The Dream Revisited

Reflections on Race and Equity: A Structural Perspective

by Glenn Harris | September 2014

Sixty years after the seminal Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education, school integration in the United States has stalled, and in many places, reversed. While the U.S. population has become increasingly racially diverse, black and Latino students today are largely isolated in poorly resourced schools and neighborhoods. Race remains a key indicator for all social and economic outcomes for success in American life. As Ta-Nehesi Coates recently wrote in The Atlantic, “The concentration of poverty has been paired with a concentration of melanin. The resulting conflagration has been devastating.”

Roger Andersson’s thought provoking post notes the similarities and distinctions in racial segregation in Europe and the United States. As Andersson notes, many European countries have a history of economic sharing, at least among their citizenry, and a history of utilizing government mechanisms to address persistent inequities.

One of the primary differences between the United States and European nations is that in the United States, class and race are almost synonymous.  The taking of Native lands, slavery, and Jim Crow segregation built and maintained U.S. wealth along racial lines.  Moreover, New Deal policies that created the middle class continued this legacy of racial inequity. This history intertwines American notions of race and class and lays a foundation to manipulate poor and working class white people against the interests they should share with people of color.

From school busing in the 1960s to the election of Barack Obama in 2012, race remains a political wedge in the United States. We need ways of talking about race that not only cut through fear mongering and race wedge politics, but also are transformative in nature, allowing us to develop into healthy and whole communities.  Given the reality of race and its historic, cultural, and institutional impact, we not only need progressive economic policy development, but we must reimagine the roles and practices of community and government in addressing inequity. To achieve this, we must start with a clear understanding of the meaning of racism in America and the ways that race is hard-baked into our institutions. We must move beyond defining racism as individual acts of bigotry. An institutional and structural approach to racism names our history and its cumulative impacts, and provides policy solutions that cut across multiple institutions.

This is the approach that we took during my tenure as the Manager of the city of Seattle’s Race and Social Justice Initiative (RSJI). We developed a common language and understanding of race and inequity across city departments that proved essential in helping to move new policies and practices.  As a way to gauge progress, RSJI surveys city employees every two years to assess their understanding of race. In 2012 nearly 5,000 city employees participated. Over 4,000 employees (86%) stated that it is valuable to examine the impact of race in their work and 70% said they could identify examples of institutional racism.

Building a strong racial equity frame helped the city pass legislation to eliminate criminal background checks (in many instances a needless impediment to employment, disproportionately impacting communities of color), ensure paid sick time, and create a $15 minimum wage. While raising the minimum wage benefits all low-wage workers, using a racial equity analysis to consider additional consequences, like the impacts on small immigrant and refugee businesses or access to social safety net programs, helps to mitigate unintended outcomes that disproportionately impact communities of color. Naming race allows for a more meaningful discussion of class. Uncovering our history of policy decisions that created racial disparities, whether they intended to or not, helps to debunk the “makers and takers” myth – a myth which denies our shared contributions and needs – and allows us to envision the possibility of an equitable future.

RSJI recognizes that government has played a historic role in creating racial inequity, and has a role in undoing it. Put simply, racial inequities stem from systemic, avoidable and unjust policies and practices. Racial equity requires transforming organizational culture, policies, and decision-making to reflect the needs and strengths of all communities.

Andersson notes the limitations of creating greater access in high opportunity neighborhoods, by building more low-income housing as a way to advance racial equity. Indeed, lasting equity demands race-conscious policy and investments that strengthen low-income neighborhoods and communities of color. For example, the City of Seattle is adding specific language on race and equity to itsComprehensive Growth Management plan, naming the need for growth that benefits all. Providing community and government with language and policy opportunities is critical to addressing the injuries of racial segregation. As was the case sixty years ago, separate is inherently unequal.

Defining real inclusion is the first step to addressing segregation in the United States.  Like RSJI, the Center for Social Inclusion (CSI) takes a structural approach to addressing racial equity. For too long race has been a polarizing issue in America.  But it doesn’t have to be. We partner with community organizations to understand the social and political realities on the ground, and we support the leadership and organizing of communities of color to push the right policies forward.  We also support productive conversations about race by crafting research-tested messages that counter the race wedge and build support for policies that help us all.

We must listen to our communities and change the culture of the institutions that represent them. From transportation to food equity and beyond, we can craft public policies that change the structural arrangements that produce racial disparities.  We must recognize, as a growing body of research shows, that policies that explicitly address the needs of communities of color will build a healthier society that improves the well being of us all.

Glenn Harris is President of the Center for Social Inclusion. He previously served as Manager of the Race and Social Justice Initiative for the city of Seattle, Washington. He tweets at @glennharriscsi.

More in Discussion 7: Comparative Perspectives on Segregation