionately benefits Black families. Improving our schools disproportionately benefits Black students. Researching and considering reparations benefits closing the gap in Black communities.

Performative gestures do not equal systemic change. Such performative activism is offensive to Black people everywhere and is an insult to our intelligence. We are calling for justice and liberation and we will continue to fight for it, by any means necessary.

header photo:  protesters in D.C. Source: Getty Images/Michael Joven/EyeEm

About the Author

Roquel Crutcher Education & Early Years

Roquel Crutcher is an advocate and activist for social justice and educational equity. At Next100, Roquel focuses on increasing educational opportunities and postsecondary outcomes for young people in marginalized communities. Roquel has worked at several educational nonprofits as an advocate for educational equity.

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