- Racial Equity
- Talk About Race
By Martha Barry
The legacy of race. Skin color as a means of separation and segregation had been used to convince us that we were distinctly different from one another. One’s race was institutionalized (used to determine which “box” you belonged in) such that one group was seen as clearly better, superior, more important, than another.
Focusing on race at the beginning of the 21st century finally led our nation to a more complete understanding of racism as it related to racial prejudice, discrimination and institutional and structural inequities. People joined groups for racial justice dialogues. People began to “buzz” about possibilities and opportunities. Racism did not need to be a forgone conclusion. This was the century to finally undo the burden of racism. The nation was ready – a new president, Barack Hussein Obama, had instilled a sense of hope and a “can do” attitude in the country. While the president did not readily confront issues of race in his presidency, he was occasionally a race relations mediator (think Skip Gates). It became clear, in the first decade of the 21st century that hate groups were on the rise, the tea party movement was taking hold and spewing race-based venom, and long-dormant racial prejudice or general disgust of people outside the norm of whiteness made the country ripe to finally address, discuss and dismantle our racist underpinnings.
Racial equity. Those two simple words pointed us in the direction of hope, liberation and possibility. Equity, not equality became the poignant, salient purpose of our nation. We would not just survive, but rather thrive, if all races had equity.
How did we come this far? It all started as people began to believe ending racism was possible in this century. As awareness grew that race was still defining too many national outcomes from neighborhood segregation to educational achievement, more people realized they needed to understand race, racism and white privilege. President Obama began making changes that impacted policy on a national level which moved the nation towards racial justice. As more college-bound students of color accessed student loan funding they were able to complete their education and pursue their dreams.
Immigration issues in Arizona led the way to reforms in our immigration policies. Criminal justice and legal professionals undertook long and arduous reviews of sentencing guidelines and arrest and conviction data impacting people of color to change their conduct and thinking. People from many different sectors of the country began to analyze their institutions to determine how race was impacting outcomes in hiring, promotions, productivity, and results. A new era had entered the mainstream thinking and race was now an active part of the discussion, analysis and outcomes.
Once enough people believed that race should no longer be the defining characteristic of an individual’s life – things shifted dramatically! As minds were freed to imagine the unimaginable something happened in businesses, government, schools and nonprofits. White people realized their “pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstrap” mentality was hindering their ability to understand the impact of racial inequities. The shift began to take shape when enough white people, a critical mass, realized that their privilege was standing in the way of equity. White people, by themselves, were not the problem, but their antiquated views of how to solve the country’s problems were. Once enough white people were challenged about the status quo the house of cards began to fall apart.
White people realized that holding tightly to supposed security (houses, all white neighborhoods, bank accounts, and retirement savings) was not actually making them more secure. These white people began to see and understand that real security was found in relationships – diverse relationships with people of color who became friends, colleagues and neighbors.
As more people of color achieved higher education degrees and found stable, affordable housing, as well as being able to access family sustaining wage employment their overall quality of life improved and race-based outcomes began to melt away. Equally important, white people came to understand that people of color were not the country’s problem (deemed inherently inferior or incapable) but rather quite the opposite: they saw them as resilient, innovative, brilliant, resourceful, fun-loving, caring and delightful people.
Suddenly, all the ways that race had been invisible to white people were made visible and clear. All the outmoded mental models were cast away as people could see each other more fully for the first time.
Racial equity became the direction everyone focused their attention. Outcomes which seemed impossible to achieve in education, housing, health care, criminal justice, employment and transportation were underway and becoming new norms.
Our nation, the United States of America, often seen as a melting pot of ethnic cultures, eventually arrived in a place where race didn’t matter. Race was no longer the defining factor in who was interviewed and hired for jobs, where someone lived, whether they achieved crucial educational benchmarks, if they were followed by the mall security and how much they had accumulated in their net worth. These formerly defining disparities, that often equated with being a person of color in this country slowly melted away. Our country redefined race by redefining racial outcomes.
As a result, policies that seemed “race-neutral” were analyzed and changed; practices that appeared to be the norm in business operations were re-thought. It was as if the rose-colored glasses finally came off and everyone knew what they needed to do to change outcomes to achieve racial equity.
And here we are in 2042, seeing a nation that, while still struggling to face all the ways that race had previously defined us, is beginning to see racial disparities disappear. No longer can you tell the outcome of a child’s life on the basis of her zip code. Intensive supportive services are allowing school and social service agencies to work together to support that child and improve her life course. The Harlem Children’s Zone project is being replicated in numerous urban communities across the country. Gang initiation is less appealing now as every group felt they had a place to belong and contribute to our national output. Neighborhoods that were once bleak, crime-infested, boarded-up eyesores are infused with resources (banks were offering micro-investments in local entrepreneurial projects). Spirits are lifted and civic pride and caring for one’s neighborhood increased tremendously. People are contributing to their communities in physical (neighborhood clean-up projects), emotional (mentoring and tutoring at local schools), policy (redlining was a thing of the past and neighbors warmly welcome different people) and overall quality of life ways that were impacting outcomes for all people. Racism is now discussed readily, our racist history is confronted rather than denied, and our future looked bright.
2042. The year our demographics shifted such that people of color were the majority of the people in our country (as it had been for years around the world)! 2042. The year we finally understood race as the social construct that it is and we could live together in a country blessed with physical, economic, policy, and overall security for all people. Our nation had come to an understanding of race that didn’t leave anyone out of the picture and we were far richer because of it.
Artist: Deborah McIntosh
Martha Barry, PhD, Racial Justice Director, YWCA of Greater Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Author: Kirwan Institute (427 Articles)