Chattel slavery — a practice (and later institution) in which enslaved Africans and African Americans were bought, sold, or traded as property at the whim of their "owners" — was common in British America from the earliest colonial days. Gaining a foothold in the tobacco country of Virginia and Maryland in the seventeenth century and spreading north and south from there, it was well established in the mid-Atlantic and South by the time of independence, reinforced, as historian Ira Berlin writes, by a regime of violence that was "systemic and relentless; the planters' hegemony required that slaves stand in awe of their owners. Although they preferred obedience to be given rather than taken, planters understood that without a monopoly of firepower and a willingness to employ terror, plantation slavery would not long survive."
The violence employed by the slaveholding class to protect and extend its authority was, as Berlin notes, buttressed by special judicial codes, the courts (including the Supreme Court), and the U.S. Constitution itself. As the institution grew in scale and scope in the nineteenth century, driven in part by the invention of the cotton gin, which greatly boosted the profitability of cotton as a crop, and the outlawing of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, the slaveholding class stepped up its efforts to promote ideologies that justified the institution's existence — as well as the brutality and means, judicial and extra-judicial, used to maintain it.
While these explicitly racist attitudes were, as Eric Eustace Williams has argued, a consequence of slavery rather than its cause, their regrettable persistence has caused incalculable damage to American society, infected countries such as South Africa — which continues to struggle with its own history of racial apartheid — and even today divide Americans against each other. Indeed, whether America ever comes to grips with the pernicious legacy of slavery remains an open question.
Recently, PND spoke with Kavitha Mediratta, founding executive director of Atlantic Fellows for Racial Equity, a ten-year, $60 million initiative launched by Atlantic Philanthropies, about that question and what her program is doing to support creative leaders dedicated to dismantling anti-black racism in the United States and South Africa.
Mediratta previously served as chief strategy advisor for equity initiatives and human capital development at Atlantic and before that led the education program at the New York Community Trust and directed school reform programs at the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University and the Institute for Education and Social Policy at New York University. She has, in addition, written extensively on race and educational opportunity in the U.S., with a focus on inequalities in school discipline, and has taught in elementary and middle schools in New Jersey, Chicago, and India.
Philanthropy News Digest: How did you get into philanthropy and racial equity work?
Kavitha Mediratta: Well, actually, racial equity work is what led me into philanthropy. I came to the United States with my parents, who are Indian, when I was three, and we settled in a community on Long Island where we were pretty isolated. This was in the 1970s, and we thought America's days as a segregated society were behind it, but that's not really how it was on Long Island when I was growing up, and from an early age I was exposed to some of the contradictions between the idea of America as a place of opportunity for all people, and the way in which black people in America and others who are seen as different often are treated.
As a result, I became interested in racial equity pretty early on. I worked as a teacher and then as an organizer and policy analyst before ending up doing a lot of work with parents and high school students to improve public schools, which I saw as a key locus of opportunity for young people of color but that too often failed to deliver on those opportunities to help children realize their full potential. And it's really the work I did with young people that brought me to philanthropy, and Atlantic [Philanthropies], which had long supported people of color who were working to reform public education, and public institutions more broadly, in America.
PND: What are we talking about when we talk about racial equity? Do you have a definition that informs your day-to-day work?
The question is, How can we build a world in which all people are seen fully for who and what they are, and who are treated with the dignity, respect, and right to self-determination that all members of our national and global community deserve?...
KM: For us, racial equity is about creating a society in which opportunities and outcomes for people are not defined on the basis of racial categories. But we go a little bit further than equity, in that we talk about dismantling anti-black racism, aka white supremacy, as an important step toward building a truly just and inclusive society. And what we mean by a just and inclusive society is a world in which everyone has the opportunities they need not only to thrive, but to be seen fully for who they are, which is an important thing, since, at the moment, only some people in America are seen fully. The question is, How can we build a world in which all people are seen fully for who and what they are, and who are treated with the dignity, respect, and right to self-determination that all members of our national and global community deserve?
PND: Is racial equity solely about color, or is it also about power and privilege and the way both are distributed in society?
KM: It is absolutely about power and privilege in society. Color is just one form of exclusion, one form of what John Powell calls "othering," that we do when defining who belongs and who doesn't. Gender is another, and so is sexual orientation and religion and disability — there are so many different ways to deny people opportunities and justice and being seen for who they are as full human beings. So, our work uses race as one lens on the larger question of what it truly means to build a just and inclusive society. And it absolutely does involve power and privilege and recognizing that we're not talking about just switching who is on top but asking what we need to do to create a world in which opportunities and resources are distributed more fairly and equitably.
You know, I have conversations with white people who express concern that we're moving to a world in which they will be discriminated against. And I tell them that it's not a zero-sum game. Instead, they need to think of American society as a hundred-meter dash where some people, white people, get to start at the fifty-meter mark. All we're saying is that everyone should start from the same starting line. And that means people have to be aware of the privileges they have and be willing to extend those privileges to others.
The other issue that white people sometimes struggle with is understanding that racism and other forms of discrimination operate structurally. In our society, people often conflate racism with individual forms of bias and they miss the way in which racialized or genderized or heteronormative processes function systematically in our society to shape the opportunities and life trajectories of people, and also how these processes exist in a self-protective way to maintain the power and privilege of dominant groups. We see this shape-shifting phenomenon in almost every arena of public life. Look at schools: the desegregation efforts of the 1970s gave rise to in-school tracking that shunted black students into impoverished classroom settings, which in turn preserved white privilege despite efforts to disrupt it.
PND: If we've learned anything over the last year, it's that a lot of people with power and privilege aren't that interested in sharing it. Should we be surprised by that?
KM: No, I don't think we should be surprised. But I also don't think we should assume that people with power and privilege have no interest in sharing it. I think that's true for some people, certainly, but others are truly unaware of the power and privilege they have. They've moved through the world thinking of themselves as individuals who have succeeded on their own merit and are aghast at the idea that they may be complicit in a system that perpetuates discrimination against other people, and they want to do something about that.
[W]hile there are many people who have power who don't want to share it, there are others who truly believe in the possibility of a just and equitable world and want to be part of creating such a world....
It's important for us to bring some nuance to this conversation and understand that, while there are many people who have power who don't want to share it, there are others who truly believe in the possibility of a just and equitable world and want to be part of creating such a world. So the question is, How do we tap into those people and enlist them as allies in the struggle and help them think about what they can do from their positions of power and privilege to educate others and to help us create new structures that uphold our values of justice, equity, inclusion, compassion, and the commitment to valuing people for the fullness of who they are? What do those new systems look like, at the base level of governmental and economic structures? Cultural narratives? Policy, practice? And for those who don't want to share their power and privilege, it becomes a question of what can we do to help create the conditions in which they see it in their own best interests to do so and to understand the relationship between the well-being of others and their own well-being.
PND: Let's talk about your program, Atlantic Fellows for Racial Equity. What was the genesis of the program, and how did you become involved?
KM: I was chief strategy officer at Atlantic Philanthropies when the program was conceived. I had come to Atlantic from grassroots organizing work to work on school-to-prison pipeline issues, which at their core are about the racial injustice suffered by young people of color across the country. Atlantic is a limited-life foundation, as you know, and leadership was thinking deeply about how to end its work in a way that further advanced the work of people around the globe working for equity and inclusion. And one of the things they came up with was a strategy for supporting groups of leaders working around pressing social issues in countries where, historically, Atlantic had been engaged as a grantmaker. The Fellows for Racial Equity was part of that strategy. From the beginning, the program's focus was on the U.S. and South Africa, two countries where Atlantic has a long history of grantmaking, and it was developed with an understanding that issues of structural racism and inequality are not unique to the U.S. or South Africa but are actually global issues, and that by focusing on these two countries, the program might be able to contribute to a global shift in attitudes with respect to these issues, in addition to driving change in the two countries.
PND: The program just named its first cohort of fellows, and, as you mentioned, they hail from both the U.S. and South Africa. What criteria did you use in selecting the first group of fellows?
KM: First, let me say that this group of fellows is quite diverse. The majority of them are in their thirties, but they range in age from their twenties all the way up to sixty. When selecting them, we were looking for people who embody effective leadership and are working to dismantle anti-black racism and white supremacy. In addition to possessing an awareness of issues of racial exclusion, we also looked for a vision that understood the relationship between racialized forms of oppression and other types of exclusion, including those having to do with gender and gender identity, disability, religion, and so on.
In short, we were looking for people who were very thoughtful about what it means — and is required — to build a just and inclusive world. Some of them are artists, some are grassroots activists, some of them are lawyers, a few are academics, but all are on their own professional journey and, for the most part, are sort of mid-career in the work they are doing. But at the same time they are looking to grow and develop and learn from other people that are working to make change happen.
One of the things we talk a lot about in AFRE is creating a program that provides an experience that supports fellows learning from other people, in other sectors, working on other issues, in other regions. A program that allows fellows to step back from their day-to-day work and develop a three-hundred-and-sixty-degree view of the problem of racial exclusion and the things that can be done to address structural racism in our society. All our fellows bring a history and self-awareness to their work, but they're also interested in learning and growing and developing their tools. And they want a space where they can get out of their own work silos, whether they're a lawyer working on criminal justice or an activist working on education, and spend time in a setting where they can learn from others and think about what more can be done to dismantle anti-black racism and white supremacy.
We want [our fellows] to deepen their understanding of structural racism, particularly in thinking about how it manifests itself in emerging global problems — for example in climate change, or the growing dominance of the tech sector, or the emergence of the surveillance state....
PND: Is AFRE a learning community?
KM: It is a learning community, but at the same time we have some goals for the program and for our fellows. We want them to deepen their understanding of structural racism, particularly in thinking about how it manifests itself in emerging global problems — for example in climate change, or the growing dominance of the tech sector, or the emergence of the surveillance state. How does it manifest itself in the way work is structured in the twenty-first century, both in the U.S. and in South Africa? We want our fellows to expand their understanding of these and other issues and, at the same time, expand the repertoire of strategies and tactics they're able to bring to bear on their own work. At the end of the day, it's really about giving them a broader set of tools they can use in their work.
The other thing our program focuses on is supporting fellows in their individual leadership trajectories. In other words, what does it mean to lead from your individual values and vision? So many times we see leaders running organizations in ways that are not equitable and that run counter to what they actually believe. Sometimes they're aware of that, and sometimes they're not. Part of what we're trying to do is to ask, How can you be the leader you want to be and that the world needs now? And we think that means being really clear about what your values are and developing the skills needed to build organizations and create interventions that reflect those values.
PND: Tell us about a couple of your fellows and the work they're doing.
KM: Sure. We have a young man from South Africa named Brian Kamanzi who is black and Indian; his family has been there a long time. Brian went to the University of Cape Town to get a degree in engineering and is now working on his master's, and at school he became involved in the #FeesMustFall movement, which is a student protest movement that spread across the country in 2015 in response to an increase in university fees. It's been twenty years since the end of apartheid in South Africa, and who is it that is able to access higher education there? The reality is that it's still very, very difficult for black South Africans and South Africans of color to afford the costs associated with an advanced degree.
So, Brian became involved in the movement, challenging the history of structural racism in South Africa and the problems the country faces today. He has been thinking about how to bring his engineering training to bear on the unequal distribution of economic resources in the country, which led him to renewable energy models and how they might be used in a redistributive way to address inequality in South Africa.
Here in the U.S., Rasheedah Phillips, a lawyer from Philadelphia, has been doing a lot of work with black communities around displacement caused by gentrification and also working with members of those communities on issues of sexual assault and violence and looking at many of the structural issues and solutions to those problems.
She's very interested in the way in which policy and regulations frequently disadvantage black communities by imposing particular obstacles, for example a certain window of time in which you have to respond to a court order, or the imposition of fines and fees on defendants who cannot afford them, and other practices and policies that serve to disempower poor people who have fewer resources to bear in complying with the institutional demands of the court system, or any other system, for that matter. She is both supporting individuals who are trying to advocate on their own behalf but also looking at some of the ways policy could be changed to address both the constraints on and rights of black communities. She's done a lot of thinking and writing about the ways in which institutional cultures replicate particular patterns of disempowerment for black communities and other communities of color.
PND: What kinds of things are you planning over the next year to bring fellows together to facilitate shared learning and help them disseminate their work to a broader audience?
KM: We have eighteen fellows from the U.S. and eleven from South Africa, and we talk all the time about them belonging to a single cohort that extends across two nations. The first time we bring them together, they'll be introduced to the program and learn about each others' work. Later, all of them will spend some time in Selma and Montgomery, Alabama, where they will learn about the important place of those two cities in the racial history of the United States and think about the ways in which that history has defined economic structures and opportunities, social relations, and political representation in those two communities, as well as in Alabama and the country more generally.
Obviously, the fellows here from the U.S. working on racial equity issues are more familiar with the history of slavery, of Reconstruction and Jim Crow and so on, but at the same time we want to use the convenings in Selma and Montgomery as an opportunity to build greater understanding among our South African fellows of America's racial history and to unpack the ways in which structural racism operates across different systems, regardless of country.
So, they will come together for that, and then they will spend time together in South Africa, looking at the evolution of competing narratives about what South Africa is, and the trajectory of political and economic activity from colonialism to apartheid and how race and structural inequality are playing out in South Africa today.
We think of the fellowship as an interactive, generative experience where fellows spend a fair amount of time together and explore a particular context through the eyes of someone who may not know that history as well, which in turn helps them think about what they might do differently.
We do not think that dismantling anti-black racism is the province or responsibility of black people only; this is something all of us need to be engaged in, because anti-black racism affects all of us....
PND: Will there be a second and third cohort of fellows?
KM: Right now, AFRE is conceived as a ten-year program, with a new cohort every year. This is the first of ten. Once the fellows go through what is essentially a one-year program of active learning sessions, they'll become senior fellows and will be part of a network that we hope continues to exist long after the end of the program. It will be a network where fellows remain connected and have opportunities to get together and continue to think about what it is that they can be doing in their particular communities and countries to advance change. They'll also have opportunities to secure additional resources in the form of seed funding for their programs and to interact with fellows who are part of the larger global Atlantic Fellows network. And, of course, every year the network will get larger as more and more fellows are added, so that eventually we're hoping there will be at least three hundred and fifty AFRE fellows, from both the U.S. and South Africa, in the larger Atlantic network.
PND: Do you have any advice for funders who are thinking about getting involved in racial equity work?
KM: First, I think people need to be aware that we're in a moment here in the United States where talking about issues of race and equity increasingly are seen as a form of identity politics. That said, it's important for funders to stay the course and support grantees who are raising these issues, and to create space for grantees willing to take on these issues, even at the risk of being seen by some as acting politically or being divisive.
The second is to note that there's an assumption when we talk about issues of racial inequality and racial justice that we're talking about an issue of concern only to black people. One of the things that's been really important for us at AFRE is to have a racially and ethnically diverse cohort of fellows. And that's because we do not think that dismantling anti-black racism is the province or responsibility of black people only; this is something all of us need to be engaged in, because anti-black racism affects all of us. It affects us personally, in a variety of ways, whether we're a person of color whose opportunities and life trajectory have been shaped by racism, or a white person who has grown up in a society where racism and discrimination were the norm. And we think it's really important that funders, consciously and deliberately, are doing what they can to create spaces for grantees in diverse communities — black communities and white communities and Latino communities and Asian communities — to tackle these issues and help people understand the connections between racial equity and the work they do.
PND: What about ordinary Americans, people who don't live on one of the two coasts or in a city and who may be thinking, What does all this have to do with me? I wish everyone the best, but it's really not something I need to worry about.
KM: Well, I certainly hope that the work of our fellows, and the support of funders like Atlantic and Kellogg and Ford and the Hazen Foundation and so many others, is raising the visibility and lifting up another set of stories about what it means to be American in ways that are contributing to ordinary Americans' knowledge of the history of this country and why that history has to be acknowledged. For much of my life, the narratives put out by television and the movies about what it meant to be American almost always were driven by a limited range of experiences, mostly white experiences. But today, even with the rise of white nationalist sentiment, we're seeing and hearing more stories about other people, a whole diverse range of people, that speak to the culture as it is, and about our complicated history around issues of race, and about what it means to be American in the twenty-first century.
And I truly hope that by sharing those stories, by advancing a host of reforms to our public institutions, whether the justice system, education systems, or other systems, we get the attention of people who have never thought about these issues before and that they start to ask themselves, How am I connected to this, and what can I do? Earlier you asked me about power and privilege and the fact that a lot of people who have both are reluctant to give them up, which is all too true. But there are people — people with power and privilege, and people with neither — who truly do want to make this world a better place for others. And I hope our work, and the work of others, taps into that sentiment and helps motivate people to support efforts to build a more inclusive and racially equitable society. Maybe our work will inspire them to read and educate themselves a little bit more about the struggles of different communities. Maybe they'll be more willing to open themselves up to stories that are different than theirs and accept, if not embrace, those stories as important and valuable. That's my hope.
Mitch Nauffts spoke with Mediratta in December. The transcript of their conversation has been edited for length and clarity. For information on the Newsmakers series, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.