Below is an excerpt from our latest episode, with Chris Crass and Dara Silverman. Watch the full episode here.
Laura: A social justice group that invites white people to fight racism is spreading like wildfire in the United States, from 12 to 150 chapters in just 2 years. Surprised? It may not be making headlines yet, but perhaps we can change that. Clearly, a whole lot of white people are interested in fighting systemic injustice in the United States, so how exactly to do that? Our next guests have dedicated their lives to helping people grapple with that question so as to create real change. They're both organizers, educators, and feminist anti-racist activists themselves.
Dara Silverman is the former executive director of Jews for Racial and Economic Justice. She is currently the national coordinator for SURJ, Showing Up for Racial Justice, the network I mentioned at the top. Chris Crass is the former Coordinator of Catalyst Project, an anti-racist training organization in the Bay Area, and he's the author most recently of Towards the Other America: Anti-Racist Resources for White People Taking Action for Black Lives Matter. Welcome, both. Great to have you.
First let's talk about SURJ. It's truly extraordinary what's been going on, but it's been beneath the radar for most people. What is it and what form is SURJ taking at this point?
Dara: Thanks for having me and us on the show today to talk about it, because it is really important to get out. Because there are so many white people who, in this moment, as the Movement for Black Lives and Black Lives Matter and the Immigrant Rights Movement have grown, there have been all these white people who have been emerging who have said, "I want to take action. I want to show up. I want to speak up. I want to rise up in solidarity and also because I have a stake in this as well."
SURJ was formed in 2009 after President Obama was elected. While there was a moment during his election campaign when a lot of people, particularly white people, thought, "Oh, we're going to move into this post-racial society," in fact what we saw was that there was a rise in hate crimes, a rise in right wing organizing and militia organizing, and in attacks on Obama and people like Van Jones and other people of color in his administration.
Carla Wallace and Pam McMichael, who are two queer white women in the South who had founded other organizations, really responded to a call from organizers of color saying, "Where are the white people? There need to be white people who are speaking up, who are acting out in this moment. You all are long-term organizers. Help make it happen."
Laura: That's what they did. Then the growth in the last couple of years has been the extraordinary numbers that I mentioned. How do you account for that?
Dara: I think we're in both a movement moment, and also in our lifetimes we haven't been in a moment like this where there have been so many people ... We've had moments like Occupy or during the anti-apartheid movement when I was younger, but we haven't had a moment like this in our lifetime where racial justice has been so central, where police brutality has been something that, particularly for white people, they can't ignore. Because I think with the growth of social media there are videos, there are stills, there are so many ways in which it is so much more public and evident, even if it's not happening in your home or on your doorstep.
I think with the murder of Trayvon Martin, with the murder of Mike Brown in Ferguson, and then just with the steady stream, Rekia Boyd in Chicago, Eric Garner here in New York, the list goes on and on, Tamir Rice in Cleveland, that every time one of these murders happens by the police and law enforcement, which happens every 27 hours, there is this moment of all these white people saying, "We see this movement happening. We want to be a part of it. We don't entirely know how." They're coming together in local groups through their churches and their congregations and faith communities, through student groups, through parent groups, and through local SURJ chapters to act.
Laura: Is that what Catalyst is seeing as well? How does Catalyst work, Chris?
Chris: Catalyst is a training center to help develop white anti-racist leaders. One of the issues that we've always struggled with is the loudest, most confident voices in white communities talking about race are racists. If the loudest, most confident, overwhelmingly dominating voices within white communities, the white leaders who speak about race, the white ministers, the white teachers who overwhelmingly speak about race, are racists, and so there is an absolutely devastating, essential need to develop white anti-racist leaders who can speak not only with courage but with vision and love grounded in history.
All over the country there are leaders in SURJ chapters who are stepping forward and saying, "We do not want to be on the wrong side of history. We want to be on the side of racial justice. We want to be on the side of Black Lives Matter." Catalyst for many years has been dedicated to developing white anti-racist leaders and organizers who can work in white communities, because essentially white children are abandoned to white supremacy, because white children grow up in a society where that's the only value system, that's the only alternative, and so we need leaders who are presenting a racial justice white leadership.
Laura: Practically speaking, what does it mean? What does it mean to be a white person in solidarity with the movement for racial justice, or, even better, in the movement for racial justice?
Chris: There's a whole wide range, but it begins with the name Showing Up for Racial Justice: showing up. Sometimes white people can get really worried about how to do it the right way, how to do it the perfect way. What we encourage in the books that I write, in the Catalyst trainings, in the SURJ work, is white people need to start showing up. We are living in a time of a renaissance of black liberation leadership, so the question about why are so many white people turning out ... We are living in a time when black queer women are at the center of a racial justice movement that is unprecedented in the history of this country. White people are responding to a life-affirming, multiracial, democratic vision that is being screamed in the streets around the country.