Bill De Blasio, white savior-hood, and these black and brown children.

White people cannot save black children using the tools of systemic racism. They can, however, understand the historical context for the suffering and dismantle the machinery.

Several years ago, I worked as a lawyer in the Juvenile Rights Practice with Legal Aid Society. My job was representing mostly black and brown children and teenagers who were entangled with the child protective/juvenile delinquent laws of New York City. Usually it was their families/caretakers who were entangled and the kids were simply dragged along for the ride.* We, as the lawyers for the children, met family members on occasion, spoke to caseworkers, read reports, interviewed young people and their caretakers, looked at school records, filed motions for things our clients wanted, sometimes pushed for reunification with parents, sometimes for children to enter foster care, sometimes for termination of parental rights, sometimes for adoption by family members or foster parents who desperately wanted young babies. The one thing we didn’t seem to be doing, with any consistency or training, was working to get them out of the system altogether. To dismantle the system.

Instead, we were asked to get involved in the most personal aspects of their family lives. We intervened in their parenting, referring them to classes that none of us had ever sat through. We recommended lengths of times they should be apart from their children while they attended drug treatment programs, programs that we knew little about. I was overwhelmed with cases and never felt I had enough time for my clients. I was hired as part of a class of attorneys to address a recent state law that required client caseload limits of 150 clients for juvenile rights attorneys. (Prior to this lawyers sometimes had upwards of 250–300 clients at one time.) We still often had close to 150 clients to represent at any one time, sometimes more. At the time I somehow trusted the system would work, despite my own limited resources and time. As the lawyer for the children, it was easy to believe we were mostly the “good guys”, in the courtroom we behaved as though we were neutral parties, fighting for black and brown children, for what was important. Hardly any of us working as lawyers came from the communities we became so intimately involved in. And by ‘intimate’ I mean that we sometimes gave our opinions to judges about whether a very young child should stay with their parents or enter foster care with strangers. Sometimes these decisions were made after a few interviews, sometimes without ever speaking to the parents who often had their own attorneys (which made it difficult to have honest exchanges). All we had to go on were ACS reports, conversations with other attorneys and on rare occasions, the input of a social worker.

The belief was that this was a necessary job in society that someone had to do. The parents were already being monitored by the government, and it wouldn’t be fair if the children did not have a voice in this process. So we told ourselves we should be that voice. I think most of us knew racism was at play in the entire child protective endeavor, but we thought if we were just good enough at our jobs maybe we could protect at least the children from that.

Growing up I remember watching tv commercials that told us that for just $3 a month (a day?) we could ensure three meals a day, adequate housing, and clothing for children in faraway countries. We were never told why these children, almost always black and brown, lived in such dire conditions or whether or not American policies might in fact be to blame. I grew up understanding whatever the cause, children should be protected. That they should be protected by us. And we thought little about the impacts of that protection, who was going into those countries with our $3 and implementing all the “helping.”

Nonprofits are not city agencies, but they could not function without the contracts renewed every year whereby the city budgets millions of dollars to pay nonprofit salaries. Previously I worked as a lawyer in a city housing agency that brought cases by the city on behalf of tenants against landlords/building owners who failed to provide heat or cure lead paint issues in apartments. As an energetic new attorney I worked hard because I believed I was doing that good work, but I was promptly and quietly told by a supervisory figure that I was closing cases too quickly and that I should slow down because I was making the team look bad. I became disillusioned by government work, and left to go to a nonprofit hoping for a place where I could just get on with the helping I went to law school to do. Government bodies, courts, and yes, even, nonprofits have their own pace and priorities that often are at odds with real justice. I witnessed firsthand the machines organizations can become and how soon the original purpose or intent can be forgotten. In fact, the original purpose or intent is the problem.

On March 15, 2020, schools in New York City were open but on the verge of closing in the midst of a raging pandemic. They had remained open for weeks despite the increasingly obvious dangers of putting children and teachers in an enclosed space with a looming virus taking hold of our communities. Parent groups, teachers’ groups, city and state leaders urged Mayor Bill DeBlasio to close the schools. He would initially refuse, saying:

“I’m very reticent to shut down schools for a variety of reasons. Not just that that’s where a lot of kids get their only good meals, where they get adult supervision, especially teenagers who otherwise would be out on the streets,” DeBlasio said. “There’s health and safety ramifications to that. Those first responders, those healthcare workers who depend on the schools so they can get to work, and we need those workers desperately, a lot of factors here … It is literally a day-by-day reality.”

This may strike some as fairly benevolent reasoning. Kids need to be in school because their parents need to be able to help the city fight this pandemic. Kids need food, and caring adults in their lives. Perhaps the crack about unsupervised teens comes off a little stodgy, but even that could be considered mostly harmless. But when I see this quote, I recognize something familiar, something that goes much further back than my days at a legal nonprofit.

In her brilliant book Wayward Lives, Beautiful Experiments, Saidiya Hartman retraces many historical documents and weaves together the forgotten lives of young Black girls and women around the turn of the 20th century as many thousands migrated to New York City from the South to continue to define what it meant to be Black and free in America. History mostly leaves out the actual stories of these Black girls and women, and Hartman refuses to allow how they were treated while they were alive to dictate how fully their lives should be remembered. She deftly lays out for us how institutional racism allowed for slavery to become transformed into new methods of maintaining racial caste hierarchy through the criminal justice system; new laws like the Tenement House Act, Vagrancy statutes, and Wayward minor laws. Hartman explains one such law’s intent and actual effects:

“While the [Tenement House] Act was designed to prevent the overcrowding that was the prolific source of sexual immorality and to improve the housing conditions of the poor- insufficiency of light and air due to narrow courts or air shafts, dark hallways with no light or windows, overcrowding of buildings on lots, fire hazards in design and use, lack of separate water-closet and washing facilities, overcrowding, and foul cellars and courts — the benefits and protection provided by the law were overshadowed by the abuse and harassment that accompanied the police presence inside private homes.”

This statement by Hartman about progressives in New York in the 1900s is still everything that is wrong with current progressive attempts to address poverty and institutional racism in America. She continues:

“Progressive intellectuals and reformers believed that social evils emanated from the slum rather than the structural conditions of poverty, unemployment, racism, and capitalism.”

The assumptions that underlie DeBlasio’s comment strike me as exactly the same: namely, that surveillance of Black domestic life is not only the prerogative of the state, but that the state cannot safely function without that surveillance. It is particular galling to hear this coming from a mayor who ran for President of the United States on the strength of accomplishments that so many residents of his own city found lacking, from someone who speaks with the certitude and conviction of a white man who believes he is doing the right thing for poor communities of color. I do not see humility or depth in his press conferences. I see someone who believes that he knows what is best and who will make the hard decisions on our behalf. I see someone who perhaps sees himself as one who is owed gratitude. Someone who is a savior. It is not him I know personally, but the posture he takes.

Others who have worked in nonprofits may also have this familiarity. Of course, there is good work to be done, some of it within nonprofits, some in other organizational structures, some completely outside of any organized structure. Nonprofits are, however, unique in fostering this type of savior personality. We have grown up with an idea of this word. Nonprofits are teeming with ideas about how to improve our communities. Many of them rely on this notion that we as citizens have a duty to help the less fortunate.

The term non-profit is defined as “not making or conducted primarily to make a profit”. But jobs are created within nonprofits, people are paid salaries and can aspire to various roles within the organization to make more money and achieve greater prestige. Somehow nonprofits have remained as a place to work if you want to be free of corporate greed and guilt. You still tell someone you work at nonprofit proudly, the person nods approvingly, the good is assumed. What we cannot acknowledge is that the millions of dollars pouring into nonprofits and the hundreds of thousands of jobs rely on the existence of an American caste system that always ensures certain groups are at the bottom.

As any parent can begrudgingly acknowledge, our children often do not interpret our efforts to “help” them as beneficial for their lives. Sometimes our misguided attempts to help our children stem from our own unexamined anxieties or childhood traumas that have very little to do with the needs of the completely separate-from-us small humans we simply procreated into existence. Similarly, if you are white or privileged in any way and trying to assist communities that you are not from, those efforts must be headed by and in deep collaboration with people from those communities. Additionally, those efforts to “help” should always be anchored by long-term personal work to explore the complex reasons we get into the work of being “helpers”, therapy — many years of it, or whatever works for people. For example, I have had to undo many of my own problematic reasons for “helping”, control issues stemming from being the oldest child in a home where I often thought of myself as the protector (for myself, but also for my mother and younger sister) from my father’s unstable anger issues. Nonprofits may have their place, but people working within these systems must never lose sight that the ultimate goal is the destruction of the system which makes their jobs necessary. If that goal is not in sight always, the work must be questioned. Nonprofits are as much a part of the machinery as any other government agency. They are as systemic as racism in this country.

The very fact of the wildly disproportionate numbers of black and brown families in Brooklyn Family Court invalidated, still invalidates, the very premise that this work, this child protective work, is necessary in the form it currently functions.** Many of us oppose the death penalty for many reasons, one of which is because we know how flawed and racist the criminal justice system is. It’s easy to say people should not be killed by the state because our racist institutions cannot accurately apportion guilt in this country. Why is it not just as easy to say without hesitation black and brown people should not have their families interfered with by racist institutions? Or black and brown families should not be spending years of their lives in prison because of a racist system? Or the education system is broken and segregated, and black and brown children deserve fully funded schools with nurses and guidance counselors and all the tools children need to thrive? It’s what we mean when we say Black Lives Matter, their actual lives matter, while they are alive.

It is not enough to have a few brown and black people from the affected communities to be working within these agencies and nonprofits because this does not address the actual existence of the system. How will those who require the system’s paycheck to pay rent also argue at the same time that their jobs should not exist? This is one of the reasons it is nearly impossible to reform an institution from the inside out.

Also, it is difficult to meaningfully help others when we view people in false binaries such as “helpers” and those requiring our help. This binary diminishes the agency, power, intelligence, and capacity for change that already exists within Black and Brown communities themselves. And often times the “helper”, nonprofit structure relies on a top-down style of engagement whereby employees of a nonprofit or government agency go into communities to provide “necessary services”, instead of a two-way communication structure whereby affected communities can provide important feedback to organizations on what works or not while also forming the structures, nonprofit or otherwise, that they require.

DeBlasio is not exempt from this. He is a white person who has been doing this “good” work for underserved communities, of which he is not a part, for many years. He is exhausted by not being appreciated. He also has the double whammy of the patriarchy which tells him he can fail upwards, while gathering around him the journalists and others who have a vested interest in his policies and/or agreeing publicly with him.

I was at Legal Aid from 2009 to 2015, and in looking back I remember even then the discomfort I felt about the lack of black and brown attorneys on our teams. White attorneys were continually hired (and often promoted) over and over. While staff of color, supported by the union, spearheaded internship and mentoring programs to support attorneys of color and attempt to address the hiring deficiencies on their own, it was not a top priority of management. It remains an unchanging truth that power is concentrated in the hands of whiteness at institution after institution, public or private, nonprofit or government. Nonprofits do not serve as exceptions in this regard.

Sometimes I think when an organization that skews very white serves a poor brown and black community, the people within it feel the need to “save” even harder. They must build an identity around this saving, perhaps to help relieve themselves of guilt for the circumstances of their birth, for the other ways they have benefitted from anti-blackness. Ironically this saving stands in the way of one of the primary underpinnings of an anti-racist society or mindset — to really see each other as already full, already worthy, and deserving of the ability to make unique and personal life choices outside of our judgment. Perhaps still lacking in things like safe housing, food security, and robust public education, things a truly just society owes all its citizens, but basically as not requiring of our constant interference. Free from our saving. Only wanting of our dismantling.

We used the master’s tools to try to save, the tools given to us by the same systems that oppress. So, at best whatever I/we did could only be a temporary detour. The mere fact of our very presence in court, in our suits telling them who we were and how we would advocate for them, quite often represented a failure in most cases, because it was the system itself that had brought us to that moment. We spent almost no time in their communities other than to do occasional home visits, we had no presence, we took no advice from them on how to better address their needs. Ours was mostly a one-way relationship. We doled out our advice. We hoped the courts and institutions would bring justice for them, as they mostly always had for us.

There is work. There is support. There is aid. There is love. But there can never be saviors. There can never be a Bill DeBlasio trying to save brown and black children in the public school system by keeping schools open. DeBlasio or anyone in his position can only listen to the parent leaders and community organizers who have been yelling, rallying, speaking out since before last summer about the real needs of black and brown students, leaders who have been thinking and planning for years, decades about how to best serve their own communities. All he can do is acknowledge the needs of families who have chosen remote learning over and over, because perhaps, they just don’t trust these systems he oversees. So why doesn’t he?

It’s been speculated that he is driven by the forces of Wall Street or corporate interests who need bodies to work uninterrupted by the constant nature of children? But perhaps it’s much simpler than that. He might think this is what black and brown communities need. That perhaps what they need is schools to remain open for in-person learning (despite a deadly virus that is killing black and brown communities at higher rates than anyone else) so the city can ensure their children are safe, well-fed, and clothed properly? Or is it that the city needs schools open so they can still get involved in these families’ lives through school staff that report to ACS? Either way what I hear is: We don’t trust these black and brown communities to parent their own children through a pandemic without us, without us looking, without us monitoring. Without our saving them. Sometimes I can also hear: We are centering white parents’ needs around re-opening schools.

School community organizers have been saying what they want for years clearly. It is not hard or complicated. Safe childcare so they can work. Schools with nurses and proper ventilation and temperature control so that children are safe during COVID times but also at all times. A way to evaluate what children learn absent state-wide and specialized testing that always benefit privileged and white families first. Devices and consistent Wi-Fi so that when children learn at home — and all children are learning at home at least some of the time — the already existing disparities do not become exacerbated. Anti-racist curriculum that centers history that reflects the true nature of this country’s past so that we don’t keep passing on harmful narratives. Anti-colonial curriculum that celebrates the lives and cultures and heroes of all of our children’s backgrounds and countries. So all children can see themselves in the heroes we teach at school. These are not new concerns. They have been shouted in streets, presented, written, organized around by community leaders for years. COVID has simply laid them bare.

Some of the education activists I listen to. Tajh Sutton and Yuli Hsu, President and VP of District 14’s CEC.
Teens Take Charge student activists.

As a parent I’ve wondered many times this year, among multiple school closings and openings, what is this man, this mayor, thinking? What is he doing? It could be that he’s doing one of two things: either willfully ignoring what people in Black and Brown communities say they need, or deciding for them. Because he knows best. This second way allows him to sleep peacefully at night, knowing he’s one of the good guys, doing the hard, misunderstood work, of saviorhood. I know this “good” work, I’ve been there.

Footnotes:

*The premise or stated goal of ACS, the city’s child protective services organization is to only intervene in a family’s affairs when the health, safety and welfare of a child is at risk. The entire Family Court system operates on this basic premise as well.

** Do some children require support and protection outside of their family because sometimes their own families are the source of harm? YES of course, without question. The endeavor of raising children requires community support even in the best of scenarios. My premise in this essay is simply that the currently existing government and nonprofit structures that purports to address these family needs is rooted in institutionalized racism and treats parents as criminals rather than partners. Dismantling racist structures while supporting community-led, ground-up solutions can be the only way forward.

Resources:

This piece says more about the problems with child protective services as a system. https://www.motherjones.com/politics/2020/12/do-we-need-to-abolish-child-protective-services/

Writer. I care about justice for black and brown bodies, public education, good vintage clothes, how societies and technology work, and immigrant recipes.