Understanding History: It’s NOT Just Academic

Monday, February 12, 2018

By Tamara Lucas Copeland
President, Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers

For whom is the Shaw neighborhood in DC named?

What role did People’s Drug Store (now CVS) play into the rebellion in Washington, DC in 1968?

What did Howard University students and then-Rep. John Conyers have to do with the creation of Black History Month?

Those were just a few of the questions posed by Dr. Bernard Demczuk, retired professor from George Washington University, and presenter at the opening reception for Putting Racism on the Table: Expanding the Table for Racial Equity. Whew. That is a mouthful, but what Leadership Greater Washington (LGW) and the Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers (WRAG) are trying to do is a mouthful, too. Our task is formidable. We are trying to build a network of leaders in our region who recognize and understand the impact of structural racism, white privilege and implicit bias on our communities and who believe that we can change it.

Some suggest that there is no need to talk about slavery. “There is no need to understand what happened during Reconstruction,” they say. “Why are we talking about redlining?  Let’s just start where we are and help people of color get to that level playing field.”

Well, I share Dr. Demczuk’s view that until we fully understand the past, we cannot create a just future. Why?  Because we must understand that it is not happenstance, laziness, lack of intellectual aptitude or a whole host of other commonly suggested falsehoods that have caused people of color to be on the bottom rung of the ladder to American success. Until we acknowledge how this has happened – and is perpetuated – with intentionality, well-meaning people will direct their interventions to the victims, not to the systems that have victimized — the real structural racism that has created the problems.

Understanding history is not just an academic undertaking. It is a way to unearth the foundation that has created what now exists.  In many cases that foundation is strong. We must dismantle it and start fresh to truly create a level planning field. WRAG is committed. Are you?

P.S. – If you want to know the answers to the questions above, listen to Dr. Demczuk’s talk.

This piece was orginally published on the Daily WRAG.