[Disclaimer that this essay is co-written by a Black man and a white woman, etc. etc.]
Ah, summer 2022. Finally! After nearly three years of unprecedented turmoil in America, this is the summer that many have waited for. Look all over Instagram! People are doing the things they couldn’t for the last couple years! Time to relax on the beach and…get the news alert that you no longer have the right to an abortion. Time to take that long-delayed trip to Europe and… get sick with a new strain of COVID. Time to go to celebrate Pride and…watch white nationalists parade through your city with zero consequences. Time to go to a 4th of July parade and… well, you know what happened in Highland Park, IL. We’ve had more mass shootings so far in 2022 than we have had days on the calendar. This is not the summer we ordered.
If it feels like all of America’s problems are happening all at once, over and over, it’s because they are. We’re taking a lot of hits, and lately they’ve been straight to the gut. And many of them are self-inflicted. Justice feels less like a slow-bending arc and more like a vicious game of tug-of-war, with the push of progressive progress regularly getting yanked back by anxious, angry backlash.
Right now states across the country are making it harder for Black and Brown people to vote, harder for teachers to teach an accurate history of this country, and harder for people with uteruses—especially those who are Black, Brown, and Indigenous—to get healthcare. They’re making it harder for queer and trans kids to feel safe and loved, easier for corporations to wreck the climate, and easier to get the guns that white supremacist teenage boys keep using to destroy life. It isn’t fun to think about these things. But it’s absolutely necessary.
If it feels overwhelming, that’s because it is. If it feels scary, it’s because it is. If it feels intimidating, well, that’s how they want you to feel. If it feels hopeless, pointless, useless…we hear you. If you feel like turning off the news and escaping from it all, we get it. But the thing is, we can’t do that now. We need you. We need each other.
Luckily, summer is a good time to do the work of confronting and fighting to dismantle white supremacy. It’s actually something of an American tradition. Hope you don’t mind a brief history lesson. Please don’t tell Texas.
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In the summer of 2013, protests broke out across the nation after the acquittal of the killer of 17 year old, unarmed, Black teenager Trayvon Martin. The Black Lives Matter movement was born, thanks to three Black women activists: Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi. In the summer of 2014, in Ferguson, Missouri, a white police officer shot unarmed Black teenager Michael Brown, leading to the Ferguson Uprising and a new generation of youth activism. In the summer of 2015, Dylan Roof, a white supremacist terrorist, killed eight people who had invited him in for bible study at Emmanuel Baptists Church in Charleston, SC. In the summer of 2016, the police killings of Black men Philando Castile and Alton Sterling led to more protests in the streets. In the summer of 2017, tiki torch-carrying white supremacists marched through the streets of Charleston, VA, at the Unite the Right rally, chanting “The Jews will not replace us!”, among other things. One of them ran over white antiracist activist, Heather Heyer, killing her. Summer 2018? Americans across the country took to the streets to denounce the Trump administration’s cruel policy of separating migrant children from their parents.
And that’s just the past few years. The 1960s were also marked by a series of explosive, transformative summers: We celebrate Pride in June because thousands of queer and trans people resisted police brutality in the summer of 1969. 1964 was the Freedom Summer, an organizing feat that led to the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts…that the Supreme Court gutted in 2013. 1967 was dubbed the Long Hot Summer after uprisings (then categorized as riots) broke out in over 150 cities including Detroit, Newark, and Atlanta (And before you get judgmental of the word “riot”, remember America’s hero Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “A riot is the language of the unheard.”) The 1968 murder of Dr. King led to another summer of protests, and that same year the federally appointed Kerner Commission released its report, declaring a truth that was long-evident to many Black, Brown, Asian, and Indigenous Americans:“Race prejudice has shaped our history decisively; it now threatens to affect our future.” They were right. We are now living in that threatened future.
But wait, we’re not done: Five decades before the 1960s, as thousands of Black families left the South as part of the Great Migration, and Black soldiers came home from WWI, they were met with another round of racial terror. The summer of 1919 came to be known as “The Red Summer,” as ongoing racial violence reached a peak when white mobs attacked Black communities and businesses in over three dozen cities. Two years later, on the cusp of the summer of 1921, the Greenwood neighborhood of Tulsa, OK, was destroyed in the Tulsa Massacre. In the wake of these atrocities, membership in the NAACP skyrocketed, and Black leaders and activists began building coalitions with members of Congress in order to psh for federal anti-lynching protections. Many scholars and historians (like Cameron McWhirter) point to this period as the moment where the seeds for the Civil Rights movement were planted.
Still not done! 50 years before the Red Summer, in July 1868, Congress ratified the 14th amendment, granting citizenship to all persons born in the U.S.—including the formerly enslaved. Nat Turner’s rebellion happened in August 1831. Then there was that summer in 1776 where a bunch of white dudes declared independence from Britain and committed to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness…for a select few.
Is it true that every 50 years or so, a new American generation spends its summers gripped by violence and rage, progress and peril, pushing and pulling to bend that arc? Finding historical patterns can be fun but also illuminating. And instructive. It’s called incremental progress—and it’s also called backlash.
Let’s learn from our histories and stop being shocked when terrible things happen. At this point, declaring “This is not America!” when a mass shooting or police violence or a literal insurrection happens is ridiculous. This is absolutely America. It doesn’t need to be, but until anything is done about it, it is. Let’s stop pretending that the summer of 2020 was a “racial reckoning.” That implies that we actually reckoned with the realities of systemic racism in America. That we confronted it, dealt with it, accounted for centuries of mistreatment and brutality. Maybe you marched in 2020 and/or posted a black square on Instagram and/or had “hard conversations” and/or bought a stack of antiracist books. Don’t get us wrong: it’s great that you did all of that. The question is: what are you still doing? It takes much more than one summer of action and corporate solidarity statements (especially when those corporations have since made donations to political candidates who freely spout white supremacist conspiracy theories). America’s systemic racism is still alive, well, and thriving and resisting that must be a sustained, focused effort.
But what do we do?
Good question! Let’s start here: Pay attention. Acknowledge what’s happening. Say it out loud: White supremacist terrorism is real. It is connected to gun violence, it is connected to reproductive rights, it is connected to anti-LGBTQ+ sentiments. It’s not fake news, and it will not just go away. Are you ready to consistently engage in creating a society that is built on equity, empathy, inclusion, generosity, and true justice for all? Yes? Now get focused, and get creative!
The saying “think globally, act locally” is more important than ever. Far-right extremists are targeting the hyper-local, building grassroots support as they channel the anger and anxiety of conservative white America into book bans and attacks on trans kids, Drag Queens, and masks (but only COVID-related masks. Proud Boys seem very into keeping their masks on in public). If the extremist push into local institutions is met with silence, they get exactly what they want– power. So show up to your school board meetings. Know who and what is on your next ballot. Volunteer in your local libraries, bookstores, and schools. Sign up to monitor polls in the next election.
There are many pieces to the activism puzzle. In our new antiracist activity book Do the Work we have an activity called “Know Your Lane.” The idea comes from the phrase “stay in your lane” which is often deployed as a diss, to tell someone that they’re doing too much. But your “lane,” we argue, isn’t a bad thing. It’s where you live, work, and relate to your community, and you can make a big difference in those spaces. The conversations you have with family and friends about race, gender, consent, equality, and the hard truths of the world can be potent forms of activism. You don’t have to transform into a Super Activist: Look closely at yourself (we suggest actually staring at yourself in the mirror). What do you care about? What do you believe? What needs to change?
What do you have to offer? Got disposable income? Great, how about donating to abortion funds, and helping teachers on Donors Choose buy antiracist books for their classrooms? No extra cash because it all went to gas fund for your summer road trip? Take stock of what skills you can offer. Are you a lawyer/therapist/graphic designer who can offer pro bono services to local activists?
We also suggest taking the time to learn who’s already doing the work on the issues you care about. What are the grassroots organizations that have been on the ground, working with and for the most impacted communities? Look for groups that are led by and/or center the voices of Black, Brown, and Indigenous people. Follow them on social media, attend their events, and when you’re ready, reach out to ask respectfully how you can plug in and get involved.
Obviously, you can’t do everything. But hopefully even more obviously, you can’t just do nothing. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed by despair. One activist adage (cribbed from the dying words of labor activist Joe Henry) tells us “Don’t mourn. Organize!” Let’s shift that to “Don’t wallow in mourning. Organize.” Grief and mourning are necessary, but every Black, Brown, and Indigenous person in this country knows that eventually (often quicker than you’d like) you have to get back to work. We can rest and grieve without going numb and sliding into the learned helplessness that’s part of the culture of white supremacy. Feel your feelings, take your rest, and let it fuel your commitment to showing up, and getting to work.
The Women’s March declared this the Summer of Rage, and that sounds about right. Time to get off the beach and into the streets. Or stay on the beach for a few more days, catch some waves with your kids, then come back home, ready to get to work. If we do, then maybe we can have a more relaxing summer next year. When we’ve earned it.
Bell and Schatz’s new book Do the Work! An Antiracist Activity Book
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