The societal and moral costs of a lethargic approach to racial equity

Last month, I took a major step forward in the world of public speaking, when I delivered my first ever TED talk as a part of TEDxStowe in Stowe, Vermont. My topic was pretty straightforward, and nothing new for those who follow my work: It is time for the dominant culture to step aside if we are to have radical diversity, equity, and inclusion. The time is long overdue to be bold in our undertakings and demand excellence in our efforts to create systems of meaningful equality. As I said in the speech, “We do this work because we must. A just society requires our resistance to hegemony.” Please feel free to watch and share widely.  

The vision for diversity needs to be radical or it will fail. It will require white allies and champions to stand up and make bold steps of their own. In this powerful talk Kiah Morris urges white allies to make changes in the way they work to create genuine racial diversity, equity and inclusion.

Let’s take this up a notch: As a society, we have given power to those who do not understand what it means for ethnic and social groups to tangibly move from the margins to centers of power. Right now, in our workplaces, schools, businesses and government systems are decision-makers who have a poor understanding of the factors which enable systemic racism, allow the global white wealth gap to thrive and identification of their direct complicity in maintaining these lethal power structures. These individuals hold power to make choices over the food we can purchase, the clothing we can buy, conditions of our schools, the gentrification of our neighborhoods, cost of higher education, access to medical care and so many other spheres that negatively impact our lives. Decisions that hurt us, create enormous divisions, and pull us ever further from a vision of true peace. These decisions are allowed to occur, in our names, because of a lack of meaningful diversity in these places of power.

As a member of the Vermont Legislature, I had the honor to serve on the Judicial Nominating Board, the entity which vets and provides recommendations for appointees to judicial seats across the state. I found it striking how many candidates I met who had not engaged in a critical analysis or any learning about how structural racism impacts the decisions they were seeking to make. It was common for candidates to place blind faith in the concept of the “rule of law” which allows for resignation of their agency to a legal system designed and crafted to profit from the incarceration of people of color. They believed there is an equal application of the law and that blind faith is good enough to satisfy the call for justice. However, as the critical work of scholars like Michelle Alexander and Ibrahim X. Kendi show us, the criminal justice system must work diligently to unpack and understand the need for its dismantling and reformation. This work should not be done for marginalized peoples – but led by us. We need to be there to make the changes that have not yet happened and to move from thought to action.

In that vein, I implore you to consider the results of a criminal justice system that has been allowed to move at a snail's pace towards change, in increments so small as to seem imperceptible at times.  The US criminal justice system does not begin with an appearance in front of a judge, but with interactions with the police. Buzzfeed and Injustice Watch recently published an article summarizing a chilling report on the social media postings of current and retired police officers across the United States that were unquestioningly racist and linked to use of excessive force, false charges and other atrocities.

So today, I have a little homework for all of my readers: Watch these two films on Netflix by the indomitable Ava Duvernay which illustrate just what is at risk when we allow for systems of domination and injustice to remain comfortably stagnant. The first film was just released in May, about the five young men whose lives were ruined through wrongful conviction of a rape in Central Park, New York. The orchestrated conspiracy and unquestioning horror of what happened to these youth is grotesque and completely relevant to current times. Please watch “When They See Us.”

Ava also took us on a chilling tour of the US prison industrial complex and profiteering system in her documentary “13th.” I recently had a conversation with a police trainer who uses the film in their program about his reaction to the film and the implications to his profession. He shared that he feels angry that those who chose to become law enforcement officers do so out of love and caring for their community and ultimately to want to help. He found it infuriating to know that they have been manipulated by corporate greed and political posturing to become militarized as “warriors” instead of the “guardians they enlisted to become. Please watch “13th.”


Walk in light and righteous purpose,

Photo Credit: Jesse Schloff Photography {Picture of Kiah on the TEDxStowe stage. She is spotlit against a dark background with trees as scenery just behind her.]

Kiah Morris