John Lewis taught us the importance of using political power to address racial injustice

Originally posted at the Bangor Daily News on July 21, 2020.

In this summer of protests against systemic racism, a great leader in the struggle passed away. Congressman John Lewis, a sharecropper’s son, was part of a group of young people who organized nonviolent actions against segregation and for voting rights. In 1965, Lewis was beaten severely while leading a march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. President Lyndon Johnson responded, imploring Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act.

What the young Lewis did as part of a movement captured the attention of citizens and elected officials. As political scientist Daniel Q. Gillion discusses in a new book, these are some key ways protests matter.

The life of John Lewis also shows the importance of achieving political power by winning elections, placing people into positions where they can make, implement and adjudicate laws. Lewis organized and suffered so people could vote, and he ran for and served in Congress because he knew that gaining power in institutions gives marginalized people greater representation and better policies.

Now, many workplaces, schools and governments are trying to address racism. These institutions should look to research and adopt approaches that work.

One popular book on many reading lists is “White Fragility” by Robin DiAngelo, an education professor and corporate trainer. Because DiAngelo focuses on examining thoughts and feelings, she is unable to explain societal change. The book has also been criticized for talking down to Black people and it provides no tools for building the cross-racial coalitions needed in the U.S. to produce political change.

Other workshops teach people about their implicit biases, their unconscious tendencies to judge people on the basis of race and other social distinctions. However, there is little evidence these efforts change behavior unless they’re accompanied with concrete strategies. In fact, Anthony Greenwald, a social psychologist who has done implicit bias research for decades, called “most implicit bias training” “window dressing that looks good both internally to an organization and externally, as if you’re concerned and trying to do something.” These trainings, Greenwald has said, “can be deployed without actually achieving anything” and so can be “counterproductive.”

Research shows that there are better approaches to addressing racism.

One, research indicates that how and what one teaches about history matters. Teaching about racism focusing only on individuals makes it harder for students to see how racism is related to collective action and laws. But, as one study found, learning about the development of housing policy increased awareness of systemic racism. Significant results resulted from teaching based on materials developed by group called Facing History and Ourselves on matters such race in the United States, the Holocaust and residential schools that undermined indigenous communities and cultures. The group’s programs improved social, emotional and ethical awareness, and promoted tolerance and respect for others.

Two, systems of support and accountability matter. A review of diversity training by more than 700 corporations found that these sessions do little for employees who are women or racial minorities and can even backfire by stimulating backlash and resentment from other employees. Mentoring and networking were somewhat helpful but the most effective approach was establishing responsibility and ensuring that managers were held accountable for their positive and negative actions.

Three, accountability can come through using our political system to change policies and make sure they are better implemented. Whether one looks at health outcomes, the criminal justice system or racial disparities in other policy areas, racial impact audits are a helpful tool. Restoring the Voting Rights Act, now blocked by Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, would make it easier for Black people to have their votes heard via the ballot box.

In these three approaches, people aren’t shamed but rather persuaded, educated, held accountable and mobilized for change. Institutions and systems are closely examined to assess problems and craft solutions.

As Lewis wrote, “Freedom is not a state; it is an act. It is not some enchanted garden perched high on a distant plateau where we can finally sit down and rest. Freedom is the continuous action we all must take, and each generation must do its part to create an even more fair, more just society.”

Indeed, addressing racial injustice is a long effort and, in continuing this work, we should use the most effective tools.

Amy Fried is chair of the Department of Political Science at the University of Maine. She is the faculty adviser to the University of Maine Young Americans for Liberty, College Republicans and College Democrats. Her views are her own and do not represent those of any group with which she is affiliated.


Amy Fried

About Amy Fried

Amy Fried loves Maine's sense of community and the wonderful mix of culture and outdoor recreation. She loves politics in three ways: as an analytical political scientist, a devoted political junkie and a citizen who believes politics matters for people's lives. Fried is Professor of Political Science at the University of Maine. Her views do not reflect those of her employer or any group to which she belongs.