Dismantling Racism: How We Move Forward

Part III

In Part One of this series we looked at the origins of racism. In Part Two we analyzed several forms of racism with a focus on conditioned racism. In this third and final installment, we will look at strategies and tactics for dismantling racism.

Racism is an action taken by an individual or institution that does mental, physical, political, or economic harm to members of a racialized group and is either (1) justified by an idea that regards one race as inferior to another in any way, or (2) triggered by a bias rooted in such an idea. It isn’t enough to not be a racist. We must become anti-racists. Being an anti-racist means understanding that we consume racist ideas in our culture. It means identifying and confronting those racist ideas and biases within our own minds and doing the same with racist systems and practices within the institutions of our society, and it means dismantling them.

Moreover, where there’s a consumer, there’s a producer. Therefore the height of anti-racism is when we not only reject and refuse to consume racist ideas, but when we come together as working people to identify, target, and confront the elites who produce those ideas. Since the goal of producing racist ideas and systems is to keep working people from getting a fair share of the public and private wealth that we produce, then any anti-racist work must seek to ensure that we all fight together to get the full benefit of that wealth. In short, we must become anti-racists, transform racist institutions into anti-racist institutions, and unite in large and small multiracial efforts to bring about our mutual prosperity.

Become an Anti-Racist

The NPR podcast Invisibilia has an episode called “The Culture Inside.” Listen to it. In the first half of that episode, a white father of an adopted Black daughter tells a moving and compelling story of the moment that he realized he held conditioned racial biases against Black people. Many of us should be able to recognize ourselves in that story. In the second half of the episode, a Black police officer--who initially thought it was ridiculous to require a Black person to take anti-bias training--recounts the moment when he realized that he held many of the same biases against Black people that white police officers demonstrated against him in his youth.

These moments--moments when good well-meaning people realized they held racial biases--are absolutely essential in stopping American racism because each provides a concrete example of the process that you and I must go through to snuff out American racism, which is to recognize the root of that racism in ourselves. We’re better equipped to help others reach a destination when we’ve made the journey ourselves.

Remember, “race” is not a real thing, except in our minds. It is a concocted idea. Bias is a subconscious belief about the people in these concocted racial categories, and racism is an act based on those biases. After learning to recognize our biases in our daily lives, the next step is to train and condition ourselves not to act on those biases--to check ourselves. Our biases cannot do harm to people if we don’t act on them. This means that the teacher who doesn’t expect Black students to take on challenging work consciously questions her assumption and gives them the challenging work to spite her own bias. It means the hiring manager recognizes where his unfounded and untested thoughts about Black competence come from and actively seeks to interview Black candidates as a result. And it means that the officer acknowledges the irrational root of his fear and puts his gun away like he’d do if the man in front of him were white. These acts--consciously and repeatedly responding to one's own biased “gut” by doing the opposite of what it calls for--will create new experiences for each of these actors that will, in turn, progressively degrade their implicit biases.

Transform Racist Institutions into Anti-Racist Ones

Many of us work in businesses, nonprofits, public school districts, governmental agencies, and other institutions that operate via systems and policies that have deep racist impacts on Black people and other people classified as nonwhite.

Some examples of institutional racism are criminal sentencing laws and guidelines, voter suppression tactics, racial profiling by police departments, and state reliance on local property tax schemes to fund public schools. In education, it involves narrowing the criteria for success of Black education down to how many correct answers students can pick on tests in two subject areas and whether or not they show up, while at the same time gutting schools of staff and programs that develop young people into multi-talented civic actors.

Institutions operate with systems that exponentially increase the power of racism. Once we understand that, then it logically follows that they can operate with systems that multiply the power of anti-racism. For that to happen, we must point out racist systems and practices within the institutions of our society and dismantle them. At the same time we must create new systems, rituals, and practices that attack the foundations of racism by facilitating the development of anti-racist citizens; exposing and eliminating racist ideas, systems, and practices; responding to racist acts with consequences; acting in ways that create racially equitable outcomes, and healing the damage caused by existing racial inequities.

As we move forward to expose and eliminate racism, we must not allow ourselves to be silent or extend the benefit of the doubt when the person presiding over the institution is a person of color. When Chicago’s former mayor attempted to shut down one of the city’s top-performing majority African American schools in order to make the school building available to a whiter more affluent community, his appointed African American schools CEO became the face of this effort when she misled the public about the level of support for the school, student academic performance, and the route students would have to walk to get to the school--all in the name of justifying its closure. 

We should never let instances, where a Black person is promoting such policies, give us pause in calling them out as the institutionally racist policies that they are. Some enslaved Africans toiled under Black overseers and Black slave drivers. The presence of Black overseers didn’t make the enslavement of Black people any less racist. To be clear, I am not comparing the people and institutions themselves. I am comparing the impact of Black people in management positions within different racist systems to make it clear that changing the color of the managers does not by itself change the racist nature of the system they’re managing. My own organization, the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association, is not immune to institutional racism simply because I, its president, am Black. Whether it be Black overseers, Black CEO’s, Black police chiefs, Black mayors, or a Black President of the United States, there are laws, policies, and systems in place in American institutions that have racist impacts when they are implemented or enforced, no matter the color of the person doing the enforcing. 

Black management or not, we must deliberately and forcefully rid our institutions of systemic racism. Some institutions try to get around this requirement by issuing “Diversity Goals” and “Equity Frameworks” while failing to do the difficult but far more effective work of identifying, targeting and dismantling their existing racist systems, policies, and practices. We can no longer accept these impotent diversion tactics.

Changing these institutions will require influence. The tactics people can use to gain influence within an institution are the same as those needed for us to work together for our mutual prosperity. I discuss them in the section that follows.

Unite to Overcome the Obstacles to Our Mutual Prosperity

Although pattern-based mental associations are a natural function of the human brain, the specific racial biases that we hold are not natural. They did not develop as a result of some inevitable organic process. Powerful people and institutions purposely and deliberately developed, refined, strengthened, promoted, fueled, and sustained racist ideas and our conditioned racial biases over the course of nearly 400 years to justify the exploitation of Black laborers and pit white laborers against their natural allies. This made it easier for them to further enrich themselves by exploiting and fleecing us all. This is particularly important for poor and working-class white Americans to understand and it is an understanding that may have some impact on bringing puppet racists out of White Oblivion back and into the human family.

Today, one percent in the upper class have more wealth than ninety percent of Americans. That gap exists in large part because we have a political system that allows and encourages an economy where a CEO can siphon off far more than his or her fair share of the wealth produced by working people while paying working people far less than their fair share. What if a critical mass of all working people fought together for a fairer share of the public and private wealth that we produce? While a white person typically makes more than a similarly situated Black person under American racism, both would build far more wealth if we joined together en mass to compel our political and economic systems to compensate workers in accordance with the value of the public and private wealth their labor produces.

White people must understand that a typical wealthy white corporate CEO does not see his interests as being aligned with a white working-class American. White puppet racists must come to terms with the fact they have been duped, hoodwinked, and bamboozled into a state of mind in which they identify more with their ruling class white adversaries than with their logical allies in working-class communities of color.  All people--especially working-class white people--must realize that not only is it morally and ethically right to recognize and reject prejudices and racist ideas but that it is in their best interests.

The ruling class did not amass wealth and power by basing their decisions on altruistic considerations. They amassed wealth and power because their decisions are based on their own self-interest. Historically, unjust laws and systems have not been changed because the powerful become enlightened. They changed when common people used petitions, public opinion campaigns, symbolic united stances, shows of strength, strikes, boycotts, mass marches, demonstrations, rebellions, and other forms of disruption to make it in the self-interest of the powerful to change them. Whether we’re fighting to increase school funding, end police brutality, pass universal healthcare or get fair compensation and better working conditions, it’s going to take focused, consistent, intelligent, and impassioned organizing to win. Hundreds of thousands of pages have been written on tactics and strategies for such organizing. Though I am not an authority on the subject, the following paragraph is my attempt to summarize what I’ve learned from those who are.

Organizing for Change

A major source of power for any group of working people is their ability to grow their numbers and pool their human, material, and monetary resources. A second source of power is for us to increase the strength of our connections with each other within our groups (internal relationships) and between them (external relationships) in order to build trust and strong allies in our push for change. A third element of power is strategy: to bring both narrow and broad groups of people together to identify issues, research and message those issues, deliberate collectively, set goals, and develop an intelligent plan to turn what we have (resources, and relationships) into what we need (a series of intelligently designed collective actions), to get what we want (specific changes from targeted institutions and decision-makers).

These actions might involve statements, petitions, lawsuits, voting, demonstrations, boycotts, sit-ins, strikes, symbolic acts, or disruptive ones. Whatever the actions, they must be intelligently designed and precisely targeted to change the self-interest calculus of our officials and compel them to do the right thing, or dislodge those officials from their positions of power. I am unaware of any point in history in which a group of working people ever won a major victory to improve their conditions without developing and engaging the three elements of power described here.

A Starting Point

In this three-part series, I’ve tried to summarize 400 years of history and context regarding race, class, and organizing tactics. Trying to do that in less than ten pages is a limitation that necessarily means that my analysis is imperfect, incomplete, and oversimplified. This is a starting point; not the finish line. I’ve included links to other resources below that I hope will be more helpful.


Those of you who understandably want to believe you are unbiased and “colorblind” have to come to grips with the fact that you are not. You’re not. I’m not. No one is. That doesn’t make us bad people. It makes us human beings whose minds developed and came of age in the racially noxious culture of the United States. There is no progress to be made unless a critical mass of us come to grips with that essential American fact.

A major obstacle toward this kind of honest self-assessment is the way we frame racism. No one wants to admit they’re racist because we talk about racism as evil. The greed of the ruling class that prompted them to create racism and use it to exploit working people and pit them against one another is evil, and we should describe it as such. However, I believe that it is more productive for us to see racism--not as an evil, but as an illness. In a speech he made the night before he was assassinated, Martin Luther King discussed the threats on his life, saying,  “And then I got to Memphis, and some began to talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers?” Dr. King didn’t say “wicked” white brothers. He said “sick” white brothers because he understood that prejudice is not an evil. It is an illness. There are certainly many evil people who are prejudiced, but prejudice itself is not an evil, it is an illness--and illnesses can be treated, cured, and healed.

To some extent, all of us hold prejudices. Not just racial prejudices, but prejudices or biases of all kinds, and all of them serve to pit working people against one another. As a result, we have to come face to face with the fact that all of our thinking is impacted to some degree by the lie of Black criminality, the lie of Muslim extremism and other religious stereotypes, the lie of anti-immigration propaganda aimed at Spanish speaking people, the lie of sexist assumptions and stereotypes against women, and the lies inherent in homophobic and transgender biases.  As a result of the presence of these biases in our culture and our thinking, we are all, to some extent, sick. But we can all heal. Heal ourselves, our institutions, our nation, and our world.

Summary and Conclusion

There are three things about racism that we must take into account if we are going to plan any effective action to end it.

  1. Racism is not natural; it is rooted in the ruling class’s desire to amass wealth and power by dividing, controlling, and exploiting working people. It was deliberately constructed and can be deliberately dismantled.

  2. Many individual acts of racism are grounded in biases that take root in the minds of American people as a result of their conscious or subconscious consumption of racist ideas, imagery, and narratives.

  3. Racism’s destructive force is magnified when it is ritualized in the everyday practices and policies of American institutions (institutionalized racism).

With that understanding, racism must be fought with short and long-term planning and execution aimed at developing ourselves into anti-racists who recognize and confront our own racial biases, transforming racist institutions into anti-racist institutions, and bringing working people of all races together to reach the goal that racism itself was designed to prevent: ensuring that working people get a fair share of the public and private wealth that we produce.


Understanding Bias, Racism, and the Ruling Class

Organizing for Meaningful Systemic Change