SURJ (Showing Up for Racial Justice)

The more I go to SURJ (Showing Up for Racial Justice) meetings, the more I get it. SURJ is a local network of white people for racial justice. It is part of a national network, but the black activist community of Kansas City specifically asked for the creation of this group for educating white people. Though the people who show up are mostly white, there are people of color who show up as well as an accountability team, and to help us with direction.

SURJ meetings are focused on deconstructing the racism in society, but also deconstructing the racism within ourselves on a daily basis. America has been a racist nation since its inception and all of us who grew up in America were indoctrinated with the racist narrative, also known as unconscious bias.

Unconscious bias is something that we all have- it’s a snap judgement about others based on the standard narrative that we have been told our whole lives. No matter how progressive you are, it is impossible to snap your fingers and remove this bias- it just happens. Instead of suppressing this unconscious bias and pretending we are a “colorblind” society, we should instead learn to recognize this quiet prejudice within us. Once we begin to recognize it, then we can begin to retrain our brains to think differently about situations that trigger prejudices. It takes daily work, and a growing self awareness as well as well as awareness about the world around you.

Being a white person in America is sort of like being a drug addict who works in a pharmacy. As a white person in America, I have access to power and privilege that my brown and black friends do not. And so by sitting quietly and expecting my friends who are people of color to do all the work, I am being complicit in this racist institution. I’m enjoying my place and power in society instead of attempting to dismantle inequality. It takes more than wanting to believe in equality to actually make that a practice in your own life, and a reality in our world. White silence is violence.

The focus of last night’s SURJ meeting was about how and why systems and institutions are racist, first focusing on the War on Drugs, and then proceeding to speak about local issues. SURJ posited two statements, and aimed to prove them.

  1. The institutional racism in America is intentional.
  2. The institutional racism in America affects all people in society.

Where do we see race in the criminal justice system?

The graphic above spells out where we see race in our criminal justice system. One in three black men are incarcerated while one in seventeen white men are. Black drug offenders are ten times more likely to be incarcerated for drug related crimes than white people, though drug use is about the same across race lines (12% are users). Crack (a drug associated with the black population) is deemed much more dangerous than cocaine (a drug routinely used by white college students), even though the drug is essentially the same. Heroin used to be associated with the black community as well and considered a crime. Now that more white people are being affected by heroin use, society has changed the wording to “opiate addiction,” and is looking at the issue as a mental illness instead of a hard crime.

There is also an intersection between race and poverty in America, which makes it easier for police to arrest people of color for drug related crimes (as they are more likely to be outside in public spaces, walking, taking the bus).

If indeed our racist criminal justice system is intentional, who benefits from it?

Being “tough on crime” helps politicians get elected in America, across party lines. Though the war on drugs was started by a Nixon (a Republican) , we see evidence of this in Democrat leaders like Clinton as well.

The prison system in America has become heavily monetized. Private prisons actually make money on inmates, and so the fact that the US has the highest prison population in the world is not seen as a bad things for these corporations, but an asset. Then factor in the fact that prison lobbyists are affecting policy and influencing politicians, and you start to see the issue.

Who makes decisions about this?

Former Nixon domestic policy chief John Ehrlichman disclosed to Harper’s writer Dan Baum last year that the racism around The War on Drugs was intentional, and purely political:

“The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people… You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin. And then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities… We could arrest their leaders. raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.”

Power was legislatively taken from judges to be understanding of the cycle of poverty and institutional bias when mandatory minimums were introduced. Mandatory minimums set minimum sentences for certain crimes that judges cannot lower, even for special circumstances. The most common mandatory minimums deal with drug offenses. Once you are criminalized for a drug crime and have a felony on your record, landlords are legally allowed to discriminate against you for housing and employers are legally allowed to discriminate against you for jobs. This effectively creates a New Jim Crow law, as laid out in Michelle Alexander’s new book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. According to Alexander, “more black men are behind bars or under the watch of the criminal justice system than there were enslaved in 1850.”

If the criminal justice system is indeed intentional, who loses?

The criminal justice system disproportionately affects people of color and then it stamps a mark on them that they carry with them for the rest of their lives. Having a hard time getting a job and getting housing leads to unemployment, homelessness, addiction and crime, and thus the likelihood that they will get put back in prison again.

The criminal justice system in America is racist and this amounts to modern day slavery in America.

Who funds this system?

The federal government actually promotes this focus on the War on Drugs locally, by giving states money that can only be used for “anti-drug” activity. More and more tax money is funneled to law enforcement and taken away from other needed social service programs in our states. And as more money is taken from our social service providers working to end the cycle of poverty and oppression in America, the more the cycle of violence continues.

The 13th amendment in the constitution makes it unconstitutional for someone to be held as a slave in our country. There are exceptions, one of them being criminals.

“The loophole was immediately exploited, and what you have after that is a rapid transition to the myth of black criminality,” Jelani Cobb explains in the exellent new documentary by Ava DuVernay, 13th. Find it on Netlix and watch it, please.

Exclusionary punishment (or suspensions) are much higher for kids of color than white kids, as covered in the book Push Out: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools by Monique Morris. This bias is the beginning of the process of criminalization, and soon instead of suspending kids we are incarcerating adults, and then we are discriminating against them when they leave prison.

How did these politicians who make these racist decisions get in power?

The people in power are in power because of our actions, but also because of our silence. White silence is violence. Just as feminism and gender equality is not a “women’s issue” but instead a human issue, so racial equality is something we should all be working toward.

What’s happening locally?

For the second half of the SURJ meeting, we heard about local law enforcement dynamics, and people who are championing change in the city. We learned that Kansas City is the only city in the US that still does not have city control of their police force- it is under control of the state. We discussed issues surrounding this, one being that there is no local accountability. Also, we discussed the fact that Kansas City is two times the national average for black populations in cities, and thus giving law enforcement control to the city would also mean giving power to black people.

We also talked about a new bill being passed to the Missouri Senate, HB57, which calls for enhanced punishment for those who assault law enforcement. We’re talking about 15 years in prison being changed to life in prison for anything from rioting to trespassing to so much as touching a police officer.

The people of color at the SURJ meeting last night strongly expressed how they have never felt protected by the police, they have felt targeted by the police their whole life. This bill feeds the harmful narrative that the real victims are the police men, not the people of color just trying to live their lives. Being a policeman is a choice, while being a person of color is not. Laws like this throw confusion into the air as to who is dangerous, who is worth protecting, who is trying to pad their assent to office with a safe crime bill. We must be aware of local legislation like this. Additionally, the people of color at the meeting brought up the fact that legalizing marijuana in Colorado has not helped the black population, and they are still being targeted for drug related crimes regardless of the change in laws. They brought up these issues because they wanted us to know, as white people who have the luxury of not knowing about these issues, that they are more than important.


The first few times I went to their meetings, I didn’t really get it. A whole auditorium full of white people? How were we going to get anywhere on race relations if we don’t meet and talk with people different from us? I don’t believe white people should not be coddled concerning race relations; we do not need “safe spaces” to talk about race the same way that minorities do. However, last night I realized as I sat in St. Mark’s church pew listening to the fine tuned speakers talk about criminal justice system in America, I realized that SURJ is helping me be a better white person. It really does help to have leadership specifically on how to be a racial justice ally as a white person.

SURJ holds me accountable as a white person by addressing my white privilege in a public space, and it helps me make sense of the world as a whole and my responsibility within it. I had already watched the documentary “13th,” and had read Angela Davis’ “Are Prison’s Obsolete?”, so a part of me thought that I didn’t need to be there at the SURJ meeting that night. But the meeting reminded me that reading a few books and watching a few movies is not enough. We also have to share ideas with one another. We have to write about them, we have to discuss in book clubs, in theaters, in forums, we have to take action legislatively, we have to do our homework, we have to listen to where other white people are at in understanding the issues, and we have to hear what people of color have to teach us about living this experience.

I hope all cities have a SURJ group as progressive and open to growing as the one in Kansas City. It’s still so important to build diverse community around you and speak with those different from you, but its also relieving to get leadership specifically on how to be a better white activist for racial equality.

Though I knew about unconscious bias before joining SURJ last year, I wasn’t comfortable speaking about my own unconscious biases in public groups. And because I wasn’t speaking about it, I wasn’t really analyzing it myself. The more you do it though, the easier it gets though. And the thing is, nothing is going to change in America unless we start talking about these issues, instead of just glazing over them like they don’t really exist because we are embarrassed to talk about them. Race is a vulnerable subject for Americans, wherever you stand on the issue. Let’s talk about it and make some changes, one day at a time.

Originally published at on February 21, 2017.

midwestern librarian, writer, activist. subscribe —