What is a sunk cost? In the business world, a sunk cost is an expense that you have already paid for. You can’t recover the money you spent. You may have sunk costs into buying a piece of equipment or spending time to work on something. Even buying lunch is a sunk cost. Whatever you used your money on, it’s gone. You may or may not have anything to show for it.
Some people (including me, sometimes) define white supremacy by adding “artificial” to it. Calling it artificial white supremacy is a reminder that people who are white are no different from us. The advantages they have are artificial. Serge at Cold Crash Pictures summarizes this in his video on Gone with the Wind by saying: “[White] people supported a system of government that prioritized their comfort and status over everyone else.”
Artificial white supremacy is the sunk cost that has run this nation for centuries. When artificial white supremacy built highways, they demolished Black and brown neighborhoods. When they built schools, artificial white supremacy educated their children best. When artificial white supremacy zoned residences, they baked in redlining and segregation. These issues are thorny enough to resolve on their own. They also lay an interlocking foundation that makes everything built atop it harder to resolve. Home loans and housing benefits for white families increase their property values. They pay less in loans and have more spending money. Shopping and commercial centers spring up where the money is. This creates food apartheid zones and gaps in public transit.
In 1999, transit officials “unpreferred” a light rail stop in the South End of Seattle. The station’s absence means there’s a 1.7 mile gap between the Columbia City and Othello stations. Many communities of color call this part of their city home. This is an areas where census tract data indicates roughly 10%-30% of households don’t have access to a car.
The Graham Street Station would have cost $5.2M to build at the time. Plans to build this same station now will cost at least $65M. Resolving this, too, cascades into costs that feel too high for people in power. “What can we afford when our budget is so tied up in already established essential services?” We see the sad dilemma of organizations setting equity goals but sparing only a fraction—say, 5%—of their total budget to pay for it. Thought of another way, artificial white supremacy and the status quo reserves 95% of a budget. The other 5% is simply all they can spare.
It doesn’t have to be this way. We can’t afford to approach equity as a vestigial appendage on existing plans. Here are a few ideas for how to see things in a different light.
appraise the true costs
Say we need to advertise a new service to a region that includes white and BIPOC community members. We create flyers and brochures in English. We advertise on TV and social media in English. All other languages are dependent on budget. The takeaway for most people is that it costs more money to reach BIPOC communities. But it costs money to reach any community. White, English-speaking communities are already paid for.
Start with a goal to reach many communities. Consider from the beginning what it costs to advertise to each of these communities. Depending on the ethnic and cultural makeup of the team, you may not know at first. Before you finish your budget, work to understand the needs of communities you don’t know. Don’t stop at arbitrary goals or easy wins. The easy wins will still be easy if you save them for last.
One fallacy is using strategies in BIPOC communities that worked well in white ones. If you advertise on English-language radio, you can’t buy ads on the Spanish station and call it good. Methods of information sharing are different for each community. BIPOC communities living under artificial white supremacy are not victims of that system. Our resilience is a testament to our survival. People became more aware of mutual aid during the pandemic as a way to share food, money, and resources. Mutual aid food distributions emerged not as an imitation of white-dominant food banks. They approached the problem of food scarcity in a different way. Most mutual aid groups distribute food without requiring identification. They try to distribute what they’ve learned people need, not what they had on hand. Equity does not mean replacing a mutual aid distribution with a food bank. It means funding and resourcing the solutions that community has made.
LGBTQIA+ neighborhoods used techniques learned during the HIV crisis to fight COVID. With COVID as with HIV, the government neglected large portions of the population. Marginalized communities absorbed the hardest effects of their respective viruses. And in both epidemics, these communities responded to support each other when nobody else did. When we work towards equity, we must work to share power and authority. We must strive to elevate solutions that didn’t originate in racist power systems.
challenge our assumptions
What does maintaining the status quo get us? Who does it continue to serve? Even people of color, especially people who are not Black and Indigenous, benefit from artificial white supremacy. I attended predominantly white schools throughout my life. I’ve worked at PWIs as an adult. The choices we’ve made are unique to us. We each have made choices for our survival that others would not or could not make. We must work through our own beliefs about the way things have to be. Why do they have to be that way? How will we know if someone else’s way will work too? Their way doesn’t have to be better, it only has to work.
I bear a responsibility to help tear down our racist, unjust system. I have no illusions that doing so will take time. The results may not appear as easily when we’re not used to an antiracist process. This effort is worth it! We can’t keep doing what we’ve always done and expect the equity to appear by magic. Know within yourself that this work will take time. When you’re with others, work and collaborate as if you could make all this happen tomorrow. Be realistic with yourself but ambitious with your goals.
Artificial white supremacy costs people in power nothing to maintain. That doesn’t mean we aren’t paying for it.