A letter from Dr. Gail Christopher, Vice President for Policy and Senior Advisor of WM Kellogg Foundation | Previously published by WM Kellogg Foundation

Have we ever, as a nation, really even imagined an America that has honestly faced its divided legacy and united behind creating equitable economic and educational opportunities for all of our children no matter where they happen to live? These challenges have always been framed as political or partisan rather than as human and community priorities. Today’s changing demographics coupled with recent exposure of violent inequities are now driving public opinion towards a tipping point on the need to address racism. According to a CNN/Kaiser Family Foundation poll covering August through October 2015, 82 percent of Americans now think racism is a problem in America and 49 percent of those (almost half) think it is a big problem. Will we respond to this moment with the wisdom of native or indigenous people and create a healed America for our grandchildren and seven generations yet to come? Today’s technological revolution could be used to leverage social science and civic readiness to usher in a new era in our journey as a nation.This unprecedented moment could mark the beginning of a healed and transformed America, one that has put racism behind us because we no longer believe in it consciously or unconsciously, nor do we allow it to shape our communities, our economy and our democracy.

“Racial bias is an often unspoken part of the American fabric. Through the ages, America has attempted to address racism. Strides were made when slavery was abolished, with the legislation of freedom, the era of Reconstruction, and the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. But these measures and eras were brief episodic moments in our nation’s long history. They did not delve deeply enough into racial healing or try to uproot conscious and unconscious beliefs in racial differences and racial hierarchy. The legacy of racism still affects children, families and communities.” There is tremendous learning, as well as the potential for healing divisions and inequities in our society within the true story or narrative of how we came to be the America that we are today. We must explore this largely hidden story together and find answers to critical questions. We must learn from history so as not to repeat or perpetuate past errors. How did what we now know to have been absurdly wrong, the idea of a taxonomy – a human hierarchy based on superficial physical characteristics such as skin color, facial features, and hair texture become a central organizing principle of our democracy? Why was it allowed to persist for centuries? What reinforced the idea that some people deserved basic care and human rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; while millions of people did not? How has this belief shaped our public policies and systems including housing, immigration, justice and education? To what degree was and is this embedded belief still used today both consciously and unconsciously to justify conditions that foster poverty, segregation and continued relegation to struggle for so many in this country as they try to achieve innate desires for freedom and worth?

Today most of the children born in the United States of America are children of color. They deserve to know the answers to these questions. Moreover, they deserve to grow up in a country that has truly jettisoned that historic taxonomy of human value; the belief in a hierarchy of worth which would relegate them to a lesser place in society, and deny them opportunities for realizing their full potential. Racial healing activities help to generate the public will at both individual and community levels to unite and work together to create more equity. There is much work that remains to be done to uproot the legacy of racial hierarchy and assure the resources and protective factors that all children need.

Residential segregation must be addressed and reversed because it often concentrates poverty, under resources schools and many other requirements for optimal child development. Safety and crime control are of paramount importance too, given the associated trauma and adversity to which too many young children of color are exposed. The epidemic of racialized mass incarceration is leaving indelible scars in economic and family structures for far too many children today. But none of these issues can be effectively addressed without linking the patterns to systemic and historic dynamics of racial hierarchy and denied human value.

Photo: WM Kellogg Foundation

Tragic shootings in Charleston, South Carolina in June 2015 led to a call for removing the confederate flag from that state’s capitol building. The confederate flag symbolizes adherence to past ideology. It also represents an embedded belief in a hierarchy of human value upon which South Carolina’s as well as America’s, foundational legal systems, public policies and economic strategies were built and sustained. The legacy of this belief is represented today in persistent patterns of inequality which cannot be allowed to continue if the United States is to remain economically viable.

If the average incomes of minorities were raised to equal their white counterparts, total US earnings would increase by 12 percent or nearly one trillion dollars. The earnings gain would result in 180 billion dollars in corporate profits. Closing the education gap between African American and Hispanic students and white students would have increased the U.S. GDP by two to four percent in 2008, representing between $310 billion and $525 billion.

By closing the earnings gap and educational gap, businesses, government and the overall economy stand to see great economic growth. While the economic gains would be measureable and concrete, moral and ethical leadership benefits outweigh economic gains for the U. S. on local, national and global scales. A large scale racial healing process is an important foundational step to producing needed societal changes.

There is a growing recognition of the basic human need and desire for peace. Today’s, as well as previous, generations of war refugees and those seeking freedom from terror and instability provide a palpable reminder that as a species the human family is driven to escape from conflict, oppression, and suffering. We are also reminded that cruelty will not be tolerated forever. Experiences of compassion, empathy, love and kindness are not only human needs, they are human rights. The concept of healing is at its most fundamental level an expression of this reality. To heal is to relieve suffering, to foster wholeness and well-being. Racial healing acknowledges the suffering, protracted inhumanity and cruelty caused by adherence to the belief in a hierarchy of human value. Racially-based denial of the full humanity of millions of people has persisted for centuries in the United States. This belief and ideology was legally sanctioned, violently enforced and culturally normalized despite its absurdity. But the human spirit will not be defeated. The system was met with courageous, determined, and continuous resistance by diverse groups of people. Our true history is filled with stories of cooperation, compassion and solidarity across racial and ethnic groups. These responses led to tremendous progress, resilience and landmark victories that affirm human and civil rights. The true story, the narrative about the creation and maintenance of, as well as the resistance to and ultimate (but yet to be realized) demise of a racialized culture in the United States is a collective story of our shared relationships. It embodies the true American history as one of diverse groups that “people” the United States and sovereign Indian Nations. This narrative, with all its nuanced implications has yet to be fully told, embraced or understood.

WKKF racial equity/racial healing investments and grants have generated insights, such as the mechanisms of unconscious bias, and the power of narrative to shape perceptions, the efficacy of healing circle methodologies in building trust and relationships, while helping to alleviate internalized racial anxiety, adversity and stress. These and related tools and mechanisms can now be leveraged to design an appropriate racial healing process for this nation. In addition, the WKKF approach to racial healing is an inclusive approach. By focusing on our humanity, the approach engages many diverse communities: Native American, Latino, Asian American, Pacific Islander, Native Hawaiian, African American, Arab American and White. The proposed racial healing process for the United States would engage all of these groups within local communities across the nation and focus on developing the capacity to embrace our individual and collective humanity. Healing experiences would not be designed as a forum which emphasizes victims or perpetrators, it would be designed as a way to change deeply held beliefs and to address their larger consequences.

If we are as a nation to finally jettison the theory of humanity as a hierarchical taxonomy what are we to replace it with? The good news is that the late 20th century and the 21st-century offer us new insights into human genomics, neuroscience and social sciences that are extremely helpful as we transform our understandings and ways of relating to one another. For example, when we say race is a social construct that has no basis in biological science we can also assert that there is more genetic difference within previously defined racial groups then there is between them. Human genome research has established this as fact. There is also now solid evidence about the geographic origins and historic migration patterns of the entire human family. There is scientific consensus that we all trace our beginnings back to the continent of Africa. But if history is any predictor we know it can take decades sometimes more than a century to replace an archaic emotionally charged idea with a new concept that shatters institutional and individual biases. But today’s information technology can be used to leverage rapidly evolving insights in the field of neuroscience to help us identify and overcome our biases. Organizations such as local police departments and public defenders are now using computerized implicit association tests to identify and reduce their own biases. This kind of work must be taken to scale as part of a comprehensive national racial healing strategy.

“America must finish this unfinished business. We cannot just acknowledge, or merely use recent tragedies to raise awareness of the problem; we must heal the cause. Americans can come together, and change attitudes and beliefs, we can hold each other accountable, and begin the hard work of racial healing in our homes, schools, media, neighborhoods and places of worship. Healing must include all races and all social and economic classes. There must be a solemn commitment to this work, to unifying our nation, to rejecting racism, to finding strength, not resentment, in our differences. Our children, and collective futures are at stake.”

“America has an opportunity to become a world leader in racial healing. There’s an urgency to address this issue today. The changing demographics demand that something be done — most children in our near future will be kids of color, and too many will live in poverty. It creates an imperative for the nation to change the future now. We cannot wait another 100 years.”