The world is now convulsed with protests condemning police brutality against black Americans and calling for racial justice. The events of the past several weeks have rightfully caused those of us living in the U.S. to reflect deeply on our long, painful, and often violent history of racial inequality. For our community that works in international development — most often focused on the challenges abroad — this has been a wake-up call.
With over 20 years working for USAID, which culminated in serving as the head of the agency in South Africa, Aaron Williams has seen first-hand the destruction caused by institutional racism. In this op-ed, he calls for the "bold leadership and determination" to address the crisis of systemic racism.
We are always cognizant in our development work of the unique details of the societies and cultures in which we operate. In particular, we strive to understand disparities in access to services and opportunities based on gender, ethnic group, and disability, among other factors.
We know that achieving lasting development outcomes is only possible when we design, carry out, evaluate, and adjust our interventions with these disparities in mind. We worry about which groups are most vulnerable and whether ethnic minorities or women are excluded from opportunities for advancement.
This wake-up call is like a flash of lightning, illuminating the dark reality that these challenges are every bit a part of the culture, society, and history of the U.S. and not problems that plague only low- and middle-income countries. This is also a poignant reminder that it is more comfortable to talk about these problems in other countries than in our own.
Last year marked the 400th anniversary of the first slave ship arriving on American shores — what is sometimes referred to as the U.S.’s original sin. Issues of race have dominated many of the major events over the course of our country’s history.
And yet, there is so much unfinished business in addressing the disparities that affect people of color, particularly black people, in terms of health, life expectancy, and educational and employment opportunities — in short, every aspect of life. We know from social science research that the racial inequities in our society are real and that they have negative, dramatic, and consequential outcomes for people of color.
Most shockingly, recent events bring into stark relief that disparate treatment by race in the U.S. affects even the degree to which public institutions — which are principally charged with protecting the lives of their citizens — value the lives of black Americans. George Floyd’s death is so horrific because the defenders of the peace are so cavalier in taking a human life. It is so troubling because it is only one in a long chain of extrajudicial killings that have marred our constitutional promise of equal protection.
I am heartened that organizations working in international development … are committing themselves to real change at home that addresses racial injustice.—
Within the international development community, we rarely talk about these issues of race in America. If we’re honest with ourselves, the U.S.-based international development community is overwhelmingly populated by white Americans parachuting into developing countries to help black and brown people.
As the executive vice president for international development at RTI International and someone who served at senior levels in the U.S. Agency for International Development, I am very much aware when I attend conferences and meetings that I am one of few black professionals in our field — and one in an exceedingly small group in the higher echelons.
If I’m honest with myself, being a member of a small minority group of international development black professionals made me reluctant to speak about my own experiences with racial injustice. But the sudden wake-up call demands more of me.
In the last several weeks, I have been open with colleagues at work and with friends about a few of my personal experiences with racial affronts as a black man living in the U.S. I talked about my experience as a young man in New York being chased and called the N-word and being stopped by police for no reason numerous times.
I shared that during my first day at work in a law firm, I was stopped in the hallway by a security guard who told me there was a report of a black man walking the halls. I also disclosed that the case of Ahmaud Arbery touched my family personally: My daughter’s boyfriend grew up with Ahmaud and has been interviewed by major media outlets as his best friend, and the two of them were instrumental in the online petition to bring attention to Ahmaud’s death.
I have discussed these issues over the years with my close family members — a safe space. My recent discussions with them, not surprisingly, had an added sense of emotion and urgency.
What shocked me from these conversations is how I had forgotten — or perhaps suppressed — a number of the discriminatory or offensive incidents that my siblings and I had experienced. One of my brothers describes these accumulated indignities as the “private shames” that many people of color carry around. A lot of our white colleagues would be stunned to learn of their number and would wonder how we keep it all in.
This is a momentous time in the U.S. It is a sad reality that events like the brutal, cavalier killing of George Floyd have happened all too often in the past. But we are now seeing a multiracial coalition in the U.S., led by youths, rising up to express righteous disgust and demand not only immediate justice for this heinous crime, but also fundamental and lasting change that says no to impunity and yes to the equal guarantee of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
I am heartened that organizations working in international development are no longer just staying in the comfortable space of talking about problems elsewhere; they are committing themselves to real change at home that addresses racial injustice.
It is vital that we reflect deeply on what we can do to support positive social change and justice within our own organizations and in the broader society, both through our work and through our own actions. Just like in our international development work, this means fighting for sustainable change and not going back to business as usual when the protests die down.
Finally, in addition to institutional responses, we must also reflect on what we can do as individuals. As difficult as it may be, we need to be available to our friends and colleagues who may have their own private shames, being present to listen and show empathy. Conversations about race are perhaps the most uncomfortable ones in light of history, but it is time to have uncomfortable, empathetic conversations.
The leadership we are called to in this momentous time, if we are going to support genuine and meaningful change, requires us to have the strength to speak openly and directly about — and, just as importantly, to listen to — what may be uncomfortable and emotional, or make us feel vulnerable. I am ready.