By Dr. Gail Christopher
WASHINGTON, DC—Tears of joy were shed the night that America elected its first African American president. It was fresh evidence the historic civil rights struggles of the 50s and 60s had been worth the fight; that blood had not been spilled in vain. And across the nation, the words “President-elect Barack Obama” uplifted young and old, urban and rural, well-off and poor.
But the next day the invisible barriers created by structural racism still haunted our society: Latino workers tended crops for low wages in California, Native Americans awoke jobless on reservations and African American mothers-to-be worried about losing their babies. The election was an historic moment, an unprecedented one in fact, but it didn’t suddenly end racism in America. There is no “post-racial” America or “colorblind” America – not yet.
Clearly, those descriptions don’t apply when the National Center for Children in Poverty reports that 61 percent of African American children, 62 percent of Latino children and 57 percent of Native American children live in low-income families; when infant mortality rates are twice as high for African Americans as for whites; and when Hispanic youth are incarcerated at rates seven to 17 times greater than those of whites in such states as Connecticut, Hawaii, Massachusetts and New Hampshire.
Thus, the election was merely a beginning, an opportunity to move toward the post-racial nation that most Americans so badly want to exist.
At the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, our mission is to serve vulnerable children and help propel them to success regardless of their race, religion or color. But our board boldly recognized that to succeed at that mission we had to address structural racism in America or we couldn’t provide vast new opportunities for children and create environments conductive to helping them succeed in communities across the country.
Structural racism has to end so that children have equal opportunities to flourish. Racism is rooted in our society as a privilege based solely on physical characteristics; it’s a systematic privilege strung throughout public policies and private practices. Racism is antithetical to the concept of E Pluribus Unum. Many Americans seek a country of many races, religions and ancestries transformed into a united people and nation, but only with persistence and determination can we get there.
Since the very beginning of the American democracy, various groups of people have been denied resources and opportunities. It has impaired generations. The barriers often dictate where people live, the quality of their environment, the medical care available to them and what schools their children attend. Many people feel powerless to overcome the obstacles. The inability to cope in a world tilted against them can have unhealthy outcomes—studies cite relationships between the stress of everyday life for people of color and shorter life expectancies and higher rates of infant mortality, diabetes, heart disease and other physical and mental ailments.
It took centuries to build this system of privilege based on the myth of racial differences. And it would be naive to think it could be dissolved in a few decades, or with one election.
But the fight must be engaged. The Kellogg Foundation has stepped to the forefront in confronting structural racism with our America Healing initiative, which will spend $75 million over the next five years improving life outcomes for vulnerable families and children while promoting racial healing in their communities.
The first phase of the initiative includes grants totaling $14.6 million to 119 projects that will specifically improve race relations in those communities. Other phases of the initiative will seek to curtail racism in the media, environment, education, housing, health and criminal justice, with an emphasis on expanding opportunities for children.
What’s so heartening about the racial healing phase of the initiative is what it says about the American people. Many are willing to take the next step, to work and create an America where there is equality. The RFP for grants was on our website for 60 days, and we were stunned to get about 1,000 applications, asking for nearly $300 million. The news media report on a lot of ugliness and divisiveness in our society, but there is also a groundswell of good will. People want to move beyond conversations about race relations and address the hard issues.
Our grants will help Native American families and children heal the wounds from the decades-old policy of removing Native American children from their homes. In Michigan, efforts will be made to heal the wounds still being suffered by Arab Americans after 9/11. Asian American students will form a youth network to better interact and understand the culture of other youths. In Greensboro, N.C., African Americans will gain assistance in reconciling with a history of oppression in a city where three-quarters of African American children are impoverished.
Similar activities will take place throughout the country – in white and ethnic communities. But the main story isn’t the programs; it’s the people who want a better America, the extraordinary number of people with a willingness to work with their neighbors to find common ground. They are forming a silent movement about to be unleashed, about to change America. Eventually, the progress they make will shake the hold that structural racism has on our society and emerge as a far bigger story line than the divisiveness frequently on the airwaves.
As the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts once vowed, “…the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.”