By Khalil Abdulla, New America Media, News Analysis
WASHINGTON, D.C.—During a week when the national media are celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Freedom Rides and the progress made since then against racial bias, concerns persist about deep-seated racism in the United States.
Recently, for example, leaders of the W. K. Kellogg Foundation were faced with accusations that their $75 million initiative to address structural racism in America was unnecessary. They answered their critics during a forum on race and racism hosted by the Hudson Institute.
Quoting author William Faulkner, Kellogg Foundation President Sterling Speirn told the audience that structural racism in America continues to affect people of color. “The past is not dead. The past isn’t even in the past. The past is alive now,” Speirn said at the forum entitled, “Race and Racism in America: Are We Now a Colorblind Society?”
Gail Christopher, the Kellogg vice president overseeing the foundation’s “America Healing” initiative, said, “Racism is a set of beliefs that helped to shape this nation. To suggest that centuries of institutionalizing those beliefs could suddenly be eradicated in less than 75 years is, I believe, simplistic, misguided, naïve at best.”
But the foundation has come under attack by some critics, who contend that structural racism—race bias engrained in institutions, policies and attitudes–is no longer an obstacle for people of color in the United States. They call for evidence that such barriers still exist.
Others, who also largely reject the argument that 400 years of U.S. history has resulted in systemic or structural barriers, insist that any obstacle related to race, should it exist, can be overcome by individual endeavor and anti-discrimination laws.
A Wall Street Journal editorial by Harvard University’s Stephan Thernstrom decrying the Kellogg initiative partly led to the Hudson Institute’s decision to host the forum. Joining Thernstrom on the panel were Speirn, Christopher and political consultant Ron Christie, author of Acting White: The Curious History of a Racial Slur.
The panelists all said the United States is not yet a colorblind society, and they agreed that their point of divergence was on how to achieve it.
Their comments, however, exposed wide philosophical differences. Christie, an African American, said he was especially concerned that America was “self-segregating” again. He believes that a flourishing “cult of ethnicity” emphasizing origins through hyphenated identities was counter productive in reaching an ideal where “we cherish our American citizenship.”
Thernstrom ceded that America’s past was once shaped by a caste system based on color, but he said the election of President Barack Obama was one of many indications of the capacity of the American people to look past race. Stating that “a member of the White House is a member of the [once] untouchable caste,” he stressed that the 2008 election shows how far America has come.
Also, Thernstrom cited the growing number of black-and-white friendships and the increased rate of interracial marriages as confirmation that America is at a very different place than when, as he put it, “the very heart of the caste system was sexual fear. Black men were lynched for even looking at white women in the wrong way.”
One audience member commented afterward that Thernstrom was disingenuous in citing statistics on racial intermarriage as a fundamental shift in attitudes on race and culture.
The person pointed to the 2006 election when the GOP ran an ad in Tennessee pandering to racial fears in the white community. It inferred that the Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate, congressional member Harold Ford, Jr., an African American, was having sexual relations with white women.
“The ad was successful, I might add,” the attendee said, noting that Ford lost the election after the ad boosted turnout for his white opponent.
Thernstrom not only recoiled at the notion of the existence of structural racism but took exception with the construct of white privilege. “I can’t really find out quite what white privilege is and how you know it when you’ve identified it,” he said.
In response, the Kellogg Foundation’s Christopher noted a 2002 Institute of Medicine report revealing how African-Americans and members of other ethnic groups seek medical treatment for the same conditions, but are treated differently.
She said white privilege is rooted in a mythology, which “suggested that the less pigmentation you had, the higher up you were on this hierarchy of race.”
Science has long-since proved that color is only skin deep, Christopher said. But racial differences are still manifested in U.S. society, not only in the unconscious actions of many individuals, but also in fields as diverse as medicine, education and employment.
“The systems that evolved from that mythology are alive and well,” Christopher said. “That’s what we mean by white privilege.”
Yet, it was Speirn’s depiction of white privilege that drew the most audible reaction from the audience: “I love it when Chris Rock and others, you know, ask white people how much we’d have to pay them to be born a person of color in the United States. It was $50 million.”
Speirn asserted that one goal of the Kellogg Foundation’s America Healing grants initiative is to enable communities “to have courageous conversations about race and historic and structural racism, and current racism.”
He noted that William K. Kellogg founded and endowed the foundation with wide latitude to determine its initiatives, as long as it addressed the needs of vulnerable children, not regardless of race, poverty or other social barriers–but because of those factors.
Christopher said America Healing encompasses far more than just a black-white paradigm. She cited a California community including whites, Hispanics and blacks that used its Kellogg grant to delve into the reasons for its poor access to quality food. The researchers found that individuals doing the same job for the same employer were “paid differently by race,” directly diminishing their purchasing power for food and other necessities.
Christopher said that although America is not consciously racist, “our culture is racialized and our systems reflect that.”
She emphasized that the America Healing initiative is ambitious in scope, encompassing concern for Native Americans, African, Americans, European Americans, immigrant children. Observing that “the data would suggest we’ve made dramatic progress as a nation,” she added, “the data would also suggest that we’re at risk.”
At the conclusion of the panel presentation, Christopher took a moment to answer the question, “What does success look like?”
She reflected, “When all the nuanced histories of the diverse groups that helped to build this nation are part of the school curriculum, and residential segregation is no longer the norm,” she said. “When poverty is no longer racialized in this country and a child’s race is no longer a major predictor of his future.”