In order to ensure that People For the American Way’s longstanding commitment to racial justice is more fully and effectively expressed through our work and in our own operations, we are in the process of forming a board-staff task force on racial justice.
Drawing on recommendations from members of our board, staff and leadership networks (AARA, YP4 and YEO), I will appoint a task force and ask it to address three major areas: structural issues within People For the American Way and its affiliated Foundation; policy and program work that would allow us to have a more direct voice and impact on racial justice; and opportunities for more effective engagement with members of the PFAW and PFAW Foundation leadership networks.
The decision to create this mechanism for an intentional institutional conversation on racial justice grows out of a series of heartfelt conversations among board members, staff, and leadership network members that were sparked by a recent podcast by our founder Norman Lear. In a conversation with African American comedian Jerrold Carmichael, Norman and his co-host and guest used the “n-word” in a conversation about whether using the actual word could drain it of its power to harm.
Despite the intentions of those involved in the conversation, their use of a word with a uniquely brutal role in our country’s history of racial violence and discrimination has caused anger, confusion and pain among members of People For the American Way’s family. I regret that we did not respond more quickly with a clearer affirmation that the use of language with so much power to demean and harm others is not consistent with our values. Members of our board and staff are now engaged in important conversations about how we as a justice-seeking organization move forward with credibility and a commitment to accountability.
These conversations are taking place within a larger context. Deadly violence against black people by police continues far too often to go unpunished. The aggressive assault on voting rights was under way long before the current administration ramped up the ferocity of that attack. Institutionalized discrimination continues to make equal opportunity an unrealized promise. And, of course, our public arena was further poisoned by the campaign run by our current president. Some of his supporters have taken his election as permission to openly express bigotries that have previously been understood to be unacceptable. Even worse, a wave of violence has been directed against people of color, immigrants, and religious minorities.
People For the American Way’s need to get this right is grounded first and foremost in our mission and our vision of a diverse America in which no one’s rights or opportunities to thrive are denied by others’ prejudices. We have a long history of advocating for equality and justice and the urgency to get it right is heightened by the need to mobilize all people of good will to resist a president elected with enthusiastic support from white nationalists and an attorney general who is eager to reverse progress on voting rights and criminal justice reform.
These challenges to our core values and commitments call for focused reflection that will lead to strategic action. I will ask the task force to make initial recommendations to the board and me before the end of the summer.
Updated May 31 / June 7, 2017:
At his request, I wanted to share Norman’s statements on this incident:
In a recent podcast with writer, actor, and comedian Jerrod Carmichael, we talked about using humor to generate serious conversation. I have always believed that exposing bigotry to the ridicule it deserves could diminish its power. It’s something I’ve done for years. I won’t always get it right, but I will always be looking for ways to use humor to make people think, talk, consider other perspectives, and recognize our common humanity. My conversation with Jerrod about the “n-word” was held with that intention.
I have since heard from people who I love and respect that the violence and dehumanization inherent in that word overwhelmed whatever intention might have been attached to its use. I want them to know that I have heard them. I caused people pain and I regret it.
My recent statement of regret about using the n-word in a podcast conversation with Jerrod Carmichael may not have been clear. So let me be clear: I made a mistake and I apologize. I caused good people pain and for that I am truly sorry.