Listening to the Right Voices

By Reuben Kadushin, Student, 
St. Benedicts Prep, Newark, New Jersey

Our ideas of leadership and advocacy – and who gets to exercise each — need to be completely reimagined because, so far, nothing has worked. Worse still, nothing has changed. I find it hard to expect anything close to real change as I watch the public — meaning disinterested white people – saying they want to shift the priorities of our politicians to things that actually matter.  What I am seeing doesn’t give me hope. For some reason, I don’t seem to feel the way everybody else seems to feel.

No matter how many times my phone’s screen lights up with fundraisers (for cause A), gatherings (for cause B), and videos of politicians speaking (about cause C), I still don’t feel that there will be change. I can’t find any avenue that gives me any semblance of closure — anything that could make me feel like these “actions” will actually move America’s boulder of inequality any closer off the precipice where it has been poised for decades. 

I’m eighteen years old. I’m half white and half black. My father has been called a white supremacist for suggesting the community of the predominately white private school I used to attend was prejudiced. Most of my friends never had an opportunity to attend that school. And most of my friends live in some of the East Coast’s most dangerous cities and have received government assistance at some point in their lives! These two worlds that I inhabit are separated by more than race, economics and culture. They are separated by voice, power and experience.

So, when I was asked to write about what I felt racial justice leadership needs to look like today, I reflected on all of the experiences in those worlds.  I thought about the men I call my brothers and the contradictions between the communities my blood is bound to and a million social media think- pieces and fundraisers created to further “combat racism.” When I think about the chasm between these worlds, I feel frightened about what the phrase “racial justice” might actually mean to the public.  Because the words “race” and “justice” seem to be confined to the scope of White Americans’ pangs, defined and limited by their own experiences. And, somehow, even in this moment, the most vulnerable members of our inner cities remain voiceless in our conversations about “racial justice” as everybody else gets to define the term. Maybe this exposes what the word “everybody” really means.  

When I say that I’m black, I’m saying that I, and others like me, can be discriminated against, even to the extent of being killed, because of a history attached to something as absurd and stupid as the pigment in my skin. Because I can say that I’m black while not being “black” exemplifies that any issue of “racial justice” that cannot be changed through an addition of funding and resources on some destitute block only exists in our imaginations. Our insistence to treat racism as a concept — another problem to be studied and brooded over — causes us to suffer from a murderous lack of urgency. We approach the tragedies that take place along our urban projects not as catastrophes, but with morbid apathy. Black Death is a part of some romantic struggle that commodifies trauma and leads conservatives to pretend that black deaths are the effects of the black man’s innate, savage promiscuousness: “just the way it is on that side of the city.” On May 13, 2020, a 16-year-old named Tyquan Howard was murdered in his own neighborhood.  His death didn’t make the headlines for more than 48 hours after he was killed. He didn’t have a hashtag. He didn’t have a march. The public seems incapable of facing an issue that lacks a clear enemy — that is not “black versus white.” Race issues are complex and require real dialogue. Consequently, somehow, the deaths of young men like Tyquan don’t matter to anybody except to the people who must carefully maneuver how they’ll travel to and from home, school and work, to avoid being killed, or robbed, or beaten. The fight for racial justice needs to treat Tyquan’s death as unacceptable.

In 21st century America, the fight for racial justice must have two sides: an economic side and a racial side. The economic fight will center on classism — advocating for livable wages, improved housing conditions, well-resourced schools – to reverse the ways that the “ruling classes” have profited from the inequities. And, of course, the economic fight is inextricably linked to racism’s effects. The racial fight will center on the suffering imposed by racism’s cultural effects — police violence, lynchings, and the policies bias allows — which limit opportunity in more nuanced ways. In every way, economic inequities and racism perpetuate each other. They are symbiotic.

The fight for racial and economic justice must be led by the members of marginalized communities. They are the ones with the relevant perspective — the urgency — to define the problem fully and to propose solutions that will work on the ground. The role of everybody else is to listen, to mirror, and to avoid intruding on these voices. Then the public can work to help realize those solutions and secure the funding to put them in practice. Relying solely on academic leaders, charismatic figureheads, celebrities, community-engaged politicians, and social media activists, creates too much distance between the platforms and the people. We don’t need individuals in pulpits; we need change now, not in 10 years, or a generation or two. Too many people are dying, starving, and boiling under our noses. With no means of relaying that they are not ideas, but lives.

We need to create the opportunities for affected communities to work toward meaningful racial justice. Poor living conditions and financial stress create communities no longer privileged with the space and time to reflect collectively and realize collective goals and issues. But given the chance and space to think and learn from one another –which marginalized groups are too often denied – could lead to something profound. Though the term has such a negative, idealist connotation, this is where “revolutionary action” happens. And if you chuckle as you read this, let me ask you this: Why would we want anything less? To say that America as a first world power does not need a complete reorganization within its structures is to deny that there is undeserving, unimaginable, suffering happening here at home. One might argue that nothing I’m saying seems plausible. And I would counter, whether it seems plausible to you does not matter! I am not talking about abstract notions – “isms” and “ology’s.” I’m talking about real people whose lives are inexorably altered and harmed by systemic inequities. Our reality as a country doesn’t seem plausible. We are operating at a tenth of our potential when we deny millions of people a chance at controlling their own fate. And that is unacceptable. Racial justice leadership demands new thinking and new advocacy if we expect to make change. And change will only happen if it is grounded in the lived-experiences of marginalized people and their communities.