A year ago, Chicago activist Xavier Ramey talked to WBEZ about the civil unrest following George Floyd’s murder. Natalie Moore followed up with him to get his thoughts on racial progress, the future of the city and the increase of diversity trainings in the workplace.
When the civil unrest was unfolding in Chicago a year ago, you said the moment was co-opted to a degree by some outside groups. Do you feel that continued throughout the year in other ways?
Last summer when I was speaking about co-optation, it was really about what happens in many, many protests, where people external to the city or the area or external to the issue, come in and seek to leverage the current momentum around a single issue. That’s a regular occurrence. Last year, we saw a lot of new faces out in the marches. And with that comes the biases of their segregation. That ignorance can actually stall out our work. So that was really a warning signal that I was throwing up as far as their success. I think now we can look at the question of was some of that co-optation successful. And I would say that I don’t think it was very successful. And part of that was because there was a ready base of thought leaders around the city and around the country who were seeing and experiencing the same thing.
For those of us who are millennials, we learned about this back when Mike Brown was killed, and Trayvon [Martin] was killed and Rekia Boyd were killed by police. And we started to march and say the words Black Lives Matter. So this time we were more like the teachers. The base of our work in our call to make Black Lives Matter was very visceral; our very bodies were at the center of the conversation. The challenge with that is to understand the violence that is being done against our bodies. You have to understand the theories of white supremacy and policing. As we’ve seen over the last year, the rise in the attacks on racial education and critical race theory. Following George Floyd’s murder, Donald Trump had banned racial education, diversity-equity-inclusion education, any conversation about American history that presupposes that racism was inherent to the nation. That was banned at the federal level and for all federal contractors.
It sounds like the bigger issue is the backlash that some in this country are having against racial justice in this so-called year of reckoning.
The backlash is always real. From the point of Emancipation, there was Reconstruction and then the great backlash that white legislators made to other white legislators by sacrificing black safety. Is it still the case? Well, we’ve just seen just recently around voter suppression what is happening right now in the Democratic Party and seeing one of their own break ranks to stall a bill and to deny the bill to ensure protections against voter suppression, which we know disproportionately affects people of color, especially Black persons. What we saw last summer, in many ways, was righteous anger. We also saw people taking advantage of an opportunity that I’m not going to judge nor fully support. At the end of the day, the underlying current of what we were trying to do, I believe, was accomplished — which was to raise the consciousness of America. Yes, we saw looting in the streets. We also had seen decades of looting in our neighborhoods by corporate interests, by government policy, by individual actors and agents, by some of our own through policy and such. So I don’t look at that one incident, I think, the same way that some do. I look at the bigger picture that we were going after what created the need for protest. We were going after the violence that requires an education around racial theory. We were going after the types of violence Dr. King pointed out. It’s the creative injustices of the North and the vitriolic injustices of the South.
Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, or DEI, is the buzzword now. Your company Justice Informed does this type of consulting? Are you turning down a lot of clients? And how do you do this work that doesn’t make you feel like you’re being co-opted?
We are definitely turning down a lot of clients. Just looking at our Google Analytics over the last week, and I was comparing year over year, we saw roughly an 800% spike in the two weeks following the shooting death and murder of George Floyd. What happened was you have a grossly immature market for DEI. For generations, people have argued against the value proposition of making Black and brown lives matter, women’s lives matter, LGBTQ lives Matter, Indigenous people’s lives matter at work. And DEI is the conversation of social justice in the workplace. Out in the streets, we don’t say DEI. We say social justice. We say movement building. We say organizing. And anyone who’s a person of color knows that for generations, there’s been a push against acknowledging that there’s a difference of experience and outcome, whether that be promotions or wages or otherwise. If you’re a person of color at work, no matter the sector, no matter the industry, no matter the age, the people in power were often those who were white. And it would require them to reckon with their whiteness, rather than just their desire to be race neutral and say business is about business or the smartest person always wins and if you work harder. There’s an inability and a distaste to even confront their own whiteness, while still an insistence on holding power as white people in the business world. I let every person who called Justice Informed know: we work with folks who can potentially become a model in the world, for a standard of equity none of us have ever seen. We’ve probably rejected probably 60-70% of everyone who reached out.
A year ago, you expressed concern about whether the city’s efforts to rebuild will prioritize Black and brown neighborhoods. Is there urgency to restore those neighborhoods today?
I believe the greatest act of civic negligence in our city today is the way that we look at the funding of the carceral state, the funding of police and prisons, in lieu of the funding of opportunities for sustainable lives for people of color. When we were talking about growing communities last year, and increasing that government response, we were specifically talking about defunding the Chicago Police Department. The city of Chicago should have been working urgently on creating non-police solutions and investing in non-police solutions for Black and brown communities. I’m looking back and I’m saying I don’t see much investment. Not only that, I don’t see much drawdown at all from the mayor’s office. I don’t hear the conversation around urgency.