By Michael Wenger, Senior Fellow
In all likelihood the racial disparities that still persist in the institutions of our society will not be much talked about by the two major candidates in the upcoming Presidential election. President Obama will avoid the issue of racial bias in order not to be labeled as the African American President and risk scaring off white voters. Governor Romney will avoid the issue because the Republican Party appears to have little interest in attracting black voters, and its policies reflect this lack of interest.
Yet, because the W.K. Kellogg Foundation has recognized the importance to our moral integrity, our economic strength, and our political stability of eliminating these disparities, it will not allow them to be totally ignored. The Foundation recently held its second annual America Healing conference in New Orleans. It was attended by more than 500 people, most of whom are engaged on a daily basis in trying to promote racial equity and foster racial healing in communities throughout the country. The Joint Center, as one of the Foundation’s designated “anchor organizations,” played a significant role at the conference.
When Kellogg issued its first request for proposals under the America Healing initiative about two years ago, it received more than 900 funding requests from community-based organizations in all but one of our 50 states. It was able to provide funds to more than 100 organizations, and it was these grantees who gathered in Asheville, NC last year and in New Orleans last month. This year’s conference featured small group sessions designed to promote racial healing, workshops designed to inform participants about promising activities to combat structural racism, a film about Harry Belafonte’s inspiring life and a live on-site conversation with him, and plenary sessions on the generational divide, power and democracy, the work of the “anchor organizations,” and unconscious bias.
Perhaps the most compelling plenary session was the one on unconscious bias. It featured research that illustrates the reality that most, if not all, of us harbor within our unconscious minds biases toward those from different racial and ethnic backgrounds. According to the polling data, one of the great paradoxes of race relations in today’s American society is that the vast majority of us believe in justice and fair play for all of our citizens, but our behavior often doesn’t match our beliefs. This disconnect shows up consistently in research documenting that, despite good intentions, school officials disproportionately punish students of color for bad behavior in schools, employers discriminate against applicants of color, and law enforcement officials disproportionately profile, prosecute, and incarcerate young men of color for non-violent crimes.
Sadly, none of us are immune from this bias. So, in order to make our behavior more consistent with our beliefs, we must not only recognize the persistence of these disparities, we also must acknowledge our role in perpetuating them. Until we do so, our behavior will continue to privilege white Americans while victimizing non-white Americans, and our entire society will suffer.