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Reflecting on Violence Against African Americans

The past eight days have been a time of extreme pain, heartbreak, and reflection for our country.

My wife and I are both children of immigrants from India, and like every person of color, we each know the exact moment when we first realized we weren’t like everyone else. And even though we have both experienced racism and discrimination in different forms, the systemic racism and extraordinary violence African Americans have lived with and continue to experience is unique in its history and depth.

As I said earlier this week, the recent murders of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Tony McDade, Sean Reed, and Breonna Taylor leave me angry and heartbroken. These acts of violence and police brutality are despicable. Yet again, innocent men and women were killed for no other reason than the color of their skin.

Enough is enough. How many more African American men and women, boys and girls will die before we finally stamp out the racism, bigotry, and hatred that plagues our society? It’s time for this to end. And yet I know we’ve said “Enough is enough” and “it’s time for this to end” so many times before. We said it after Philando Castile, after Sandra Bland, after Tamir Rice, after Michael Brown, after Eric Garner, after Trayvon Martin, and many more. We’ve been saying it years. For decades. For centuries.

***

I’m grateful to our entire team at The Rockefeller Foundation for their thoughtful engagement in multiple dialogues we’ve had over the last week. Our team – global, diverse, and driven by the fundamental desire to serve others and particularly the most vulnerable amongst us – understands this is a moment when we can say “enough is enough” and through our actions help make that statement real.

It’s painful that these murders occurred during a pandemic that is disproportionately threatening, and destroying, the livelihoods and lives of African Americans, Hispanic Americans, and other minority communities. Tens of millions have lost their jobs, and hundreds of thousands have lost family, friends, and loved ones. Their anguish and despair is real and understandable. So is their outrage at countless decades of racist murders.

It’s painful that our African American colleagues have to relive the trauma of watching someone who looks like them be killed, and once again feel the incomprehensible worry about whether they or someone they love might be next.

It’s painful to see police vehicles charging into groups of unarmed protestors in broad daylight just a few minutes’ walk from the homes and neighborhoods where our colleagues live and raise their families.

Not enough can ever be said of the unique pain, suffering, and injustice that African Americans have experienced and continue to experience in this country. Not enough has ever been done to end this oppression in all its forms, and truly heal the wounds of centuries of racism and bigotry.

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For more than 100 years, The Rockefeller Foundation has worked to advance racial equality in America because it is core to our values. We are proud to have stood for and fought for racial justice for decades, and we’re proud of our team members, grantees, and partners that are on the front lines today. Many have been in this fight for a long time.

Going back more than a century our organization has been an imperfect yet consistent supporter of the cause. In fact, the Rockefeller tradition of supporting racial equity started before this Foundation existed. Our founder, John D. Rockefeller, Sr. supported historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) when they were one of the only avenues for young African American women and men to pursue higher learning; Spelman College is named after his wife Laura Spelman and her parents, who were among its earliest benefactors in the 1880s. And The Rockefeller Foundation has carried forward this banner from its earliest decades.

When modern medicine was in its infancy in the early 20th century, and schools refused to admit African Americans, we helped create medical schools at HBCUs to train generations of African American doctors and nurses. They had early insights into what we now know to be true: that HBCUs have been essential to creating upward mobility for low-income students of color.

When Jim Crow prevented 7-in-10 African Americans in the South from voting in the 1960s, we supported the Southern Regional Council to create the groundbreaking Voter Education Project, led at the time by civil rights icon (now-Congressman) John Lewis. It helped register more than 300,000 new voters, who regained their right to participate in our democracy’s most sacred practice. And we helped the NAACP Legal Defense Fund expand beyond litigation to develop a division that supports the basic rights of the poor and victims of discrimination.

When black mothers who relied on America’s social safety net came under attack in the early 1980s, we partnered with community-based organizations to help provide job training, placement, and childcare support to thousands of low-income single mothers. More than 95% were women of color. And building on that work in the early 1990s, we helped launch Living Cities, a partnership of foundations and financial institutions originally focused on affordable housing, and now focuses on community and economic mobility for people of color in 30 cities.

Because we know this work is still unfinished, we’ve continued to stand against racism and hatred in our current era: When the city of New Orleans needed a financial guarantor so it could take down Confederate statues in 2017, we quietly stepped forward to help them remove those reprehensible symbols that glorified violence against African Americans. When Bryan Stevenson’s Equal Justice Initiative was preparing to open the Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama in 2018, we supported it because we know the stories of lynching and violence against African Americans must be told so we can reckon with this history today.

Our actions speak to the unique role philanthropy can play in driving social change. While we may not have the resources or the power of government, we can identify and act on solutions when others fail to do so. We can take on unique risks that others can’t or won’t. We can use our voice and amplify the voices of others fighting injustice. And we can bring together different parts of society – serving as a bridge between public and private, between non-profits and investors, between communities and government officials, bringing everyone to the table to help solve some of the biggest problems we face – to create plans, programs, and innovations that others can follow.

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Now is unquestionably a time when we must all join together to say “enough” – but would an end to racist violence be enough?

Ending violence against African Americans would not be enough when it’s still seen as ‘normal’ for unemployment among African American workers to consistently be higher, and sometimes double, that of white workers; when, even before this pandemic, the median white worker earned 28% more per week than the median African American worker and 36% more than the median Hispanic worker; when wealth inequality between white families and African American families has grown by 67% over the last 40 years.

Ending violence against African Americans would not be enough while African American boys and girls still have to rely on their schools to be able eat lunch every day, in low-income communities where rates of diabetes and obesity can be 4-5 times higher – and life expectancy more than 15 years lower – than wealthier neighborhoods in the same city.

Ending violence against African Americans would not be enough when African American communities have consistently been the last places to get access to Covid-19 testing kits, despite being disproportionately at higher risk to this destructive pandemic because of preexisting health inequalities, underinsurance, and other vulnerabilities. It wouldn’t be enough when communities of color almost always have less access to high-quality hospitals and healthcare, or when an African American mother-to-be is three times more likely to die in childbirth or because of it.

The racist inequities in America are baked deep into the fabric of our society, public policies, and power structures. They permeate our health system, and our food system, and more than 150 years after the end of slavery they still define so much of the inequality in our economy. It’s the reason why, for African American communities and so many more minority communities in this country, the American Dream of equal opportunity was never truly accessible.

  • Group of young people on the street protesting.
    Black Lives Matter demonstration in Cincinnati, Ohio. May 30, 2020. Photo by Julian Wan on Unsplash.

In 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave a speech titled “Where do we go from here?” – a question that many of us are asking today. He described the structural foundations of racism, poverty, and inequality – rooted in “a system that still oppresses” today as it did then, a system still in dire need of reform. He declared the need to massively assert “dignity and worth,” with the ultimate objective of “restructuring the whole of American society.”

I’m heartened Rev. Bernice King said this week that her father “would be extremely proud” of everyone today who’s protesting for justice and against bigotry. And I draw strength from what Dr. King said at the end of that speech more than 50 years ago: “Let us realize that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Though justice may be still beyond the horizon, we must still pursue it. The reality is that systemic racism and hatred in America cannot and will not be banished in a day, a week, or a month. Nor can generations of institutional injustice be resolved by a single leader or policy change. The structural change we seek follows 400 years of oppression, and it will take many more years to overcome.

So where do we go from here?

We go forward. We stay focused. We stand tall, together. We listen, and learn, and help our family and friends do the same. We rededicate ourselves to fighting racism, bigotry, and hatred everywhere it exists – using our voice and our privilege and our resources and our capacity to be moral leaders, both personally and professionally.

At The Rockefeller Foundation, we’re committing to take the long view by sharpening our focus on fighting and ending systemic racism and inequality in American society.

We believe a massive public-private collaboration to scale up Covid-19 testing and contact tracing can best support our economy and society in the coming year. We are working through our partners to make testing ubiquitous and accessible across our nation with a specific focus on African American communities and other minority communities in places like Baltimore, New Orleans, Detroit, Oakland, and dozens of other cities. The recent federal commitment to track Covid-19 testing access by race and ethnicity is an important first step to make sure America recognizes that a strong, community-led pandemic response in minority communities across this nation is essential to overcome a crisis that has already forced too many Americans of color to choose between their health and their livelihoods.

We’re also fighting for African American communities that are twice as likely to face hunger, and four times more likely to suffer dietary diseases such as diabetes and heart disease. America is facing a hunger pandemic – particularly for the 30 million children who rely on the National School Lunch Program – and so we are supporting partners to reach African American and other minority communities to transform how this program works for the summer and coming school year. No American family should have to line up at food banks to meet their basic needs, yet we know that our economy and food system forces a disproportionate number of minority families into this dire situation.

And our recently announced Equity and Economic Opportunity initiative helps make capital more accessible to low-wage families and minority-owned small businesses and works to ensure the American safety net is accessible and supportive of all those in need. The average African American family has almost no wealth (just 2% of what the average white family owns), and this did not just happen. America’s biggest tools for the creation of household wealth – K-12 public education, the G.I. Bill, home ownership, social insurance policies, and a variety of tax incentives and credits – were often designed and administered to specifically exclude African American families. We are proud to stand with our partners to demand structural changes in the U.S. economy, including changing the tax, savings, and investment policies that define who wins and who loses in the American economic experience.

At the same time, we know this moment is a unique one where a nation in crisis demands change. And we will continue to stand with and support partners working to address the specific issue of police brutality, in the hope that our nation may watch the videos of the brutal killings that have transpired, talk at our dinner tables, our schools and businesses, and come to the conclusion that enough is enough.

As an organization, we will stand with our teammates as they uphold the values of dignity and justice for all. We will stand with our grantees and partners as we together continue to build a more diverse, more just, and fully equitable society. And we will continue to advocate for the structural changes required to ensure every American feels safe in the present and hopeful about their children’s future.

We believe firmly that moving our society forward and treating everyone with the dignity and respect they deserve is a responsibility we all share. We must keep demanding better, because Ahmaud, George, Tony, Sean, and Breonna certainly deserved better. That’s why, as we mourn and march with their families and loved ones, we recommit to fighting racism and bigotry in all its forms – and we will embrace this task with steadfast resolve for as long as it takes to build a nation that reflects its best ideals.

 

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