Liberal Education

The Fierce Urgency of Now: Racial Healing in 2016

Race relations are rapidly regressing, and a perfect storm is brewing that could set back decades of progress. The 2016 presidential election was the first since the US Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Legislation reinstating the protections derived from that provision has not advanced in Congress.

Incidents of police brutality, mostly directed against unarmed people of color, are becoming all too common across the country. Yet, instead of using their bully pulpits to bring the country together after such tragedies, some have used these incidents to divide Americans with dangerous “us versus them” demagoguery not seen since the McCarthy era. Regardless of whether “them” refers to women, African Americans, Hispanic immigrants, people with disabilities, environmentalists, or longtime European allies, this hateful rhetoric has reopened old wounds and inflicted new injuries on groups that are now subject to senseless pain and humiliation.

As an attendee at both national political party conventions this summer, I was particularly alarmed at how some of that divisive rhetoric was out in the open. For decades, this country has made significant progress. Sadly, explicit bias is no longer suppressed and is, once again, accepted in certain sectors of “polite society.” After landmark Supreme Court cases and laws passed in the 1950s and 1960s broke down so many barriers to equality, we are slowly chipping away at the progress that cost so much in blood, sweat, and tears. That the open embrace of such vile attitudes against people of color is happening in the year 2016 is alarming, and it is indicative of wider trends in American society that need to be addressed. This is why the W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s work is so timely.

The Quad Caucus

The foundation’s Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation (TRHT) enterprise is engaging stakeholders across the country in order to transform racial attitudes at all levels. One of these successful ventures was a collaboration with the National Conference of State Legislatures. Through an award from the Kellogg Foundation, the conference created the Quad Caucus as a way of convening state legislators who were members of the National Asian Pacific American, Native American, Black, and Hispanic Caucuses. The purpose was to focus on the adverse effects of structural inequities on children and families of color with the aim of producing recommendations for best-practice models and structural change.

Beginning in 2012, each organization sent a delegation of ten state legislators to ten meetings over a four-year period. Each meeting took place in a different part of the country, with workshops in four key areas of inequity: health, education, juvenile justice, and family economic security. The meetings included site visits that allowed legislators to see how inequities manifested in each region and to witness community-based solutions at work. By creating cross-racial forums to discuss structural racism and create cross-community solutions, Quad Caucus legislators positioned themselves to collectively advance a vision for policy paths that will lead to more equitable outcomes for all children and families.

The meetings began in New Orleans, where the Quad Caucus engaged in healing circles and began discussing such basic concepts as unconscious bias and structural racism. Participating legislators also learned about the “state of affairs” for each racial group and visited the lower ninth ward, where they heard from community members about the slow pace of rebuilding after Hurricane Katrina. The second meeting was held in Chicago, where legislators continued learning about concepts and demographic shifts and the implications of these on income distribution. In Albuquerque, New Mexico, they learned about intervention strategies in the educational pipeline, academic benefits of school diversity, and efforts at better integration. They visited the National Hispanic Cultural Center and learned about parent involvement in childhood education. Legislators were now empowered with the knowledge of how racism is reflected in public policies that directly affect communities of color. The next step would be to provide them with the necessary tools to form a racial equity agenda.

Through subsequent meetings, which took place in Honolulu, Atlanta, and Jackson, legislators learned how communities of color are disproportionately affected when it comes to their health, economic security, and the juvenile justice system. In Jackson, Mississippi, the Quad Caucus delved into how our justice systems are designed to fail people of color and how this leads to their criminalization. Legislators also discussed the deplorable state of juvenile detention practices, which often fail to rehabilitate youth, and they visited the Rankin County Juvenile Detention Center.

Finally, at meetings held in Seattle, Minneapolis, and Miami, legislators worked on developing deeper connections with each other and expanded their multiracial networks. Quad members also received comprehensive media training that enabled them to communicate more effectively about how racism has influenced public policies. Through their participation in the Quad Caucus, state legislators were able to share multiple ways to address inequities. For example, one Hispanic Caucus member reached out to a Black Caucus member from Louisiana to talk about the challenges and inequities in the post-Katrina rebuilding process so that she could apply those lessons in her efforts to support her community in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.

By the time the Quad Caucus met in San Francisco in 2015, the vision of the initiative had been realized through the formation of a cadre of legislative ambassadors who could promote racial equity as well as garner the attention of other state-level colleagues, community-based organizations, and the very constituents they represent. Now, every legislator was able to speak about the issues facing other communities of color, not just their own. Moreover, they could articulate how these issues were connected to the struggles of others and why it was important for all legislators to address these issues, regardless of their own race.

Broadening the conversation

So where do we go from here? How do we continue to work together for healing and equity? With the support of the Kellogg Foundation, the Quad Caucus is organizing its next meeting for this year. Our shared goal is to continue the conversation with participating legislators. However, recent events and the overall climate regarding race relations in our country call for a further broadening of the conversation.

It is now more evident than ever that landmark civil rights cases and the bold legislation that began with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 did not completely erase racial attitudes. Racism is still with us and still pervades public policy. We see it in recent attempts to limit voting rights through voter ID legislation and early voting limits. We see it in the re-segregation of education and in laws with disenfranchising effects on communities of color. We also see it in the way our justice system imposes harsher penalties on people of color.

Policies can be changed through legislation, but racist attitudes cannot be legislated away. This is why the Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation enterprise is so essential. The time for such a transformation is now. With the open attacks against Hispanics, Muslims, people with disabilities, women, and others this political season, we are reminded of the urgent need to address racial tensions before they spiral out of control. The resurfacing of hate speech as an acceptable form of political campaigning in 2016 should serve as a wakeup call.

The Quad Caucus has sought to help legislators develop cross-cultural methods to eliminate institutional barriers, promote racial healing, and ensure that future policies are fair and equitable. Yet, in order to achieve these objectives, people of color cannot be the only ones at the table. This conversation has to include everyone, regardless of color.

Engaging colleges and universities as partners in this effort could definitely be a game changer. College students are at a ripe stage where TRHT efforts can be highly effective. Whether it is through academic courses that focus on race relations, or student organizations that promote healing circles, or research conducted by professors and students, younger generations—the leaders of tomorrow—need to be able to overcome their individual and collective biases so that all Americans can thrive in what will soon become a minority-majority nation.

Recent events have made it clear that racial healing is essential if we are to thrive as a nation. The TRHT enterprise hopes to create opportunities for communities to come together to face this challenge. However, they cannot do it by themselves. Everyone must recognize the importance of these issues and how they affect them and their communities. Only then will we heal; only then will we truly transform.

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Kenneth Romero is executive director of the National Hispanic Caucus of State Legislators.

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