Over the past few days, I keep hearing — and thinking — about an important new study whose results the New York Times summed up in its headline, “Extensive Data Shows Punishing Reach of Racism for Black Boys.”
I was drawn to the study’s coverage for two reasons: The focus on black boys is of personal importance to me, and it’s part of my position supporting professionals in philanthropy. And I have long tried to encourage grant makers to award money for social change based on data about what works and what matters.
But what surprised me was the number of people who told me about the New York Times article, which distilled the findings in attention-grabbing graphics and words.
I had to wonder: Were those who shared it with me surprised by the Stanford, Harvard, and U.S. Census Bureau findings? Or were they just aware of my interest in the topic? I think it was a little of both, an FYI to a colleague and an “aha” moment similar to those engendered by recent cellphone videos of police violence.
And that’s what disturbs me. The evidence that black boys are not succeeding in America has been stunningly apparent for years — test scores, graduation rates, incarceration rates, income disparities, the list goes on and on. The desire to tackle this challenge even emanated from the White House with President Obama’s 2014 launch of My Brother’s Keeper. Don’t we know this data already?
Perhaps many do, but this new work demonstrates that the struggles of black boys and men in America really are about race, not class.
And it might have a powerful resonance because it shows that structural racism and implicit bias harm the sons of the black upper class, underscoring the reality that we — black people — are still judged by the color of our skin. This is not a problem that solely affects low-income communities. Although poverty compounds the effects, this study makes clear that in America, race determines our life outcomes far more than class.
Black Boys Aren’t Broken
The concept of race enters our thinking earlier than we may have assumed. Some suggest that the sense of racial hierarchy has been shown to be evident in 3- and 4-year-olds. And that notion of a racial hierarchy is reinforced by messages that portray black boys as criminal, weak learners, and lacking ambition. These messages have been inculcated into the American narrative for decades. We cannot pretend that it doesn’t exist in the postracial America that some imagine.
So now that this study has gotten people shocked enough to act, what will we do?
In my role as head of the Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers, we will continue our Putting Racism on the Table effort to educate leaders about a side of our society — one built on structural racism and implicit bias — that many people do not know exists.
We started with grant-making executives, but we knew that even though philanthropic dollars can be catalytic, they alone cannot solve any problem, particularly one as entrenched as racism. Recently we joined with Leadership Greater Washington to expand Putting Racism on the Table to business, government, and nonprofit leaders.
The importance of helping leaders fully understand the realities of racism should not be minimized, but it often is. We feel the pressure to act fast, without taking the time to learn. But consider this: At no time have most of us received any formal education on structural racism and implicit bias. Some of us have firsthand experience with it, but we may not be able to identify it or know how insidious it is. And without this knowledge, we direct resources to the wrong places. We try to fix black boys. They aren’t broken. What is broken is the education system, the criminal-justice system, and many of the other societal structures that surround them with a false sense of racial hierarchy.
Steps to Take
America has made little effort to understand structural racism and implicit bias. Philanthropy has many opportunities to change that. It can:
Support research on how best to have difficult conversations about race. What strategies are most likely to work with business leaders, elected officials, and community leaders? How can we have the conversations that we have avoided for decades, if not centuries?
Commit to supporting broader and deeper educational efforts about structural racism and implicit bias. These sessions must be tailored to key audiences to ensure they receive the information in ways that will be meaningful. Those in positions of authority need to understand the reality of racism and its ramifications. It will be difficult and perhaps uncomfortable, but with skilled discussion leaders, these conversations can be had. This part of America’s past and present must be faced.
Award grants to media watchdogs. The media’s role in defining how we see black males in America is undeniable. We must begin to call out instances of prejudicial coverage and seek to support more balanced portrayals of black people, especially men and boys. The bias that exists has been nurtured and reinforced by media images and media coverage.
Finance examinations of how black people are portrayed in American history textbooks.Foundation grants can encourage and enable the creation of texts that present a comprehensive and more accurate recounting of the role that blacks have played in the making of America. As long as this role continues to be minimized, the position of blacks in the country can be, and will be, marginalized.
Examine racial equity in your grant making. You may be inadvertently perpetuating racial inequities unless you undertake an analysis to determine the racial impact of the projects you support. Positive intentions can sometimes lead to negative impact.
Establish scholarships for black men who want to become teachers. It is especially important to get more black men to become classroom instructors. As part of offering financial support for their training in teaching, organizations should urge them to commit to working in schools with high black populations.
Support research to examine systems in our country, such as education and criminal justice. Foundations can support work to determine how key systems across the country provide advantages and disadvantages to Americans based on their race. It can then support efforts to change those policies and practices that have led to these realities.
Beyond such efforts, grant makers can and must explore their own implicit biases — ones that may have contributed to a lack of support for grass-roots and black-led organizations working to correct racial disparities. And grant makers should examine their own policies and practices that may be grounded in implicit biases.
This is just a small sampling of the multiple ways in which philanthropy can promote racial equity. If it has the will, philanthropy can move this country to examine and to act on a topic that has been taboo.
When apartheid ended in South Africa in 1994, the government established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, not only to reveal and understand the atrocities that had occurred but also to facilitate movement toward healing. South Africa publicly acknowledged the wound and actively worked to foster understanding and healing. In the United States, we have never fully acknowledged the wound of slavery, Jim Crow segregation, redlining, preferential lending practices, and mass incarceration — some examples of structural racism and implicit bias that existed years ago, but continue, in some form or with vestiges today — all factors that bring us to the statistics revealed in the study.
We have been immersed in that all-encompassing sense of white is good and black is bad. We may not want to say those words out loud, but that is America’s truth. We must be explicit in our commitment to confront, to learn and to unlearn, and to build a just and equitable society. Government may not pave the way to healing in the United States as it did in South Africa. That’s all the more reason why philanthropy must lead the conversations and the actions that will contribute to America’s healing.