By Tamara Copeland
Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers
By now, you have heard about the 17 year old, African-American boy who was killed tragically on February 26th by a neighborhood watch captain. According to reports, Trayvon was on his way to his dad’s home in a gated community after going to a nearby convenience store. George Zimmerman, the watch captain, saw him and perceived him as a threat to the neighborhood. He said he thought Trayvon was going for a gun. Trayvon only had Skittles and an iced tea in his hand.
As the mother of an African-American male teenager, this event has sickened me. For days, I put it out of my mind. I couldn’t think about it or talk about it. I know what it’s like to have to talk to your teenage son about walking-while-black, driving-while-black, shopping-while-black … simply what it means to be a black male in America. Today, I decided that I had to talk about it. Today, I decided that I had to use my voice to talk about something that too many of us don’t want to talk about or don’t know how to talk about: race and racism.
Last week, Jim Johnson, a noted demographer spoke about what he calls “disruptive demographics” at a Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers’ event. He talked about the growing number of interracial marriages and increases in immigrants of color in our country. He spoke of multiple ways in which the U.S. is “browning” and suggested that visual racial cues may become less pervasive … over time. This African-American academician also spoke poignantly about being a well-dressed, polite, Ph.D. from a renowned university who was recently stopped while speeding and asked how he could afford the BMW he was driving.
Not two months ago, an African-American, female colleague and her white male companion were confronted as an “N word” and an “N-word lover” as they left a nonprofit organization in nearby northern Virginia. Some would say, well that’s just an ignorant person yelling a hateful word. Was George Zimmerman hateful or ignorant or did his fear of someone who didn’t look like him lead to the death of this 17 year old? We don’t know yet.
What we do know is that while we have legislated racial equality in this country, issues of race and racism still plague us, often hidden, rarely discussed. Racial equity and social justice still elude us. We must change those policies, for example, that enable more toxic waste sites in places where low income people, often people of color, live. We must determine why the education achievement gap has remained the same for decades and fix it. We have to work at changing how we perceive each other, how we understand people who are different from us. This will be hard work – work in which all Americans must play a part.
As nonprofit leaders, we must go deeper than discussions about diversity in staff leadership and in board composition, topics with which we have developed some comfort, to conversations about the impact of race and racism. We must understand that today people are discriminated against based on race, assumptions are made based on race, and treatment is unequal – today in our region, not 60 years ago in another part of the country.
As leaders, we must start what might be difficult conversations in order to uncover truths that can lead to powerful change. I look forward to starting this discussion here on the Daily, and I hope you will share your thoughts by commenting below.
Racism is a reality that permeates and weakens our society. It affects every person in our region, in our country. We want to think it is behind us. It isn’t. Each of us can, and must, help to put race on the table. Let that be Trayvon Martin’s legacy.