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November 13, 2017 / WRAG

Why government needs to put racism on the table

By Tamara Lucas Copeland
President, Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers 

Somewhere in elementary school, we all learned how a bill becomes a law. What we didn’t learn was how bias, perhaps unconscious, affects the decisions of lawmakers or how structural racism has been essentially hardwired into so many of the public policies that shape our lives.

Without stepping back to understand history, as Richard Rothstein, author of The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, reminded a WRAG audience last week, we continue to perpetuate inequities while falsely believing that certain realities are created by happenstance or natural preferences. In reality, it is with intentionality that, throughout history, the federal government has played a powerful role in ensuring or preventing racial equity. Examples include presidential actions like the Emancipation Proclamation and Executive Order 9981 that desegregated the armed forces; Supreme Court decisions such as Dred Scott v. Sandford or Brown v. Board of Education; and, Congressional decisions like the 14th and 15th amendments to the Constitution and the Civil Rights Acts of 1866 and 1964 to name just a few.

The governmental role is not limited to the federal government. State actions related to criminalization of offenses have been shown to have a disparate impact on people of color and even local level policies and regulations, particularly zoning regulations, have had a negative impact on communities of color. Efforts to address racial inequity will only succeed with the active engagement of government officials, both elected and appointed.

Toward that end, WRAG is pleased to partner with the Government Alliance on Race and Equity (GARE) to begin a deliberately focused conversation with government officials in our region on this important topic. On December 1, 2017, WRAG and a larger coalition, is bringing GARE trainers to our region.

Our challenge is to get government officials to attend. The default response often is “I already know that. I know about redlining. I know about school segregation. I know. I know. I know.” The reality, however, is that without a structured examination, few of us really know what contributed to these realities, what the impact has been, and the imperative that must be expressed and acted upon to consciously make a change.

Government responds to the will of the people. We hope that you will use your voice to encourage your elected and appointed officials to demonstrate their commitment to racial equity by participating in this important training.

Last year, funders began their Putting Racism on the Table learning journey based on the insight of John Gardner: “The first step of leadership is not action; it’s understanding.” It’s time for government to begin this journey.

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