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In The Aftermath Of Charleston, Many Whites Ask What They Can Do To Fight Racism


And in the aftermath of those shootings in Charleston, many white Americans are wondering how they can fight racism. Karen Grigsby Bates from NPR's code-switch team reports on some suggestions.


PETE SEEGER: (Singing) We shall overcome.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, BYLINE: One of the highlights of the civil rights movement in the 1960s was the visible willingness of many non-black Americans to, as the song says, walk hand in hand with black fellow citizens as together they pressed for equal rights.


SEEGER: (Singing) We'll walk hand in hand. We'll walk hand in hand some day.

BATES: But a lot has happened since then. The country's become more racially polarized. Even so, there are many whites like this man outside Charleston's Emanual AME church who have expressed an interest in supporting black people.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I'm here to go ahead and just participate and share and give my strength and support, my love and my prayers for my brothers and my sisters that are here.

BATES: Now the question is what kind of support? Timothy Patrick McCarthy teaches race and the history of social justice movements at Harvard. He says he and his white peers have to move behind leaving bouquets on church steps and city sidewalks.

TIMOTHY PATRICK MCCARTHY: It's not enough just to feel sorry for black people when they are subjected to racial violence.

BATES: McCarthy says white allies to social justice movements have to be willing to have black folks take the lead in their own movements.

MCCARTHY: To become followers as much as leaders - to work with rather than to speak for the black people that they care about.

BATES: Every person I spoke to for this story - and they were all white - said for white people, talking about race, speaking up about things that may make them uncomfortable is critical.

Dahlia Ferlito is a member of the Los Angeles chapter of AWARE, a group of whites engaged in antiracist activity. She says getting some people to understand, let alone agree to the concept of white privilege, is tough.

DAHLIA FERLITO: For white folks, we tend to equate race privilege with class privilege. And so when you think about privilege, we often think about its monetary wealth.

BATES: And Ferlito says it often takes several conversations over time to get people to agree that even not wealthy white people can be and often are the beneficiaries of certain advantages, such as respectful treatment at the hands of police.

Jen Graves is an editor at The Stranger, a Seattle-based alternative paper, where she writes frequently about race. Graves says there's one simple thing well-meaning white people can do to help; they can commit to talking about race with an open mind. She says the initial response is often defensive.

JEN GRAVES: They're not racist. I'm not racist - nothing wrong here. Of course there's a big problem, but I'm definitely not part of it. I've never seen it. It's limited to sort of Klansmen in the South.

BATES: Writer Tanner Colby co-hosts the Slate podcast Our National Conversation About Conversations About Race. He says when they don't see immediate results after protesting, petitioning, or making donations, some white allies can get impatient

TANNER COLBY: It's really a lot of very small things that you won't really see the fruits of for a generation, and that's what can be frustrating about what do I do to help.

BATES: Harvard's Tim McCarthy adds when white allies to social justice movements work to eradicate racism, they shouldn't wait to be praised for doing the right thing.

MCCARTHY: If we're all committed to racial justice, we should not, as white allies, need a trophy before we get to the championship.

BATES: Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Karen Grigsby Bates is the Senior Correspondent for Code Switch, a podcast that reports on race and ethnicity. A veteran NPR reporter, Bates covered race for the network for several years before becoming a founding member of the Code Switch team. She is especially interested in stories about the hidden history of race in America—and in the intersection of race and culture. She oversees much of Code Switch's coverage of books by and about people of color, as well as issues of race in the publishing industry. Bates is the co-author of a best-selling etiquette book (Basic Black: Home Training for Modern Times) and two mystery novels; she is also a contributor to several anthologies of essays. She lives in Los Angeles and reports from NPR West.
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