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Wednesday, July 21, 2010

America Healing: Addressing structural racism in America

Two men with the same resume apply for a job. The only difference between them is that one is white and the other is black. They should have the same chance of getting that job, right?

Recently, I heard Harvard professor David R. Williams speak at the launch of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s new America Healing Initiative. Professor Williams talked about a study that found that even with identical resumes, it was easier for a white male with a felony conviction to get a job than a black male whose record was clean.

This is a perfect example of structural racism, which the Kellogg Foundation defines as “a system in which the policies and practices of both government and private institutions continue to privilege some and disadvantage others based on physical characteristics.”

Professor Williams also talked about how racial discrimination in the workplace and in schools can lead to disparities in the health of minority populations. For example, communities of color are disproportionately represented among those living in poverty and also people of color graduate from college at much lower rates than their white counterparts. Many studies have shown a correlation between education and life expectancy—people with higher levels of education are more likely to live longer lives. Yet, even at the same education level, when you compare the life expectancy of a white college graduate to a black college graduate, there is still a four-year disparity in life expectancy. That’s how you know race still matters.

The America Healing initiative is a $75 million effort to take on structural racism and advance racial healing in America. The America Healing Initiative seeks to improve outcomes for vulnerable children by eliminating barriers to opportunities. Under the initiative, 119 organizations, representing 29 states and the District of Columbia, will receive grants specifically to support community-based organizations’ healing efforts among racial and ethnic groups that address historic burdens, disparities, and barriers to opportunity in education, health, and economic areas.

Although some schools, churches, neighborhoods, and workplaces seem to be fully integrated, this does not mean that all people, regardless of race, now have an equal opportunity to reach their full potential. I must admit that I am impressed by the Kellogg Foundation’s courage and willingness to tackle structural racism in America. It is not often that attention is focused on the historical or systemic causes of inequities between whites and people of color. School and residential segregation, redlining, and other actions have created and continue to create significant barriers to opportunity and success for non-white children and families. And, although we have made great progress moving beyond the blatant racial discrimination of earlier decades, today’s communities of color are still facing the subtle remnants of the past.

To view the webcast of the America Healing Initiative launch, click here.