January 06, 2017
Just five days before the inauguration of Donald Trump as the country's 45th president, millions of Americans on January 16 will celebrate the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. For many, memories of the civil rights icon revolve around his momentous "I Have a Dream" speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, in which Dr. King called for an end to racism and for the expansion of economic opportunities for all Americans.
Dr. King's brilliance — his strategic leadership of the civil rights movement and unparalleled courage and integrity — is often overshadowed by the speech that many scholars hail as the most important public address by an American in the twentieth century. Unfortunately, the dream of equality King articulated in 1963 remains unfulfilled in many communities today — a reality that underscores the persistent structural inequities and racial bias at the root of the widespread disparities in social conditions and opportunities for people of color.
Dr. King said, "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character." That's the America many of us have long been working to create but, despite progress in some areas, are still seeking to realize.
The divisive rhetoric and raw emotions that raged across the country over the past year pulled the scab off a persistent wound in the American psyche, bringing the issue of race front and center and exposing the divides in our society. What can we do about it? How do we move forward on a path toward racial equity that facilitates racial healing, dismantles structural racism, and lifts vulnerable children onto the path to success?
To be sure, America has made progress over the decades. Government and the courts have enacted statutes and rulings, from Brown v. Board of Education to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to the Fair Housing Act of 1968, that outlawed public discrimination while purportedly guaranteeing equal opportunity for all Americans. Yet, in too many cases, these rulings only addressed the effects of racism, not its foundations. The passage of time has made clear that government and courts can enact and uphold laws, but they can't change hearts, minds, and souls.
Racism is rooted in the false belief in a human hierarchy, an antiquated taxonomy of the human family, which has long fueled structural racism and conscious and unconscious bias in American society driven by perceptions of inferiority or superiority based on race, physical characteristics, or place of origin. Whites have placed themselves at the top of this hierarchy, with all other racial groups below. This absurd notion, soundly discredited by science, was used to justify colonization and enslavement of non-white peoples for centuries and has fueled white supremacist movements and other overt expressions of bigotry and racial and ethnic hatred.
Americans are witness to how this belief manifests itself as, from coast to coast, communities of color have suffered and continue to suffer great disparities in health, education, employment, and housing.
At the same time, high-profile police shootings involving people of color have fueled a justifiable perception that the criminal justice system is unfair and biased. Indeed, a study by University of California, Davis anthropologist Cody Ross found "evidence of a significant bias in the killing of unarmed black Americans relative to unarmed white Americans, in that the probability of being black, unarmed, and shot by police is about 3.49 times the probability of being white, unarmed, and shot by police on average."
Are any of us surprised that Dylann Roof, the convicted murderer of nine worshipers at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, was motivated by a belief that he was superior to blacks and other minorities?
Dr. King understood that the belief in racial hierarchy created formidable barriers to America's capacity to fulfill the promise of its democratic ideals. It is time for us to reject this antiquated concept. It is time for us to move past the racism that for so long has influenced public and private systems, practices, and policies. It is time for us to recognize that a conscious effort to embrace racial healing can move us toward one another in a spirit of wholeness and love, that positive change can come from a shift in our individual and collective consciousness and the resulting actions we take on behalf of ourselves, our children, and future generations of our human family.
After decades of funding diverse communities with the goal of improving the lives of vulnerable children, the leadership of the W.K. Kellogg Foundation recognizes the need for racial healing and the importance of ending racism in America.
The hierarchy of human value is deeply embedded — systematically, structurally, and unconsciously — in people and the systems that have been built on and perpetuate it. Eliminating it as a cornerstone of our society will require a concerted effort over time. The Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation (TRHT) enterprise created by the Kellogg Foundation and a broad coalition of organizations from all sectors of society is working to expose this belief for what it is and facilitate racial healing. TRHT is a community-driven vehicle for transformative change. TRHT examines how the belief in a hierarchy of human value became embedded in our society, both its culture and structures; works with communities to implement effective actions designed to permanently uproot it; and marshals individual, local, public, and private resources to dismantle systemic, structurally-based patterns of discrimination at the municipal, county, state, tribal, and federal levels.
At a recent summit, 570 people representing the 130 TRHT partner organizations issued a call to action to designate January 17, 2017, as the inaugural National Day of Racial Healing in America.
On that day, we hope that communities, organizations, and individuals across the country will acknowledge that deep, racial divides still exist in America and must be overcome. We hope that they will commit to engaging representatives from all racial, ethnic, religious, gender, and identity groups in a genuine effort to increase understanding and improve caring and respect for one another.
We believe these actions will help create a new narrative that refutes the belief in a hierarchy of human value and replaces it with the scientifically proven assertion that we're all members of the same human family and were all created with the same inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
America's demographic composition has changed significantly since the country's founding, and continues to change. Immigration and birth rates, among other contributing factors, are altering the face of communities across the country. In 2017, children of color represent the majority of children in the country, and far too many of them live in poverty.
To rise to the challenges that lie ahead, America needs to embrace a new reality grounded in racial healing so that the work of ending, once and for all, the racial disparities that have plagued us for so long can move forward. It is time to give all our children the opportunities to succeed. It is time to focus our energy, resources, and discourse on eliminating the false ideology of a hierarchy of human value and to cultivate and grow what truly matters most: our common humanity.
Gail C. Christopher is a senior advisor at the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and vice president for its Truth, Racial Healing, and Transformation enterprise.