Owning the Role of White Co-Conspirator
"Racial Justice" (CC BY-SA 2.0) by Johnny Silvercloud
Racial Justice” (CC BY-SA 2.0) by Johnny Silvercloud

By Violet Rush, If/When/How Legal Intern

During If/When/How’s most recent Leadership Institute, law students from across the U.S. gathered to organize around reproductive justice. The weekend focused on supporting and centering people of color because reproductive justice cannot exist without racial justice. When discussing how to support and center people of color, If/When/How staff introduced the term “white co-conspirator,” as opposed to “white ally.” Some white students embraced this new language with curiosity, while others approached it with apprehension. As a white-passing (Tsalagi*/White) law student, I want to take a moment to address others who are white or white-passing about the significance of using the term “co-conspirator.”

Most white law students come into contact with the terms “conspiracy” and “co-conspirator” in a criminal law course. Navigating a criminal law course can be chaotic, and many of the topics can elicit a visceral, emotional response. However, the issue of conspiracy is often less emotionally burdensome for white students because conspiracy implies separation from direct harm caused to others. We are taught that conspiracies are created when two people intentionally form an agreement, intend to achieve the agreement’s objective, and exhibit some act or preparation in furtherance of an illegal activity. A co-conspirator is one who chooses to take part in the conspiracy.

When using “white co-conspirator” in a reproductive or racial justice context, the scope of intent, agreement, and activity is expansive. To be a white co-conspirator means to deliberately acknowledge that people of color are criminalized for dismantling white supremacy. It means we choose to take on the consequences of participating in a criminalized act, and we choose to support and center people of color in the reproductive justice movement. Dismantling white supremacy is a criminalized act for people of color because it is often at odds with the legal system — a system that was created for and designed by white people. Recent statistics support this assertion: Women and people of color make up less than 20% of the federal legislature. For over five decades, 70% of federal judicial appointments have gone to white males. Only 12% of local police officers are black. In addition, most recent data indicate that only 12% of lawyers are people of color. Finally, recent studies show that racially biased use of peremptory strikes and illegal racial discrimination in jury selection occurs widely in criminal and capital cases.

When people of color are subjected to the legal system, their liberty is largely determined by those who have an interest in maintaining white supremacy, and the outcomes are not favorable. Black defendants receive sentences that are 10% longer than white offenders for the same crime. In addition, black people are 21%more likely to receive mandatory minimum sentences than white people. Latinx individuals are incarcerated at 1.5 times the rate of white people. Native Americans are disproportionately charged with federal crimes, which result in longer, harsher sentences. In addition, black students are three times more likely to be suspended or expelled than white students.

As white-passing and white students, we often like to think that we are doing enough to help people of color dismantle the white supremacy of the legal system. Perhaps this is why the intentional use of  the term “white co-conspirator” can elicit a negative response from some white students. But activism necessitates introspection, which in turn requires us to dive into feelings of discomfort and to objectively ask why some white students might find the term so shocking. My self-reflection on “white co-conspirator” revealed that I am still figuring out how to fully adopt this term and integrate it into my life – asking, how can I be helpful, and not harmful? Becoming a white co-conspirator requires a conscious choice to work with people of color to disrupt racial oppression and end racism. My hope is that white-passing and white law students will also approach the concept of “white co-conspirator” with curiosity and an open mind and make the choice to be a part of our racial justice conspiracy.

* In a discussion with prominent Indigenous artists and activists, activist Amanda Blackhorse notes, “[W]e call ourselves what we want because it is our choice. In fact, choice is something we did not have or were able to practice throughout the annals of U.S. history.” Because this piece focuses on racial justice and is directed to white and white-passing law students, I have chosen to use the term ‘Tsalagi’ to refer to the part of my identity that is Cherokee. The word ‘Tsalagi’ translates to ‘Cherokee.’ I do this because it reflects both my tribal affiliation and ancestry, but also imposes my tribal language on white and white-passing people – an opportunity I am rarely afforded. It is important to note that I’m white too, and that I am always working to balance my tribal identity with the white privilege I receive.

The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or position of If/When/How.