Polls show a stunningly high percentage of Americans who approve of President Trump’s response to the events in Charlottesville earlier this month. This should not come as a surprise, given that last year’s election revealed the huge number of voters for whom repeated racist (and misogynist) remarks by the winning candidate never became a deal-breaker.
Yet, the flagrancy of what took place in Charlottesville was chilling. So the level of support for Trump’s response is deeply revelatory. This is more than structural racism or implicit bias. Trump has fanned the flames of personal racism, unleashing forces that have long existed, but are flourishing with his encouragement.
For people who work in human services, structural racism is never a surprise. We see its face in the significant racial disparities found in education, healthcare, housing, criminal justice, and so many other areas. We see its face in the composition of the clientele of our organizations.
Truth be told, we also see the face of structural racism in the composition of nonprofit organizations themselves. Most importantly, we see insufficient representation of people of color on the boards and among the senior leadership staff of our organizations. Damningly, this includes many organizations whose clientele is primarily composed of people of color.
In our country, even people with noxious beliefs about other human beings have free speech rights to express their odious ideas in public settings. When they do, they should expect to be called out on these ideas. Repeatedly. Widely. By our political leaders. And also by leaders in the nonprofit sector.
Besides speaking out, it is well past time for nonprofit leaders to double down on the work of addressing structural racism – both inside and outside our organizations.
While not a surprise, structural racism should never be accepted as “normal.” Yet we live in a world where, when something is good, we expect white people to have more of this. And when something is bad, we expect people of color to have more of that.
The Urban Institute recently released a report about the pernicious effects of persistent childhood poverty. It highlighted enormously disproportionate consequences for African-Americans. This report should have been front page news. It was not.
Likewise, it is long past time for us to stop accepting the disproportionately white leadership of nonprofit organizations as normal – or acceptable.
I’ve served for the past two years as a member of the selection committee for the Center for Nonprofit Advancement’s Board Leadership Award. During this time, I’ve been impressed by a tiny number of organizations who have made it a genuine priority to have their boards reflect not only the racial diversity of our region, but also the racial composition of the clientele they serve. More often, I have been discouraged when organizations nominate their boards as examples of excellence while making no more than minimal progress toward these goals. Some seem not even to have reached the point of acknowledging that these are important objectives.
As we confront the fact that personal racism is alive and well in our country, it’s important to ask whether the many ways in which we have normalized structural racism may be a contributor to the renewed visibility and tolerance of racial hatred. When “people of good will” allow festering structural disparities to remain for so long – even in our own workplaces – how does this not send the message that some are worth less than others in our nation, even today?