The following is based on an October 7th keynote address given at the 4th annual Co-op Impact conference of the National Cooperative Business Association (NCBA), originally titled “The Challenge of Achieving Racial Equity in Co-ops.”
I want to start by acknowledging the original stewards of the land, and my ancestors– those who were enslaved, those who toil without just compensation, those fallen and killed by police brutality, and other forms of anti-Blackness. And I stand on the shoulders of those who use solidarity cooperative economics for liberation.
Let’s begin by exploding a myth: Co-ops can’t be racist, right?
Our first principle is about open membership. We believe in and practice democracy. But co-ops exist in a racist society, especially here in the US. This is one of the countries that constructed and perpetuated notions of racial inferiority of some groups and racial superiority of people of European heritage in order to justify and strengthen our hierarchical economic system. We are the country that maintained chattel slavery based on African ancestry longer than any other country, and then codified anti-Black racism into our political and economic system in subtle as well as overt ways for centuries. Structural and institutional racism have cumulative effects and are woven into the fabric of our society. They manifest in our preferences, attitudes, psyches, and economic relationships, as well as our social and political relationships. It’s insidious.
So, co-ops can’t automatically be anti-racist. We have to deliberately promote and practice racial equity—and deliberately unlearn racist attitudes and stereotypes.
It’s also not good enough to be diverse. It’s not even good enough to be inclusive. Diverse means lots of representation from a variety of people with a variety of statuses. But it’s not enough if all those people don’t have an equal voice, or don’t feel comfortable trying to make themselves heard, or aren’t equally respected. Some people talk about diversity as making sure everyone is invited (say, to a dance) and inclusion as everyone there also being asked to participate (everyone being asked to actually dance) and included in the activities. But even that is not enough if the activities aren’t representative of everyone’s culture and interests, if the activities and expectations for success are still Eurocentric, if people are included only if they assimilate. Or if people are asked their opinion but then ignored or belittled—or have no significant leadership role or no real influence on decision-making. So, inclusion is not enough.
But what does equity really mean? I am not talking about equity in a business, or financial equity. I’m referring to social equity in a philosophical, social justice sense.
You may have seen a common graphic of three children trying to watch a baseball game over a fence. The fence is too high, and even the tall child can’t really see over it. So, “equality” is to give each child a crate or stool to stand on. But if each crate is the same height, only the tallest and maybe the second-tallest child can now see over the fence; the smallest child might not still see anything. So, what is more “equitable” is to give them different-sized crates. The smallest child might need a high crate (and might even need more help to get on the crate or stay on it, depending on how high it needs to be). There is another version that starts with one of the children being privileged and standing on top of a bunch of crates (no matter how tall they were) and the smallest child being additionally burdened by standing in a ditch. So, equality is just trying to get them out of the ditch. Trying to achieve equity requires more.
But, notice a lot had to happen and very deliberate measures had to be taken. What might be even more equitable and just would be to take the fence down. Why does there need to be a fence? If it’s about keeping people out, keeping the event exclusive, then giving the children access with crates might still involve security that’s there to keep people out. So maybe we also need to change the role of security. If we take the fence down, that means the owners decided it didn’t need to be an exclusive event. But, can they accommodate an unlimited number of people? And if the fence is more to keep the balls in so it doesn’t take as long to retrieve them, then there needs to be more thought to how to be inclusive and still keep the game running effectively. Here, I’m taking the ballgame analogy further. But you see the complications. Especially if exclusiveness is about money and making a profit—or even about people’s social preferences. How do you get people to stop being exclusive?
So, achieving racial equity and justice is not easy because all aspects of life and society have to be addressed for it to be more than just tokenism. Social relations, the economic system, power relations, efficiency assumptions—all need to be transformed.
Are we willing to do all that work? Are you willing?
How do we recognize the ways our co-ops perpetuate institutional racism and engage in racist microaggressions and exclusion? How do we check ourselves as individuals and organizations? Are we willing to do all the work? We can’t just say we aren’t racist and that we, of course, don’t discriminate. We have to really examine our own assumptions and practices—and examine how our co-ops actually operate, and the unintentional outcomes.
How do I see racism in the US co-op movement? There are six ways I want to discuss here.
1. Missing in Action
When I first started attending co-op conferences in the mid-1990s, there were no Black participants or presenters, unless we met in the South, and then there might be one or two presenters from the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund (FSC).
And where were the Black people? Some of the conferences and trainings were too expensive, but mostly the co-op community wasn’t focused on attracting Blacks or welcoming Blacks. They wouldn’t turn anyone away, but they didn’t make a welcoming space, and they didn’t do any outreach to Black co-ops or Black people. And, even after I started raising the question, mostly people would mention someone they