Perhaps the ultimate white privilege is simply being able to look away.
I am a white middle-class male, brought up in a white middle-class suburb in New England. I was educated early on about the importance of the civil rights movement. I was exposed to and moved by the powerful words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
And I’ve been able to see with my own eyes the way racism continues to hold down Black America: Another racially charged shooting in the news. Another statistic showing the disproportionate number of Black people in U.S. prisons. Another gathering of business leaders with very few Black faces in the crowd.
I also have the convenient option of putting discrimination against Black people – both the shocking and subtle manifestations – into an ever-widening folder in a file cabinet in the back of my mind. These are important things that I know cannot simply be disregarded. But, ultimately, I have always been able to close the file cabinet door, leaving the actual reckoning for a later time.
Amid the social unrest in our country following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, I found I still had that option. I could learn the details, attend an event or two, make a donation, and then go back to my day-to-day world of relative safety and comfort.
I suspect that many readers of this publication can relate. Many of us who are decision-makers in the materials recovery industry come from the same fold of white society that I do. We are troubled by our country’s racial problems, and we want change for the better.
But the issue seems so complex and fraught with emotion that the natural course of action is to pay respect and then slowly step away – usually in silence, for we never want to say the wrong thing.
A chorus of varied voices
For the country’s Black population, of course, the choice of distancing oneself does not exist.
The George Floyd killing is another episode illustrating how Black individuals are always a step away from violence, many times at the hands of the police officers we pay to protect us.
In the days and weeks following Floyd’s death, the Black cries against injustice were joined by voices from the rest of society in a way not seen in decades.
“It is clearly a rainbow that is outraged at what is happening in the United States,” U.S. Rep. Karen Bass, D-Calif., told NPR’s “Morning Edition” on June 8. Bass, chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, was at that point working to advance new legislation to reshape American police departments.
The mere prospect of significant policing reforms could not have happened without vocalized support of the Black Lives Matter movement from a wide spectrum of individuals, groups and companies, including many in the recycling sector.
But one eruption of outrage, even if accompanied by major legislation, is not sufficient. The civil rights movement of the 1960s brought with it unprecedented conversation and lawmaking, yet here we are half a century later, continuing to see the death and community devastation that is the toll of institutional racism.
Understanding our levels of influence
How do leaders in North American recycling help ensure the current momentum for justice continues far into the future? One key is to realize and activate the power we all have in our individual roles.
First, we can make shifts in that realm where we hold the most influence – the realm of ourselves.
To help actually undo racist holds on society, we need to know where and how that is happening. A remarkable assortment of articles, books, documentaries, podcasts, lectures and more is available to help us educate ourselves on the topic. Our free time is limited and having space to decompress is essential, but finding 30 minutes to an hour here or there to open up to the stories, histories and perspectives on Black persecution can do much to keep you engaged.
The next level of influence we have is within our own teams. Recycling entities tend to be close-knit groups of people drawn to their work because they want to make a difference in the world. There is now an opportunity to gather together in real conversation about how your operation can make an impact.
You are not on your own to do this. Many cities and some companies already have equity and diversity departments that were established to help drive this type of work – and to point out areas for improvement.
The Equity Office for the city of Austin, Texas, for instance, recently reported that city departments were struggling to collect race and ethnicity data related to who was being selected for city contracts and who was receiving outreach and engagement within the community. Without such quantification, “it is difficult for the city to assess the impact or lack of impact it is having on communities of color and other marginalized populations,” a report from the Office of Equity noted.
Now is the time to nourish those networks, and to listen to their perspectives on ways to engage and improve. If such a program does not exist in your office, this is an ideal moment to launch one.
Finally, there is the fact that recycling entities have a particularly close look at the realities of American life and how race plays into it all.
In the world of materials recovery, minority populations tend to make up much of the workforce involved in activities such as collection and manual sortation – these are jobs that have relatively low wages but higher health risks. Meanwhile, owners and managers tend to be white. It’s time we talked about this disparity more openly and developed pathways for more people of color to move into industry leadership roles.
Additionally, in many communities, waste facilities are sited closer to the homes of minority populations than to the neighborhoods of whites. A 2016 study from University of Michigan researchers looked at over 30 years worth of data and found a troubling pattern of cities targeting minority neighborhoods when building hazardous waste operations, increasing those populations’ exposure to pollution and other concerns.
‘In every area of American life’
Confronting such realities is hard work, and it’s extra work. For many of us, the option to just close the mental filing cabinet will remain, especially once another crisis grabs our collective attention.
But simply moving on is unacceptable.
At George Floyd’s memorial service in Minneapolis on June 4, the eulogy was given by Rev. Al Sharpton. He made clear how the fight for racial justice is more than just transforming one police department or passing bills. It’s a movement that involves every segment of society.
“What happened to Floyd happens every day in this country, in education, in health services, and in every area of American life,” Sharpton said. “It’s time for us to stand up in George’s name and say, ‘Get your knee off our necks.’”
This is the time to look clearly at the Black discrimination that is inherent in American life, and to take action in whatever way we can, starting with ourselves and moving outward through our companies and communities.
This needs to happen today, tomorrow, and again and again.
Dan Leif is the managing editor of Resource Recycling and can be contacted at [email protected] The opinions outlined in this article are the views of the author and do not necessarily represent Resource Recycling, Inc.
This article appeared in the July 2020 issue of Resource Recycling. Subscribe today for access to all print content.