Color Of Change was founded in 2005 by activists James Rucker and Van Jones shortly after the federal government’s feckless response to Hurricane Katrina left tens of thousands of residents of New Orleans, many of them poor and black, stranded for days without adequate supplies of food, water, or shelter. Rucker and Jones’ idea was to replicate the MoveOn.org model, using email and the Internet to engage and mobilize African Americans to pressure decision-makers in government and corporate America to create a more just and equitable world for black people in America.
In the years since, the organization has mounted campaigns to assist the Jena Six, a group of six black teenagers in Jena, Louisiana, charged with attempted second-degree murder in the 2006 beating of Justin Barker, a white student at the local high school; called for the repeal of so-called Stand Your Ground laws nationwide; persuaded MSNBC to fire conservative provocateur Pat Buchanan for Buchanan’s alleged remarks about white supremacy and his affiliation with a white supremacist radio program; urged cable network Oxygen to stop production on the reality TV show All My Babies' Mamas, starring rapper Shawty Lo and the ten mothers of his eleven children, on the grounds that it perpetrated harmful stereotypes about African American families; and called out Saturday Night Live executive producer Lorne Michaels for the lack of diversity on that long-running show.
Rashad Robinson joined the organization, which today counts over a million online members, as executive director in 2011 and recently was named president. PND spoke with him via email about the impetus behind the organization’s founding, hate speech on college campuses, and the state of race relations in America.
Philanthropy News Digest: Color Of Change was born in 2005 out of the failed government response to Hurricane Katrina. What did the Bush administration’s response to Katrina tell us about race and the state of race relations in America in the first decade of the twenty-first century? And has anything changed in the decade and a half since?
Rashad Robinson: What Katrina exposed in the most painful terms was a simple truth about life and politics, not just in New Orleans but everywhere in America, which is that no one was nervous about disappointing black people. What do I mean by that? Katrina was a flood of bad decisions, more than anything else. That is what made Katrina the destructive event it was. So many people made decisions that led to mass displacement, death, destruction, suffering and trauma. These were choices that could have been made differently and led to very different results, even in the face of that hurricane. Choices made by local, state, and especially federal government officials. Choices made by corporations. Choices made by police, who exploited the chaos of the situation and vulnerability of the people they were supposed to protect. Choices made by news media, who demonized people trying to survive and invented a story about us being perpetrators instead of victims and solely responsible for our own suffering, as the media often does when it comes to black people. Choices made by people with privilege and assets, who neither spoke up nor offered help. These were all people, some of them elected officials, with black constituencies they ignored, people who should have cared about disappointing black people, about letting us down in a moment of crisis and need, especially at that scale of suffering. But none of them cared. We were ignorable. And we realized in that moment that we must incentivize them to care — we must make them act as if they care. We must become un-ignorable.
That's when Van Jones and James Rucker decided we needed a new infrastructure. A new way to build power for black people that would ensure accountability to black people. A platform for aggregating our voices, and the voices of our allies, to force people to make decisions that help us instead of hurt us, whether they want to or not. That’s what other communities have had that we did not have. Though we had many organizations advocating for black people, they were not able to deliver this result. And so that was the wake-up call. Color Of Change is the innovation that grew out of it: a national force for racial justice, with expert media savvy and fluency in emerging technologies, relentlessly targeting changes in policy and culture — both the written and unwritten rules of decision making — in the sectors of society that affect our lives.
No progressive change has happened in this country without black people being involved in some way — as strategists, activists, storytellers, voters. And it has been clear to us that without a new platform for making black voices matter and building black power, progressives would always be at a disadvantage in fighting for social change. Black power is essential for progressive reform on criminal justice, for example. But we are also not going to get anywhere without deeply integrating black leadership and black community power into our strategies for progress on the environment, education, gender equity, and so on. It is essential that donors understand the role black power plays in advancing progressive causes. The right wing understands this, which is why they spend so much energy trying to discredit us, disenfranchise us, and control us. That was half of Nixon's reason for the drug war: to undermine emerging black political participation. Liberals need to understand this at least as much as the right wing does and invest in black leadership at least as much as the right wing tries to neutralize it.
PND: How did you get involved with Color Of Change? And how do you see its role in today’s increasingly polarized political environment?
RR: As senior director of media programs for GLAAD, I led that organization’s programmatic and advocacy work to transform the representation of LGBTQ people in the news and entertainment media and change attitudes and behaviors toward us in real life. Justice for all marginalized communities has always been a personal issue for me, and I had worked on voting issues and other issues related to racial justice before coming to GLAAD. But looking at the racial justice field at the time, I did not see anyone leading the same kind of strategic, effective approach to changing media representations related to race, and I knew it was critical for the racial justice movement in terms of accelerating progress.
I had seen the organization that Van and James built. Moving to Color Of Change was very clearly a powerful opportunity, in that it combined organizing campaigns across a range of much broader issues with the central question of media representation, which to a large extent determines what is possible for making progress on all of those issues. Color Of Change operates from an understanding that our lives and experiences are complex and are the result of an interrelated set of forces. Racist policing requires racist media to keep itself going. Economic inequality is rooted in political inequality. And so on. I knew that Color Of Change could grow into a powerful organization by taking an integrated approach to racial justice and by building a truly game-changing infrastructure for accountability based on its initial successes.