Systemic injustices such as police brutality and inequitable school funding require advocates to propose systemic solutions, Black Lives Matter activist and educator DeRay McKesson said during a March 31 lecture at Princeton.
“Ideas shape the way people think about the world, but systems shape the way people interact with the world,” McKesson told an audience at McCosh Hall. “The system is not bigger than us, but we’re often on the wrong playing fields of change.”
The former school administrator gained prominence in 2014 when he participated alongside other Black Lives Matter activists in the Ferguson, Mo., protests and publicized the events on his Twitter account. McKesson drew upon his experiences to challenge students’ understanding of policy.
McKesson, a co-founder of a policy platform for policing reform, warned that policies such “Ban the Box” — an initiative to limit employment discrimination — seemed to be effective in theory but ineffective in practice.
McKesson asked the audience to imagine policies “that cut through racism and tackle problems on the front end,” adding that when people experience trauma, they tend to focus on the present. “You aren’t thinking about the future or a better world in 20 years, and that really changes the way you fight for justice,” he said.
In the face of adversity, McKesson encouraged students to use their privilege to seek systemic changes.
“We encourage white people for recognizing privilege, but what truly matters is taking that understanding of privilege to enact a change at a structural level,” he said.
In an extended question and answer session, McKesson answered students’ queries about the current political climate and the role of varying opinions in the national debate regarding police reform.
“There’s definitely room for people who we don’t agree with,” McKesson said. “But it’s much harder to work with people who just think you shouldn’t be alive,” he added, referencing his work documenting lethal police force.
In response to a question about how students can increase activism on campus, McKesson offered direct advice.
“We have to create a crisis to get people to respond to a crisis,” he said. “You need to get information on different platforms and know what you’re advocating for.”