As we just honored the legacy of Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King, Jr. and witnessed the murder of another young Black man, Tyre Nichols, by five Black law enforcement officers, on this first day of Black History Month I find myself asking how are we – individually and collectively – showing up as our country continues its reckoning with systemic racism and racial injustice?
I watched with great emotion as my Governor, Maryland’s first Black Governor, took the oath of office using his full name – Westley Watende Omari Moore – with his hand on a Bible once owned by Frederick Douglass. I watched a solemn crowd as former NAACP Legal Defense Fund director Sherrilyn Ifill then recited a list of five Black men who were lynched in or near the Annapolis city limits by angry White mobs. As shared by Michele Norris in the Washington Post, “… [this] beginning was both symbolic and strategic. Symbolic because it contextualized the moment for a crowd that included hundreds of African Americans who were themselves descended from the enslaved. And symbolic for a country that is struggling with how to acknowledge and reconcile that history.”
In Boston, the possibly well-intended but ultimately misguided – even insulting – effort to honor Dr. King with the unveiling of a sculpture of two interlocking pairs of arms and hands completely disembodied from both Dr. King and his wife. As Karen Attiah noted in the Washington Post, the $10M, 20-foot bronze sculpture “… evokes America’s compulsion to butcher King’s fight against white supremacy. The statue reinforces how White America loves to see King not as the radical who was murdered for fiercely challenging capitalism, imperialism, and white supremacy but as a man who used feel-good, interpersonal love to overcome the racist violence of America’s institutions. That reduces racism to an issue of people not being nice to one another, not one of systems and institutions that perpetuate anti-Black violence and inequality.”
In some ways, I am cautiously optimistic about the hard conversations and actions toward diversity, equity and inclusion taking place across much of philanthropy, government, corporate, and academic sectors. Such dialogues and decision-making, while long overdue, may indeed represent that people are finding ways to show up to understand both their culpability and accountability in terms of white supremacy.
In other ways, my heart remains heavy, and my expectations remain managed when I read about instances where in public, people demonstrate a facile commitment to racial equity and equality only to close the door to reveal lifelong biases and bigotry. I’m thinking of the ongoing fallout from the Los Angeles City Council where, just this past October, elected officials of Hispanic ethnicity maneuvered to dilute the representation of Black Los Angelinos. It was all at once horrific and unsurprising to hear out loud such ugly rhetoric and scheming.
It also reflected how the anti-Black tenets of white supremacy are embedded in communities of color too.
If we are going to hold our country and our democracy accountable to its promises of equality, equity, and opportunity, we must show up for each other … authentically, vulnerably, and undaunted. As advocates, as allies, as representatives, and as honest brokers in every room. Silence and inaction equal complicity. Silence and inaction perpetuate ignorance. Silence and inaction give permission to people believing that Black people are “less than.”
And let’s be clear. Not only did Black people contribute to the founding of this country from free labor infrastructure and taking up arms in the Revolutionary war, the children and grandchildren of the civil rights movement hold some of the highest offices of the land, sit on the highest courts of this country, lead major foundations, nonprofits, academic institutions and corporations, and are pioneers of industries and inventions. Black people are on the front lines of liberation movements and have risked limb and life to hold this nation accountable to its ideals of democracy—for all.
And so, my call to action – this month especially but every month moving forward – is to examine how you can be a meaningful ally in the dismantling of white supremacy, of institutional anti-Black racism. Allyship means a hand up and not a handout. Allyship beyond hiring a DEI consultant and calling it good. Allyship beyond incorporating “BIPOC” in your marketing materials or LinkedIn profiles. Allyship beyond supporting Black leaders and our visions with the bare minimum.
Authentic allyship will take more than an acronym. Happy Black History Month.
LaShanda A. Jackson, MBA
Funders’ Committee for Civic Participation
Funders’ Committee Action Fund