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How to Dismantle White Supremacy

To end systemic racism, the country needs a comprehensive racial justice program even more sweeping than the Marshall Plan.

Barbara Smith

August 21, 2020

A protester holds up a sign on the fourth straight day of Black Lives Matter protests in New York City.(Ron Adar / Sipa via AP Images)

A few days after police lynched George Floyd, I began writing what became the op-ed “The Problem Is White Supremacy.” Filled with grief, I wrote because I needed to do something with my rage and pain. I wrote because I was frustrated with public discussions about race that rarely mentioned—let alone examined—the root cause of this atrocity: white supremacy.

The reason these horrors continue century after century is that the system of racial domination that disadvantages people of color and privileges whites has not been broken. The ruling class dismisses the subjugation, exploitation, and violence because of the unrestricted power and disproportionate wealth that they gain as a result.

After explaining in The Boston Globe that the nation’s racial quagmire does not result from negative attitudes and the behavior of “a few bad apples” but is instead caused by this overarching system of oppression, I asked the following question:

What if we launched an initiative on the scale of the Marshall Plan or the space race to eradicate white supremacy? What if it were led by experts with the most detailed knowledge of how white supremacy in tandem with racial capitalism operates, that is, poor and working-class people of color? What if these experts partnered with researchers, advocates, and practitioners to provide exhaustive documentation, analysis, and comprehensive recommendations for ending the scourge of white supremacy once and for all? What if…?

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In a country where millions deny the existence of systemic racism, including a cohort that enthusiastically supports white supremacy, it is difficult to imagine such a plan being realized. It would be a major struggle, but one that would move the country closer to being a functional democracy, freed from the terror and hypocrisy that poisons life on both sides of the color line.

If roadblocks could be put aside, how might one begin this paradigm-shifting work? I would start by calling it the Hamer-Baker Plan. Fannie Lou Hamer and Ella Baker did as much to end white supremacy as any persons who ever lived. It feels appropriate to evoke their legacies in the process of envisioning the completion of that task.

The purpose of the Marshall Plan was to rebuild European nations that had been decimated by World War II and to align them politically as US allies in the Cold War. Its goals were both economic and ideological, and the same should be true of the Hamer-Baker Plan, except that its ideological goal would be to consolidate justice, not power and empire. Since white supremacy permeates every facet of life in the United States, the scope of the Hamer-Baker Plan would need to be even more sweeping than the Marshall Plan.

Because racial capitalism has had such grievous repercussions for generations of people of color, economic interventions would be at the forefront of this project. Eradicating poverty; eliminating the racial wealth gap; investing in the infrastructure of Black, brown, and Indigenous communities whose labor and natural resources have been stolen; and guaranteeing full employment are some of the actions that must be taken to rectify centuries of economic exploitation. The cancellation of student loan and medical debt, stricter sanctions against discriminatory lenders, a viable federal minimum wage, paid family leave, free quality child care, and pro-union labor laws are examples of policies that can address economic inequality.

It also would make sense to explore reparations as part of the plan’s economic agenda.

Ending mass incarceration and shutting down the prison industrial complex would also go a long way toward destroying white supremacy. Prison abolition, defunding the police, and ensuring that all neighborhoods have the level of resources that affluent communities take for granted are solutions that already exist.

As I thought about the possibilities of the Hamer-Baker Plan, I realized that there are already innovative strategies that would be effective in alleviating the day-to-day consequences of structural racism. Here are some that come immediately to mind. The Nurse-Family Partnership pairs first time, low-income mothers with visiting nurses who help families get a healthy start and work toward economic stability. The Harlem Children’s Zone offers wraparound programs for children, from birth through college, assisting their families to overcome poverty and ensuring their academic success. Cure Violence (formerly CeaseFire) uses a highly effective public health model, including violence interrupters, to end gun violence. The Green New Deal recognizes that environmental devastation disproportionately affects communities of color and that interventions in these communities need to be a priority. It also would be a source of thousands of new infrastructure jobs. Medicare for All would address racial health disparities resulting from the lack of access to affordable quality health care. The severely disproportionate impact of Covid-19 upon communities of color shows the pressing need to establish health care as a human right.

Currently, initiatives that focus on inequality in specific sectors like education, health care, and criminal justice are not aligned with one another, are seldom brought to scale so that they have maximum impact, and may not operate with the conscious goal of challenging white supremacy. The Hamer-Baker Plan would close these gaps and encourage integrated approaches.

For example, if quality education were a priority, there would be an understanding that stable, affordable housing, safe neighborhoods, access to excellent, affordable health care, and minimal exposure to trauma are all critical components of children’s educational success. A holistic approach could make it possible for America to have a robust social safety net for the first time, benefiting people of every background.

The Hamer-Baker Plan would not only maximize the effectiveness of existing initiatives, but would also function as a catalyst for imagining new ways to challenge systemic racism. After reading my op-ed, a friend told me that he was ready to sign up for the Anti–White Supremacy Peace Corps (his own concept), and added that his city could really use some help. He was joking, but imagine if there were dedicated organizers fanning out across the country to help communities figure out ways to rid their local schools, courts, workplaces, hospitals, and houses of worship of entrenched white supremacy.

It would be groundbreaking for Hamer-Baker to use an intersectional approach based on the fact that misogyny and heteropatriarchy are integral to the functioning of white supremacy. The plan would consistently take gender, gender expression, and sexuality into account, and create solutions to address the specific impact of racism upon the lives of women, transgender, and queer people of color. New York’s Audre Lorde Project exemplifies this approach. Founded in 1994 as a community organizing center for lesbian, gay, bisexual, two-spirit, trans, and gender-nonconforming people of color, it has been centrally involved in the fight against police brutality and in coalitions for racial, gender, social, and economic justice.

There are myriad paths that a Hamer-Baker Plan could take. It is far easier to imagine what a plan to end white supremacy might look like than it is to imagine the conditions that would lead to a national consensus that this is what needs to be done. There are more people than we care to admit who look at the video of George Floyd pleading for his life and assume that he did something to deserve being choked to death while handcuffed. Less than three weeks after Floyd’s death, police shot Rayshard Brooks in the back as he was running away. After he fell to the ground, the officers kicked him and stood on his body as he struggled for life. Despite being shot eight times, Breonna Taylor did not die immediately, but none of the medically trained officers at the scene made an effort to assist her. As a society, we are a long way from committing to end this nightmare.

Our job is to do everything possible to make that day come sooner. A few suggestions of how to get us to a time when a Hamer-Baker Plan could become a reality:

  • Name the problem. Begin using the term “systemic white supremacy” to describe America’s racial morass instead of less incisive terms that may feel more comfortable.
  • Understand the scope of the problem. Read Black history. Read about the international impact of white supremacy reflected in US imperialism and militarism in non-European countries. Read classic, non-contemporary Black authors besides James Baldwin and Toni Morrison. Read social science research that provides statistical documentation and analysis of America’s rampant inequality.
  • Do not accept it when the power structure’s response to this period of racial reckoning is platitudes and partial solutions. In 1968, the Kerner Commission report on civil disorders concluded that the primary cause of urban rebellions was white racism. That would have been a great time to launch a Marshall Plan to dismantle white supremacy, especially since the report provided extensive recommendations, but of course this did not occur.
  • Using Hamer-Baker as a template, envision what a comprehensive, explicitly anti-racist plan to eradicate systemic racial oppression in your workplace or community would look like, and then work with others to make it happen.

We can be encouraged that one day when a consensus does emerge, it will not come from the top. History indicates that it will come from the streets, from people organizing and demanding that every kind of dehumanization and carnage must stop, and that after more than 500 years, the system of white supremacy must end.

Barbara SmithTwitterBarbara Smith is an author and independent scholar who has been active in movements for social, racial, and economic justice since the 1960s. She is the coauthor of the Black feminist “Combahee River Collective Statement.”

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