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Albert Einstein once said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.” But for people who regularly confront frustrating bureaucrats or engage indecisive government bodies, imagining may feel a bit indulgent. The members of the Separation Design Team of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s Truth, Racial Healing & Transformation (TRHT) enterprise understand the limitations of government and of institutions, as well as the often snail’s pace of change. Yet by applying imagination, values, and experience, the team is envisioning an American society where racial separation is no longer the norm.
To flesh out its vision, the team is imagining what it would look like for schools, neighborhoods, public libraries, parks, and recreational spaces to be “diverse,” yes, but also—and more importantly—for them to enable new forms of community. What would a community look like if people brought to it their full selves—their cultures, histories, worship traditions, languages, genders, sexual orientations, ways of knowing, points of view—if all were empowered to make contributions to it, and if all enjoyed equal status and felt a sense of belonging within it? This is not just a matter of increasing access or reducing segregation; we must be equally concerned with how people feel in public settings. Indeed, how people feel, how they are treated, and the opportunities they have to fully express their authentic selves may determine whether they can flourish in their communities.
The Separation Design Team is principally concerned with racial separation, a condition so embedded in our nation’s landscape that it is commonly deemed intractable. The separation of the races manifested in our public schools, our neighborhoods, and our workplaces is rooted in racism, in the belief in a hierarchy of human value. This separation—the product of a tangled mix of laws, policies, practices, and habits that developed over centuries—does more than merely separate whites from blacks, native peoples, Latinos, Asian Americans, and other racial, ethnic, and religious groups. By concentrating poverty in neighborhoods of color, separation itself drives and deepens racial inequalities in wealth, income, political power, and well-being, and it results in unequal access to resources like healthy food, safe recreational spaces, employment that pays a living wage, and fair financial services.
Research strongly suggests that racial isolation feeds on itself by reinforcing prejudice, bias, and stereotypes that are both unconscious and conscious.1 Racial separation shrinks circles of human concern and narrows conceptions of community by limiting opportunities for interaction among different groups, for empathy, for seeing ourselves in one another, and for co-creating strategies to end racism and build a more connected, healthy, just, and equitable society.
Since 2000, the number of people in the United States who live in concentrated poverty has nearly doubled, from 7.2 million in 2000 to 13.8 million in 2013.2 In large part because of past and current discrimination, concentrated poverty is linked with race. One in four African Americans and one in six Latino Americans live in high-poverty neighborhoods, compared to one in thirteen whites.
Simply bringing together people from varied racial, cultural, and economic backgrounds is hardly an adequate solution to the problem of separation.
The embedded belief in a hierarchy of human value confers status upon whites, who generally possess more power and privilege in society than do people of color. And thus, as the design team crafts its vision of a society without racial separation, the nation’s history and its contemporary practice of colonization are overriding concerns. The term “colonization” may seem at first like an exaggeration, but imagine colonization as a continuum. In its most extreme forms, it is manifest in the slaughter, dispossession, and attempted destruction of native peoples and cultures. Colonization is also manifest in slavery and in the exploitation of resources and labor, as in the US territory of Puerto Rico.
The same need to control and suppress that which is different from, or threatening to, the dominant culture is manifest in contemporary forms of exclusion and in attempts to contain, control, suppress, or alter the cultures of historically marginalized groups. This includes, for example, teachers instructing Latino students not to speak Spanish, police officers disproportionately pulling over African American drivers for alleged traffic violations, and school curricula failing to incorporate contributions or perspectives of people of color.
TRHT’s underlying premise is that people are the key forces in a democratic society, and they make decisions and take actions based on their most deeply held beliefs. The slow pace of change within public institutions is, to a large degree, a mirror of the beliefs and attitudes held by those in power and the constituents who elected them. The five TRHT design teams are developing strategies that address both the individual transformations and the structural changes, short and long term, required to sustain progress. This comprehensive, dual focus was largely missing from previous civil rights and racial progress efforts.
Clearly, if just the belief in a hierarchy of human value were abandoned, communities would still be left with its fruits—segregated and disinvested neighborhoods and schools, prisons and jails overflowing with young men of color, ever-increasing income inequality. If the social structures created by the belief in a hierarchy of human value are not also eradicated, then another generation of children will be exposed to racism. This belief and these structures must be dismantled in tandem.
Imagining an integrated and decolonized society
As the Separation Design Team began to envision a society that had abandoned the belief in a hierarchy of human value, it raised several questions: Where would people live? What types of choices would they have about where to send their children to school? How would the aspiration to reduce racial separation be balanced with the need to enable members of all groups to retain their cultural and personal integrity, to experience a sense of belonging, and to enter public settings—schools, colleges, neighborhoods, social spaces—where they perceive opportunities or where they simply wish to be?
Of course, some people of color are comfortable in their culturally defined neighborhoods or schools. They may not want to live or attend school in white-dominated or racially diverse settings where they may feel uncomfortable. How would an ideal society ensure that such people are not denied vital opportunities?
The Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam distinguishes between “bridging” and “bonding” capital.3 Bonding capital is derived from social ties that link people with others who are similar to them in terms of an important dimension such as nationality or cultural group. Bridging capital, on the other hand, is more difficult to develop. It is derived from social ties that link people together with others across an identifiable split in society, such as class, educational level, or race. In the type of society envisioned by the design team, people would have ample opportunity to develop both kinds of capital via an array of experiences. People who work and live in culturally diverse settings would move deliberately toward equity, in part by examining their own biases; engaging in authentic, truthful conversations with fellow community members; and actively dismantling rules, policies, and practices that sustain inequality.
Realizing the vision of a truly integrated and decolonized society will require person-to-person processes of racial healing and transformation, along with a simultaneous reexamination and transformation of laws, policies, practices, and habits. There are many inspiring examples of progress. Teachers, school principals, community organizers, and planners are creating and nurturing healthy, equitable, and diverse institutions and living spaces where people from different backgrounds can live and learn together. There are magnet schools; mixed-income, racially diverse, equity-conscious neighborhoods; libraries that function as centers for community building; and organizations that bring immigrants and refugees together with people born in the United States in order to create more welcoming, connected communities.
As it explores historical patterns and events that have fueled racial separation and colonization, the Separation Design Team will identify leverage points for transformation. It will also propose concrete action to reduce racial separation, change hearts and minds, and move our nation toward healing and transformation. The essential criterion will be whether these leverage points and action steps can help us build a racism-free, equitable, healthy, and connected society.
1. See, for example, L. R. Tropp and E. Page-Gould, “Contact Between Groups,” in APA Handbook of Personality and Social Psychology, Volume 2: Group Processes, ed. M. Mikulincer, P. R. Shaver, J. F. Dovidio, and J. A. Simpson (Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2014), 535–60; L. R. Tropp and R. Mallett, eds., Moving Beyond Prejudice Reduction: Pathways to Positive Intergroup Relations (Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2011).
2. Paul A. Jargowsky, “Architecture of Segregation: Civil Unrest, the Concentration of Poverty, and Public Policy,” The Century Foundation, August 7, 2015, http://apps.tcf.org/architecture-of-segregation.
3. See, for example, Ross J. Gittell and Avis C. Vidal, Community Organizing: Building Social Capital as a Development Strategy (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1998); Robert D. Putnam, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000).