Stop asking how to 'help'

16 Jun 2020
Author: Robert Precht

By Oliver Bauer-Nathan

Guest Columnist

June 15, 2020

"What should I do about racism?"

White people who ask people of color this question are asking the right question but asking the wrong party for an answer. Commentators like Charles Blow, United States Senator Kamala Harris, and ordinary people of color have made it clear that they find this type of question maddening – and for good reason: when white people ask people of color this question, it shifts the burden of solving racism onto those who suffer it.

Racism in America has been created and perpetuated by white people, and therefore to reverse racism white people need to stop being racist and start fighting for anti-racist policies. That this statement, which should be a truism, has to be said speaks volumes as to how deep the roots of racism are. White people who ask people “what should I do about it?” have it exactly backwards. It’s the people who have done harm or benefited from those harms who must make amends.

It’s on us white people – that much I know. So what should we do about it? I have been wrestling with this question for a while, and here is what I have figured out so far.

Not enough to be not racist

It is not enough to be “not racist.” To paraphrase Beverly Daniel Tatumracism is so much a part of our institutions and assumptions that it functions like a moving airport walkway or escalator. Active racism is walking in the direction of the walkway. Passivity is standing still for the ride. To oppose racism we must turn around and walk decisively in the opposite direction. If we are only not racist, we are still moving forward, benefiting from systems of oppression, allowing these systems to persist, and by not opposing them, helping them to continue. 

To become anti-racist, we must understand the history, structure, and purpose of deeply entrenched racist policies that have evolved over time to subjugate people of color and privilege white people. In The New Jim Crow Michelle Alexander discusses the mechanisms by which slavery was adapted into Jim Crow and segregation, how these injustices were then perpetuated in mass incarceration, and the role that redlining, and environmental racism have played in reinforcing the evolving system. To know which institutions to fight against, we must understand which entrenched practices that we often take for granted are responsible for the negative outcomes that have been documented for African Americans, such as a persistent difference in life expectancyoverrepresentation in prisons, a lower average income than their white counterparts, and underrepresentation in higher education.

For me, the process of understanding began in earnest when I took a course entitled “Drugs and Behavior,” taught by the chair of the Columbia University Psychology Department, Carl Hart. I learned that our current drug laws were not designed to protect people, or to keep them safe, but as a justification for imprisoning people of color, poor people, and hippies, starting as far back as the passage of the Harrison Narcotics Tax Act in 1914. Because racist policies are often disguised by other rationales, it was during this class that I realized that I need to learn more about the hidden intentions of many seemingly well-meaning policies.

Listening and learning

One must listen and learn from a place of humility. We white people can never fully comprehend the black American experience. We must listen to those who can and want to teach us, either through conversation with people of color who are willing to share their experiences, or by following vocal people of color, activists on social media, and anti-racist white people. 

We also must actively fight racism – and not just when it’s convenient, or when the need to do so becomes obvious, such as in the current political moment. My first anti-racist actions were when I worked as a part-time summer paralegal intern with the Essex County Legal Aid Association, where I assisted the attorneys in providing pro-bono legal advice to clients facing eviction. During that same summer, I worked on the local State Assembly Campaign for Lisa Bhimani and Darcy Draeger to replace a congressman who voted against establishing gun-free zones around schools. During my senior year in college, I was a casework intern at Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s New York City office, where I assisted low-income constituents, many of whom are victims of systemic and direct racism, in gaining access to government services. What I learned from these experiences is how fast the walkway is moving in the wrong direction. 

Not everyone needs to devote a career to being anti-racist. We can fight racism by intervening when we witness it, by donating to relevant organizations, by condemning thought leaders who tolerate or even promote actions that contribute to this culture. Anyone in a position of influence – a teacher or corporate executive – should make sure that people of color are represented and heard in their school or company. For me, working full time toward this goal makes the most sense. As the walkway keeps moving, I think more of us need to turn around and walk briskly in the opposite direction. 

Oliver Bauer-Nathan is a 2020 graduate of Columbia University who plans to attend law school after gaining more field experience. Write to Oliver at ob2271@columbia.edu