Racism remains as persistent today as it was before the modern Civil Rights movement. So how can we accelerate the fight for racial justice? In episode 2, “The Fire This Time,” Exiles on 12th Street host Claire Potter discussed New York City activism with guests Cidra M. Sebastien and Douglas White.
Arrested three times for his participation in Civil Rights protests in the nineteen-fifties, Douglas White was a founding member of Yale University’s Black Law Students Union, and was the New York State Commissioner for Human Rights and deputy commissioner of the New York Fire Department. Community organizer Cidra M. Sebastien is the associate executive director of The Brotherhood-Sister Sol, a community youth organization in Harlem, where she helps youth develop leadership skills to become catalysts for social change.
In the following excerpt, Sebastien and White speak with our host, historian and Public Seminar executive editor Claire Potter, about how they fight for social justice through their work.
Douglas White [DW]: The thing about government that is different from a lot of other places is, whether you are the caseworker for the Department of Social Services or whether you’re running the Department of Social Services, there are progressive things that you can do that deals with issues of discrimination and equity. I was Commissioner of Human Rights for the State of New York; there were many, many things I could do. Like a bus driver fired because she was pregnant. The case came to me. Before that, the State Division of Human Rights would give fines to New York City of $20,000.00. I said, “We’re going to fine them $250,000.00.” I mean, I could send a message. It made all the newspapers—”This guy must be crazy.” But they had to get up $250,000.00. It sent a message that this is not permissible. So, if you work in government, you can always find things that you can do—particularly if you’re in management—like coming in and recognizing that most of the Black women and brown women are segregated into the lower paying jobs. You can do something about that as City Personnel Director.
Cidra M. Sebastein [CS]: I’m having open conversations about how racism functions, how sexism functions, how homophobia functions, how classism functions—and how that impacts them as high schoolers. These systems in this country function really well. When people say things like, “The system is broken,” I’m like, “Ahhh—I think it’s working as people who created it want it to be working.” So we need to figure out how we make some shifts so that we can transform them.
DW: I hate to say this, but to some degree you have to see it almost as an incrementalist. It’s great to have revolutions, but they don’t usually work. I mean, you have to try to build upon what other people have done. Yes, a lot of progress has to be made. I think it’s important to understand all that history. And it’s very important for young people to put themselves on the line. In other words, just stand up and speak as to what they want to do.
CS: I totally agree with that. I think it’s important for young people to do that; I think it’s important for more people to do that too. To realize that this is the moment where it’s not enough for you to re-Tweet something. It’s not enough for you to wear the right shirt. You really have to take a stand in bold and different way, and be committed to it for the long haul.
This transcript has been edited for clarity and length. The episode can be listened to in full here at Public Seminar; you can subscribe at iTunes, SoundCloud, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.