In the aftermath of the powerful racial justice protests that swept the nation in the summer of 2020, the Raikes Foundation launched the Black Leadership & Power Fund to support leaders of color working to build power and advance anti-racist policy change. Black Voters Matter, led by indefatigable Executive Director LaTosha Brown, was at the top of our list. The Black Voters Matter Capacity Building Institute aims to increase power and agency in communities through voting. The organization played an instrumental role registering voters in Georgia in the run up to the 2020 election.
LaTosha sat down with Raikes Foundation Executive Director Dennis Quirin for a conversation about the state of the racial justice movement, the importance of a multiracial democracy, and what’s changed since 2020. Their conversation, lightly edited, is below.
Dennis Quirin: I’m excited to have a conversation with you because you are such a fascinating thinker and doer in this moment. And I’m curious about what you think about our country’s racial reckoning over the past year. More and more people seem to have accepted that structural racism is a real, animating force in our country. In your mind, were last year’s protests an evolution for us or just a high-water mark?
LaTosha Brown: The Trump presidency opened up Pandora’s box for white nationalists and white supremacists to rear their ugly heads. It’s not like it wasn’t here, he just gave it permission, he put it on steroids, and so he created an opening where people could actually see just how embedded structural racism is in America. I think part of what has happened is, for more people, there’s no question that structural racism and white supremacy is a big barrier that has to be addressed.
I’m thinking of that Pete Seeger song from the 60’s where he says, “what side are you on, what side are you on?” This is no longer an issue where people can sit on the fence. If you are on the wrong side, then that means that on some level you are supporting white supremacy and racists, and that’s no longer acceptable. Also, in this context, what we see is this demographic shifting of America, and we have a situation where those who are in positions of power and elected officials are not reflective of the makeup of this country. The truth of the matter is that the Census shows we are becoming more diverse, but when you look at the U.S. Senate, that institution is less and less representative. It’s still made up primarily of white men of wealth. And so now we’re coming up against that tension in which those that are governing are not reflective of those being governed.
Dennis Quirin: On that point, I’m thinking about how divided and partisan our country is right now, and what it will take to bridge that gulf. We know there’s been a long-term political strategy to breathe fear into the hearts and minds of white people in this country about the shifting demographics, and obviously that’s fueled a lot of the animus we’ve seen in the last four years. How do you think about that divide, and where do you find hope that it may not be as rigid as it appears?
LaTosha Brown: First thing, I think America is fractured, not divided. The difference is that when you say “divided” you create a false equivalency, like there’s one side that believes this way and one side that believes this way and they just disagree. No, it’s always been fractured because since the founding, one side has always been unseen, unheard, and ignored. What we’re seeing now is that those that have been unseen are now demanding that they’re seen and they’re heard, and we’re feeling the pressure of that.
What gives me hope is the answer to this question: “What institution in this country that actually integrated, that actually created space for inclusion, did not improve?”
Take the business sector. When they allowed Black people and Asian people and Indigenous people to actually be able to open up a space for business and have jobs, did it improve? Did the entertainment industry or the NBA, a league that at one point had no black players, improve? What about football and baseball? What happened to those industries? Now they’re billion-dollar industries! They spread and they actually grew. When those companies rebranded themselves as global companies, the bottom line actually expanded. They actually do better, not worse! There’s no evidence that shows when you restrict people and push black people out that you benefit the bottom line.
Folks hear “let’s deal with structural racism” and think “oh this is a favor to Black folks.” No! White people benefit too. At the end of the day, we’re not reaching our highest potential in this country as long as structural racism is holding us back. The fact that you have 5 percent of the population in the world and we’re number one in COVID deaths? That’s a result of letting racist, draconian policies drive the narrative that impacts the policies.
There’s a lack of understanding for white America because they believe that the benefits of racism far outweigh the harm to themselves. And that’s not true. Look at states like Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi that refuse to expand the Affordable Care Act and start seeing things like hospital closures. Black people aren’t the only people that go to the hospital! White folks need the hospitals too, and so these policies have impacted their access to healthcare and economic security. But we allow these issues to become so racialized, and so people don’t really deal with the hurt and the harm that exists not just on communities of color, but on everybody.
Dennis Quirin: I’m thinking about your organization Black Voters Matter, and I’m curious how you see the relationship between Black liberation and a multi-racial democracy? How does the emphasis on Black liberation and anti-Black racism relate to a multiracial democracy?
LaTosha Brown: The Black power movement and Black liberation movement has always been a movement based on inclusion. The Black liberation movement is not to fight against the exclusion of our brown brothers and sisters. It is actually about us using our power to leverage and stand together to fight for better immigration policies, to stand with the LGBTQ community, to stand with women and the women’s suffrage movement even though 100 years ago they didn’t stand with us. Think about the Voting Rights Act. That didn’t just impact black people in Alabama, it created and expanded rights and protections for all folks, including white Republicans.
The fundamental value system in our movement is around equity and inclusion. The Black liberation movement has never been about excluding people. The Black liberation movement has never been about “oh we think we’re better than these people.” It has always been a rallying cry around democratic inclusivity so that all people can have agency.
And look if we’re living in a nation where the humanity of Black people is valued and protected, that has implications for all of us, not just Black people. If Black Lives Matter leads to a fundamental shift in how we value human life, then that shift in how we consider human life is better for all of us because we are all seen and valued.
Dennis Quirin: I don’t think that those concepts are understood beyond the people who are fully in this work. I feel like we’re at a time where many white people still intuitively think of racial justice as a loss for them. How can the case be made more broadly about what this movement is really about? About how what’s being approached here is an evolution in our collective society, not a trading of who’s on top?
LaTosha Brown: We have to shift the focus and really shift the discourse. We’ve allowed parties who have political agendas to hijack the context of these conversations and make issues that are really fundamental issues around humanity — how we share resources, how we interact, how we build society together, how we advance as a nation — partisan. And this partisan framework that we’re operating under makes it seem like this is all one big Super Bowl. It’s the blue team versus the red team, liberals versus the conservatives.
The problem is we’ve gotten away from having conversations about values. This has to be a value proposition. We can’t continue to talk about these issues in the narrow scope of partisanship. We have to shift the paradigm that’s at the center of this conversation so that it’s centered around, what I call, “for the love of humanity.” That has to be the frame.
“For the love of humanity” has to be the driver. We all might not agree and that is okay. It is okay for us to have policy differences — it is okay for us to say, “this is how I think this should happen” or “this is not how I think this should happen.” That is okay. That is a human struggle, I expect that. But the problem is we can’t get to any point of a shared vision when don’t have a shared value system.
Dennis Quirin: I’m curious how the funders you interact with have changed in the last year. What are you seeing now from traditional staffed philanthropy, but also individual donors and other folks who might be traditional givers? How are the folks that you interact with understanding in the reality of this moment?
LaTosha Brown: I have to be honest. For the 27 years that I’ve done this work, I have never seen as many funders shift to supporting total democracy efforts like I did last year. There were more resources that were available to organizations like ours and to organizations working at the intersection of civic engagement and social justice. There are funders we received phone calls from who are not traditional funders in this space, but because they understood how critical the election was, they wanted to at least support people to exercise their civic rights.
There were organizations that I saw that literally suspended their traditional way of funding. Some of these funders are risk averse, and they would say to us, we’ve never funded this kind of work, but we do believe in what you all are doing. And we do believe, as you’re saying, that we can actually see the fragility of democracy in this moment. And we think that it’s important that people participate in the process. I can almost guarantee that last year was probably a historically significant investment in groups that are on the ground doing this kind of work. Now the cautionary note to go along with that is it still pales compared to the resources of the anti-democratic side.
I think another lesson is what we were able to do, for the most part, was address the protection of democracy in this country. The protection of democracy was not led by policymakers or politicians. It was not led by elected officials. It was actually a people-led movement. When you make an investment in ‘we the people’ then you can literally protect democracy.
I saw foundations decide to shift their resources and make a commitment to do some multi-year funding. That in itself led to a significant difference. Imagine what that could do if we saw that kind of consistent partnership with philanthropy standing in line supporting grassroots groups over time. There is a tremendous amount of opportunity that really goes beyond this issue of partisanship. Democracy is not a partisan issue, and we cannot allow people to undermine it to make it a partisan issue. It should not matter whether there’s a Republican or Democrat in office for my fundamental rights as a citizen to be respected. We’ve got to take a hard stand that democracy itself is non-negotiable.
Dennis Quirin: What worries you the most about our current moment, and on the flip side, what gives you the most hope?
LaTosha Brown: That’s a great question. I think two things. I think what worries me the most is how many dead bodies it’s going to take for us to wake up. What gives me hope is that I know we’re going to get there. There is nothing in me that thinks that we are not going to be free. I can’t even process this notion that my great-great-grandchildren are going to live in a nation that can shoot them, that can kill them, that could discriminate against them because they’re Black. There’s nothing in me that’s willing to accept that belief. The thing that pains me is how many got to be sacrificed to get there?