Austin — Fifty years ago, the Civil Rights Movement led to a series of laws banning public discrimination. African Americans were no longer barred from certain restaurants, some schools were integrated and fair housing laws created more living options. But today, it’s clear that court rulings and legislation didn’t change the root cause of conscious and unconscious bias – the widespread belief in racial hierarchy still exists.
As a nation, we didn’t understand the power of this belief, this misguided notion that some people are either superior or inferior because of the color of their skin.
This bias manifests in many ways. Unarmed men and women are killed by police and civilians, the justice system seems tilted toward Whites, and there remains unequal treatment for children and adults when it comes to health, education, housing and employment. David R. Williams, a sociology professor at Harvard University, cites studies showing that when Whites, Blacks and Hispanics visited hospital emergency rooms with the same ailment, White patients received pain medication more frequently than people of color.
Does that make the physicians racist?
That may not be the case. With the advancements in neuroscience, we now know much more about the power of the mind. We understand that unconscious beliefs are deeply held, that centuries of this belief system have unconsciously shaped how some of us respond. But now, 21st century technology – YouTube, cellphones, dashboard cameras, body cameras – are leveraged to shape new beliefs about our humanity. They are capturing and exposing vivid samples of people of color abused and dehumanized. We must move beyond the absurd notion that some people have more value than others.
What’s promising is that recent polling data demonstrates a palpable desire for a positive change in how we view one another and how we shape our society to reflect the inherent value of all people. We have carried the burden and the weight of this mythology of a hierarchy of human value, allowing it to weigh our country down for centuries. We must jettison that belief and move forward with the truth of our equal values as a human family.
It’s significant that a polling analysis conducted by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation in conjunction with the Northeastern University School of Journalism has found that a majority of Whites now acknowledge that racism still exists, and that it creates bias in structures such as the criminal justice system. Furthermore, a majority of Americans believe more needs to be done to eliminate racism. In a poll last year, 53 percent of Whites said more changes needed to be made to give Blacks equal rights with Whites, up from just 39 percent a year earlier.
Those findings underscore that now is the time for the Truth Racial Healing & Transformation process, which the Kellogg Foundation launched on Jan. 28. More than 70 diverse organizations and individuals ranging from the National Civic League to the YWCA USA to the NAACP are partners in the TRHT process. This broad coalition seeks to move the nation beyond dialogues about race and ethnicity to unearthing historic and contemporary patterns that are barriers to success, healing those wounds, and creating opportunities for all children.
Specifically, the TRHT process will prioritize inclusive, community-based healing activities and policy design that seek to change collective community narratives and broaden the understanding that Americans have for their diverse experiences. TRHT will assemble national and local commissions that will hold public forums on the consequences of racial inequity and work toward mobilizing systems and structures to create more equitable opportunities. In the forums, we will also discuss racial hierarchy and how best to dismantle it.
Clearly, there must be broader knowledge of the harm that comes from the devaluation and from the structures of inequality. They create physical harm, they create mental and emotional harm, and when there’s harm, healing is needed.
When an unarmed Black person is killed, I have a bodily reaction to that tragedy. I relive losses of my own, such as when I was a teenager in Cleveland. My first cousin was shot and killed by a White thrill-seeker in our segregated neighborhood. I recall that we buried her that week, while he enlisted in the Navy and left the city. It was the first funeral I ever attended. Despite all the joyful moments my cousin and I shared growing up together, my only lasting recollection is of her body lying in that casket.
All of us must become more cognizant of the cost of violence and the harm. We must be willing to invest in the processes that help to bring about healing.
TRHT will lead this transformation. Other Truth and Reconciliation efforts around the world aim to reconcile. But America’s genesis is this hierarchy. And so we don’t have to come back, we don’t need to reconcile, this nation needs to transform. The TRHT will chart that course.
Dr. Gail C. Christopher is vice president for TRHT and a senior advisor at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.