A Challenge to Institutional Racism
Written by Nada Khader   

One New York activist group transforms how they approach their work.


When someone mentions the phrase “the peace movement in the United States,” I think of older white folk holding up signs, asking for troops to come home from Iraq or for peace in Colombia. I think of a movement that is more focused on what happens outside our borders than on what is happening right now inside our own communities.

ImageThe image I have is changing. For that, I and my colleagues at WESPAC, a peace and justice organization in New York must thank the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond for sharing their powerful analysis of racism with us and for helping us transform the way we approach our work and our mission. We started our two and a half day “Undoing Racism” training with a discussion of why people are poor, including an analysis of power in our society. The training offers a crucial historical context of how race has been constructed in the U.S. and of how it is used to maintain and perpetuate a system that benefits people of European descent at the expense of other communities.

Shared definitions

Two terms that now make sense to me as a result of this training are “internalized racial superiority” and “internalized racial oppression.” Across generations, one group of people has been able to accumulate wealth and savings to pass on to their children, while other groups have had obstacles placed in their way to prevent and inhibit wealth and savings accumulation. The dominant group understands that society was meant to benefit them, receiving messages from birth that their group is entitled to the best that society has to offer, while other groups understand that they do not have the same access to power and resources necessary to meet their needs. In any social justice movement, it is crucial to understand the disorganizing impact that internalized racial oppression and superiority have on both our interpersonal relationships as well as on our institutional relationships in coalition-building.

Here, we are speaking about very well-intentioned white people who want the world to be a better, more peaceful place for everyone, but who have been socialized to accept that their community is “more efficient, more effective, better educated, more capable” of remaining in top leadership positions; often these same people include the top donors of the group as well. As a result, this same group of people develops the agenda of an activist group in a way that is safe for the white members, but in a way that may not relate to the deepest aspirations of others.

The global is local

How does this play out in a peace group? Peace groups chant for troops to come home and an end to the war in Colombia, but their movements are largely white and speak to a white agenda. People of color – Indigenous, African, Latino, Arab, Asian – are also looking for justice, right here at home in our local communities. When we offer anti-oppression trainings in our offices, the majority of people who show up are people of color and women. Who decides the agenda of a local activist group? Is it the white members who have been around the longest? Or is it communities who are most affected by an issue and who have to deal with systemic oppression?

Who holds the real power of a local group or a non-profit? Are the members accountable to the communities they serve or to their donors? Do activists figure out what solidarity with oppressed communities looks like by talking among themselves or by checking in with those who deal with the brutality of our system on a daily basis? Is it easy for white folk to preach non-violence because their communities are not the ones being targeted by capitalism, militarism and war?

These are questions that we must grapple with if we decide that we would like to embark upon a truly multi-ethnic and anti-racist people’s movement that is accountable to the communities that receive the brunt of the ongoing legacy of white supremacy in the United States.

How does this transform a grassroots activist group? With a deeper analysis, we can now see poverty as a form of economic violence that has been disproportionately devastating to communities of color in a society that was created to benefit people of European descent. Fighting poverty through an anti-racist lens becomes part of the agenda of an anti-racist institution.

WESPAC has been struggling with issues of power, race, internalized oppression and identity for the past decade. Our agenda has shifted from a white liberal anti-war agenda to one that painfully explores the power dynamic involved with community organizing. We have not figured out how to keep everyone on board and happy while this process is occurring. Our institutional interest in racial disparities and profiling has attracted communities of color in a deeper and more meaningful way than our previous organizing. We continue to grapple with the ramifications of a shifting agenda and consciousness in our attempt to maintain our meeting space as a safe haven for all who wish to organize against injustice and oppression. In the end we feel it is the communities undergoing, experiencing and living the oppression who should guide the scope and content of our solidarity.

The challenge we have now is to develop a broad multi-ethnic, anti-racist people’s movement that is clear in opposing all forms of oppression and that creates an honest space for difficult conversations about power, both within our activist groups and in our society, while keeping our eyes on the goal of creating an equitable society that works for all.

Nada Khader is the director of WESPAC, a peace and justice action network whose members are active in the campaign to close the School of the Americas.

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written by Robin Pavesi, October 13, 2009
The statement "It is easy for white folk to preach non-violence because their communities are not the ones being targeted by capitalism, militarism and war." bothers me because it is not true. Everyone who lives in the United States is targeted by capitalism! I'm white and it annoys me every time I'm lumped together with "whites" and how easy it is for them and how we have done this or that against "people of color". I am a human with struggles of my own. My struggles may be different than another persons, but each person is unique. I think ending racism includes treating people as people and stop separating us by color!
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written by Moe, February 14, 2010
@ Robin: It is important to understand that although race is not a biological reality but rather a social construct, it does have real life ramifications. Communities of colour disproportionately bear the brunt of capitalism and state violence, as this article points out, although not exclusively.

What isn't mentioned is class, and the way that the entire working class is targeted by capitalism. Ignoring this and it may not be clear that although all white people are recipients of white privilege, many white people are also the victims of capitalist exploitation. This is not to say that we can throw out an anti-racist analysis of privilege and exploitation in favour of class consciousness, but rather to understand that oppression takes many forms and a person who is the recipient of privilege based on their gender or race may also be subject to oppressions such as heterosexism, ableism, etc. We are already separated by constructs such as race or gender that privilege some of us while oppressing others and to end these separations we must confront our own privilege and the systems and ideologies - implicit and explicit - that maintain oppression.

Coming back to the intersection of race and class, it is important to note that class is racialized in the global North, and the US in particular. Communities of colour are disproportionately represented among the working class and face higher levels of unemployment, precarious employment etc. than white communities. The small number of people who benefit from capitalism is almost exclusively white. We cannot confront classism and capitalist exploitation without confronting racism as well, just as we cannot confront racism without confronting classism and capitalism.
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written by Faceless , January 05, 2013
I agree with some of the first comment that people need to be treated as people but were not.
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