Interview: Tamika Butler on Bicycles and Racial Justice

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By Peter Abraham — I’ve just wrapped up an 18-month journey telling the story of the Saint Augustine’s University cycling team. This is the first HBCU (Historically Black College and University) with a cycling program, and I helped set up their sponsorship from Canyon Bikes then supervised the storytelling process in episodes of video, photography, writing and public relations. It’s been an incredibly rewarding, and educational, experience for me. We released Episode 5 of the Chasing History series (online at canyon.com/en-us/blog-content/st-augustine-hbcu-5-pioneers.html) last week. As part of the shoot, I conducted many on camera interviews. I may roll the cameras for over an hour but then only use 30 seconds of that scene. Unfortunately, so much great material ends up “on the cutting room floor.” The following are a couple interviews in written form in order to share the smart ideas of my guests.

Tamika Butler in downtown Los Angeles outside of the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition offices. Photo by Serena Grace

The first one of these is Tamika Butler. She was incredibly thoughtful and articulate about bicycles, transportation and racial justice. Tamika is a Stanford-educated attorney, the former Executive Director of the Los Angeles County Bicycle Coalition and now a graduate student at UCLA getting her Ph.D. in urban planning.

Peter Abraham: What’s important about bikes?

Tamika Butler: When I took my first job at the Bicycle Coalition, what I really thought was, you know, I remember riding a bike as a kid and feeling free, and this is going to be a fun job. And it was a fun job. Most fun job I’ve ever had. But I think people have to care about bikes because bikes are one of the most dynamic tools of fighting social injustice and equities. Bikes are this great thing that brings so many people together. Yes, it’s something you can do on your own solitary, but it’s something that builds community, brings community, has public health benefits and has really transformed lives. So power to me is intrinsically linked to bikes and both are part of this larger transportation picture and access picture.

P.A.: Where do bicycles and race overlap?

T.B.: I think for many years in our country, urban planning has been used as a tool of of racial injustice, a tool of white supremacy. And we see that there are many low income communities of color, black communities that have been geographically isolated and segregated from the city core. So whether or not that’s access to jobs or access to quality education are quality health care. Oftentimes, we have seen highways raze neighborhoods and keep people apart. And sometimes that is often mixed with other social inequities where you don’t have, you know, maybe a lot of money. There’s poverty. There are these public health disparities. And when you need to access those things and maybe you can’t afford a car, maybe there are racist systems that don’t let you get home. You can get a bike and you can get to that job. You can get to that school. Bikes have been tools to get us to that midnight shift, to get us to that corner store, to pick up the diapers our babies need. Bikes have given us access and freedom, not just as kids, but as adults.

Tamika Butler at Platform in Culver City. Photo by Heather Young

P.A.: Why is important for everyone, and all races, to be represented on bikes?

T.B.: When we need a way to get to the places we need to be and the people we need to be, it’s really important for everybody to show up on bikes. And whether or not you’re talking about, you know, recreational riders in spandex or the the kids cruising down the street to to hit up the candy store. Or whether or not you’re talking about professionally — transit agencies and graduate programs. Whether or not you’re talking about bicycle advocacy groups. When I first thought about going to the LA County Bike Coalition, I thought, “I’m a civil rights racial justice lawyer. This is going to ruin my street cred. This is a white thing, right?” Bike lanes are the first sign of gentrification, and I think the reality is that it’s not that black and brown and indigenous folks. It’s not that we’re not biking. We are biking. A lot of us are invisible bikers. People don’t realize it, but what we are biking. And the reality is that just like any aspect of society, it is richer, it is fuller and it is better when we can all enjoy the equal benefits of privileges of that activity. And you know, as a black person, I’m always rooting for everybody black. I think we bring a lot of swag to things. I think we make things dope. And I think that, you know, when you get black folks involved, the possibilities are endless.

P.A.: How did you hear about the Saint Augustine’s University HBCU cycling team?

T.B.: As somebody that is really involved in the bike world and especially now in a research capacity, I pride myself in and keeping abreast to what’s going on with bikes. And the first time I heard about the team was actually through Bicycling magazine. You know, seeing this feature and then hearing a little bit about about the film crew coming together. And I just started watching these videos on YouTube with my three year old son. I want my son to see Black folks biking. I want him to see that joy. I don’t want little Black kids to think that they have to go play basketball. And if he wants to be an accountant, I want him to be an accountant. But I want him to always hold on to that feeling of happiness that he sees I get when I’m on a bike. And also that he’s seeing these young people at this, this university experience. I want him to know about HBCUs and all that they do for our Black identity.

P.A.: Why is it important for an HBCU to start a cycling team?

T.B.: I want to break down this idea that there are there are things only white people do, because I don’t think bicycling is something only white people do. I think the ripple effect that this is going to have and frankly is already having is huge. On weekends, my three year old son says, “Mom, I want to go out on my bike like the big kids.” He calls these HBCU students the big kids, right? And I think beyond that, I’m hoping other university campuses are starting teams: NC State, Duke, North Carolina. I’m hoping those programs start to look different. I’m hoping that even at the high school level. When I was a lawyer, one of the jobs I had was working on Title Nine for high school girls playing sports. And we know that if you can get girls and young folks of color involved at the high school level, it not only changes their ability to perform and compete at the collegiate level, it also changes their long term employment prospects. It changes the way they view themselves and their confidence. And you know, I think I think someone said earlier in the series, If you could get good at this, you would be successful at other things. Because cycling is hard.

P.A.: Where could this trend of HBCU cycling go in the long run?

T.B.: When you see folks who look like you, when you can see yourself reflected whether that’s on screen or on two wheels, you have a confidence that you can do something that for too long folks have told you can’t do or you don’t belong. I think there will be campuses across the country where there are teams of Black cyclists in spandex looking fly with their natural hair. I’m hoping that companies will have to make helmets that fit our hair. I’m hoping that they’re going to have to think about the dimensions of the folks who fit into the spandex and change the models on their website. I hope the effect will be dramatic, transformative, and huge.

P.A.: Can bikes change the world?

T.B.: I think bikes can change the world. I’m biased, because I’m choosing an academic research career, focusing on transportation, bikes and race. So I think that bikes can change the world. But I always tell people whether or not you’re thinking about an institution or a bike, people are involved, and people can change the world. Don’t just think of someone as a cyclist; that is a person. It’s a person who rides a bike. They may be a son. They may be a daughter or niece or nephew, a mother or a father. That is a person. And what we’ve seen over the last year, what we’ve seen throughout history, when people stand up and say “The way things are is no longer OK, and we demand better.” When we can follow the lead of Black folks and Black women in particular, we can find a way towards liberation. Bikes are a tool to change the world. We have to believe in people’s capacity to want to do it and to do the hard work to actually do it.

P.A.: What is the role of the white community in welcoming more Blacks into bike culture?

T.B.: Since since my ancestors were enslaved and brought here, we’ve been trying to get free. And I truly believe that black people are always going to fight for liberation and lead the way. I don’t think we are dependent on white folks for that to happen, but I do think it will happen faster with them. I do think it will be more sustainable if we’re in this together. And I think that that’s what’s so special about this team.

P.A.: Why are bikes such a powerful tool to connect different cultures?

T.B.: There might be an old white business professor and there might be a first year student, and they think we don’t have much in common: “I’m just here so I can take this class and move on.” And then you see that professor on a bike and you’re like, What are those small tires? And you just start a conversation. And I think that’s the beauty of bikes. So many conversations start on bikes. You see somebody roll by, what’s that? You see somebody with this fancy thing and you’re like, Whoa, where are you going? What are you doing? That’s the potential of bikes, whether or not you’re on a trail somewhere or whether or not you’re stopped at a traffic light. There is something about being on a bike where you see someone and you see a bit of yourself and you just say hello. It breaks down these barriers. All of a sudden, it’s not about what did your ancestors do to my ancestors? It’s about what where are you now? Where am I now? And how are we moving forward? That doesn’t mean at this HBCU that is so steeped in history that you’re forgetting about the past. It doesn’t mean we forget about all that Major Taylor had to go through just to be in the sport. It means we’re building upon that past. We’re saying, “We can do this together.” This isn’t about egos. This is about how can we move forward, and bikes have that power.

P.A.: Can this team inspire others to get on bikes?

T.B.: You’re watching the series, and it felt like you were on a journey with this team. You weren’t sure it was going to happen. You put this team together, you’re seeing them stand in a circle and talk about clipping in and what that means. And you’re like, I don’t know if this is going to make it. And then to see the dedication of these young folks when there’s a pandemic. They’re still doing their diaries. They’re still getting on the stationary bike. They’re still trying to get better seeing that first race and the high expectations. And maybe it doesn’t end how they want, but they feel like they’re learning. They feel like they’re growing. Too often black folks are limited by other people’s expectations of us. Not by who we are, what we can do, but by what other people think we can do. What this season showed is don’t settle on what you’ve always thought or what you’ve always believed. We can do anything if we’re trusted, given the tools to succeed, if we’re just given an opportunity and a chance. These folks have run with it. It’s going to continue into the next year. And my hope is that not only does this team continue to grow. Do some people say, I’m going to this school because they have a cycling team? I like the business school. I like the program. I’m going to join a historically black fraternity or sorority. But I’m also here because I want to cycle. Because I see how these young folks stayed committed to the sport. I see how they got to be themselves. There was a wide variety of young folks, different gender representation, different experiences, different countries they were from, and they all came together. I hope that continues. I hope the team grows. And I hope this is an example to other folks watching, people of color, Black folks. But certainly white folks don’t limit us by your expectations, realize that we’re just as capable. We’re just as ready. And next time you’re on a bike ride and you say, Oh, you know, I would invite this coworker, but they’re Black and I don’t know if they’re really into the cycling thing, just ask. Just try and see what can build, see the momentum that can be gained, and we’ll be talking about more of these teams in no time.

Peter started racing bikes in high school and has continued to ride his entire life. He also runs the Abraham Studio (ABRHM.com), which works with purpose-driven brands in sports, technology and healthcare to find their voices and tell their stories. He lives in Los Angeles, California.

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