march on washington

Protesters take part in the original March on Washington fifty years ago. Credit: Creative Commons/mikek7890.

As the events unfolded on the National Mall this past week commemorating 50 years since the March on Washington and Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, I have been thinking about the anniversary, trying to place it into the context of the unfinished work against racism in the U.S., which I know well from my work with the National Coalition Building Institute (NCBI). The NCBI is a nonprofit leadership-training organization that builds resource teams in public schools, college campuses, governmental agencies, advocacy organizations, businesses, law enforcement agencies, and community groups to take on racism and all forms of discrimination.

I remember the heartbreak of Black/African heritage leaders in my organization in learning that in the same week that the Supreme Court struck down the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), it also voided parts of the Voting Rights Act, a crowning achievement of the Civil Rights Movement. As moving as it was to witness a huge victory for Gay Liberation, the Supreme Court’s rulings said to all of us, but especially to Black people, that federal protections for gay marriage – an unimaginable prospect just a few years ago – would move forward while the basic right to vote for many African Americans did not warrant similar protection. How can African Americans in the U.S. not wonder whether progress to end racism trails behind other liberation work?

Over the summer I was researching prospective funders for some of the anti-racism projects of the NCBI. I was able to find numerous foundations that would fund environmental work, anti-bullying work, and LGBTQ work.But I was startled to discover that when I searched a well-known national database of foundations, using the term “racism,” only one came up, the Kellogg Foundation, with which the NCBI has worked in the past.

Anti-racism work is essential to anti-bullying initiatives, to environmental justice, to building unity within the LGBTQ liberation movement, but why do funders fail to make the connection? My research confirmed what I already knew: you cannot mention “racism” to many of the leading American foundations. Funding anti-racism work is simply not a priority. The description of one foundation’s mission directly matched the work on emotional healing in dealing with racism that NCBI does, yet when I spoke to a program officer at the foundation, she bluntly told me, “I’d like to take your proposal to our Board but they won’t fund anything that directly talks about racism.”

Similarly, many of the clients with which we at NCBI work nervously ask us before training sessions, “Now this is about more than just race, right?” At NCBI we believe that training participants on how to be allies for all groups is a key part of combating discrimination.Yet, we have learned that schools, campuses, and other organizations are more willing to sponsor programs that deal with “diversity” or “inclusion” than programs that focus primarily on racism.

Since the founding of NCBI in 1984, the stories I hear at our workshops from Black/African Heritage participants about daily experiences with racism are not decreasing. For example, a dark-skinned Black/African heritage woman confided to me that a White woman seated next to her on a plane sniffed her and said, “You don’t smell bad. They say you people smell bad.” She said that on another flight, another White woman felt free enough to jab her in the ribs to get her attention. She recounted that just last month a salesperson in a clothing store refused to put change directly into her hands. I have listened to hundreds of similar stories about the vicious daily indignities of racism, and at the same time, I have witnessed the refusal of many large institutions in the U.S. to address racism by taking it on directly.

There is a growing disconnect between the work that still needs to be done on racism and the willingness to do the work. Last week, Ms. Kathleen Parker, in a column that appeared in The Washington Post on August 27, 2013, “President’s Remarks Fan Flames of Race-Based Animosity,” mocked President Obama by writing, “If I had a son he would look like Christopher Lane, the 22-year-old Australian baseball player shot dead while jogging in Oklahoma.” She then went on to criticize the President for acknowledging that if he had a son he would have looked like Trayvon Martin.

According to Ms. Parker, the President’s remark “gave permission for all to identify themselves by race with the victim or the accused.” She wrote, “How sad this is as we just passed the 50th anniversary of the March Martin Luther King led on Washington that even the president resorts to judging not by the content of one’s character but by the color of his skin – the antithesis of the great dream King articulated with those words.” Her twisted analysis missed not only the experiences of so many Black/African Heritage people in the U.S. who have been systematically targeted by the criminal justice system, but it also dismisses the experience of the first Black/African Heritage U.S. president, chiding him for even mentioning race.

It is the mark of a dysfunctional family to insist on secrecy, hide truths, not be willing to discuss problems openly. When it comes to race, particularly targeting people of Black/African Heritage, the U.S. is a dysfunctional family. We know racism persists, but we can’t, we won’t, we dare not speak about it openly, fund organizations to tackle it, or allow our Black/African Heritage president to refer to it. Fifty years after the March on Washington, we still have a lot of work to do.

Cherie R. Brown is the founder and executive director of the National Coalition Building Institute. She is also an adjunct faculty at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College.


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