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In philanthropy, we talk a lot about diversity but not a lot about racism, especially anti-black racism.

By Tamara Copeland, The Chronicle of Philanthropy

There seems to be real discomfort in acknowledging the very thing that has torn our country apart for centuries. We seem unable to recognize and talk about how the contemporary relationship between white people and black people was shaped by slavery.

In the Washington, D.C., region, grant makers are trying to change that dynamic by working extensively to learn about and dismantle structural racism and to learn what causes our biases and fight them.

We rarely need reminders of the importance of our work. On Thanksgiving night, Emantic Bradford Jr., a black man trying to protect mall shoppers from a shooter, was mistaken as the gunman and shot by an off-duty policeman working as a security guard.

Just a few weeks earlier, a Washington Post article powerfully captured the essence of what it means for far too many who are simply “living while black” in the United States. As the headline explained, “A black child’s backpack brushed up against a woman. She called 911 to report a sexual assault.” The piece goes on to note, “For a 12-year-old black boy in Ohio, it was mowing the lawn. For an 8-year-old girl in California, it was selling water outside the apartment building where she lives. And for a pair of young black men in Philadelphia, it was sitting inside a Starbucks waiting for a person they were supposed to meet. For a black lawmaker in Oregon, it was canvassing in her district. For a Yale University graduate student, it was napping in one of the school’s common rooms. For a group of black sorority girls in Pennsylvania, it was picking up trash on a highway as part of a community service.”

And just one day before this article appeared, a white man in Michigan was found guilty of shooting at a black teenager who was lost and simply trying to ask for directions. This story could have ended so differently.

These are everyday events in which black people — children and adults — are targeted for just one reason: They are black.

Transformative Conversations

As commonplace as these events have become, it’s still surprising to hear grant makers raise them as a central concern. But a while back, two philanthropic leaders suggested that to advance racial equity, grant makers need to focus on anti-black racism. They urged a local coalition of grant makers, under the umbrella of the Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers, which I head, to take on the challenge. While I personally agreed with the value of that focus and the ultimate need for it, I did not think that local foundations were ready for such an overt conversation.

I was wrong. The suggestion elicited a vibrant, transformative discussion.

“Does this mean that we won’t speak out when something happens to Muslim Americans?” No, it does not. “I know that experiences are different, but Latinos haven’t had an easy time in America, either. Why would we exclude them?” We won’t.

The work we are doing acknowledges that many people face challenges because of the color of their skin, their ethnicity, their sexual identity, and so much more — but that treatment squarely rests, in fact has been perfected over centuries, on racism specifically directed against black people.

Listening to the Oppressed

Figuring out solutions requires extensive reading and conversations led by people who are willing to delve deeply into difficult topics. (Among the books on our list is Ibram Kendi’s Stamped From the Beginning, Richard Rothstein’s The Color of Law, and Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow.)

It also takes listening to others affected by oppression to begin to understand that all oppression in America can trace its roots back to slavery and to the ways that indigenous people were robbed of their land.

For example, a leader from an Asian-American advocacy group told us how white America has used Asian-Americans as a wedge against black Americans by advancing the false narrative of the “model minority.” We heard from Muslim American advocates about how brown-skinned Muslims are targeted more often by law-enforcement officers than those with lighter skin. Both of these presenters are part of oppressed groups in America, but they both endorsed the idea of focusing on fighting anti-black racism. They recognize that the oppression of all nonwhite, non-Christian groups in America mirrors the oppression of black Americans, which has the longest history and has had the deepest impact.

Systematic anti-black prejudice, oppression, and violence during slavery, Reconstruction, and Jim Crow is today, as one grant-making colleague noted, “codified in our laws, neighborhood configurations, economic and social systems, and the ways in which power and resources are concentrated.”

No, black people are not the only victims of prejudice and discrimination. But black people, as a collective, have been victimized by them for far longer than others in America. It is that depth of oppression and that depth of feelings of superiority and, often unrecognized, privilege that lead to today’s social reality.

Twenty-two percent of African-Americans live in poverty in this country, compared with 19.4 percent of Latinos, 10.1 percent of Asian-Americans, and 8.8 percent of whites. African-Americans are overrepresented in the criminal-justice system, in inadequate housing, in rates of school suspensions, and even in rates of infant mortality. Conversely, while blacks represent a little more than 12 percent of the population of the country, there are no African-American governors, and in today’s Congress, there are only three African-American senators, and 47 African-American members of the House of Representatives, including two who don’t have a vote.

What does this mean for philanthropy? Philanthropic dollars seeded efforts that determined the importance of early-childhood education. Philanthropic dollars supported decades of research and marketing to reduce smoking. Philanthropic dollars often support the research and development of solutions to social challenges. Today, philanthropic organizations in the Greater Washington region have begun to acknowledge that race and racism play a critical role in the problems they are trying to solve. They have just started to understand all the nuances, but those at the forefront of this movement in philanthropy know that anti-black racism is at the core.

Today’s Civil-Rights Battles

We all feel the urgency from the national headlines, from the stories grantees share and from what we see in our neighborhoods. But the motivation for me and for my colleagues became even more visceral when I joined fellow grant makers and other leaders from the Washington metropolitan area on a trip through Alabama. Mississippi, and Tennessee.

We visited the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel; crossed the Tallahatchie River where Emmett Till’s body was found; visited the courthouse where his murderers were acquitted; learned about the murders of civil-rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner; and visited Chaney’s grave site, where his headstone is reinforced by steel because it has been vandalized so many times.

We visited Medgar Evers’s home, where the driveway is still bloodstained, crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge, and looked up at monuments hanging row by row memorializing more than 4,000 lynching victims at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice.

This trip immersed us in a civil-rights history of degradation, oppression, and fear that was the normal everyday life for African-Americans in the South for decades.

It’s up to all of us to face the fact that this oppression continues and to fight it. And when we do, all people of color will face a brighter future. In fact, all Americans will.

Tamara Copeland is president of the Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers.


IBW21 (The Institute of the Black World 21st Century) is committed to enhancing the capacity of Black communities in the U.S. and globally to achieve cultural, social, economic and political equality and an enhanced quality of life for all marginalized people.