Racism: A Nightmare From Which We’re Still Trying to Awake

Owning the Reality of Our Past: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

“Joyce is right about history being a nightmare — but it may be the nightmare from which no one can awaken. People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them.” — James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son 1955

It’s often said that Black history does not begin with slavery. While that may be true, the “American Experience” for people of African descent does. To date, America has yet to fully reckon with how to make amends for its original sin, more than 150 years following the abolition of slavery. While the profound impact of civic leadership from the Civil Rights movement produced landmark legislation that yielded measurable gains for communities of color, America has not only failed to honor its declaration that all men are created equal, it has defaulted on its promise to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness time and time again. From the time of emancipation, Black Americans have sought to attain economic and social mobility, and despite significant reforms in policy, have remained steadfast in their efforts to keep pace with their counterparts only to achieve a fraction of the dream that was revealed at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

The disparities that can be observed in communities of color today can be traced back to public policies, both implicit and explicit, from the era of slavery to Jim Crow, from redlining to racial segregation, from the war on drugs that resulted in mass incarceration, to environmental racism that continues to plague marginalized communities nationwide. Since 1980, racial and ethnic disparities in poverty in the U.S. have remained largely unchanged, resulting in what researchers characterize as “Two Americas.” Current statistics illustrate disparities that have remained prevalent and persistent across every domain of life. The data is clear and consistent nationwide — despite pursuing higher education, homeownership, gainful employment, career and advancement, African Americans remain last in terms of economic mobility and prosperity.

“Sick and Tired of Being Sick and Tired” — Fannie Lou Hamer, 1964 Democratic National Convention

More than 65 years after the Civil Rights Movement, the same question remains: How much longer will people of color be forced to “work twice as hard to have half” of the success that’s been obtained by white Americans?

Inequities are not random; they have been created and sustained in the apparatus of government, systems, and policymaking over time. In spite of monumental victories such as the Brown v. Board of Education SCOTUS decision, Civil Rights Act of 1964, Voting Rights Act of 1965, and Fair Housing Act of 1968, the promise of the movement has not been fully realized as this unprecedented fight for equality that spanned two decades continues today.

This month’s Racial Equity Campaign provided invaluable insight on how lessons from the past, both good and bad, can be used to inform advocacy efforts for the present and future. The most powerful lesson that we’re often taught too late is that policies, procedures, and practices — including those that are well-intended at the time of implementation — can have had far-reaching and inadvertent consequences when developed without explicit consideration of disparities. If equity is the vehicle through which we seek to achieve equality, we must ensure that our solutions extend beyond workforce diversity and inclusion.

“I believe that there will ultimately be a clash between the oppressed and those that do the oppressing. I believe that there will be a clash between those who want freedom, justice and equality for everyone and those who want to continue the systems of exploitation.” —El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz (Malcolm X) 1965

The principles and values that were influenced by this era cannot be translated into support for public policies that will bring racial equality to fruition for communities of color without high-impact practices that cultivate long-term, sustainable, systemic change:

UNITE For Racial Equity and Equality

Understand the Intersections of Equity and Public Policy

Every policy position either reinforces or challenges inequitable systems. Nonprofits support our nation’s most diverse workforce and communities, and therefore have a shared responsibility to analyze the impact of our policy agendas to ensure that our solutions minimize racial disparities and benefit all. However, there is a question of the impact or difference charitable nonprofits are making if their leadership is not committed to understanding the tie between racial equity and the organization’s mission. Nonrepresentative surveys of nonprofits indicate that 63%-74% of organizations engage in diversity, equity, and inclusion activities. Only 59% of nonprofits report that public policy and advocacy are a small or nonexistent part of the organization’s strategy. Research concluded that only 44% of organizations report their boards are committed to raising their understanding of the relevance of racial inequity to the organization’s mission.

This impact gap indicates that there’s a disconnect between racial equity and nonprofit policies and services. Community organizations can drive systemic change by prioritizing equity in nonprofit advocacy and services. Collecting disaggregated data with specific attention to disparate impacts — whether by race, ethnicity, class, gender, sexual orientation, or ability — will reduce inequities across all indicators of success by helping us better understand who is most negatively impacted and why. Without intentional intervention and consideration of racial impacts, institutions and systems across all sectors will continue to perpetuate racial inequities.

Nonpartisan Advocacy and Education Campaigns

Many nonprofits struggle to understand how the concept of racial equity intersects with their existing policy work. A commitment to racial equity does not require the limitation or expansion of policy positions, but rather a thorough review and analysis of the policies and practices that inform the most important decisions across all sectors. Applying racial equity to the center of policy platforms across the political spectrum will require a robust education and advocacy campaign throughout all industry sectors.

As the nation’s third-largest employer, nonprofits possess the ability to cut through the red tape of bureaucratic obstacles by incorporating equitable policy platforms into their existing policy agendas and remaining steadfast in our efforts to ensure that the elected officials who are accountable to nonprofit communities integrate explicit consideration of racial equity in every form of policymaking, including practices, programs, and appropriations in every level of government.

Integrate Coalition Building and Mapping

Civic leaders of the Civil Rights era were not monolithic figures. There were many disagreements across the movement regarding the “right “solution and strategy that emphasized the need to fulfill every role in the “Suites & Streets.” Over time, their unique skill sets and areas of expertise presented an array of coalition-building opportunities that would yield landmark victories. Coalitions were proven to be one of the most efficient and effective ways to mobilize around a wide range of policy issues because they allowed advocates to strengthen their advocacy efforts through the use of shared intelligence and resources.

The next generation of leaders can leverage this lesson of the past by replicating this strategy to recruit new and diverse voices to their existing coalitions. They also can join new coalitions to support causes outside of their expertise to deploy strategies that help underserved communities achieve their full potential, unhampered by structural and institutional racism.

Transform Principles Into Policy and Practice

Recent policies that have been instituted or repealed by the previous administration and Supreme Court have further perpetuated the retrenchment of civil rights-era gains. We cannot repair harms that we have not fully diagnosed. To create a society that embodies the principles upon which the foundation of our government was built, we must not only seek to restore the losses that we’ve incurred, but also address the injustices that have occurred since our nation’s inception. Acknowledging that many advocates and experts are trained to see the deficiencies of people, rather than policy, we often fail to see the deficiencies of systems and practices that manifests in solutions that disadvantage communities of color.

The implementation of policies that seek to fix people often manifests in solutions that disempower marginalized populations. These inequities should, instead, be dismantled through reforms that ramify systems and practices. To achieve this, we must commit to a thorough examination of how our nation’s entrenched history of racism and bias has impacted policies that have perpetuated generational poverty and inequity. Lessons from the Civil Rights Movement have taught us that historical patterns of disenfranchisement can only be dismantled and reformed with new policies of similar strength and efficacy.

Engage Policymakers and Underserved Communities

Those who are affected by a policy or regulation must be afforded the right to be actively involved in the legislative process. Monumental legislation that was enacted during the Civil Rights Movement would not have been possible without minority voter participation that yielded election victories for Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. Comparatively, the historic voter turnout and landslide victory in the 2020 election can largely be attributed to the support of African American, Latinx, Asian American and Pacific Islander, and Tribal and Native voters.

The gutting of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and historic voter turnout in the 2020 election has resulted in significant rollbacks and new voter suppression laws nationwide. Ensuring constituents in your service area have fair and equal access to participatory democracy is one of, if not the most vital component of equity. Moreover, engaging community members in decision-making ensures establishes a viable pathway for constituents to hold elected officials accountable and helps to ensure that policy solutions are immersed in and derive from the perspectives of communities of color as opposed to the ivory tower perspective.

To support this week-long initiative, Independent Sector hosted the descendants of notable civil rights leaders for a policy webinar entitled “The Civil Rights Movement and the Future of Racial Equity in Policy” to discuss how lessons from our predecessors can be used to advance equitable outcomes in a history-driven present.

Keynote Speakers included:

The Independent Sector Racial Equity In Policy Week of Action is a nonpartisan digital advocacy campaign that is designed to advance racial equity through the use of evidence-based tools, resources, and practices. We applaud the commitment of our dedicated Campaign Partners who participated in this initiative to promote equitable policy reforms across a broad range of nonprofit missions and policy agendas. Additional tools and resources to support your advocacy efforts beyond the Week of Action can be accessed in the Equitable Policy Resource Guide.

Types: Blog
Global Topics: Civil Rights, Community, Dignity, Equity, Identity, Public Policy, Race, Equity, and Inclusion, Voice, Voices for Good
Focus Areas: Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
Policy Issues: Nonprofit Operations