Louisville, Kentucky-based anti-racist organizer Chris Crass returns to his hometown of Whittier on Monday to give a talk at Whittier College, where the Sociology and Anthropology Department, co-sponsored by Gender Studies, presents Crass speaking on Courage for Racial Justice, Courage for Collective Liberation.
Whittier College Professor of Sociology Rebecca Overmyer-Velázquez, a longtime friend of Crass’, has witnessed the impact his talks can have. “He invites the folks who attend his events to participate and to learn about each other and to learn about themselves,” she said. “He’s trying to break down the barriers that separate us.”
Crass is a white social justice activist and writer who focuses his work on bringing recognition of the inhumanity of racism to racist white communities to “support multiracial democracy.”
Crass grew up in a working-class family whose dinner table debates about whether or not people of color were to blame for the country’s problems sparked his interest in anti-racism.
In an interview with Sustainable City, Crass described sharing the visceral reaction of “hundreds of thousands of people in Los Angeles that came out in anger and protest under the banner ‘No justice, no peace’” in reaction to the March 1992 acquittal of the police officers caught brutally assaulting Rodney King during his arrest. Joining these protests as a teenager set Crass on the path to activism.
Crass said that “seeing that kind of massive uprising and people taking to the streets” showed him the power of people united under a movement. The protests challenged the idea that the nation was post-racial and that the civil rights movement had accomplished all it set out to do.
While attending Fullerton College from 1992 to 1994, Crass joined his peers of color to push for faculty and curriculum that was as diverse as its student body was. It was hard to miss the lack of other white people advocating alongside them. The color divide between those for and against equity was unmistakable; the left saw few faces like those in the homogeneous white right.
Beyond that, Crass described becoming aware that white people dehumanized color. “White was the default,” Crass said. “Very few people when I was growing up would identify as white. They were just ‘Americans’ or ‘citizens’. People of color had these other designations. Black people were black, but white people were ‘normal’, just people.”
He knew that, contrary to what racist conservatives said, equality for all did not oppress white people, but that prejudice prevented people of color from being able to educate opponents of equity. Activists of color knew that the key to breaking down the us-versus-them mentality was for white folk to provide this education.
Crass found his role, not as a voice for people of color, but as a voice for white activists “to connect people who are in opposition to the rights and humanity of other people” and help “soften their anger, their resentment, their hatred” over time.
For Crass, social equality means economic equality and social services to give everyone equal footing. He believes that this means granting human rights like universal healthcare, quality housing for all, access to quality education, food, and jobs with living wages. It means an end to homelessness and safer communities through “redistribution [of wealth] through progressive taxation.”
Crass said it also means recognizing that “the lie of the right wing is that people of color working for their rights takes away from white people and creates scarcity, when really all this money and all this power is going to the wealthiest people in this country and poor black and brown people are being blamed for all the problems of working class and poor white people.” It means seeing the humanity in everyone and valuing the well-being of the community as a whole over allegiance to a political party.
Crass’ call to educate comes at a racially turbulent time. Structural racism and its harsh policies result in increasingly violent acts committed in our name, by our government, from family separation, to concentration camps for migrant children and adults, to racist and deadly policing, to racializedmass incarceration, to visa restrictions resulting in the deaths of asylum seekers.
Crass urges people to learn about the history of the United States and its long battle between institutional racism and social justice activism, to stand for human rights, and to speak up about their values, whether it be at protests, demonstrations, community events, online, or even at the dinner table.
Additionally, he says it is essential–for those who can vote–to take advantage of the opportunity, and vote for people and policies that will support and protect everyone in their community. As Crass put it, “Every issue that we support… is absolutely tied to who becomes president in 2020.”
Crass is aware that activism can become disheartening when positive change seems slow or impossible and people suffer in the meantime. Still, he has seen “positive changes that have come as a result of people being courageous together.” He has seen it happen in communities in numerous ways since he began his fight for equality.
Crass said he watched Orange County shift from the racist, sexist, homophobic right wing area that he knew, growing up, to a county that is currently pushing for a more progressive agenda.
Growing up in Whittier, Crass knew one out gay peer at La Serna High School, his alma mater. In the early ‘90s, he and a group of activists were harrased while protesting for queer equality and they stood in support of the single gay church in Whittier, which, though underground, received frequent anti-queer terrorist threats…
…Juxtapose that version of Whittier to today’s Whittier which, last weekend, hosted its first ever (and wildly successful) Pride festival in Central Park.
Crass hopes that his interactive discussion at Whittier College will inspire the community of Whittier to stand for justice for all, connect Whittier to a larger movement, and cultivate hope in each other that collective liberation is possible through collective efforts.
The event, hosted at Whittier College, is open to everyone. Residents of the greater Whittier community are encouraged to attend. As professor Overmyer-Velázquez puts it, ”Chris is trying to help people become aware of their own racism, and the racism around them and in their families, and I think that’s appropriate anywhere.”
The event is part of the second annual Les Howard Social Justice Series, named for the late Whittier College sociology professor who was a longtime peace and justice activist in Whittier and Los Angeles.
Monday’s talk takes place at Whittier College in Hoover Hall, Room 100, at 6:30pm. Hoover Hall is the domed white building facing Painter, one building south of Philadelphia Street.
Charley Aguirre is a Whittier College anthropology major and news intern for Sustainable City.