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I have been a lone Black face in mostly white spaces for most of my life. I went to college at Harvard, and law school at Yale; I clerked for a federal judge, and worked at a top law firm. I will soon embark on a new adventure, becoming a law professor through the NYU Visiting Assistant Professor in Tax program.
In the past few weeks, I’ve read statements from each of these elite institutions, each one solemnly proclaiming that “Black Lives Matter.” All of them have made similar statements in the past. And in the past, all of their declarations have invariably failed in key areas to improve conditions for their Black stakeholders.
It’s time for those institutions to take a step back and examine what ending anti-Black racism actually requires. It’s time for them to recognize that it’s not enough simply to admit Black students, or to hire Black associates.
I was one of those students. I am one of those associates. And I’ve experienced firsthand what happens when organizations end diversity efforts at the admissions stage: their Black constituents suffer emotionally, educationally, and professionally.
I’ve seen too many institutions fall short in their efforts to combat anti-Black racism when they limit their idea of diversity and inclusion to increasing representation of people in different minority groups. When the problem is framed as “do we have enough of X type of person,” the solution will only require that the organization add at least one of that type of person to their ranks.
But that dramatically underestimates the scope of the problem. It doesn’t create lasting institutional change, and it leaves minorities with the burden of convincing their institutions that more is needed, and urgently.
So, what should institutions that want to actually follow through on a commitment to racial equity do?
First, a real commitment to ending anti-Black racism requires that institutions implement institutional, and not only interpersonal, reforms to ensure success.
Interpersonal reforms include diversity trainings, which aim to educate large groups of people about differences among people of any variety of races, genders, and sexual orientations. These interpersonal efforts focus on what I call “hearts-and-minds” work — they seek to make white people aware of their own prejudices and beliefs, in order to change their attitudes about Black people specifically and “diversity” in general.
This kind of diversity work is important. The problem with institutions that only use the hearts-and-minds approach is that there is no way to ensure positive institutional outcomes once participants have declared that their minds have been opened and their hearts have been purified. Structural problems are often left standing.
In addition to aiming to change attitudes at an individual level, organizations should also implement policy changes that can have measurable, observable outcomes for their Black constituents. At the very least, these changes should include increased transparency in pay and promotion practices. Ultimately, each institution will need to learn what its Black stakeholders need by giving them the power to help formulate new policies and developing feedback systems to monitor the efficacy of their efforts.
Second, organizations committed to ending anti-Black racism must recognize that diversity work is labor: they have to compensate those who devote time to it and they have to acknowledge it in their rewards processes.
Interpersonal diversity work, including recruiting and mentoring future generations of Black workers, takes time away from a person’s actual role as a student or worker. Despite its limitations, it remains a necessary part of any institutional framework, because coming together as a Black community reduces some of the emotional burdens of being part of a representational minority.
At the same time, this kind of diversity work is emotionally fraught. For example, a common method used in the hearts-and-minds approach in large organizations is using personal stories to demonstrate the contemporary impact of racism on every aspect of our lives. The problem is that this approach often requires that already-vulnerable people publicly recount traumatic experiences.
And there is a further risk: if, after this emotional labor, the institution remains unchanged, it can feel like our trauma wasn’t compelling enough to the people we engage with all the time.
Organizations can reduce this burden by using structured education efforts that draw on scholarship that lays bare common structural sources of anti-Black racism in American and global history. Institutions can learn to recognize the emotional toll that Black stakeholders face when they come to work on Tuesday after learning that Breonna Taylor was killed in her bed on Monday. They can learn why it is important to acknowledge the toll on non-professional Black staff, who are often overlooked in efforts at reforming professional institutions.
The bottom line: it should no longer be the burden of Black people to educate their peers about the most traumatic aspects of the Black experience, as part of an effort to reform their institution.
Third, institutions can endeavor to document their history of race-based reform, including changes brought on by student or staff advocacy as well as recommendations that were proposed, but never implemented.
Given that hearts-and-minds labor falls on the shoulders of Black stakeholders, organizations effectively advance the work of racism when they persist in practices that these stakeholders identify as inhibiting their robust engagement with the institution.
At schools across the country, generations of Black students have petitioned their administrations for increased Black representation among tenured faculty, recognition of the burden of being Black in a predominantly white space, and creation of practices to alleviate that burden. For example, Black Harvard legacy students in my graduating class were questioned by the university police for being in campus spaces, when their parents, decades earlier, had faced similar questions for the same reason: even a generation later, they were perceived to be outsiders by the campus police. Nothing had changed.
Research in medicine has identified how trauma and stress can be passed down genetically through generations, impacting overall health. The impact of that trauma can only be trebled by each new generation of Black students agitating against the very same stressors that their forbears fought — and then witnessing their demands for meaningful structural change ignored, as if their activism meant nothing.
The battles Black activists have fought and the recommendations they made should be as much a part of a school’s institutional memory as the names of prominent Black alumni who achieve mainstream success. Organizations committed to ending anti-Black racism should increase their internal awareness of the anti-racism work that has historically taken place in their ranks, the requests that their Black stakeholders have made over time and the amount of change that has occurred in the wake of that advocacy work.
The present moment is part of a cycle that has its roots in Reconstruction-era efforts to truly integrate Black citizens into all aspects of American society.
In the decades since, though some progress has been made, the reforms we have seen so far have remained superficial, the deeper structural roots of anti-Black racism left unaddressed. Elite institutions, though priding themselves on their openness to change, have not engaged in the deeper work of embedding an ethic of racial justice into their day-to-day functioning.
Now is the moment to break this cycle and finally move toward an era of anti-racist praxis that permeates the institutions we all interact with every day. An organization can show real commitment to the notion that Black Lives Matter by changing its focus to institutional reform, decreasing its reliance on Black stakeholders to drive change, and developing a historical record of the racial justice efforts we’ve been engaged in all along.
Gaga Gondwe (she/her) is a 2013 Harvard grad and a 2018 Yale Law grad whose primary areas of academic focus are race and taxation. All ideas in this text are hers and do not reflect the opinions of any of the organizations she is affiliated with.