Tiffani serves as Executive Director of CCLP. She previously served as president and CEO of Ray of Hope Cancer Foundation since 2017, and was the chief strategy officer of Ability Connection Colorado. Lennon also held leadership positions at the University of Denver from 2007-2014 including chair and faculty in the Law and Society and Community-Based Research programs. Staff page ›

Jun 3, 2020

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STATEMENT: The Role of the ‘White Moderate’

by | Jun 3, 2020

I wanted to reach out during this time of great unrest and change with an update on what is happening, and how that is reflected in the changing work of Colorado Center on Law and Policy.

Historic disparities and systemic racism have long plagued Colorado and our country. Combine that with these continued dehumanizing actions against black people (and all communities of color), the magnitude of the protests should not be surprising. In fact, some CCLP staff experienced firsthand the uprising here in Denver. Although they were not hurt, we understand that many people were and our hearts go out to them and their families. Our state legislature decided not to meet last Friday or over the weekend – delaying an urgently needed response to the COVID-19 crisis. Denver City and County imposed a curfew, and police deterred curfew violators with rubber bullets and tear gas.

Amid this unrest, the polarization in Colorado and throughout the U.S. is an unsettling force. Many have asked: “where have the moderate voices gone?” With a 2020 view, I fear Dr. King’s warning in 1963 about the white moderate is deeply applicable to the current state of affairs and shows us how racial inequity continues to be perpetuated over the many decades since. Dr. King’s words are worth citing again here:

“First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’ Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

In recent days, some nonprofit groups have suggested that this white moderate voice is strongly present in the charitable and philanthropic communities. Having been part of the nonprofit community for more than 20 years in various parts of the U.S. and the world, I regret to say that I can attest to the same set of observations as described in the links above. Many of us recognized that historical racial and ethnic discrimination existed and believed that if we advocated for the rise of all groups then people of color would invariably rise, too.

While the notion that all boats will rise when the tide comes may have seemed logical from a white-privileged perspective, it did not and will not work because the same repressive systems and structural disparities continue to exist and therefore the economic gap for communities of color continues to grow. This is not to diminish the fact that, in Colorado in recent years, we have seen strong leadership and investment in racial equity from our philanthropic community. However, we cannot pat ourselves on the back, or find any satisfaction in moving in the right direction when we still know that well over half a million Colorado families are struggling even to meet their basic daily needs, and when we still bear the shared anguish of watching people of color being murdered on the streets of our cities.

CCLP’s policy and economic research has long shed light on the massive social disparities in our economy to show that communities of color and those residing in rural areas have been left behind in our supposedly thriving economy. As we recently redefined our own future, CCLP embraced updated vision, mission and values statements in an effort to better reflect our values and the values of the communities we serve.

Like many of our partner organizations, CCLP is committed to addressing and resolving these serious and systemic problems. We have a great deal of work to do together and it is crucial for us to understand at times our approach may be flawed. To make sure that we are indeed reflecting the need and the desire of the communities we serve, CCLP is working under a new commitment to be fully engaged and responsive by systematically including people with livened experience in our decision making and policy making throughout the process.

Realizing CCLP’s vision where every Coloradans has what they need to succeed requires acknowledgment that systemic, race-based barriers exist in all aspects of our culture and governance. CCLP has laid out a set of assumptions to remind us that race equity is fundamental to realizing our mission and vision. Those assumptions include:

  • Poverty is systemic, meaning it is maintained and exacerbated by large social and economic forces like racism.
  • The denial of choice, resources, and opportunity harms health and puts success out of reach for too many Coloradans.
  • Popular narratives based on stereotypes and maintained by privilege undermine systemic fixes to poverty by placing blame on individuals and obscuring the systemic root causes of poverty.
  • Narrative-shift and systems-change require inclusive collaboration, work at multiple levels within the system, and use of a variety of tools to affect change.
  • Colorado will be its strongest when everyone has the opportunity to be successful.
  • We can eliminate poverty, but only by establishing factual, non-partisan popular narratives about poverty’s causes and by creating systems that ensure choice, access to resources, and opportunity for all.
  • Effective efforts to eliminate poverty must be non-partisan; based on data, evidence, and the stories of those experiencing poverty and its effects first-hand rather than on ideology or the agenda of a political affiliation,

Our [CCLP’s] efforts to build an equitable Colorado must start with advancing equity in our own organization. This means actively breaking down larger systemic barriers to employment and creating an inclusive environment for diverse staff, working to understand the causes and consequences of inequity in our society, and striving to include diverse voices in the development of our policy agenda.

We cannot fully embrace the teachings of Dr. King without acknowledging that the white moderate voice is still very present in our community and in our work, and that we have seen it speaking loud and clear from many mouths in recent days. He warned us about white moderates because of the immense power that this group holds, – and the tendency of the white moderate to be quiet and sometimes silent, cautious not to inflame, and to often see themselves as promoters of equality. We must ask ourselves now, how can we take the good work that has been done, but learn to speak out more strongly and also make room for voices that are not of the white moderate in decision making, so that communities of color can design their own future, with the allies and support they need.

We must be willing to take Dr. King’s advice again and break down the dams that block our shared progress:

“I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when they fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress.”

We all have a role to play, let’s make sure we know the best one for these times. The work that CCLP has done so far is only a start, and we (and by we, we mean all Coloradans) need to think bigger and bolder moving forward in the fight against poverty and for racial equity. Throughout, we must ensure that the voices we hear are of those who are most directly affected, not those of the white moderate who would say “not now, maybe later when it is more convenient for me.” We encourage you to join us and our partners in this fight for a new vision of our state and our society, and a new way of approaching centuries-long issues. It may require us, and you, to experience many tense and uncomfortable moments and bear great disruptions to our daily lives – but meaningful change requires pushing our boundaries.

Discomfort, I believe, is not too much to ask in the face of the agony we see being visited on the lives of so many around the country and right here at home.

Sincerely,
Tiffani Lennon, J.D., LL.M.
Executive Director,
Colorado Center on Law and Policy

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