Isn’t ‘change the system’ the answer to systemic racism?

I really hesitate to write about racism because I know the strong emotions this bring up. And the errors a white person like me often commits in trying to do so. I’m thinking about this now because my Quaker meeting will be discussing race this morning in preparation for a Quaker gathering at the end of March. Vanessa Julye will speak with Friends about this question: How Is White Supremacy Keeping Us from Hearing God’s Voice?

I have been blessed to learn about and join in the work of Des Moines Mutual Aid. I’ve really enjoyed getting to know the people in this very diverse and growing group. To see the enthusiasm of every person as we put together boxes of food and distribute them to people in need. Mutual aid groups focus on survival needs like food giveaways and helping with shelter for people who are houseless or about to be evicted. The joy of addressing an immediate need keeps us coming back to do this work. And attracts new people to it. Several times I heard people express working on the food giveaway is the highlight of their week (mine, too).

Many Mutual Aid groups, including in Des Moines, also have a bail fund to support those who are arrested as they agitate for change.

Another key to the success of Mutual Aid is referred to as the “flat hierarchy”. Everyone has an equal say in the work. There aren’t bosses or supervisors, that is, no “vertical hierarchy”. You can imagine the conflicts that avoids. And that is so in practice.

All that has led me to consider that to address systemic racism we need to change the system. White supremacy is by definition a vertical hierarchy. By changing to Mutual Aid, that hierarchy is eliminated. Isn’t ‘change the system’ the answer to systemic racism?

I know there will be a lot of questioning about this idea. I like what I read this morning in a review of the book Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know which says “intelligence is usually seen as the ability to think and learn, but in a rapidly changing world, there’s another set of cognitive skills that might matter more: the ability to rethink and unlearn.”

In the following diagram white supremacy is indicated by the box labeled “White” on the top line. The goal of Mutual Aid is reached by decolonizing white supremacy.


What we have is each other. We can and need to take care of each other. We may have limited power on the political stage, a stage they built, but we have the power of numbers.

Those numbers represent unlimited amounts of talents and skills each community can utilize to replace the systems that fail us.  The recent past shows us that mutual aid is not only a tool of survival, but also a tool of revolution. The more we take care of each other, the less they can fracture a community with their ways of war. Organized groups like The American Indian Movement and the Black Panther Party for Self Defense showed that we can build not only aggressive security forces for our communities, but they also built many programs that directly responded to the general wellbeing of their communities. This tradition began long before them and continues to this day. Look into the Zapatistas in Southern so-called Mexico for a current and effective example.

my friend Ronnie James

The challenge: rethinking

The bestselling author of Give and Take and Originals examines the critical art of rethinking: learning to question your opinions and open other people’s minds, which can position you for excellence at work and wisdom in life.

Intelligence is usually seen as the ability to think and learn, but in a rapidly changing world, there’s another set of cognitive skills that might matter more: the ability to rethink and unlearn. In our daily lives, too many of us favor the comfort of conviction over the discomfort of doubt. We listen to opinions that make us feel good, instead of ideas that make us think hard. We see disagreement as a threat to our egos, rather than an opportunity to learn. We surround ourselves with people who agree with our conclusions, when we should be gravitating toward those who challenge our thought process. 

Review of Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don’t Know by Adam Grant

In organization theorymutual aid is a voluntary reciprocal exchange of resources and services for mutual benefit. Mutual aid projects are a form of political participation in which people take responsibility for caring for one another and changing political conditions.

Mutual aid is arguably as ancient as human culture. People in every society in every time period have worked together to ensure their communities can survive.[1] Mutual aid has been practiced extensively in marginalized communities, notably in Black communities, working-class neighborhoods, migrant groups, LGBT communities, and others.

The term “mutual aid” was popularised by the anarchist philosopher Peter Kropotkin in his essay collection Mutual Aid: A Factor of Evolution, which argued that cooperation, not competition, was the driving mechanism behind evolution.[6] [1] Kropotkin argued that mutual aid has pragmatic advantages for the survival of humans and animals and has been promoted through natural selection. This recognition of the widespread character and individual benefit of mutual aid stood in contrast to the theories of social Darwinism that emphasized individual competition and survival of the fittest, and against the ideas of liberals such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who thought that cooperation was motivated by universal love.[7]

Mutual Aid (organization theory)

“Abolitionists have a lot to learn from Dr. King,” Kaba said. “If King were alive today… I have no doubt that what he would be addressing in our current historical moment is the violence and destruction of the prison-industrial complex.”

The prison-industrial complex abolition movement hinges on two key principles, Kaba explained: the belief that police perpetuate — not mitigate — harm and the practice of mutual aid

Mutual aid — or the extension of community-based assistance, services, funds and care with no requirements or expectations of the recipients — was a core tenant of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, she said. In order to provide boycotters a viable transportation alternative, the community coalesced to create an elaborate rideshare system and provide parking, funds and other forms of support. 

Activist Mariame Kaba talks abolition and mutual aid, condemns campus police in Dream Week keynote by Binah Schatsky, The Daily Northwestern, January 13, 2021
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