The best way to deal with racial tension is by addressing, not avoiding, the issue of race, panelists said recently at a closing session at America Healing, a racial healing conference sponsored by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.
When people opt not to discuss race, they open the door to those who would use race to divide the public and further their own race-based agendas, said Heather McGhee, director of the Washington office of Demos, a non-partisan public policy research and advocacy organization and publisher of The American Prospect magazine, and moderator of the panel.
In April, The American Prospect published a special report of 13 essays that examine the role of race in American society.
Panelists included contributors to the report, “Color Blinded,” which aimed to identify what must be done to ensure equity and social justice.
In investigating disparities in health outcomes for the poor and people of color, Laura Coffey, a writer, editor and producer for NBC’s “Today” show said she found that race and income are major factors.
“In essence a person’s geography, their zip code basically can affect their health,” Coffey said, adding that poverty and housing segregation, the lack of safe places for physical activity and places to buy affordable healthy food continue to beset the poor and many communities of color.
These conditions, Coffey said, lead to stress, obesity and other negative effects on health.
One of the positive things that have come out of the focus on this issue, and would be attractive stories for the media, is to address action taken by communities and activists who are asking vendors and business to bring healthier commodities into their neighborhoods.
Shining a light on issues and educating communities that are not as heavily touched by these race issues is equally important, said Lygia Navarro, a freelance writer, who wrote a story about a small community in Ohio that became engaged in learning about immigration issues.
Even though only 4 percent of the residents were foreign-born, Navarro said, discussions about immigration issues helped change views about immigrants and immigration policy.
David Moberg, senior editor of “In These Times, Our Town,” discussed the history of the integration of and tensions in Oak Park, Ill., and the efforts of a group committed to creating a diverse community.
“Part of their aim was to get people to stay where they were and to make it an attractive community to make folks want to live there,” Moberg said.
The effort was helped by a coalition of business, community and nonprofit organizations – particularly the Oak Park Housing Council – that looked not only at home sales, but rental communities as well to encourage greater racial dispersion.
Since 1970, the population of Oak Park has grown from about 1 percent to 20 percent today, Moberg said, and is more truly diverse than areas like the city of Evanston, which has been “integrated” since the Civil War, but where the black community tends to be largely concentrated in one section of town.
Structural racism does not need active racists to persist, but it does take deliberate, conscious action to change it, said Mark Warren, associate professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and author of “Fire in the Heart: How White Activities Embrace Racial Justice,” a book about breaking down structural racial barriers in which he interviewed activists about the transformational moment that spurred them to get involved in change.
“Nobody said to me, ‘I read about racism in a book and decided to do something about it,’” Warren said.
Rather, he said, people were motivated by direct experience and seeing the dichotomy in their communities between those who feel empowered to force change and those who do not.
These change agents then developed relationships with colleagues or neighbors of color, building trust and having a sense of working with, rather than on behalf of, others.
“This is a society that’s not just good for other people, but the kind of society that I want to live in and raise my children in,” Warren said.
“It’s not that teaching white people about racism isn’t an important thing to do. It’s not that arguments about the costs of incarceration are not important….but those kind of arguments don’t really move people,” Warren said. “It doesn’t motivate people to do something about it in the first place.”
What does work, he said, is getting to people in an ethical, moral, or spiritual place and that organizations that do the work to bridge communities are important players in making things happen.
Even churches, which tend to be heavily segregated in the U.S., can have an impact by partnering with other groups.
“I think we need to do the hard work and build more and more of these” relationships, he said.
Last year, the Kellogg Foundation announced a five-year, $75 million initiative to promote racial equity nationwide.
America Healing aims to improve life outcomes for vulnerable children and their families by promoting racial healing and eliminating barriers to opportunities.
Grants were given to 119 community organizations to address issues affecting opportunities in education, health and economic issues.