An advice column for folks who don’t like to be told what to do
I live in Minneapolis, and like many of us here I have been on tenterhooks waiting for the Chauvin verdict to be announced. When the guilty verdict came it was like the whole city released a held breath. Even those of us who are clear that this one decision is not justice or the end to systemic racism in this country felt an incredible sense of relief.
And then, so quickly, we received news of the murder of Ma’Khia Bryant in Columbus, OH and the moment was…over. How do we process this? What is the difference between accountability and justice?
How do we process this? I think we allow in the pain and the horror of it all. We don’t look away. We don’t scramble for excuses to make it all seem less horrible. We shoulder, together, the burden of grief. Then we get to work, and we don’t stop.
As for the difference between accountability and justice, consistent, universal accountability is a necessity for justice. The only way we manage to live constructively connected as people is to be answerable for what we do and say. There have to be consequences for violating the basic rules of decency and respect, and everyone has to be prepared to bear them equally, or justice cannot exist.
In a complicated, just society there can be some differences in responsibility based on our chosen role, but there cannot be differences in the accountability to honor everyone’s essential value as a human being. This is an idea that I would guess most folks would embrace in theory, but I think the last year has brought into stark relief for many (white) folks who have been living under the assumption that the theory was the reality that it is not. It never has been.
Justice is served by accountability but is a much larger reality. Accountability lives in the present moment, but justice lives in the past, present, and future simultaneously. We cannot expect justice without accountability in the present for the past. We cannot have justice without accountability in the present for the present, and we cannot claim a commitment to justice without a sense of accountability for the future.
Justice is a world we are always dreaming into being — where we are accountable to each other, where we honor and care for one another because we understand that we depend on each other’s thriving.
So, that’s the somewhat simple answer to the difference between the two. Now, we are left with the complicated answer of how we commit to both accountability and justice moving forward together.
The first thing we have to do, I believe, particularly as white people, is to stop assuming that everything is working just fine until something horrible happens, then choosing to believe that the horrible thing is just a blip, a divergence from the pattern. The systems of this society are working, to be clear, exactly the way they were designed to do. It’s just that we, white people, have been protected from confronting the ways in which they don’t work for everyone the way they work for us.
That lack of understanding is no longer acceptable. We must educate ourselves about reality, and stop living in the fantasy of white supremacy. Study history as told by BIPOC. Listen to analysis and direction from BIPOC. Sit, humbly, at the feet of BIPOC with our mouths shut and our hearts wide open. Follow their lead.
Accept that at some point we will attempt to weigh in and will likely do it badly. We will miss something about the situation, about how our own internal perceptions and biases are playing out, and if we are very lucky we will be held accountable for that.
And that moment? When we are convinced we understand, have something important to offer, are trying our best, and are met with the reality that we are wrong? That’s when we have the opportunity to seed justice by being accountable. That’s when we learn how to bear consequences.
Consequences have weight. Bearing them is work, which requires strength. Luckily, like any weight-bearing exercise, the more we do it the stronger we get. And the more conviction we can maintain that everyone can and must bear the weight.
The problem of white supremacy is a systemic one. It is a whole network of laws, practices, beliefs, and embodied ideas about humans having different levels of intrinsic value and personhood based on their relationship to the myth of whiteness. It depends on there being differences in accountability based on your relative position in that hierarchy. By definition, therefore, it can never be just. Justice and white supremacy are mutually exclusive realities.
If we want justice then we hold ourselves accountable to work every day to dismantle white supremacy, as well as all other systems built on a hierarchy of human value. It is as simple, and as complicated, as that.
Thank you for walking this journey with me. Love to you and yours.
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