The line to get inside the Vault, an event space next to the Palace International on Broad Street, spanned halfway down the block.
Inside the basement, 300 or so white people mingled over salmon cakes, veggies and cheese and vegan snacks, while music by Nina Simone and Marvin Gaye played in the background.
Outside, a half-dozen people stood behind the Vault in a circle in the dark. They lit candles and briefly meditated before facing the 300 people waiting for them to launch the Triangle chapter of SURJ.
SURJ, Showing Up for Racial Justice, is a national organization with more than 100 chapters and affiliate groups. The goal is not only for whites to unite with African-Americans for social justice, but, as organizer Jenn Frye explained, “to educate ourselves about our role in white supremacy, to challenge our white supremacy internally.”
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Race relations in the U.S. are strained, inflamed by political rhetoric, the neo-Confederate movement, racial disparity in arrest rates, police shootings of unarmed African-American men and the mass killing of black worshippers in a Charleston, S.C., church by a man with white supremacist views.
According to a recent PBS NewsHour/Marist poll, 58 percent of all respondents said race relations are worse than a year ago. Broken down by race, 60 percent of white respondents and 56 percent of blacks feel that way.
“Those of us who wear white skin have privilege,” Frye said. “We want to live in a world without racism, but we don’t always we realize our part in it.”
SURJ organizers encourage whites to take racial equity and implicit bias training. Locally, two groups, Dismantling Racism Works and the Racial Equity Institute, both offer such workshops.
“We want to give people some language and tools to educate one another,’ Frye said.
However, the tone of SURJ is not scolding. “We want to call people in, not call people out,” Frye said.
The “calling in,” is one of SURJ’s core values. Others include taking risks working for mutual interests and accountability, not only to fellow whites, but to black leaders. While whites need to work in solidarity with people of color against racism, it’s also important not to dominate it, organizers said. “We need to know when to lead and when to take support roles, Frye said.
While by design, SURJ is composed of whites fighting for racial justice, it is nonetheless diverse: by gender, sexual orientation and age.
At one point in Thursday night’s meeting, organizers asked attendees, “Who here has been working for racial justice for more than 50 years?”
One person stood up.
Lisa Keen, now in her 70s, was a civil rights worker, registering black voters in Vicksburg Miss., in 1964 and 1965. There, she was shot at. She was jailed for a week, charged with parading without a permit.
“I saw people who had a tremendous amount of courage,” she said of the African-Americans who defied white supremacists both in the streets and in institutions, such as boards of elections. “I saw people who had never had a white person in their home.
“What makes me happy tonight is that so many young people are here,” she added. “They’re carrying the torch for social justice.”
For more information about SURJ, go to showingupforracialjustice.org