We must be "firefighters" for justice

In this Houston Chronicle op-ed, Darren Walker sees hope and progress amid fear and tragedy.

This op-ed was published in the Houston Chronicle on July 16, 2016.

During the past couple of weeks, in the face of senseless killings in Baton Rouge, Minnesota and Dallas, each of us has grappled with disbelief and confusion—with fear, frustration and fury. And yet, despite these tragedies—and perhaps, in some small way, because of them—there is reason for hope.

As a child of the '60s, and a native Texan now living in New York City, I feel hope in the progress of my lifetime.

There is hope because we live in a nation where peaceful demonstrations can produce meaningful change, and where our law enforcement officers act selflessly—sometimes sacrificing their lives—to protect the very people protesting against them.

There is hope in the powerful, American idea that we can support law enforcement, while also seeking to improve it—that we can love our country, while working to perfect its systems and structures of governance and justice.

While some have called the phrase "black lives matter" into question—or even called it racist—these moments remind us to keep our eyes and hearts open to uncomfortable truths about America.

Our republic was built on a founding contradiction: White men declared "all men are created equal," while they owned black men as property. Our Constitution asserted black lives counted only three-fifths as much as white lives.

Some might claim these racially targeted, public-policy decisions are the stuff of a distant, different past. In fact, they are anything but. Consider that in the early 1970s, President Richard Nixon initiated his "war on drugs"—according to his adviser John Ehrlichman—to target the administration's "two enemies: the antiwar left and black people."

What's more, this systemic persecution, designed with racist intentions, has been extended and expanded under subsequent administrations—Republican and Democratic, alike.

These truths of our history are certainly awkward for many, and painful for many more. And they are even more difficult to grapple with when we feel vulnerable.

Protesters and police both have watched their brothers and sisters - people who look like them because of their blackness or their badge—be attacked, and they feel threatened. Far too many Americans, moreover, are experiencing the effects of rampant inequality and feeling economically insecure—and, as a result, are more worried about ourselves, and less inclined to open our hearts to others.

If we are to heal, then the veracity of these facts—and the fact of our vulnerability—ought to inform our conversations, more than the particulars of any one incident, because the events of early July are the product of our past.

I, for one, am moved—and encouraged—that a large number of racially diverse Americans from across the political spectrum publicly recognized the racial inequality that exists in our country in the wake of the killing of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, from Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton to former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich.

Given the good will of so many individuals, we need to continue bringing together leaders from law enforcement and minority communities to bridge gaps and have productive—if difficult—conversations about criminal justice reform.

We also need to lift up existing solutions that we know already work, such as community policing, and highlight those police departments that have been actively trying to get better—especially the Dallas Police Department, where complaints of excessive force have dramatically dropped during the past several years.

For our part in the philanthropy community, we have a special responsibility. Given our resources, we can support programs and initiatives that individual communities and police departments might consider a financial burden. We can invest in organizations that promote best practices, the way the Ford Foundation did in the 1970s by helping start the Police Foundation, which uses rigorous research to improve policing.

It bears remembering that the Police Foundation was born out of the late 1960s. During that period, we witnessed protests and conflict with police, bouts of violence, but also serious, sustained, substantial efforts to bring about reform.

During the final days of his life in the tumultuous and violent year 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. confided in his close friend Harry Belafonte that he feared America was "a burning house." "I guess," Dr. King said then, "we're just going to have to become the firemen."

Today, more than ever before, we each must take it upon ourselves to become the firefighters for justice.

We have it within our power to douse the flames that threaten not one house or another, but our communities, cities and our country itself—to snuff out the embers of distrust and division that smolder beneath our discourse. Ultimately, the most effective retardant is hope—a clear-eyed hope, borne from the recognition that if we commit ourselves to realizing America's full potential, we can emerge a more unified, fair and just nation.

Media Contacts

Press Line
Tel (+1) 212-573-5128
Fax (+1) 212-351-3643
pressline@fordfoundation.org

Joshua Cinelli
Media Relations Chief
j.cinelli@fordfoundation.org

The Ford Foundation

The Ford Foundation is an independent, nonprofit grant-making organization. For more than 80 years it has worked with courageous people on the frontlines of social change worldwide, guided by its mission to strengthen democratic values, reduce poverty and injustice, promote international cooperation, and advance human achievement. With headquarters in New York, the foundation has offices in Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia.