The tragic killing of George Floyd by police officers in Minneapolis prompted a nationwide discussion about systemic and structural racism and white supremacy and white privilege. In observance of Black History Month, the New York State Bar Association’s Committee on Diversity and Inclusion asked members to participate in the 28-Day Racial Equity Challenge. The goal was to increase members’ understanding of power, privilege, supremacy, oppression and equity.
The challenge included thought-provoking articles, essays, podcasts, videos and exercises meant to form and deepen community connections. Mirna M. Santiago, the chair of the committee, culminated the month-long challenge with a presentation titled, Let’s Talk About Race: The Origins of Systemic Racism in the United States and Tips for Dismantling Those Systems by Being Actively Anti-Racist.
After discussing the origins of white supremacy in the United States, the establishing of Black Codes after the emancipation of enslaved persons and the ways in which segregation and redlining were codified by federal and state laws, Santiago, an attorney at Hurwitz & Fine in Melville and co-founder of Girls Rule the Law in Pawling, detailed several strategies for being anti-racist.
Recognize That History Can and Does Repeat Itself
If recent news stories about zoning laws, fair housing choice and ex-felons needing to pay fines sound familiar, it’s because according to Santiago, they are the same racist policies from the past that have come back in a different form.
“When you talk about zoning laws and fair housing choice, it’s the same thing as redlining,” Santiago said. “It’s saying we don’t want certain types of people in our neighborhood.”
In November 2018, Florida passed Amendment 4, which restored voting rights for ex-felons. It passed with 64% of the vote but in the two years since it was approved, Florida state legislators have passed laws stating that ex-felons cannot vote until their court fees and fines are paid in full, which is like a modern-day poll tax, Santiago said.
Admit That You Do Have Privilege
Santiago makes sure to note that privilege doesn’t only go one way, citing her privilege to be able to present to hundreds of people about this topic that is important to her. She defines privilege as something that is a given for one community but not for another. She gave the example of the fear she has experienced as the mother of a 16-year old boy who liked to jog and ride his bike in a majority white neighborhood in the wake of the shooting of Ahmaud Arbery.
“After he was killed, I couldn’t sleep,” Santiago said. “I would stand by the door and wait for him to come back and if he wasn’t back at the time I wanted him to be, I would get in my car and pretend to be going to the supermarket just to make sure he was still alive.”
When Someone Tells You Something Offends Them, Just Listen
Rather than trying to ‘whitesplain’ or justify something that someone finds offensive, simply listen to what the person is saying.
Don’t Ask Black People To Accept The Unacceptable
Such as the fact that since 2010, 13% of the Black population has been incarcerated, far outpacing the incarceration rates of other ethnicities.
Make Some Noise
Citing several corporations like Ben & Jerry’s and Unilever that took public stances calling for racial justice reforms during the summer of 2020, Santiago says no matter who you are, you should demand accountability from your employer, organization or school.
“Make sure they affirm their commitment to diversity, equity, inclusion and anti-racism,” Santiago said. “Silence is truly not an option.”
Other strategies for being anti-racist include:
- Apologize when you make a mistake and learn from your mistakes
- Ask why often
- Fight back against policies that have disparate outcomes
- Cut yourself some slack