After the murder of George Floyd in the spring of 2020 and the Black Lives Matter protests that followed, lawyer Shannon Joyce Prince had many similar conversations with white friends and colleagues. “They’d say, I understand that racism is real, I understand racism is wrong, but I just don’t know what I’m supposed to do about it,” she says.
Prince seeks to change that with her new book, Tactics for Racial Justice: Building an Antiracist Organization and Community. “I wanted people to have concrete things that could be done by anyone — not just someone with a senior leadership role in business or government — to make a significant impact in racial justice,” says Prince, a lawyer with Boies Schiller Flexner.
Moral Muscle Memory
The book is part of the Giving Voice to Values series edited by Mary Gentile, Richard M. Waitzer Bicentennial Professor of Ethics at Darden and creator of the Giving Voice to Values (GVV) curriculum. “A lot of recent books on race have shown really compelling evidence of the problem,” says Gentile. “What I love about what Shannon is doing in this book is she is giving examples about how you could do something about it.”
Gentile’s Giving Voice to Values curriculum, based on her own book of the same name, uses scenarios in which people face ethical challenges at work and provides a methodology to develop scripts and action plans for effectively voicing and enacting their values.
“Increasingly, research suggests that when people encounter values conflicts, they don’t sit down and make a pros and cons list,” Gentile says. “They act emotionally.” Rehearsing a script before the fact, she says, is “an excellent way to build moral muscle memory” so someone can act more appropriately when a situation occurs.
Symptoms and Structures
Prince applies this GVV approach and uses concrete examples of encountering racist practices and step-by-step advice on how to deal with them. In a chapter addressing overt acts of racism within an institution, she uses an example from her time as a student at Yale Law School, in which a white student called a security guard’s attention to an African American student studying in the library, and the guard interrogated the student. The guard then walked the student to a white professor who could “vouch” for them.
“The first thing I suggest is to gather people from the community to hold an information gathering session, asking if this an isolated problem or a systemic one?” Prince says. “Because ultimately you don’t just want to address symptoms, you want to address structures.” In the Yale case, it turned out many Black students had had similar incidents happen to them.
The next step, says Prince, is to look beyond justice or punishment for an individual and focus on policies that could be put in place to make sure the act doesn’t happen again. It’s important, she says, that such policy demands are specific, measurable and come with a timeframe attached for implementation. “Making a goal or plan is different from a wish or intent,” she says. “You need to say something like, ‘We want diversity, equity and inclusion training for guards, and we want it done within the next two months.’ It’s realistic, and it’s something for which someone in a leadership role can take responsibility.”
Addressing Racism in Conversation
In another chapter on addressing racism effectively in conversation — whether it’s with a relative at Thanksgiving or a human resources executive in the office — Prince counsels first acknowledging the other person’s point of view. “That doesn’t mean you have to agree with someone, but what often matters to people is that you hear them.”
As an example, she addresses a case of trying to diversify staff in a health care clinic, in which someone says it’s unnecessary because everyone reads a blood pressure cuff the same way. “You could acknowledge that diversity does not affect the way people perform some tasks, but at the same time, it’s also true that racism has kept people of color out of health care for far too long and we need to affirmatively welcome them into the field,” Prince says.
Equally important as stating your own view is having facts to back up your statements — for example, pointing to one study showing that Black newborns are less likely to die when cared for by Black physicians, while there is no effect on risk for white newborns.
“When you are trying to influence someone, you want to do it in a way in which they don’t feel humiliated or are going to want to push back,” says Gentile. “What Shannon communicates so well is that you can acknowledge what they are saying, they just don’t have all the facts.”
A Chance to Succeed
While it’s perhaps easier to see racism in specific incidents or conversations, it’s arguably more difficult to address the more subtle systemic racism that lingers within organizations. According to one study Prince cites, in the first months after George Floyd’s murder, only 1 in 10 companies made substantial changes to promote diversity within their firms. Here, too, she offers practical advice to companies or organizations on how they can change that, starting with how they hire employees.
“If you are relying on word-of-mouth recruiting for hiring, that’s only likely to get you diverse candidates if you already have a diverse workforce.” Instead, she counsels posting job offers with historically Black colleges and universities, Hispanic-serving institutions, and tribal colleges and universities or reaching out to local racially based professional organizations. From there, she says, it’s not enough to simply hire a diverse workforce, but it’s also important to retain employees and ensure they ascend within the organization. Prince offers practical advice in how to properly mentor a person to give them a chance to succeed.
Something We Can Learn
In all of the scenarios and advice Prince presents, she emphasizes that antiracism is not something any of us are born with, but it is something that we can learn. “I want people to close the book and possess a toolkit for taking action,” she says. “So they know this is something I can do Tuesday that will make significant impact, this is something I can do a couple of weeks later, and this is something I can do throughout my life.”
In her conclusion, Prince flips perspective to look at how all the actions people take today can help build an antiracist society, a position Gentile finds inspiring.
“She talks about thinking like an ancestor, asking what do I want to leave to my descendants,” says Gentile. “It’s a different way for people to think about why and how to do this work — to ask what do I want my legacy to be?”
Shannon Joyce Prince authored Tactics for Racial Justice: Building an Antiracist Organization and Community (Routledge), part of the Giving Voice to Values series based on the work by Mary Gentile.