The Time for Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation Is Now

A few months after Michael Brown was slain by a white police officer, a young African American woman from Ferguson, Missouri, spoke to civil rights leaders about the pain and suffering her community endured from the discriminatory practices emanating from the police and the courts. Bringing tears to the eyes of some attendees at that Washington, DC, meeting, she recalled the marches, sit-ins, and demonstrations led and organized by the city’s youth. She declared, “We are prepared to die because we have nothing to lose.”

Our nation has experienced a prolonged period marked by abusive police and civilian actions that have taken the lives of people of color and, at times, unleashed an equally revolting backlash against law enforcement officers. Young people around the country, such as this courageous woman, are spurring a drive for change, emerging as strident catalysts for an activism that is aimed squarely at the hierarchy of human value and the legacy of racism in America.

Throughout our nation’s history, young activists, college students, and higher education institutions have played prominent roles in the struggle for racial equity. Students and colleges and universities were the backbone of the civil rights movement, as whites joined with blacks to protest the remnants of the Jim Crow era and pave the way to the end of legalized public discrimination. Young people such as the Cherokee activist Rebecca Adamson helped fuel the American Indian Movement that resulted in the 1975 Indian Education and Self-Determination Act. A young Cesar Chavez urged Mexican Americans to register and vote, and was a leading advocate for workers’ rights.

Young people, students, educators, and others from diverse backgrounds will have opportunities to join the W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation (TRHT) enterprise, which is honing strategies to help communities embrace racial healing and to uproot the belief, conscious and unconscious, in a hierarchy of human value and the structural inequities it sustains.

History tells us that this can be a powerful alliance.

Activism and education

In February 1960, four African American students from North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University sat at the Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, and demanded to be served in that “whites only” space. Over the next six months, more students returned to the lunch counter, and eventually similar demonstrations spread across the South. During an eighteen-month period, more than seventy thousand people participated in protests, and more than three thousand were arrested. Then, in 1964, when the Civil Rights Act was passed by Congress, their dedication was rewarded: the new law banned discrimination in public places.

In an Atlantic article about these and other civil-rights era protests, Melinda Anderson notes that, “From its inception, the 1960s civil-rights movement was fueled by youth leaders and student activists.” As she points out, “In many cases college students were the ones leading marches, voter-registration drives, and social-justice actions. Yet in lesser known, equally defining moments, younger students of color were spearheading efforts to tackle inequalities and systemic factors that worked against them.” As an example, Anderson cites a 1963 protest during which 250,000 students in Chicago boycotted their segregated, overcrowded, and under-resourced schools. A year later, more than 450,000 black and Puerto Rican students protested conditions at segregated public schools in New York City.1

Colleges and universities themselves played a key role in the civil rights movement, giving students a foundation from which to launch their activism and the training they needed to become leaders. To be sure, academic institutions are creating the next generation of critical thinkers and strategic leaders, while grounding young adults in an expanding and inclusive narrative about historical and contemporary realities. The morals and values of generations of people of color and whites have been shaped on college campuses, where students find themselves and espouse their convictions. As Martin Luther King Jr. famously said, “The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character—that is the goal of true education.”2

During Reconstruction, African American religious leaders and white philanthropists established schools across the South where freed slaves could be educated. But it was federal legislation that accelerated the establishment of historically black colleges and universities, or HBCUs. In the early 1890s, a law was enacted giving states that received federal higher education funding a choice: educate black students, or establish schools they can attend. Many states chose to establish HBCUs, rather than allow blacks in their white higher education institutions.

In an American RadioWorks documentary on the history of HBCUs, producer Samara Freemark reports, “Throughout the first half of the 20th century, black colleges thrived. They attracted top black students—the best and the brightest. Howard, Morehouse, Spelman, Tuskegee—these schools and others like them trained the lion’s share of the nation’s black doctors, lawyers, dentists, teachers and other professionals.”3 One of the heroes of that era was Julius Rosenwald, a part owner of Sears, Roebuck, and Company who donated millions of dollars to create more than 5,300 schools in the South and Southeast that educated black children. He had befriended Booker T. Washington, who urged him to support the education of black children. Rosenwald’s charity also provided fellowships that assisted black artists, writers, and intellectuals, such as Langston Hughes and Marian Anderson.

Still, progress was slow in coming; keeping barriers between people of color and education supports the hierarchy of human value.

In an interview about his recent book, Higher Education and the Civil Rights Movement: White Supremacy, Black Southerners, and College Campuses, Peter Wallenstein discusses the slow and reluctant integration of college campuses across the South. In contrast to the small handful of infamous cases marked by violent resistance are what Wallenstein describes as “the dozens of moments at other schools, where the first black enrollment took place in grudging silence, as did various other breakthroughs on the way to full inclusion in the institutional life of the place.”4

Racial healing

Today, a new coalition—comprising millennials and older adults, philanthropy and higher education—is poised to become a critical component of the TRHT enterprise as it sets sail on the arduous journey to heal and transform America. The goal of TRHT is to put racism behind us. Our nation can no longer embrace it consciously or unconsciously. We do not want it to continue shaping our narratives or our communities, our economy or our democracy.

Promisingly, recent polling data demonstrate a palpable desire for a positive change in our society regarding racism. A polling analysis conducted by the Kellogg Foundation in conjunction the Northeastern University School of Journalism found that a majority of whites now acknowledge that racism still exists and that it creates structural biases, as in the criminal justice system.5 Furthermore, a majority of Americans believe that more needs to be done to eliminate racism. In a poll conducted last year, 53 percent of whites said that more changes are needed to give blacks equal rights with whites, up from just 39 percent a year earlier.6 These findings underscore that now is the time for the TRHT enterprise.

We are prioritizing expansive and inclusive, community-based healing activities and policy designs that can change collective community narratives and broaden the understanding that Americans have of their diverse experiences. We are partnering with more than a hundred national and local organizations to hold public events focused on the consequences of racial inequity and to create more equitable opportunities. Together, civic, religious, philanthropic, corporate, civil rights, and government leaders will create ways to hold local communities and the nation as a whole accountable and monitor progress.

For too long, racial bias has been part of the American fabric. The United States has made strides in addressing racism, as when slavery was abolished, during the era of Reconstruction, through the civil rights movement, and with the election and reelection of Barack Obama as the first African American president. But these represent brief episodes in our nation’s long history.

Through statutes and rulings ranging from the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968 to Brown v. Board of Education and the Indian Civil Rights Act of 1968, Congress and the courts have sought to end public discrimination, while purportedly providing equal opportunities. But the scope and reach of government are severely limited. Laws and court rulings have not changed hearts, minds, and souls. They have not brought racial healing to communities, nor have they jettisoned the belief in a hierarchy of human value that discriminates based on superficial physical characteristics such as skin color, facial features, and hair texture or on the basis of tribal status. Thus, racism still affects children, families, and communities. This includes the colonial dynamics that have robbed American Indians, Alaska Natives, and peoples of the US territories of their land, usurped their sovereignty, destroyed languages, and destroyed families by removing generations of children to boarding schools and forcing children into transracial adoption. In 2016, most of the children born in the United States are children of color. They deserve to grow up in a country that has truly overcome that historic taxonomy of human value, the belief in a hierarchy of worth that would relegate them to a lesser place in society and deny them opportunities for realizing their full potential. Racial healing activities help generate the public will among individuals and communities to unite and work together to create more equitable opportunities and life outcomes for all. Much work remains to be done in order to uproot the legacy of racial hierarchy and ensure that all children have the nurturing and resources they need.

Residential segregation must be addressed and reversed, because it often concentrates poverty, under-resourced schools, and many other factors that negatively affect child development. Safety and crime control are of paramount importance, too, given the associated trauma and adversity to which too many young children of color are exposed. Moreover, the epidemic of racialized mass incarceration is leaving indelible scars in economic and family structures for far too many children today. But none of these issues can be effectively addressed without linking them to the systemic and historical dynamics of racial hierarchy and the denial of human value.

This will be one of the objectives of the TRHT enterprise.

The Kellogg Foundation has given TRHT a strong base from which to move forward. Over the last nine years, the nation’s sixth largest private foundation invested more than $200 million in organizations that are working to heal racial divides and eradicate structural bias in their communities. These racial-equity and racial-healing investments and grants have generated insight into the mechanisms of unconscious bias and demonstrated both the power of narrative to shape perceptions and the efficacy of healing-circle methodologies in building trust and relationships, while also helping alleviate internalized racial anxiety, adversity, and stress.

The tools and mechanisms developed through these experiences can now be leveraged to design an appropriate racial healing process for the nation.

The TRHT approach to racial healing is inclusive. By focusing on our humanity, the approach engages many diverse communities: Native American, Latino, Asian American, Pacific Islander, Native Hawaiian, African American, Arab American, and white. The racial healing process is engaging all these groups within local communities across the nation and developing the capacity to embrace individual and collective humanity. Healing experiences will not emphasize victims or perpetrators, but will be designed as a way to change deeply held beliefs and to address their larger consequences.

Across the world, truth and reconciliation commissions are well known, having been implemented more than forty times. But TRHT is focusing less on reconciliation and much more on healing and transformation. To reconcile connotes the restoration of friendly relations—“reuniting” or “bringing together again” after conflict. But the United States needs transformation. The collective national consciousness was formed by belief in racial hierarchy, a belief that has dominated the educational, economic, social, and legal discourse for centuries. TRHT will seek to build the collective commitment and long-term determination needed to embrace a new national narrative, one rooted in belief in the equal humanity of all Americans.

Guiding principles

Drawing from other efforts to foster change and healing in communities and nations around the world, we developed the following seven principles to guide our effort.

1. There must be an accurate recounting of history, both local and national. In words often attributed to the late conservative commentator William F. Buckley Jr., “History is the polemics of the victor.” Consistent with this observation, our history has been written largely by the dominant groups in our society and in our communities in order to serve their particular interests. Negative or embarrassing events, particularly those involving the oppression of non-dominant groups, have too often been suppressed or conveniently forgotten in the retelling of history. Thus, a common prerequisite to an effective and enduring effort to achieve racial equity and healing is full and accurate knowledge of the role racism has played in the evolution of communities. Residents must be aware of this history in order to confront it and understand its relevance to contemporary community issues.

In this process, an atmosphere of forgiveness must be cultivated, and people of all racial, ethnic, and ancestral backgrounds must be encouraged to tell their stories without fear of recrimination, but with a sense that justice will be served. Stories help reveal the common humanity of both the oppressed and the oppressors, and they provide a solid foundation on which to proceed toward justice and healing. Moreover, there must be a recognition that a community’s history occurs in the context of the broader history of the nation. Thus, there must be an ongoing effort to insist that our institutions—especially our schools, the media, and the business and faith communities—help the broader public see a more accurate and complete picture of our national history.

2. A clear and compelling vision, accompanied by a set of ambitious but achievable goals, both long term and short term, must be developed, and progress must be regularly assessed. For true racial healing to occur and endure, we must have a clear and compelling vision of where we want our journey to lead us and, in specific terms, what success will look like. Along the way, there must be measurable and achievable goals. As each goal is achieved, momentum for success will build. Because all wrongs cannot be corrected at once, there should be an effort to focus on what people can, in figurative terms, achieve given their own constraints in navigating their daily lives. Achievement of each goal will represent a milestone, pushing the process forward and inspiring more people to join the journey.

Dismantling structural racism and healing our divisions will be a lengthy and often frustrating process. Racist policies that are deeply embedded in our institutions will not be easily altered, and racial wounds that have been festering for centuries will not be excised overnight. But even though progress often can be slow and painful, each step along the way will help build a more stable and enduring foundation for the next step.

Over the last ten years, the Kellogg Foundation’s investments in communities have demonstrated that today’s advanced technology enables innovative approaches to measuring progress, such as deploying web-based individual and institutional assessments of biased attitudes and practices. Web-based implicit association and bias tests are being widely used by public, private, and nonprofit organizations and by consumers directly. The Intercultural Development Inventory, a well-researched and validated assessment tool, is an example of a technology tool or measurement resource for tracking individual as well as organizational growth and change. Since healing work is grounded in efforts to build relationships and expand connections, the research tools for network mapping are being used to document tangible changes within communities.

For instance, the Kellogg Foundation was a funder and active partner in the Peer Action Learning Network, a collaborative effort led by the Council of Michigan Foundations that assisted organizations in developing and refining their intercultural competencies. One tool used was the Intercultural Development Inventory. Through various online and face-to-face exercises, individual, group, and organizational orientations were identified as denial, polarization (defense or reversal), minimization, acceptance, adaptation, or cultural disengagement. With this information, organizations can better move forward to effect change within their diverse teams and multicultural contexts.

Today, meaningful changes in the nature and strength of networks and cross-racial relationships are being tracked and measured. Activists can achieve, document, and disseminate immediate legislative or litigation victories. As we have seen in recent years, people can provide video documentation and leverage social media to both reveal and quantify actions. Electronic databases, powerful search engines, and new polling technologies can now be used to monitor public narratives and discourse as well as attitudes and behaviors in real time.

3. The process must be expansive and inclusive in all respects, and there must be a deep and unyielding commitment to (a) understanding the different cultures, experiences, and perspectives that coexist in a community; (b) recognizing and acknowledging the interdependence of the variety of approaches to seeking enduring racial equity; (c) reaching out to nontraditional allies in order to broaden support for meaningful change; and (d) giving every participant an opportunity to tell his or her story in a respectful and supportive setting. Especially as immigration and birth rates, among other contributing factors, are dramatically changing the demographics of the nation and of our communities, we must work at including all the diverse populations of a community and understanding the different cultures, experiences, and perspectives that are a growing part of so many communities. Often, racial and ethnic divisions are due to unintended slights and insults that arise out of ignorance or fears of different cultures and perspectives or from levels of implicit bias that are a product of our history and that plague virtually every person in our society. An essential element of achieving racial and ethnic equity is a better understanding of these differences.

Although the entire community need not be involved, the involvement of a broad cross-section of the community is essential to obtain the engagement and support of a critical mass of the public and to effect meaningful and enduring change. This means engaging all the key institutions—including schools, colleges and universities, business and labor, the media, faith communities, government, and law enforcement. Furthermore, there must be definable and significant roles for the leaders of each of these institutions so that they will feel a sense of ownership of both the process and the vision.

Government support can be extremely helpful in engaging the community; however, it is vitally important that decision making not be constrained by political considerations. Grassroots organizations must be active partners in all activities, because of the wisdom and passion they possess. They must be constantly vigilant to ensure that institutional leaders do not seek to derail the process when the journey hits the inevitable potholes in the road. Because resources usually are scarce, partnerships can help sustain activities. Such partnerships must, however, be built on mutual self-interest, and it is important to recognize and address differing organizational cultures and power dynamics within the community.

4. The process of healing requires the building of trust and must be viewed as a “win-win” process. Often, people equate justice with revenge and punishment. While this is understandable—especially in view of particularly egregious past oppressions—divisive rhetoric, blaming, and adversarial proceedings such as lawsuits are not likely to produce an atmosphere that is conducive to constructive change, healing, and transformation. Ultimately, we all share a common fate. We must come to understand that substantial and enduring progress toward racial equity and healing benefits all of us. Therefore, a more productive process, one in which everyone feels acknowledged, is to give everyone, both the oppressed and the oppressors, an opportunity to tell their stories and share the various emotions—anger, rage, pain, fear, frustration—that have animated their behavior. The only requirement is that everyone must tell his or her story with deep integrity and listen with respect to the stories of others.

Here, also, an analysis of the costs of racism to the entire community and the benefits of eradicating it can help create a more positive atmosphere and deepen our understanding that our destinies are tied together. This process is essential to building a deep level of trust, which, in turn, is essential to working effectively for change. Being intentional and up front about one’s goals and why they are important helps establish one’s integrity and, thus, is a crucial element of building trust.

5. There must be a commitment to some form of reparative or restorative justice and to policies that can effectively foster systemic change. Just as an atmosphere of revenge and punishment would not be conducive to healing, neither would empty rhetoric without action to ameliorate the consequences of past wrongs suffice. Those in a position to act must be willing, even anxious, to be held accountable, to promote meaningful and systemic change in order to overcome the pain that often is associated with past wrongs, and to work to establish an atmosphere of mutual trust. Elected officials at every level of government, from the municipal level to the federal level, must be prepared to explore options, enact policies, and adequately fund activities that will help bridge racial divisions and narrow disparities in educational achievement, economic security, the administration of justice, and access to affordable and quality housing and health care.

6. A thoughtful and comprehensive communications strategy must be designed to keep the entire community informed, even those who are neither involved in, nor supportive of, the process. Openness and transparency are essential to give people confidence that they are receiving an accurate picture of the process. These qualities also help build trust in the process. Even opponents can eventually be engaged if they see that the process is open and that blame and shame are eschewed in favor of recognizing the potential for a “win-win” outcome. Major events, like town hall meetings, and smaller events, like joint worship services, along with an aggressive media campaign, school programs, and blogs that give all residents a chance to express their views in an atmosphere of safety are among the ways to keep the community informed and to build support for public policies and other actions to combat institutional practices that have racist ramifications.

7. There must be a broadly understood way of dealing with the tensions that inevitably will arise. This need not be complicated, but it is necessary to build trust and to keep the process from being sidetracked by the tensions of the moment. Here again, a complete understanding of our shared fate is critical. In this context, tensions can be turned into “aha” moments of in-depth learning and significant progress that can strengthen trust among participants in the process. It may be difficult, in the face of frequent crises, to stay strategically focused on key goals. Yet, if organizations prepare in advance to take advantage of so-called “teachable moments,” crises can serve as valuable opportunities for learning and for advancing key goals.

What’s clear is that America must finish the unfinished business of racism. We cannot just acknowledge recent tragedies or merely use them to raise awareness of the problem; we must heal the root cause of the problem. Americans can come together and change our attitudes and beliefs. We can hold each other accountable and begin the hard work of racial healing in our homes, schools, media, neighborhoods, and places of worship. The healing process must include all races and all social and economic classes. There must be a solemn commitment to this work; to unifying our nation; to rejecting racism; to finding strength, not resentment, in our differences. Our children and our collective future are at stake.

The TRHT enterprise provides America with an opportunity to become a world leader in racial healing. There’s an urgency to address this issue today. Changing demographics demand that something be done: most children in the near future will be kids of color, and too many will live in poverty. This creates an imperative for the nation to change the future now. We cannot wait another hundred years.

Notes

1. Melinda D. Anderson, “The Other Student Activists,” The Atlantic, November 23, 2015, http://www.theatlantic.com/education/archive/2015/11/student-activism-history-injustice/417129.

2. Martin Luther King, Jr., from The Maroon Tiger, Morehouse University, January-February, 1947.

3. Samara Freemark, “The History of HBCUs in America,” American RadioWorks, August 20, 2015, http://www.americanradioworks.org/segments/hbcu-history.

4. Scott Jaschik, “Higher Education and the Civil Rights Movement,” Inside Higher Ed, January 2, 2008, https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2008/01/02/wallenstein.

5. “Meta-Analysis of Recent Polling Data on the Impact of Racism on American Society Today,” compiled by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation in conjunction with the Northeastern University School of Journalism, January 28, 2016, http://www.wkkf.org/resource-directory/resource/2016/01/meta-analysis-of-recent-polling-data-on-the-impact-of-racism-on-american-society-today.

6. “Across Racial Lines, More Say Nation Needs to Make Changes to Achieve Racial Equality,” Pew Research Center, August 5, 2015, http://www.people-press.org/2015/08/05/across-racial-lines-more-say-nation-needs-to-make-changes-to-achieve-racial-equality.

To respond to this article, e-mail liberaled@aacu.org, with the author’s name on the subject line.


Gail C. Christopher is vice president for Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation and senior advisor at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

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