I hear a lot about racial healing, but until this summer, I hadn’t taken the time to really think about what a racial healing process would entail. Last month, I posted three, separate blogs to capture what I saw as three critical steps. Now—as an end of summer recap—I’ve abbreviated and combined them here into one easy-to-read, racial healing primer. With suggested activities and readings, hopefully this post is a good educational tool for the traditional start of the school year.
Step One: Reveal
Most of us have only seen America from the vantage point of white America (because you are white or because our country’s educational and media experiences are dominated by the white perspective). Because of this, our knowledge of race and racial injustice is cursory.
This was revealed powerfully in an episode of the TV show, Jeopardy in the second round, double jeopardy, when all but one category had been entirely answered. Remaining on the board—untouched—was African American History. This was a special episode of the show; the contestants were all college students. Even America’s best and brightest were not ready for this category because little in their education had adequately prepared them. And—this is important—the episode wasn’t from the early days of the show, in the 1960s. This happened in 2014.
Revealing our lack of knowledge and correcting a white-dominated view is the first step toward healing. There must be a comprehensive and deep understanding of where we are and how we got here if we are to heal.
If you are ready for a deeper understanding, I commend the following three books and a recent mini-series to start your learning journey:
- Stamped from the Beginning by Dr. Ibram Kendi. Dr. Kendi is a Professor of History and International Relations at American University and the Founding Director of the University’s Antiracist Research and Policy Center. The subtitle of his book is “The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America.” Dr. Kendi comprehensively reveals the historical origins of racist beliefs in a way that most of us have never heard. He is thorough!
- The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein. Rothstein is a research associate at the Economic Policy Institute. The subtitle of his book is “A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America.” When one thinks about how much is attached to where we live (see my April 2019 blog, Home) along with Rothstein’s revelations on the intentionality of the federal government in ensuring disparate living areas, we can better understand different life outcomes, by race.
- Remembering Slavery edited by Ira Berlin, Marc Favreau, and Steven Miller. This book, subtitled “African Americans Talk About Their Personal Experiences with Slavery and Emancipation” presents stories told by formerly enslaved people to HBCU students at Fisk University, Southern University and Kentucky State University during the 1920s and 1930s and to researchers from the Federal Writers’ Project during the New Deal. Like Jewish people who proclaim “Never forget” to implore society to never forget the atrocities that happened to their people, this book reveals the first-person truth about slavery that few know today.
- When They See Us is a mini-series co-written and directed by Ava DuVernay. It captures the experience of five young African American men falsely accused of rape, their treatment when the crime occurred in 1989, how the media portrayed them, how the public reacted, their imprisonment, and their exoneration in 2002 when the real rapist confessed. This is an age-old story grounded in the perceived purity of white women, the bestiality of black men, and their lust for white women within a biased and structurally racist criminal justice system.
When you read or view these resources, you may notice they are hard to watch or to comprehend fully at first. Take time. Read and re-read. Make yourself watch the difficult parts of the mini-series. Is it hard for you to believe that someone would confess to a crime that they didn’t do? Is it hard for you to conceive that a private citizen spent $85,000 for an ad in a major New York City paper, calling for the death penalty? What leads both to take the actions they did? Can you see the layering of prejudicial messages that Kendi traces over centuries that culminate in the Central Park Five or in the segregationist policies that Rothstein unveils? Do you believe the stories of the formerly enslaved people or do you think they are misrepresenting or exaggerating that experience? Take the time to get in touch with your thoughts and your feelings and think about what contributes to them.
The learning must go beyond a personal level if there is to be real healing for our country. A short reading and viewing list are entirely inadequate to address 400 years of the African-American experience. We must include the study of our racial history in the core curriculum of every elementary, middle, and high school in America. Research has shown that preconceptions and biases based on race emerge at very early ages. We must address those consciously, with structured, well-developed curricula, at every level of our K-12 educational system. Then, we must embed a more in-depth study of structural racism and implicit bias into the curriculum of colleges and universities at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. We must graduate leaders who can see where we are as a country and how we got here so they can lead us to a place of racial equity.
The history of race and racism in America, its depth, breadth, and impact must be revealed and understood. This understanding is an essential first step to move toward racial healing.
Step Two: Reflect
Where do you reflect on the broader issues facing you and your family or our country? My place is by the water, which is where I do my most serious thinking. Over the last few years, I have thought a lot about race and racism in America. What about you?
When you really sit back and think, you sometimes realize how much you take at face value. A quick example: One often hears statistics about the disproportionate number of African Americans in prison in the US. In 2017: 33% of those imprisoned were black, yet blacks represented only 12% of the adult American population then. Why the overrepresentation?
- Do you think black people are more criminal than whites?
- Do you sympathetically/empathetically/paternalistically believe African-Americans have had a hard life in America and therefore commit more crimes to survive?
- Do you ever consider there may be something systemic that contributes to this disparity?
If the third option has never occurred to you, add Ava DuVernay’s documentary “13th” and cartoonist Mark Fiore’s Racist EZ Cash to your viewing list along with adding Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness to your reading list.
My point is that race and racism in America require significant learning (and unlearning) and then reflection to get to a place where we are ready to heal. Have you ever contemplated—really reflected on—the racial challenges facing our country and the people who live here? Is it possible that race, and disparate treatment (based on race), may contribute to some disproportionate outcomes we have in America? Is it possible that some American “truths” were born of prejudice, misinformation or just plain old ignorance? You don’t know what you don’t know, right?
While we can all sit quietly and consider what we’ve read or viewed—and we should do that—I believe there are other ways to jump-start the process. Here are two resources that are based on deep reflection that you may find useful.
- Waking Up White by Debby Irving. Irving is a white author who describes her growing understanding of what it means to be white in America, something that she had thought nothing about until well into her adulthood. Her “aha” moments started with understanding who benefited, and who didn’t, from what many feel created America’s middle class, the GI Bill.
- White Privilege (2018) is a video in the “Putting Racism on the Table” learning series produced by the Washington Regional Association of Grantmakers. This segment features noted author, Robin DiAngelo. DiAngelo, who is white, is credited with the term, “white fragility.” In an easy-to-digest way, DiAngelo reveals that white privilege is not about income (the common misconception), but is about power, acceptance, and position in society that is “earned” solely by skin color.
Despite the well-meaning admonition, no one can walk in another’s shoes. You need a guide, a translator, someone to help you see the world through a lens you don’t have. I urge you to find a thought partner with whom you can be truthful. Have serious conversations about the racial reality of America—the small things and big—and reflect on what you think and why you feel that way. Share your thoughts fully and honestly. These conversations, the serious reflection, will bring you to an understanding you cannot reach alone.
Now, while I think personal reflection and conversations with a trusted colleague/friend will broaden your understanding and deepen your interpersonal relationships, the critical question remains: How can this country move to societal-level racial healing?
Well, first, the obvious: societal change doesn’t happen without the leadership of a person. That person’s passion will catalyze a small group whose energy then moves to a larger group and from that the ripples continue. The fostering of ideas and understanding among average, everyday people, like you and me, leads to a groundswell of interest and thought that can lead to change. But we need the leadership of people at the top, people in power, who want this change to occur. In South Africa, for example, F. W. de Klerk, the last president before the end of apartheid, a white man, and Nelson Mandela, the first president after apartheid, a black man, came together to support a process to foster racial healing in their country. This process should recognize the racial wounds that had divided their nation and then lead to healing and restorative justice. Fully successful? Perhaps not, but a vital collective step for their country.
Through a means of revelation and reflection, we can create a growing group of people who understand what has happened in America and why. We don’t have the leadership that South Africa had, at least not yet, but we can, and must, develop a focus on change and be ready when the needed leadership emerges.
Part Three: Recalibrate
Now we’re at the hard part. We must do something.
As a country, we have functioned in a certain way for decades. The systems/customs/mores that underpin our country have worked fine… for many. But for others—people of color broadly and African Americans in particular—embedded structural racism and unconscious bias, regularly reinforced, has created an environment many now recognize as wrong.
If we are to heal as a country, we must overhaul our racial belief system to enable us to recalibrate and fix a system of legal, structurally embedded, racism. This is a massive undertaking, but as the Chinese proverb states, “The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”
Recently, I read an exquisitely crafted commentary in the Chronicle of Higher Education from Patricia McGuire, President of Washington, DC’s Trinity University. In “How Higher Education Can Atone for Its Long History of Racism,” McGuire writes,
“Renovation can sometimes cure outmoded structures, but sometimes the only solution is demolition and rebuilding. To make real progress in eliminating the structures of racism that depress the enrollment of black students, universities need to move from gestures of good intentions to real transformation. Rather than using metrics derived from the behaviors of traditional student populations—predominately white, economically secure, attending full time with parental financial support—universities that want to lead real change in eradicating the vestiges of segregation need to develop entirely new approaches to admissions, curricula and pedagogy, support services and measures of academic success that are not seat time in one place.”
President McGuire is talking about the complete recalibration of the higher education system. It is broken. It isn’t working for many students of color. Tinkering around the edges is inadequate. As McGuire says, “the only solution is demolition and rebuilding.”
To heal, that level of reflection and transformation is required. Reforms are unquestionably needed in the criminal justice system, in education, in housing, health care, and environmental justice. Large scale recalibration is necessary for almost all the systems that shape America. So, when I am asked, “Where should I start?” My answer is, “Anywhere, just start.”
Everyone doesn’t have the platform of a university president, but we each have a voice, and we each have a means to exercise it. A relatively easy, yet profound way to begin is by asking a pivotal question: Will people of different races be affected differently?
What if you asked that question at the next PTA meeting when a new initiative is considered at your child’s school or at a meeting of your professional association? You could ask your state/city/county representative when you hear a new idea is being considered to address a community need.
Just imagine the effect if we all asked about the differential impact on racial/ethnic groups. The discussion or planning for a new metro/subway stop or bus route, for example, might change if the leaders were asked: What neighborhoods will be disrupted or destroyed? What communities still lack adequate public transportation coverage? Is there an impact based on race?
Typically, when new societal interventions are considered, such as enhanced public transportation, the notion is all will benefit. Ever hear the expression, “All boats rise?” Think about it, even if all boats rise, the disparity is likely to remain. We may have achieved equality—offering the same thing to everyone, but we may not have achieved equity—addressing/improving existing racial differentials.
To fix America, we must have a heightened awareness and increased, intentional action. By asking a simple, critical question, you plant a seed, you introduce the concept of equity versus equality. When you put racial fairness on the table as a concept for those who may not have ever considered the potential for differential impact, you are playing a pivotal role in recalibrating America. You are helping us to heal.
I have always believed lasting change must both bubble up and trickle down. I do not minimize the link between the dearth of leadership from our country’s “top” and America’s lack of progress toward racial healing. I continue to believe in “We the people.” We can foster a new—better—way of thinking. We can promote fresh ideas and different actions. We—the people—can recalibrate America.
Getting to racial healing may be long and painful, but I believe it will not take as long or be as painful as the journey of racial inequity in America has been. It won’t be 400 years. With an intentional commitment to racial healing, knowledge will grow, and behaviors will change, slowly at first and then momentum will build. It is already happening.