A Consequential Myth
By Jule Hall, Unit for Gender Racial and Ethnic Justice, Ford Foundation
Race is a fictive idea that holds real-life consequences. As a black man, who has a six-foot-and-three-inch-tall presence, I am intimately familiar with the tangibility of the myth. Although many anthropologist and geneticists have disproved any biological basis to race, the idea still manifests as the seat next to me that remains empty even though the train is crowded. It shows up with the overly helpful and attentive store cleric when I shop at department stores. Its scope is illustrated by the shocking statistics that black people are five times more likely to be incarcerated in this country than whites.
It is common to associate discriminatory behavior with individual ignorance or hate, but Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, author of Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist ideas in America, argues that is not the case. He spoke in the winter of 2018 for Philanthropy New York’s Equity Speaker Series: Exploring Racism in America, where he argued that racist policies perpetuate racist ideas and behaviors in our society. A recent violent incident in Texas illustrates this point.
The bystander video went viral. It showed a white man, with a gun in hand, viciously punching a black woman in the face in a Dallas, Texas parking lot. Reports claimed that the black woman committed a traffic violation. The white man tried to record her license plate, but then approached the woman. Witnesses claimed a verbal dispute ensued, and video captured the violent altercation that followed. Both parties were apprehended by the Dallas Police Department; however, it was the black woman, the victim of the violence, who was charged with a serious felony offense. The white man was charged with misdemeanors. Why was the victim charged with the most serious crime? What role did race, if not gender, play in the incident?
Texas, like 25 other states in the U.S., has a “Stand Your Ground” law (SYG). This policy was enacted to provide a defense for people who would be the victims of a crime. It has been invoked, however, after many predominantly male and white American-citizens perceived a black person to be committing a crime and pursued a vigilante-like form of law enforcement without authorization. In some instances, the pursuit of “law” by gun-wielding, non-law enforcement white men resulted in the deaths, or in the example above, the vicious beating, of black people.
The way that SYG plays out as an experience of racial discrimination is a growing discussion among advocates of racial equity. Indeed, for the reasons that Dr. Kendi describes, philanthropy employs a racial lens to examine policies like Stand Your Ground laws as a strategic approach to grantmaking. The efficacy of the philanthropic approach is that it engages the long-standing, and overarching structures, such as laws and institutions, that perpetuate inequity in society. Such an approach allows us not only to engage the roots of inequity but also to prevent the day-to-day experience of bias and discrimination among a greater number of Americans.