Often, in our quest to be white allies to Black and Brown communities, we take action whenever it makes sense for us, jumping on the bandwagon of fighting injustice when it is convenient for us, not the people we’re speaking up for. Anti-racism advocacy by white allies fighting for systemic change is a positive thing — there are plenty of amazing people here in C-U doing the anti-racist work around the clock without any need for recognition — but the work of most tends to be short-lived.
A divided Champaign City Council voted down a Black Lives Matter mural proposal last week. It’s one example of how, as a city, we are not ready for the celebratory hurrahs and congratulatory social media posts announcing an end to racial inequality in Champaign. The city — elected officials and its residents — haven’t done the work necessary to prove that Black Lives Matter in Champaign. Though the street mural would undoubtedly be a meaningful proclamation, right now, a mural is an empty performative gesture.
As a whole, the city council must acknowledge that they haven’t done enough to combat racism in our community, a sentiment expressed by a few members of the council at last week’s session. Anti-racism work is ongoing; one does not simply complete a workshop and become fully anti-racist. Individuals and systems must be subject to regular checks and adjustments. If we’re not able to accept that, then it is a fool’s errand to think that a street mural is going to magically create equality.
We know those who worked hard to present this concept to city council last year have the best of intentions, and we applaud them for their efforts. We are glad to see the council fielding this type of discussion. We realize the individuals spearheading the concept aren’t trying to make a mural to literally save lives, but a mural is merely a Band-Aid, not a cure.
We don’t need to start with a mural, but instead, with actions and policies that prioritize the lives and well being of Black people. We need to take actions that ensure that simply surviving this white supremacist patriarchy is no longer an achievement and that thriving in a community that values and supports all its members is our measure for success.
Though the street mural would undoubtedly be a meaningful proclamation, we believe this is putting the cart before the horse. However, this isn’t to say we don’t disagree with the actions of the city council, needlessly penny-pinching a minuscule budget for the project and then trying to pretend it isn’t about money or efforts. The money is there, as are plenty of opportunities to utilize it. There are ways to take action with the city’s economic power that won’t break the bank.
Admitting that we need to put literal dollars and cents in places that aren’t on a street next to the city building is a start. Can the Garden Hills neighborhood finally get its streetlamps and other capital improvements? Can we incentivize grocers to open up in Downtown and Midtown Champaign instead of bars and restaurants? These are just a couple among many potential items the city council could take action on in conjunction with a street mural.
It is acceptable to be disappointed that the vote didn’t pass while simultaneously being able to admit that we’re not quite prepared to make this street mural a reality. The fact that this mural vote failed showcases how far we have to go before a city-funded street mural isn’t just a virtue signal by elected officials. The mural needs to be a planting of the flag of anti-racism in Champaign, a celebration of real, actionable items and changes that improve the lives of Black residents. It takes time, patience, money, energy, and selflessness to dismantle racist systems.
We have to do better than slapping a mural on the street and proclaiming that Black lives do, in fact, matter. We must prove it with our actions. We can’t solve all of our city’s problems with racial inequality in one fell swoop, but we can take steps to ensure we are on the path towards equality. Then, and only then, can we discuss a mural celebrating what we’ve accomplished together.
The Editorial Board is Jessica Hammie, Julie McClure, and Patrick Singer.