White-led anti-racism groups have existed for hundreds of years, and they’ve often been problematic, counterproductive, and just fucking weird since their inception. Take, for instance, the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society of 1833, which believed that slave owners were missing out on a business opportunity by not putting slaves on the payroll. They argued that paying slaves “would make them doubly valuable to [their] masters,” because paid laborers are more motivated than forced laborers. That’s the whitest thing I’ve ever heard, and I own two Hanson records. I can think of a thousand better reasons not to own a person aside from increased productivity. The Anti-Slavery Society was equally concerned with growing the free labor market in order to sustain capitalism as ending the gruesome practices of slavery — and these were among the most radical white folks of the day. Even Frederick Douglass used to chill with them. And while Frederick was no-doubt working with what he had at his disposal, we have to acknowledge that sometimes what we have at our disposal leaves much to be desired.
Today, we have a myriad of predominantly white-led racial justice groups to choose from, with memberships booming thanks to frantic constituents still in shock from the latest political regime change. That’s a recipe for disaster; and I’ve personally observed problematic behavior, lack of accountability, and outright anti-Blackness from predominantly white-led groups like Resource Generation (RG), White People Challenging Racism (WPCR), Unitarian Universalist (UU) churches and Association (UUA), Anti-Racism Collaborative (ARC), and Capital Area Against Mass Incarceration (CAAMI) — to name a few. But arguably the most visible (and potentially harmful) white-led anti-racism group in recent years is Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ).
SURJ, for those who don’t spend their weekends dodging pepper spray, is a chapter-based network intent on “organizing white people for racial justice.” It was founded, in 2009, by white folks brimming with enthusiasm following the presidential victory of Barack Obama. According to their website, SURJ believes “white people must partner across race and other differences to create social change.” They go on to say they are “here to provide resources and support for white people to make this happen.”
Setting aside how problematic it is to tackle white supremacy by “providing resources and support for white people,” SURJ has evidently been in crisis for quite some time. Last fall, the Charlotte chapter promptly disbanded and released a statement noting, “The end of white supremacy will not come from a room of white people talking to each other about racism. We need to take action, and now.” I’ve gone on record as being critical of SURJ’s strategy for dismantling racism, but this was the first time I stood in whole-hearted agreement with a chapter. It’s telling that this statement of disbandment, unlike other initiatives and calls-to-action from SURJ, was shared so widely among Black organizers. It seemed that one chapter finally got it right, and they did so by realizing they got it wrong. As more and more (and more, and more) troubling testimonies criticizing SURJ came to light, I became increasingly vocal in my opposition. This prompted pushback and defensiveness from SURJ members and affiliates.
Recently, I spoke with a member of Community Change Incorporated (CCI) — a predominantly white-led anti-racism organization providing oversight and guidance to SURJ Boston. The member expressed genuine concern that if I continued to publicly admonish the organization I would potentially alienate white allies, effectively discouraging them from doing anti-racism work. This is something Black organizers hear endlessly. It’s usually framed as friendly advice, but I recognize it for what it is: a thinly veiled threat. “If you’re not nice to us, we won’t help end your oppression!” Ironically, that sentiment is the main reason I believe it’s important to be critical of white racial justice groups. I’m exploiting their fragility. It helps weed out allies and accomplices who think “Black lives matter” is a conditional phrase. Black lives ALWAYS matter, even when they’re making white people uncomfortable. In fact, I’d argue that’s when they matter most.
And believe it or not, challenging white anti-racism groups is a matter of life and death.