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Dismantling the Legacy of Racism in America: DeRay Mckesson

The activist and author outlined a new way to organise people against discrimination, one that acknowledges the many issues and systems that work together to thwart equality.
DeRay Mckesson | Source: Getty Images for The Business of Fashion

OXFORDSHIRE, United Kingdom — When DeRay Mckesson, one of the most prominent voices of the Black Lives Matter movement, marched in Ferguson, Missouri in 2014 after a young black man named Michael Brown was killed by the police, it was illegal for him and other protestors to stand still for more than five seconds before risking arrested.

"It helps me remember how fragile freedom was, how fragile freedom is," said Mckesson, speaking at VOICES, BoF's annual gathering for big thinkers in partnership with QIC Global Real Estate.

The activist, educator and author of the upcoming book, “On the Other Side of Freedom: The Case for Hope,” took to the VOICES stage to outline how everyone can work together to dismantle the legacy of racism in the United States.

The first step is an acknowledgment the realities of the insidious nature of racism. For example, a third of all people killed by a stranger in the US are killed by a police officer, and more people are arrested in the US for weed-related offences than for all violent crimes combined.

“[We need to be] honest about where we start,” he said.

Secondly, Mckesson said we must acknowledge the systems that have failed our society, from education to housing and beyond. He cited a law in Florida, where any theft over $300 results in the loss of ability to vote or run for public office, as an example.

“We hear the word ‘felons’ and we don’t think about an 18-year-old who stole a bike… The system has to be the level that we fight at.” (At the mid-term elections in November, Florida voters restored voting rights to more than 1 million convicted felons who have served their sentences.)

Tell me what a 4-year-old has to do to earn dinner?

Similarly, Mckesson then said we must confront truths before we start to engage in the act of reconciliation. The wealth, land, health and educational advantages that white people have had access to in the United States — “We did that, the government gave that to people,” he said. Inequality is not a failure of ambition of the impoverished.

And finally, Mckesson said that we must all share the “cognitive burden” of race inequality, instead of just talking at each other. “I’m not trying to convince you about the dignity of people, I’m saying, ‘Tell me what a 4-year-old has to do to earn dinner?’” For example, in regards to systems that destroy police officers’ disciplinary records every two years in Cleveland, Mckesson asked, “Is that fair? Does you think that it make sense?”

These ideas are all part of Mckesson’s efforts to present a new way to organise people against the legacy of racism, one that acknowledges that people don’t lead one-issue lives and that those who seek to create change have more than one way to stimulate it. In Flint, Michigan, for example, a lead water crisis has not only exposed thousands of its mostly African American residents to dangerous toxins, but it has also seen the single biggest decrease in childhood literacy ever recorded in the country (down 75 percent).

“It is not only an environment justice issue,” said Mckesson. “It’s an educational justice issue.”

To learn more about VOICES, BoF’s annual gathering for big thinkers, visit our VOICES website, where you can find all the details on our invitation-only global gathering, in partnership with QIC Global Real Estate.

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