A Chance to Rewrite America’s Racial Narrative

by Alison Brown, May 13, 2015, Open Society Foundations blog - Voices

On Mother’s Day, I watch Samaria Rice beg for some closure five months after her son, Tamir, was shot to death by police officers within moments of encountering him in a Cleveland park. I think of Gloria Darden and the shock she must have experienced at discovering that her son, Freddie Gray, was killed so senselessly and so violently by police. I am awed by Judy Scott’s willingness and resolve to forgive the officer who shot her son, Walter, five times in the back as he fled a police confrontation, fearing for his life. That their sons have become household names, symbols for a movement, must be little consolation for the gaping holes that have been left in their lives.

In each of these instances, mothers lost their children to police officers sworn to protect the communities where they lived. These mothers, these children, and these communities are victims of something else, too—something that has plagued this country since its origins: a broken and corrupted racial narrative.

Watching the story of communities of color and the police unfold via cellphone video and social media these last months, I am reminded of a haunting passage in Devil in the Grove, Gilbert King’s Pulitzer Prize–winning history of Thurgood Marshall’s work in Florida as a crusading civil rights attorney. In the book, King recounts Alex Akerman’s defense of a black man on trial for the rape of a white woman, one of four black men falsely accused of the crime.

In his closing argument, Akerman, a white attorney recruited to the case by Marshall and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, tries to win over the all-white jury of 12 Florida men. Akerman says:

Now I think most of you have had the experience of identifying Negroes. I know it is true with me, and I believe it is true with just about every one of you gentlemen, that the first time you see a Negro, you see nothing but a Negro, and if you see him again the next day, you probably would not recognize him as being anything but a Negro, and after he has worked for you say two or three or four or five or six days, then you finally begin to recognize him, and distinguish him as Jim or Joe or Jack or George. But as a matter of fact, if you have never seen a Negro but one time and it was in the dark, on a dark night, such as this alleged case was, then I submit to you gentlemen that you would not be able to recognize him again, so positively as Norma Padgett [fusion_builder_container hundred_percent="yes" overflow="visible"][fusion_builder_row][fusion_builder_column type="1_1" background_position="left top" background_color="" border_size="" border_color="" border_style="solid" spacing="yes" background_image="" background_repeat="no-repeat" padding="" margin_top="0px" margin_bottom="0px" class="" id="" animation_type="" animation_speed="0.3" animation_direction="left" hide_on_mobile="no" center_content="no" min_height="none"][the accuser] did.

That’s his defense: they all look alike, so how could the supposed victim have accurately identified her alleged attackers?

The dynamic described in Devil in the Grove may involve a piece of civil rights history. But it is still all too present in American life today. Too many police departments, educators, journalists, health care providers, and others in too many cities across the country default to a criminal caricature of blackness when they look at young men—and women—of color. And that fact has a lot to do with the series of stories about young people who are killed or otherwise die in police custody that has brought the nation to a crisis point today.

Amid the crisis, we must seize on an opportunity—an opportunity to change the stereotypes, the storyline, the racial narrative. To recognize that young black people, like anyone else, don’t fit one mold, but rather contain multitudes. Seizing this opportunity is what we seek to do at the Open Society Foundations.

We support research like the work done by the Perception Institute, demonstrating that white people do mental gymnastics to avoid seeing color, to hold themselves out as color blind. And we support work done by Race Forward: The Center for Racial Justice Innovation, which uses research, media, and practice to change racial understanding in this country. We also support Young Doctors DC, a living advertisement for the narrative we seek to promote, which trains young men in under-resourced and racially and socioeconomically isolated neighborhoods to be health care providers.

This work helps illuminate what Dr. Gail Christopher, vice president for policy and senior advisor for the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, calls “racial hierarchy”—the belief that whites preside over every other racial group in this country, and that racial groups’ position in that hierarchy determines their societal worth. This racial hierarchy is deeply embedded in American culture, dating back to slavery and before, and lingering on in ways seen and unseen, creating a reality of structural racism.

Tearing down structural racism, and the faulty perceptions on which it is built, is the mission of our racial narrative efforts. The work is hard, and it will take time. But if we succeed, we can overcome the tragedies in Ferguson, Staten Island, Cleveland, and Baltimore, and gain a better understanding as a nation of the value inherent in all of us, particularly those who operate at the margins and yet still manage to produce scholarly and cultural contributions that have formed the fabric of this great nation. That is a story worth telling.

 

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October 24, 2019

Reflections from Philanthropy Forward's First Cohort

Philanthropy Forward: Leadership for Change is a CEO fellowship program created by Neighborhood Funders Group and the Aspen Institute Forum for Community Solutions. The program's first cohort started in October 2018 in furtherance of building and advancing a shared vision for the future of philanthropy.

Hear perspectives from members of the first cohort as they reflect in this video on their work together as strategic thought partners, addressing philanthropy's most challenging issues and aligning to build a financial engine for social change.

2018 - 2019 Philanthropy Forward Cohort

A grid with individual photos of each of the 20 members of Philanthropy Forward's 2018-2918 cohort..

Click here for participant bios

  • Dimple Abichandani, General Service Foundation
  • Sharon Alpert, Nathan Cummings Foundation
  • Elizabeth Barajas-Roman, Solidago Foundation
  • Ned Calonge, The Colorado Trust
  • Irene Cooper-Basch, Victoria Foundation
  • Farhad A. Ebrahimi, The Chorus Foundation
  • Nicky Goren, Meyer Foundation
  • Justin Maxson, Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation
  • Joan Minieri, Unitarian Universalist Veatch Program at Shelter Rock
  • Maria Mottola, New York Foundation
  • Mike Pratt, Scherman Foundation
  • Jocelyn Sargent, Hyams Foundation
  • Pamela Shifman, NoVo Foundation
  • Starsky D. Wilson, Deaconess Foundation
  • Steve Patrick, Aspen Institute Forum for Community solutions
  • Dennis Quirin, Raikes Foundation
September 10, 2019

For Love of Humankind: A Call to Action for Southern Philanthropy

Justin Maxson, Executive Director of the Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation, calls on fellow funding organizations based in the South to respond to the federal government's anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies with three concrete actions. This post was originally published here on the foundation's website.

Justin was part of the first Philanthropy Forward: Leadership for Change Fellowship cohort, a joint initiative of Neighborhood Funders Group and The Aspen Institute Forum for Community Solutions. The Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation, which strives to help people and places move out of poverty and achieve greater social and economic justice, is a member of NFG.


 

Justin MaxsonWe are issuing a clarion call to Southern philanthropic organizations to respond to the manic drumbeat of anti-immigrant rhetoric and cruelty coming from the White House. This month began with a mass shooting targeting the Latinx community. Days later, massive raids tore apart hundreds of families and destabilized Mississippi communities but levied no consequences for the corporate leadership that lures vulnerable people to work in grueling, dangerous conditions. It is astounding that since those events, with the resulting fear and trauma still reverberating through immigrant communities across America, the administration has: 

  • repeated its intention to end birthright citizenship, a 14th Amendment guarantee that babies born on American soil are citizens. 
  • attempted to terminate the Flores Agreement, which sets standards for the care of children in custody. This would allow the administration to detain migrant families indefinitely in facilities where children are dying of influenza, yet flu shots are not administrated, where children are sexually assaulted, where soap, toothbrushes, human contact and play are not standard, and where breastfeeding babies are taken from their mothers. Child separation is known to cause permanent psychological trauma and brain damage.
  • announced changes to the so-called “public charge rule” to make it harder for legal immigrants to secure citizenship if they use public assistance. As our partners at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities argue, this change would cause many to “forgo assistance altogether, resulting in more economic insecurity and hardship, with long-term negative consequences, particularly for children.” Further, the decision “rests on the erroneous assumption that immigrants currently of modest means are harmful to our nation and our economy, devaluing their work and contributions and discounting the upward mobility immigrant families demonstrate.”

There was also a recent effort to effectively end asylum altogether at the southern border. And despite the Supreme Court ruling blocking the citizenship question from the 2020 census, advocates believe the debate will depress response rates. As we wrote earlier this month, this administration’s animus against immigrants and increasingly aggressive ICE actions are compounding the devastating effects on communities across the country. 

Why Southern philanthropy? 

An analysis of recent grantmaking by the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy found our region has deportation rates five times higher than the rest of the country, yet Southern pro-immigrant organizations receive paltry philanthropic funding. Barely one percent of all money granted by the 1,000 largest foundations benefits immigrants and refugees, and even that money doesn’t go to state and local groups that are accountable to grassroots and immigrant communities. Organizations in Southern states receive less than half of the state and local funding of California, New York and Illinois. 

Where to begin? 

Speak up. As Desmund Tutu taught us, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” Use your institutional voice to influence decisionmakers.

Examine your foundation’s policies. Find out if your endowment is invested in private detention centers. Consider how supporting organizing, power building and policy advocacy could advance your mission. NCRP has more recommendations in its report.

Give generously. Our partners at Hispanics in Philanthropy have curated a list of organizations helping the families affected by the raids across Mississippi. Our partners at Grantmakers Concerned with Immigrants and Refugees have compiled a list of ways to help, from rapid response grants to long-term strategies. 

Many of the Babcock Foundation’s grantee partners are doing more and more immediate protection work, stretching themselves thin and often putting themselves at risk. They are keeping families intact in the short term while building power for the long term, so history will stop repeating: 

If you know of more resources, please share them. If you’d like to learn more about the organizations on the ground across the South – or think about ways we can do more together – contact us. We are always looking to learn and act in alignment with our fellow funders toward a shared vision of a strong, safe, welcoming and equitable region. 

Activist Jane Addams said, “The good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain until it is secured for all of us.” Regardless of a foundation’s mission, abject cruelty surely undermines it. It also undermines the most basic tenet of philanthropy, which literally means “love for humankind.” We see no love in this administration. It’s up to all of us to spread it.