Restorative racial justice requires speaking in active voice

Illustration of an ethnic studies textbook
Jason Yen/Staff

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California leaders recently passed ethnic studies curricula for all public high schools. This, indeed, is a milestone in U.S. history, and I, like many of my classmates, am grateful to the educators and community members who pushed hard for this. I would recommend, though, this one important thing: We must teach ethnic studies in the active voice. We must name and hold accountable those members of our society who are responsible for discriminating against and harming the lives and bodies of people of color. We need to name the people and groups who’ve established and perpetuated white supremacy, in even the most subtle and silent ways. Only then can we actually work toward restorative racial justice.

We so often phrase statements about inequality as if deplorable conditions just exist for no reason: African American women have a maternal mortality rate that is almost four times that of white women; Census tracts that are predominantly communities of color have nearly all of the nation’s polluting facilities in their neighborhoods; Median wealth for Latinx and Black people remains 90% lower than that of white people.

By speaking in these ways, and by speaking in passive construction, we often lose the sense of who is doing what to whom. WHO is making African American women have maternal mortality rates four times that of white women? WHO is placing every toxic facility in communities of color? And WHO did not allow Black and Latinx families to accumulate wealth through homeownership? White Americans did these things to people of color, through law and policy, through systems that privileged white Americans above other Americans.

When we speak in the active voice, we attribute responsibility to those who actually caused the harm. As Nancy Fraser wrote: People do not struggle and suffer for no reason — they struggle, fight and suffer because someone or some group deprived them and made them suffer. These atrocities don’t just “happen.” Environmentally hazardous neighborhoods, hate crimes and higher rates of COVID-19 deaths for Black and Latinx families don’t just “occur.” Some rational actors decided to do these things, intentionally and sometimes with great hatred or outright neglect. We call out the Nazis quite well in our current educational curriculum; we must do the same about white supremacy in our country.

It’s wonderful that we will have ethnic studies in high schools. But our educators must be blunt and truthful: For example, they must teach our younger students why and who conducted urban renewal, “penned” Black families and other families of color into the inner cities, barred them from living in suburbs and then subjected them to live in public housing full of lead. Today, Black children still have elevated blood lead levels that are 2.8 times the levels of white children.

We condemn the white supremacists who go after young Black boys, such as Freddie Gray, but we seldom condemn the state actors who forced his family to live in public housing in a building with lots of lead, all the while refusing to fund his public school or to support laws that would allow his mother a living income. Freddie dropped out of school, he was already poisoned — these forms of violence are not “historical” nor are they abstract, and yet they are just as horrifying.

Legal equality, as W.E.B. Du Bois wrote, and as we see today, is so obviously not enough; it means nothing in the face of continuing white supremacy, prejudice and complicity. All of these different forms of violence — slow and silent, overt and outrageous — have a long, long history in our country. To address these patterns, we must name the actors who have harmed, and continue to harm people of color, either through neglect or through law and policy. I would concede that the active voice can be uncomfortable, especially in classroom settings: It’s harder to say, for example, “White people enslaved Black people, and then legalized their right to buy and sell African Americans until 1865.” Perhaps this is why we say, instead, “African Americans endured slavery.”

We say that “African Americans have suffered environmental racism,” instead of saying, “White political majorities have consistently placed noxious and harmful land uses in poor Black neighborhoods, either to poison them on purpose or with a shocking level of callousness toward Black people.” Asian immigrants were not just “attacked and excluded,” white people attacked and excluded them for centuries. Native Americans didn’t just have their lands “dispossessed,” but rather white Americans dispossessed them of their lands. In all of these examples, the active voice helps us to see who harmed whom.

Without this blunt, honest reckoning, we may never move toward reparative laws and policies to address hundreds of years of white supremacy. In order to end these forms of violence, we must be very straightforward about naming all of it when we teach our students about why racial inequalities remain so persistent.

Zoe Lee-Park is an undergraduate student at UC Berkeley studying society and environment and legal studies.