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Ideas

Here come the white people — a new antiracist movement takes flight

Can ‘deep canvassing’ and other tactics better support Black activists and produce real change?

In recent weeks, tens of thousands of white people have joined in the nationwide protests against racism and police brutality.
In recent weeks, tens of thousands of white people have joined in the nationwide protests against racism and police brutality.Globe Staff and wire services

It was a Thursday evening in Roslindale Square and the white people were out in force.

They lined Washington Street. They were three and four deep on South and Poplar streets. And they filled Adams Park.

There were hundreds of them, waving signs that read “Black Lives Matter” and “No Justice No Peace,” as white drivers honked their approval.

“I’ve been to a lot of protests in my life,” said Mia Davis, a white woman from Roslindale holding an “Actively Anti-Racist” sign. “The energy feels different this time.”

Grace Styklunas, a student at Tufts University, said she’d just dashed off an email to the mayor demanding greater police accountability. Her father, Dan, was promising to patronize Black-owned businesses. And her mother, Vicki Grodsky, said the killing of George Floyd, under the knee of a Minneapolis police officer, had stirred something in her.

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“I know that there’s incidents, but somehow this is activating in a way that others hadn’t been for me,” she said. “It was like watching a public lynching. And once you watch that, you realize the state is involved — and there’s no turning back.”

Black activists and intellectuals from Malcolm X to Toni Morrison have argued for decades that white people bear the primary responsibility for rooting out racism.

But never before has the potential for a broad white antiracist movement seemed so real.

Public opinion polls show a sharp spike in concern about racism and police brutality. Seventy-one percent of white Americans now think racial discrimination is a big problem in the United States, according to a recent Monmouth University poll, up 26 points from 2015. And nearly half of white Americans say police are more likely to use excessive force against a Black culprit, nearly double the share from 2016.

Black and brown people have always led the fight for racial justice. And that’s the case now. But in recent weeks, tens of thousands of white people have joined in the nationwide protests against racism and police brutality. White people are swapping online guides to curbing racism and joining a growing network of explicitly white racial justice groups. And white-led companies and organizations are flooding diversity trainers with requests for workshops and strategic guidance.

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But all this activity raises some critical questions.

What, exactly, should a white antiracist movement look like? How can it reach white people who aren’t as committed to the cause?

And in the big picture, what is the appropriate role of white people in a movement for Black lives?

MANY OF THE most prominent abolitionists were white. And some were out-and-out radicals: William Lloyd Garrison called the Constitution “a covenant with death” for its protection of slavery and urged free states to secede from the Union.

But some white opponents of slavery suggested Black people should be shipped off to a colony in Africa, Central America, or the Caribbean.

President Abraham Lincoln supported the idea himself, telling a group of Black leaders in a White House meeting that Black people would never achieve equality in America, and “it is better for us both, therefore, to be separated.”

The 20th Century saw the emergence of a more integrated movement for Black equality.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People was founded in 1909 by white and Black people together. And the Congress of Racial Equality, which played an important role in the civil rights movement, was an explicitly interracial organization, too.

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Cooperation between Black and white activists reached a high point with the Freedom Summer campaign of 1964, which sent hundreds of mostly white college students south to register Black voters in Mississippi. But the effort brought friction, too.

“Suddenly when the white volunteers came down from prestigious colleges in the North, there was all this national publicity,” says Jason Sokol, a University of New Hampshire historian and author of “There Goes My Everything: White Southerners in the Age of Civil Rights.”

The murder of two white civil rights activists — Michael Schwerner and Andrew Goodman — alongside a Black activist, James Chaney, drew especially heavy coverage, even though “Black Mississippians had been murdered for years and not all of them had appeared as front-page news,” Sokol says.

When President Lyndon Johnson rebuffed an integrated Mississippi delegation to the Democratic National Convention that sought to displace the regular, all-white delegation, Black faith in white liberalism was further shaken. And by 1966, calls for “Black Power” were ascendant.

“We have to organize ourselves to speak from a position of strength and stop begging people to look kindly upon us,” wrote Stokely Carmichael of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee, or SNCC. “We are going to build a movement in this country based on the color of our skins that is going to free us from our oppressors and we have to do that ourselves.”

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Not long after, SNCC pushed out its white members.

As a racial cleavage of one kind took hold on the left, Richard Nixon was building another on the right with a “Southern strategy” aimed at stoking white resentment of civil rights gains. In the decades that followed, racial division would become a fixture of our partisan politics. And hope for reconciliation dimmed with racially charged fights over crime and the War on Drugs in the 1980s and 1990s.

For many white Americans then, the election of Barack Obama was a catharsis — a chance to believe, again, in racial harmony.

That catharsis was short-lived, though; the swift backlash to the first Black president was jarring, and it set the white antiracist movement in motion. The campaign and election of Donald Trump gave it a sharp shove forward.

One paper, examining American National Election Studies data, found white liberal sympathy toward minority groups “soared to the highest levels ever recorded” in 2016. And an analysis of the General Social Survey showed a big spike in the share of white Democrats saying racial inequality is caused by “discrimination,” rather than individuals’ “willpower.”

By some measures, white liberal views on race in the Obama and Trump eras actually moved to the left of African-Americans’, in a phenomenon one observer dubbed the “Great Awokening.”

White Americans had made a big, underreported shift on questions of race. And liberal activists were ready to harness it.

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CARLA F. WALLACE remembers asking her maternal grandmother how she did it.

How she mustered the courage, back in the Netherlands, to hide Jewish people and others targeted by the Nazis beneath her floorboards during the occupation.

“Child,” her “oma” would say, leaning on her cane, “that’s just what you do.”

Wallace was raised in a social justice household; her father was one of the only white people involved in the civil rights-era housing desegregation movement in Louisville, Ky.

And she has carried on the family tradition.

In the fall of 2009, as the racially charged backlash to the Obama presidency grew, she joined with another activist, Pam McMichael, in a campaign to pull together and strengthen what was then a very small group of white racial justice organizations.

“There’d been a lot of, ‘well, we’re going to educate ourselves’ and ‘oh, we’re going to learn about our white privilege,’ but in terms of actually doing something — besides becoming better people — there wasn’t much happening,” she says.

It was the start of what would become Showing Up for Racial Justice, or SURJ, a network of over 120 organizations from New York to Louisville to Los Angeles working on issues including criminal justice reform and reparations for slavery.

The aim, Wallace says, is to engage white people in a larger racial justice movement led by people of color.

That means SURJ does not develop demands around issues like police reform. In Louisville, Wallace says, it has turned to organizations like Black Lives Matter, The Bail Project, and Mijente, a Latino advocacy group. She calls these groups “accountability partners.”

Another goal, she says, is challenging a “call-out culture” in which righteous white activists, armed with a bit of antiracist education, police other well-meaning white people on the terminology they use when they talk about race. Those activists might think of themselves as good antiracists, she says, but “actually, it doesn’t build anything except your own sense of smugness” and it can keep other white people out of the work.

That instinct for bridge-building is behind SURJ’s most intriguing strategy for building white support for racial justice: a tactic known as “deep canvassing.”

Typical canvassing involves going door-to-door with a clipboard and a set of talking points. Identifying supporters. Urging them to vote. Maybe collecting a small donation.

But deep canvassing, pioneered by the Leadership Lab, a project of the Los Angeles LGBT Center, is different. The conversations are lengthy — maybe 10 or 15 minutes. They are non-judgmental. And they harness the power of personal narrative, which, psychological research suggests, is more effective than argumentation.

Some of the earliest efforts focused on gay marriage, with canvassers sharing their own experiences — or those of a friend — and asking people at their doorsteps to reflect on their own marriages.

“It’s a very human experience,” says Ash Overton, who was involved in a 2012 campaign to defeat a measure that would have banned gay marriage in Minnesota. “I had people say to me, ‘I’m going to vote “no” now and I will think about you when I do that,’ or, ‘I’ll never forget this conversation, and I’m sorry.’”

In a 2016 paper published in Science, Joshua Kalla and David Broockman, now political scientists at Yale University and the University of California, Berkeley, found a deep canvassing campaign in South Florida reduced transphobia in a lasting way.

That’s no small thing. People are highly resistant to changing their minds. And academics have found that other persuasion strategies have shown effects that persist for only a few days or require intense intervention over months or years.

Whether deep canvassing could shift attitudes on race, which is such a singular force in American life, is an open question. But a recent paper by Kalla and Broockman offers some reason for hope.

The researchers found that canvassers in central Tennessee, Fresno, Calif., and Orange County, Calif., who asked people about their personal experiences with immigrants and “a time when someone showed [them] compassion when [they] really needed it” produced durable — if modest — shifts in attitudes toward unauthorized immigrants.

Immigration politics are not just about race, of course. But they are deeply intertwined with it. And Overton, now a campaign manager with SURJ, is optimistic that deep canvassing can shift white attitudes on race — especially in a moment like this one.

“Between this administration and the uprising, there is a very big opening to have an explicit conversation that is so hard for white people to have,” Overton says.

Kristen Brock-Petroshius, a doctoral student in social welfare at the University of California, Los Angeles, who studies ways to change white attitudes on race and politics, is a little more circumspect.

She is also an organizer with a SURJ affiliate in Los Angeles called White People 4 Black Lives that recently used deep canvassing to advocate in majority-white neighborhoods for a ballot measure ramping up civilian oversight of the county sheriff’s department and commissioning a study on how to reduce the local jail population.

The ballot measure won by an overwhelming margin in March. But Brock-Petroshius says it’s not clear yet whether deep canvassing can change basic attitudes on race. It may turn out that it’s more effective in changing attitudes on specific issues, like criminal justice reform.

Still, even that would be meaningful. And winning converts is not the only work of the white antiracism movement. For white liberals already convinced of the power of racism and worried about perpetuating it, there are a growing number of options.

A YWCA in St. Louis, for instance, is offering “white spaces” — safe places for white people to reckon with their own biases.

And outside the white antiracist movement, there is the growing field of diversity and inclusion training.

Kathryn Henderson, vice president of strategic partnerships with YW Boston — the Boston branch of the YWCA and a leading provider of such training in the area — says there has been a big jump in inquiries of late.

“Particularly white leadership at organizations [is] saying, ‘I’m seeing this in a new way,’” she says. “So I think there’s opportunity there.”

THE SURGE OF white interest in antiracism is not without its perils.

During the protests in recent weeks, some Black and brown activists have warned that white agitators who escalate conflict with police could bring retaliation upon people of color.

And Ibram X. Kendi, who is the author of “How to Be an Anti-Racist” and will soon join the faculty at Boston University, warns against white people trying to impose their will on the movement.

“One major critique that people of color have had: When some white people enter into spaces, they seek to basically take over, and take up space, and take up the oxygen, and create a scenario in which everything is revolving around them,” he says.

Kendi says there are doubtless white antiracists with real leadership gifts. But they should use those gifts, he says, to lead other white people.

If there are concerns about how a multi-racial movement will play out, it’s nonetheless striking to see the level of agreement — at least for now — among white, Black, and brown activists about how to proceed.

Kendi’s prescription — white people bringing other white people along — is broadly accepted by white antiracist actors.

And for the first time, there is a real outlet for that kind of work. SURJ has seen an explosion of interest in the last couple of weeks. The group’s email subscription list nearly doubled. The organization picked up more than 260,000 new followers on Instagram. And 11,000 people joined on a recent organizing call.

Monica Cannon-Grant, founder of the group Violence in Boston and organizer of a recent large protest in Franklin Park, patterns her work after the self-help dictums of the Black Panthers. But she’s well acquainted with the role white liberals played in the civil rights movement. And dialogue, she says, is a must.

“I know a lot of people are like, ‘no, the white folks need to figure this out,’” she says. “Well, what if they go over there and do the wrong thing, and it’s not something that we want? Then we still don’t win.”

Cannon-Grant suggests that white people rally behind the legislative priorities outlined by people of color — like the 10-point plan recently put forward by the Massachusetts Black and Latino Legislative Caucus. And white people of means, she adds, can play a key role in funding organizations like her own.

There is, to be sure, plenty of uncertainty about the nascent white antiracist movement — whether its momentum will last and how effective its tactics will be.

But for white people alarmed by the state of race relations in this country — and adrift, in some way, since the early days of the civil rights movement — there are a growing number of places to put their energy.


David Scharfenberg can be reached at david.scharfenberg@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @dscharfGlobe.