Despite the resilient forces of reaction and repression—or perhaps largely because of them—we are living in the most vibrant period for social action since the 1960s. A critical turning point occurred just over four years ago, when Zuccotti Park and other public places across the country filled up with young people and others refusing to accept the mounting signs that our economy, culture, and politics are dominated by big corporations and the superrich—in an enduring phrase, the 1 percent. Joined and advanced since then by mainstream voices, from Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren to New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio to Pope Francis, the national and international moment spotlighting income inequality owes much to the sense of urgency created by Occupy Wall Street. And the modest but significant gains we’ve seen in wages and working conditions owes everything to the courage and tenacity of those laborers—overwhelmingly immigrant women—who work in our nation’s fast-food outlets and megastores and even our homes, where they care for our children and aging parents.
Another moment was forged by the Dreamers, those extraordinary sons and daughters of undocumented immigrants who put their lives on the line to call for an end to the federal government’s increased deportations and forced disruption of their families. The long-overdue steps taken by President Obama to help bring these lives out of the shadows—since bogged down in courts and by an implacable nativist opposition—would never have been possible without the bravery of these young activists. By the same token, when women at colleges nationwide stood up to shame campus authorities for the shoddy treatment of rape victims, policies began to change.
And, of course, we’re living in a moment when Americans have finally begun to acknowledge the institutionalized racism of our nation’s police forces, which has produced a steady torrent of black victims: Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray, Walter Scott, Laquan McDonald, and far too many others. These fellow citizens were jumped, choked, hanged, or riddled with bullets while selling cigarettes on the sidewalk, or using an ATM, or driving down the highway full of hope for a new job—in short, for working and living while black. The exhausting, routinized, unfathomable outrage of it all cannot be contained a second longer.
For some years, there were two strains of civic engagement that didn’t always work well together, and race was a factor. One strain emphasized process, the other rights; one had its roots in political science, the other in social movements. I don’t want to overstate these differences, but they’ve been persistent and often, in my view, costly to our shared goal of advancing a more inclusive and truly representative democracy.
My sense is that this has changed, and is changing still. In the wake of Ferguson and similar events in which we’ve seen the close interplay between political exclusion and violence, the distinction between criminal-justice reform and democratic reform simply can’t be maintained any longer. For a democracy movement to be worthy of the name, it must recognize the fact that the criminal-justice system is a barrier to the full exercise of citizenship for many marginalized Americans.
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While I believe that building a more inclusive framework for civic engagement is an urgent priority for all Americans, the issue is also personal. I have held leadership positions in social-justice and philanthropy organizations for most of my adult life, and I have spent a good deal of that time trying to persuade predominantly white and male institutions to stand up for racial and gender justice. Over the years, I’ve had to confront the racist and sexist structures that have shaped me and grapple with my own privilege while coming to grips with the institutional racism that has shaped each organization in which I have worked. I have not always succeeded, not in myself and not in the institutions.