I’ve spent the last two days with Julie Nelson of the Local and Regional Government Alliance for Race and Equity, Glenn Harris of the Center for Social Inclusion, and Leon Andrews of the National League of Cities. The occasion: our Race, Equity and Leadership summits, which Glenn and Julie have designed and led.
I like to think that I’m reasonably attuned to issues of bias and race. I understand (and have taught the ideas of) institutional and structural racism. I am convinced that they have validity, as some of my recent blogs have sought to illustrate.
But I’m finding that I also still have much to learn.
Talking about some of the conversations with participants, I found myself discussing the recent history of a particular minority community with which I am familiar. I know this stuff, right? I have insight.
Then I actually heard myself talking as though the problems in that community were a result of the choices of individuals and social groups within that community.
Is there truth in that observation? Yes.
But the larger context of the events that I described simply as choices was created by educational, land use, economic development and public safety policies that stacked the deck against the community’s successful navigation of social change.
Could the community have navigated it successfully anyway? Sure. But it would have been extraordinarily difficult, like running the 50-yard dash with a boulder.
Majority communities rarely have the deck so neatly stacked against them. Many, in fact, have a head start on problem solving before the problem even arises.
It’s not about policy makers (like me) setting out to harm minority communities. It’s about not seeing the effects of our policy decisions.
And that’s the point of these REAL (Race, Equity and Leadership) conversations.
If we agree that we can and should talk about race, we create a space for gaining new insights into the sources of some of our most significant social and economic challenges. By naming race as a factor that conditions the experiences of men, women and children, not because we want it to, but because a history of normalized practices and approaches has had, and continues to have, that effect, we also create space for new approaches, new policies to emerge.
And that’s what we need.
Dear Reader, if your thought is, “I’m so tired of talking about race,” know that you are not alone. My sense is that most people, of all races, would love to stop talking about race and simply live in a society where race was not a barrier, was not something that conditions the life chances of far too many people.
It’s like dealing with cancer.
No one wants cancer. When that diagnosis first is declared, the cancer-sufferer, family and friends often obsess over it. It’s all they can talk about.
Then, often, there’s this decision just to stop.
Even in the silence that follows, the disease retains extraordinary power. It’s always in the background, like a barely audible musical theme, in a minor key, running under the scenes of the movie of our life.
We gain control over this destructive power of disease when we name it, agree that we can talk about it, accept that it is conditioning much of our life, and choose to fight against that effect consciously and courageously. It’s not by ignoring that there is cancer in our system; it is by confronting it and refusing to let it define us that we triumph, whether the disease itself is physically defeated or not.
Can we have the same courage about racism? Can we acknowledge the cancer that thrives in our institutions and our ways of thinking?
It’s not a cancer we chose to have, nor one we want to keep.
But it’s real.
And it is time we got real about it.