The images of police in riot gear staring down protesters in Ferguson, Mo., as well as photos of looters emerging from shattered store windows, seem an anachronism in 21st-century America. So, too, does the event that set off several days of unrest in the predominantly black St. Louis suburb — a white police officer shot and killed an unarmed 18-year-old African American male.
The summer of 2014 has been both a recognition of racial progress — the 50th anniversaries of the passage of the Civil Rights Act and Freedom Summer and the 60th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown vs. BoE decision — and a reminder that serious concerns about racial discrimination and injustice remain. In addition to Brown’s death, there has been outrage over the death of Eric Garner, a black man who died in police custody in Staten Island in mid-July, and the widely circulated video of a white California Highway Patrol officer straddling a black woman and punching her repeatedly on the side of the road.
Since 2010, Gail Christopher has headed the Kellogg Foundation’s “America Healing” initiative, which aims to improve the quality of life for children from poor and low-income families by tackling structural racism. The foundation makes grants to groups that try to get people to acknowledge and understand long-held biases and work to erase them.
She The People asked Christopher, who is vice president for program strategy with Kellogg, to talk about the events of the past week in Ferguson.
Q: What do the events in Ferguson say about the state of race relations in our country?
A: I think it is a powerful reflection or mirror of the work that has yet to be done. It reflects residential segregation; it reflects the legacy of discriminatory hiring practices; it reflects the persistence of a discriminatory policing culture, which is rampant in this country, driven as much by unconscious bias as conscious intent. As with the Trayvon Martin situation, and all the others, they all reflect the unfinished business, the need for true racial healing in America.
Q. But things have changed since the 1960s, haven’t they? This summer we also celebrated signing the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act, the 60th anniversary of the Brown decision, the 50th anniversary of Freedom Summer.
A. I think it’s important to put all of that progress in a context that considers those were episodes in our history, episodic moments in terms of the fight. The civil rights era didn’t last a long time if you compare that to the centuries of the embedded practice of racial hierarchy, both during slavery and after slavery. Those were centuries. We can’t expect brief episodes of activity like the civil rights era to have fixed it. We were naïve to think that that period was going to be the solution to a protracted, embedded belief and institutionalization of a system of racial hierarchy.
Q. But how did we manage to elected a black president?
A. The disparities in wealth, incarceration rates and residential segregation levels were the same on the day before and on the day after the election of our nation’s first African American president. How did we, and how did he, overcome our nation’s racial divide to win, twice? A careful analysis of the votes shows that despite the impressive number of votes that he did receive from whites, it was the “minority” votes, and particularly the young minority votes, that made the difference. The subsequent campaign to limit access to voting may well be part of the backlash to this phenomenon. The long-standing racial divides in America may have become more pronounced as part of the backlash to his election. His election is a critically important symbol and evidence of progress, but it does not mean that our nation has healed the legacy of more than three centuries of embedded belief and practice of racial hierarchy.
Q. So, did some of us get ahead of ourselves, declaring the country to be “post-racial” because of Obama’s election?
A. The idea of racial differences not mattering, which is the post racial frame — it’s really an aspirational expression. Wouldn’t it be nice if that were true! But it isn’t true. And the idea of, and I like to talk about it as a belief, the idea of a natural and embedded hierarchy of human value based on physical characteristics, that’s what racism is. That idea is so deeply entrenched in our country that to evolve beyond that will take a concentrated and persistent effort. It’s not something that can be solved by protest alone. We have embedded that belief in our science, in our legal system, in our economic system. We have to undo it in all of those systems and institutions, and we have to replace it with the true nature of our humanity, which is we are one human family.
Q. Demographers and political scientists point to the growing population of people of color, who will not have the same racial divisions. Is it just a matter of the old guard dying off?
A. If the upcoming group faces the economic and opportunity barriers, [such as] our current education system, which is driven by residential segregation and economic segregation, and if these conditions continue, then the next generation of young people will face the same racial divides.
As a foundation, our commitment is to children, and we have a commitment to racial equity and racial healing because we see what the future is projecting for our children. We decided that in addition to all the other things we need to invest in — health, education, family economic security – we had to deal with the fundamental issue of racism. We’re also investing in helping communities around this country move to a willingness to work together, across racial lines, to heal this legacy that continues to shape institutions, communities and systems.
Q. How is it in 2014 the dynamic between white police officers and black men seem the same as it was in the 1960s?
A. One of the questions that’s being asked is “What about this young man’s role?” The response is he was not armed, so his actions or behaviors are not likely to have warranted him being shot and killed, from what we can see right now. We don’t know what actually happened, but there are better ways to manage the behavior of teenagers than shooting and killing them, especially if [they are unarmed]. It would appear that our police forces in general need better skills and a different set of expectations about their behavior, and that’s what that community is asking for. If you combine the propensity to use lethal force with the unconscious bias that exists, particularly within in a racially disparate situation of mostly white police officers and young black people, the risks for inappropriate use of force are going to be greater. This requires special training, in addition to diversifying the force. We have to acknowledge a high-risk situation, and we need to minimize those risks both from the standpoint of young people and the police force.
Q. Which of society’s institutions is best suited to help improve race relations, and why haven’t they been more effective?
A. The church has a very powerful role to play. And if you look historically at when there has been progress, whether it was the abolition movement or the civil rights movement, to a limited degree faith community did play a role and has a much bigger role to play now and needs to be engaged. It’s beginning to happen. The organization Sojourners had a big conference about a month ago about helping the faith community to deal with racism. It’s beginning to happen, but it would be wonderful if more mainline religious organizations played a much more active role in overcoming this legacy.
It’s a private-sector issue, a public-sector issue. When you think about it, the future economic viability of our country requires that we do this, and our standing in the world. It’s a public challenge, a government challenge. We would be more respected by the rest of the world if we lead and do this well. We’ve got to stop being in denial and being afraid to acknowledge the absurdity of the persistence of the legacy of racial hierarchy. It’s just crazy. As human beings we are 99.9 percent the same — the human genome project told us that. We need to jettison this 18thcentury mindset.
It’s personal, and it’s institutional, and it’s structural. People make up institutions, so we can’t deny personal responsibility and personal role. But we’ve got to work to get to where we make the right choices to build into our systems the opportunities, not to manifest our innate prejudices, and help ourselves overcome our biases. We have to move beyond denial of the need to do it. Many of our grantees and other community-based nonprofit organizations are already engaged in this work. I believe we need a more robust commitment to the challenging work of racial healing, not just from philanthropy. It is an urgent call for leadership from all sectors of our society … the private, government and the public sectors. It’s hard to establish priorities, and with all the stuff that’s going on in the world, how do you make it a priority? I think we have to because of our children — and Michael Brown was one of our children.