America has a race problem, and one of the best ways to deal with it is to acknowledge the systemic and structural manifestations that help reinforce the country’s contentious racial history.
This is what the vice president for policy and senior adviser at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, Gail Christopher, says is the focus of the foundation’s America Healing program, whose mission is to promote racial equity by providing grants to civil rights and community organizations that work to address negative conditions.
“Our approach to [racism] is to focus on the structural manifestations of [our racialized beginnings and our racialized culture], but also to facilitate the personal, individual, collective and group development and growth that’s required for developing the willingness to deal with these issues, which are easier to not deal with for most people,” Christopher explained to reporters on Sept. 25, having just finished speaking at a plenary meeting titled “Creating Space at the Table: Being Allies and Building Alliances” at the Advancing Justice Conference in Washington, D.C.
“It [has] both racial healing and a structural-racism focus,” she said. “We fund advocacy, we fund community organizing, we fund policy research, but we also fund healing, racial healing and the necessary interpersonal work, and the relationship and the trust-building activities that have to happen at the level of communities and organizations.”
According to Christopher it all started back in 2007, when the Kellogg Foundation’s board of directors made a commitment to become “the most effective anti-racist organization they could be” and broadened their reach to “promote racial equity.” The foundation, established in 1930, is “guided by the belief that all children should have an equal opportunity to thrive,” according to its website.
“Most of the children born in this country today … are children of color, and far too many … are born into low-income or impoverished situations,” she said. “The future of our country, we believe, requires that we create an equal opportunity for all of our children, and we really can’t do that, history is clear … unless we explicitly deal with the legacy of our racialized beginnings and our racialized culture.”
Christopher touched on issues ranging from access to health care, which she described as a “basic human right,” to the seeming abuse of power that law enforcement in this country has exerted over black people—young black males in particular (the foundation has issued strong statements decrying the actions in Ferguson, Mo.). She also addressed domestic violence, which she thinks stems from slavery and discrimination. But one of the biggest issues Christopher thinks the country needs to confront head-on is residential segregation.
“Our children of color tend to disproportionately face … double jeopardy. They live in communities that are impoverished, they go to schools that are underresourced. … We don’t have a policy, really, and a strategy for reducing levels of … residential racial segregation in this country, and we’re trying to explore how to be most effective in that,” she explained. “We have funded grantees that have worked hard to develop new guidelines and new rules to help communities or to give communities permission to work on intentional and affirmative fair housing. We’re happy about that. The Poverty & Race Research Action Council has led some of that work. But if I had to say … what would change things in this country, I think we’d have to deal with residential segregation.”
For Christopher, the health care system, abuse of power by law enforcement and residential segregation all have a structural component in common, and that context has often been missing from the conversation among those trying to come to terms with the injustices in the U.S.
“You have to examine every system in this country—whether it’s the education system or the housing system or the criminal-justice system, and certainly the medical system—for its unique racial history and how the legacy of racism and oppression has been institutionalized and embedded in those systems, and what we see today are symptoms of that,” she insisted.
“So our collection of grantees—more than 500 of them around the country—they’re trying to engage local communities and authorities in the processes of understanding that history and putting in practices and behaviors and tools and resources to mitigate the natural inclination to … maintain and perpetuate those oppressive behaviors. Unconscious bias comes into play, as well as very complicated psychological responses that are part of the way we’ve been socialized. And certainly the legal and authority systems have been socialized to play out our racist ideology that is so part of our DNA as a country.”
Breanna Edwards is a newswriter at The Root. Follow her on Twitter.